Issues in Public Relations – Ethics

Posted on March 6, 2010

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Q. Can PR ever be ethical? A. That depends on who you ask.


I believe the answer is yes. The majority of practitioners go about their business in an ethical manner, however, a minority will always ensure that the question of whether there are any ethics in PR will continue to be asked.

“The fact that corporations and governments feel compelled to spend billions of dollars every year manipulating the public is a perverse tribute to human nature and our own moral values. The public relations industry has stolen our dreams, and returned them to us packaged as illusions.” (Toxic Sludge Is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry, by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton).

Of course there are unethical practitioners, as there are in every other industry. There are those within the PR field who have done little to improve the public’s perceptions, and only enhance the view that black PR, that is, spin and manipulation, are an entirely acceptable means of communication. ‘Spin doctoring’ is a “ package of trickery, economies with the truth, manipulation of public credulity, bullying of journalists and favouritism” (Melanie Philips), and is a term commonly used to describe the work of those in the industry. Unfortunately, because of recent experience in the lead up to the Iraq war, among other cases, many have painted the whole industry with the same brush.

“PR is the planned persuasion of people to behave in ways that further its sponsor’s objectives. It works primarily through the use of media relations and other forms of third party endorsements.” (Trevor Morris).

Some methods used are unethical and there will always be individuals who do not follow the generally acceptable codes of practice. Sadly, journalists among others, may not be able to, or want to, separate the bad apple from the rest of the bunch, making it very difficult to shake off the tarnished image caused by the minority. In the final analysis, practitioners are paid to convince the consumer to think in a particular way, be it to improve brand image, increase sales or whatever. Thus the industry will always be looked upon with a certain degree of scepticism by the public.

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Posted in: Ethics