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The primary code of ethics I refer to is my own moral compass. In most cases there is a clear right or wrong way to go about business activity. But, of course, that is subjective and dependant on each individual’s own moral perspectives, which will of course (and thankfully) vary.
PR as an industry is not legally bound to a code of ethics, though industry associations such as the Public Relations Institute of Australia, of which I am both a member and supporter, has one and requires its members to apply its principles. The PRIA can’t do much about practitioners that don’t apply it, however, except boot them out of the association.
The ethics of balancing organisational and stakeholder interests
In regard to balancing the interests of all organisational stakeholders, in the real world of business and PR, sometimes there are times when it is appropriate (and there is an opportunity) to look at stakeholders’ interests and sometimes there isn’t.
I always, however, consider if there is, or is likely to be, a need to consider stakeholder needs and wants. And if there is, I definitely counsel an organisation on what these perspectives might be, potentially recommend proactive engagement or market research and, dependant on the results, design appropriate communication and engagement strategies.
This includes prompting the organisation to change the way it goes about its business and/or operations, as well as the way it communicates and engages with its stakeholders.
But getting organisations to consider the interests of others is a long-term game. It doesn’t happen overnight and it almost always involves short-term pain. Motivating organisations to embrace multiple perspectives is one of our profession’s greatest challenges and, as a result, one of our greatest rewards.
PR has a responsibility, and the ability, to incorporate the views of all relevant stakeholders into the way an organisation operates. And as corporations run the world, not governments, it is imperative they take on the broadest possible modes of operating that benefit society as a whole, not just narrowly segmented elements of it.
Where does PR’s loyalty lie?
Because a communicator is employed by an organisation, he or she has first and, arguably, overriding responsibility to them. However, we all live in society and have a broader responsibility, as well. So it’s not a simplistic equation.
Truth and honesty are values I hold in high esteem.
I don’t support the transmission of false messages, though often it is not black and white. If you focus on the positives and not the negatives, to a large degree that is acceptable. But approach life-threatening areas such as cigarette smoking and speeding cars with a gung ho focus on positive messaging and the woods get very murky indeed.
I once worked for an organisation that, whilst it didn’t support cigarettes per se, supported the sale of them because they are a legal product. Now, in many ways this is fair enough. If they are legal, why shouldn’t you be allowed to sell them (bearing in mind the issue of underage smokers etc)?
But, as someone with strong anti-smoking industry views, I never felt comfortable about this specific moral positioning, so I was relieved to stop working for the client. I’ve also refused to work for a gambling organisation and have knocked back opportunities to work directly for a cigarette manufacturer.
I’ve not been asked by an employer to work on an account I considered to be ethically dubious, thank goodness. I have found my personal stances on issues such as gambling to be respected.
On the other hand, I have proudly worked for a nuclear science and technology organisation that, yes, produced nuclear waste that is a danger to the environment. And I’ve worked with organisations that produce coal-fired electricity and have found that morally justifiable as well.
Like I said, we each have our own moral compass and perspectives.
Whether it’s PR or any other industry, if you are asked to work in a field you are not ethically comfortable with, then you really need to get out of there ASAP, financial considerations notwithstanding. If it comes to a choice of earning money whilst detesting yourself for the choice you have made, or the opposite, to me the correct choice is clear.
I have actually left an organisation where I felt the culture was wrong and the reason I felt the culture was wrong was based on ethical issues. I just didn’t like the way the owner of the company treated people and as that person wasn’t going to change, I felt I had no choice but to move on as, by staying there, I would have been implicitly supporting a way of dealing with people I found unacceptable.
What have been your ethical challenges as a public relations professional? Have you been in situations similar to the ones I recount above? Do you consider the ethics of an organisation before and whilst you worked for it? Have you had any successes or frustrations in influencing what you consider the ethical dimensions for organisations you have worked for?