Literally Public relations mean ‘relations with publics’, e.g. customer, employees, investors, communities, media, suppliers, government, industry bodies, pressure groups, competitors etc. It is defined as the management of communication between an organization and its publics (Grunig and Hunt 1984, p.6 & McElreath 1996). PR is the discipline that looks after organization’s reputation, maintains its public image and facilitates relations in order to gain understanding and support as well as influence opinion and behavior (McElreath 1996, Ciprco.uk). It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organization and its public (Cipr.co.uk).
For an organisation, there are varying functions of public relations. The 4 main areas are first, marketing communication, by which PR is used as a promotional tool to help achieve marketing objectives. The second area is financial public relations, by which it present information to business reporters. The third comes to product public relations, which aim to gain publicity for company’s product and service and lastly, crisis public relations which concentrate on the responding to negative information. Other areas of PR practise include building rapport with investor and community, employee, media and government (Rubel, 2007). Thus it can be seen that PR can complement advertising and marketing but it has its own identity as a profession
Public relations also involve in assessing and supervising public attitudes as well as maintaining mutual understanding and relations between an organization and its public. To provides exposure to its audiences, public relations practitioners use third-party endorsement such as topics of public interest which do not associate with direct payment (Seitel, 2007). Some wildly used PR tools include press releases, media kits, brochures, newsletters, annual reports and interactive social media. Common PR activities include working with the media, speaking at conferences, crisis communication and employee communication.
By responding to the stakeholder’s expectations and harmonizing their interests with the organization, PR serves as an intermediary. Effective PR will help the organization to convey information and message to its public improve communication channels and develop new ways to encourage two-way communication thus crafting its public image and public awareness in order to increase patronage of its product.
Why has ethics become a central issue for PR field in recent years?
The initiative that corporations should be ethical and socially responsible began in 1960s. It was a time that businesses were growing rapidly and internationally (Lantos, 2001). The danger associates with corporations’ unethically pursuing profit and social power has heightened public awareness. In recent times, it has also been seen that some of the most famous companies lost public confidence from the publicity because of their dishonourable behaviours. Examples include Shell contributed to environmental degradation; Nike operated sweatshops in developing countries and the once top corporations such as Worldcom and Enron the collapse because of fault. Apart from destroying individual company’s reputation, these scandals raised questions of corporate credibility and shaken public confidence in the entire global business.
Public relations, as a communications function, has a major role in disclosing the company financial and other critical information as well as the management of relationships between the organisation and its key stakeholders. Thus ethical dilemmas are especially common in Public practices because PR always need to handle highly sensitive and controversial matters. Besides, the complicated and different levels (interpersonal, organisational and societal) of relationships which PR always engaged with will often incur conflicting expectations and interests between different publics. Therefore it is sometimes quiet difficult for PR professionals can act ethically and to get a balance between being an advocator of external and internal publics and at the same time, taking care of company’s interests.
However, it should be noted that maintaining ethical standards and values is the key to the establishment of good relationships with clients, employees and media (Baskin & Aronoff, 1992: 88). Harlow emphasized the importance of ethical communication by highlighting that it is PR practitioners’ duty to serve public interest (Vithakamontri, 1991:19).
The importance of ethics is associated with the positive relationship between good public relations and business success. Ethical and socially responsible companies are proved to enjoy better relations with its public (Baker, 2004). Companies with ethical conduct might appear to succeed at first, but often it can be found that they suffer from poor public relations in a longer term. In 2002, WorldComm admitted falsifying its income statements and became the biggest bankrupt company ever. The scandal wave soon swept away other corporate giants such as HealthSouth, Tyco and Auther Anderson and brought jail terms to many, even homemaking icon Martha Steward.
On the other hand, many corporations create a critical source of competitive advantage-a climate of acceptance for the organisation by being ethical and engaging actively with CRS activities. Corporate social responsibility can serve as a way to strategically differentiate itself from the competitors. Like the Co-operative Group, Body Shop and American Apparel, they build customer loyalty based on distinctive ethical values (Pieczka, 2001) and they do benefit from building a reputation for integrity. Besides, some of them do it through working with local communities to help educate children and develop skills for adults in Flower Valley, Africa. Starbuck and Marks and Spencer also actively help the African community by guaranteeing fair trade purchases. Another approach to corporate social responsibility is to incorporate the CSR strategy directly into the organization’s business strategy. For examples, many business including KPMG, P&G and Starbucks has policy to only procure Fair Trade tea and coffee.
As we can see, ethical public relations is key to the organizations’ success as good ethics is simply good business. So it is worth to examine ethic in a greater detail. Ethic is defined as a value system for making decisions about what is right or wrong. The organisations conduct is not only measured against their consciences but also against societal and professional norm, so organizations, with different nations, industries and organization cultures, have different standards. Ethical choices are rarely black and white but sometimes it means a higher standard than the law.
