Discuss the role of strategic communication in relation to Ethics
In the industry of public relations, understanding the ethical aspects of the profession has now become increasingly important. Just like any other professional industries such as journalism and psychology, public relations and ethics need to work hand in hand in order for the practice to be given a better name. As public relations have a bright future ahead due to the growing global economy, the professions’ most profitable days may still exist on the horizon. But public relations practitioners must know that in order to capitalize upon this growth, the hinge may lie on the ability for the industry to silence the critics of it being an unethical profession. However, due to the public’s negative perception of public relations, many people are saying that public relations and ethics are an oxymoron. In this essay, we will try to understand why there is a negative discourse of PR being an unethical profession and how we can change that perception. We will also analyse the importance of education in regards to public relations ethics.
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Before we proceed with the in depth discourse of Public relations ethics, we need to first define the meaning of public relations and ethics. According to Gunig and Hunt (1984), they wrote that ‘public relation is the management of communication between an organisation and its publics’. Harlow (1988) defined public relations in a more elementary level. He mentioned that Public relation is ‘a management function which deals with the relations between two or more organisations or public.’ There are many other scholars and practitioners that have produced their own definition of public relations but it is basically a communication process which uses different strategies to ultimately build beneficial relationships with publics or organisations. These obligations of serving the publics’ interest have caused heated debates amongst many practitioners and scholars over its fundamental values of public relations. It has also become a highly controversial industry as many people have negative stigmas towards public relations. It is obvious that for a long time there exists a negative perception of PR.
It is not entirely a surprise that the general public has this negative stigma about public relations. BrautoviÄ‡ and Brkan (2009) said that ‘PR professionals have become manipulators of public mind rather than conveyers of truth.’ That is why the term public relations ethics is often understood as an oxymoron. There will be stories about PR making it to the media which are invariably the negative ones. Media outlets know that nice fluffy stories like successful charity work or meaningful campaigns don’t sell. But can we entirely blame the media for the bad reputation public relation has on the public? The tarnished reputation of public relations is often due to situations where PR was used to camouflage some serious problems, not to mention something that is today called spin.
But what exactly is spin in the context of public relations? Spin can be classified as propaganda, where the ultimate goal is to persuade public opinion to be in favor or against a certain organization or public figure (Safire, 1994). Due to this term spin, publics often perceive the profession to be manipulative and unethical. According to Miller & Dinan (2008), they mentioned that people believe the profession is about “spinning” stories in order to enhance the image of an organization at the expense of many others. One such case was the BP oil spill which happened in 2010 which falls under the category of spin. With regards to strategic communication, the oil company kept downplaying and deflecting the severity of the incident. BP (British Petroleum) underestimated the size of the spill and therefore tried to divert the attention of the oil spill as the “Gulf of Mexico oil spill.” The company’s attempt to sidestep the health and economic issues were seen as artificial and unethical. Case studies like these that are popularised by the media represent the problems that arise when public relations strategies are deceptive. Timothy Commbs, who teaches Public Relations at Eastern Illinois University said, “Wherever the fault lies, BP shouldn’t be splitting hairs. Companies should take the fall and work out recriminations behind closed doors” (Beam, 2010). This goes to demonstrate why ethical public relations strategies are necessary to accomplishing the goals of an organisation.
Though challenges still remain in the practice of public relations, there is also forward ethical progress. Much of this comes in the form of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s (2008) defines CSR as “the continuing commitment by business to behave ethically and contribute to economic development while improving the quality of life of the workforce and their families as well as of the local community and society at large”. It basically means that an organisation doing CSR will have also ethical and societal responsibilities that go beyond their economic responsibilities. CSR is also seen as a way of behaving, which draws on ethics.
But most importantly, there are many public relation bodies all over the world which provides similar codes of practice/ethics for public relation practitioners to follow and abide to. It articulates the value these bodies places on honesty, integrity, loyalty, advocacy, fairness etcetera.
As public relations becomes more evident in the 21st century, two reports from the Commission on Public Relations Education, A Port of Entry (1999) and The Professional Bond (2006), insisted on the need for public relations ethics education at a university level. Public relation scholars Shen and Toth (2008) reiterated that there aren’t enough university level courses offering the study of public relations ethics. They also wrote that public relations education needs to integrate the study of ethics into existing PR electives in order for students to become more viable and attain a comprehensive public relations education.
However, Juditb A. Kolb, together with other prominent scholars and wrote that public relations ethics courses are not only limited but it is also expanding to more university classrooms (Kolb, Lin, Frisque, 2005). Nowadays there are many university schools which offer the study of public relation ethics. Schools like the University of Virginia in the United States, where students will need to complete a module called ‘Public Relations, Ethics and Law’. The unit explores the ethical issues that arise in the practice of public relations and the ethical standards that govern the practice. In Peth, Australia, Murdoch University also offers the study of Public Relations Ethics in a module called Campaign Management.
It is understandable for practitioners and scholars agreeing that the study of public relations ethics is crucial for students to have as a public relations curriculum but students themselves needs to know the importance too. As The Professional Bond state, “While public relations professional education perhaps cannot make students ethical, either professionally or personally, such education can define and teach professional ethics as It can provide a body of knowledge about the process of ethical decision-making that can help students not only to recognize ethical dilemmas, but to use appropriate critical thinking skills to help resolve these dilemmas in a way that results in an ethical outcome.” Kate Fitch, a Senior lecturer at Murdoch University, did a study on how students perceives ethics in public relations education and practice. Participants of a focus group study done by her acknowledged that public relations ethics was a grey area; “The line is very blurry but the uni is doing a good job to try and show us that PR isn’t all about that” (Fitch, 2013). The study also found out that students see ethics in public relations as being responsible to themselves, client or employer. In this study, students were critical of the Code of Ethics provided by bodies such as the PRIA as it only emphasise on issues such as reputation and risk manager rather than practices that are socially responsible.
To conclude, the industry of public relations has indeed left many people with a sour taste in their mouths. We found out that PR is often perceived by the public as unethical, as practitioners often use the term ‘spin’ whereby he or she may not give a truthful interpretation of events which would ultimately lead to the lack of trust in the PR practitioner. With practitioners’ lack of trust it leads to the lack of trust of the organization and leads directly to the loss of reputation. That is why public relations ethics is paramount. Although professional skills are important in this industry, it needs to be ethical. What it basically means is that PR professionals need to do the right thing. Referring to international PR bodies for their codes of conduct is the first step when in doubt. We will also need to provide more emphasis for education and approved courses as to ensure that students will be trained on ethics and ethical decision making in practice of public relations in the real world.
Word count: 1472
Grunig, J.E., & Hunt, T. (1984) Managing Public Relations. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace
William Safire, “The Spinner Spun”, New York Times, December 22, 1996.
World Business Council for Sustainable Development. (2008). Definition. [Online] Available:
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