Ethics in PR

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December 28, 2022

Building and maintaining credibility, trust

Ethics, it’s common sense, right? But, when it is the driving tenet of our profession, it can’t be taken for granted or assumed. When our work relies on our ability to uphold public trust and our workplace is a digitally connected, interwoven space that includes anonymous mouthpieces of misinformation and owned media, it’s as important as ever that we continue to advocate for the adherence to a code of ethics and civil discourse.

To learn more, I reached out to two local professionals for perspective on ethics in the industry; the role of public relations in promoting civil discourse; and how to recover from a lapse in judgment. PRSA Chair-elect Michelle Egan, APR and PRSA Fellow, and PRSA Alaska Chapter Delegate Sarah Erkmann Ward, APR both shared personal experiences, considerations and best practices that can benefit the most junior and seasoned professionals.

As well as serving on the national board of directors for PRSA, Michelle is the chief communications officer for Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, an organization recognized consistently as one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies. Sarah is the president/CEO at Blueprint Alaska, the leading public affairs and advocacy organization in the state, dedicated to advancing issues that are meaningful to Alaskans. Both have served the PRSA Alaska Chapter on roles from president to ethics officer.

Getting right to it, “ethics give PR credibility,” shared Sarah. We work in a skeptical environment, and our adherence to a code of ethics keeps us in check and allows for relationships built on trust.

Michelle notes that ethics are not unique to our industry but important to every profession. “In our code [PRSA], we commit to honesty, fairness, loyalty, advocacy, expertise and independence. We’re in the business of communicating information, and that is a huge responsibility. Our democratic society depends on individuals making informed decisions.”

Some may be surprised that it is our responsibility to advance and contribute to civil discourse, or the core principle of protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information. “That provision is ‘essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.’ This applies in communication with employees, customers, voters, citizens and any other audience,” said Michelle.

For Sarah, PR practitioners must always model civility. “No one likes or will listen to someone who just yells, insults or misrepresents facts. This is especially true in politics but certainly not exclusive to it. Representing ourselves and our clients calmly, kindly and accurately is the only way to win in the marketplace of ideas.”

So, how does an industry uphold its ethical code? “PR is a reputation-driven business. Once a PR practitioner is exposed as unethical, it’s usually lights out for them professionally,” said Sarah.

Michelle explains that there are plenty of examples of organizations and individuals playing fast and loose with facts and information. “It can show up as ‘spin,’ sharing only select information, embellishing the facts or hiding the real funder of a message.” To combat it, bringing examples to light helps us grow as an industry and also shares with our stakeholders that they are not accepted practices or representative of our ethical standards. Michelle adds, “Ethical issues can be complex. Often the answer is not immediately clear, so it’s important to talk them through with a colleague.”

“I have people I consult with when I’m uncertain about something in my practice; I’m not afraid to ask for a thought partner and I think that makes it easier for others to come forward, too.”

Michelle adds that when you lose sight of ethics, “the answer is simple: trust is lost.”

Sarah agrees, “The client or employer will quickly figure out the advice they have been given is poor and won’t trust that person to offer counsel again.” Trust can evaporate quickly over a visible blunder or erode slowly, over a long period of ethical shortcuts.

So when it happens, both agree that it’s important to own it quickly, come clean with the transparency that is expected from our profession and line out the path forward.

“Bad news doesn’t age well – so step forward quickly with the truth,” says Michelle.

Want to learn more, here are our best links:

  • PRSA Code of Ethics and the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards
  • Ethical Voices, a podcast by Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, promoted as real ethics stories by real PR pros.
  • Voices4Everyone, curated by PRSA, resources for building mutual understanding, trust, and civic engagement through more inclusive civil discourse.

— Gary Scott, EVP

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