In a business perspective, business ethics and corporate governance refers to the system by which companies are controlled. Nowadays most companies have in-house codes of ethic and codes of social responsibility (Heath and Ryan, 1989). It has been argued that ethics is the duty to tell the truth. A study regarding ethical judgments concluded that regardless of people’s cultures and religions, honesty outweighed all other considerations.
Honesty is particularly essential to the communication industry because dishonesty leads to lack of trust. When a PR practitioner is discovered telling a half-truths, he will be resented. According to the PR professional codes of conduct, telling the truth underpins all other practices (Keller, 1983:1).
Beside triple bottom line reporting (3Ps) is becoming commonplace. The 3 pillars, People, Planet and Profits capture a new criterion of measuring organizational success: social, ecological and economical. Companies like Shell and McDonald’s have issued Statements of Business Principles and Social Responsibility reports.
To fulfill society’s moral obligations, corporate social responsibility (CSR) is introduced. CSR policy is self-regulating mechanisms where businesses monitor and ensure it follow the law and ethical standards so business can embrace responsibility for the impact on the communities, environment and employees. Moreover, CSR-focused businesses would promote the iterest of the public by encouraging community development and abolishing practices which give damage. So it is said that CSR is the deliberate inclusion of public interest into corporate decision-making, and the honouring of a triple bottom line (Heath & Ryan, 1989).
What role should public relations play in improving levels of corporate social responsibility?
There is a strong emphasis on the role Public relations play in implementing social responsibility among leading practitioners. Social responsibility has become a major reason for an organization to have a public relations function (Grunig and Hunt , 1984). Similarly, Harold Burson advocated that the public relations practitioners should provide qualitative evaluation of social trends, which helps developing policies and leading to a formal corporate response (Burson, 1974). Bernays also argue that, “Public relations are the practice of social responsibility (Stone, 2005, p. 31).
It has been pointed out that PR role is to serve not only their clients but the whole society at large (Kruckeberg and Starck, 1988). Social responsibility is understood as a concept of public relations, some scholars believe that with public relations, businesses can successfully implement social responsibility programmes. Thus PR’s role of consciences in the decision-making is particularly important (Dennis, 1981).
From the above review of related literature, it can be concluded that CRS obligation to serve the society applies to both individual PR practitioners and the professions as a whole. The welfare of the public should be taken into account when individual practitioner helps clients to solve problem. Meanwhile the associations of PR professionals should use their power collectively as moral agents for a better world (Clark, 2000).
PR roles in improving the level of corporate social responsibility include the following. First PR need to improve the conduct of company by emphasizing the need for public approval. As a management function which looks after organization’s reputation (McElreath 1996), to look for the company best interest, public relations practitioners should actively be engaged in the proposing and initiating of Corporate Social Responsibility. They should fight for CRS implementation with management. Knowledgeable staff is an important as they play a significant role in counseling management and ensuring that CRS programs maintain high professional standards (Tilson and Vance, 1985). It has been argued as the publics expect organizations to take on a greater role in solving community problems; they want to see businesses being ethical. PR professionals should go beyond advisory role and should regard themselves as the ‘consciences of their organizations’ (Judd’s, 1989 & Choi, 2005). It is true that the most important thing is how a company conduct itself and deal with its publics. Communications is second to that. It is very important for the company to truly embrace CRS. Merely publicizing them is not effective as it has to be backed by appropriate behaviour.
Also, public relation should serve the public interests by making all points of view communicative in the public. When CRS become part of the organization management initiative, PR as a communication function between an organization and its publics (Grunig and Hunt 1984, p.6 & McElreath 1996), it has an important role to align corporate organization behaviour with stakeholder expectations. It should be done through a process of identifying public interest and potential CSR issues, prioritizing them, and closely monitoring their evolution, they can be managed-either by changing the company’s behaviour or its stakeholders’ expectations, or both (Clark, 2002).
Besides, Public relations should advance its professionalism by codifying and enforcing ethical conduct and standard of performance, serve our society by using mediation to replace misinformation and execute its social responsibility to promote human welfares.
However, the practice of CSR is subject to much criticism. Critics argue that CSR is just a superficial window-dressing, they believe that companies like BP, British American Tobacco and McDonald’s are using CSR programs to distract the public from ethical questions incurred in their operations. These corporations maximize their profit through raising their reputation. Another example, Shell has a much-publicized CSR policy and was a pioneer in triple bottom line reporting, but this did not prevent the 2004 scandal concerning its misreporting of oil reserves.
It is important to note that CRS is an aid to an organization’s mission as well as a guide to what the company stands for and will uphold to its consumers. Merely taking token gestures will only throw poor practice into sharper focus. Also, organization has to be flexible and see what legislators are up to and update the CSR programme in order to stay ahead as issues change with time and lastly CSR policies needs to be ensured that they are well implemented.
It is believed that with well management, CSR can be an opportunity for a company to differentiate itself. Organizations can also benefit from the proliferation of annual list in major media.
In a long run, managing relationships successfully required ethical conduct so effective public relations cannot be about deception and manipulations. Thus real public relations require honesty and a genuine concern for the needs and expectations of the public and it will build trust and credibility.
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