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How ethical is the PR industry?

7 Mins

It’s a continuing debate about ethics, and the extent to which public relations should be completely open and transparent.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics as “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity.”

Moral principles are themselves about defining good and evil, right and wrong, but the real question is – to what extent is PR the servant of absolute truth, or the servant of those who pay for the service?

The Roman orator Cicero made the point that public relations mainly operates to benefit those who commission it. (A great blog on Cicero and PR from Paul Seaman can be found here).

More recently, Joe Haines, Harold Wilson’s press guru, remarked that PR people have to be economical with the truth and sometimes “have to dispense with it altogether.”

In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) has a code of ethics that sets out comprehensive principles and guidelines, grounding the PR profession into a framework that clearly delineates right from wrong. The International PR Association extends ethics internationally.

But moral frameworks only take us so far. For example, how does a PR deal with a client’s poor financial results? Is it unethical to focus on exceptional restructuring costs or international market conditions to try and divert attention away from underlying problems?

The uncomfortable fact is that there is a thin line between truth and falsehood, and an even thinner one between truth and half-truth. That vacuum is filled with omission and spin – the subtle art of saying nothing or deliberate obfuscation. It’s what clients want (sometimes), PRs (often) deliver, and the media (always) expects.

Perhaps the worst example of a downright lie happened in 1990, when a volunteer nurse in Kuwait claimed that she’d seen Iraqi soldiers taking babies out of incubators, at a time when President Bush was being urged to take military action against Saddam Hussein who had invaded the oil-rich country.

It was reminiscent of the U-boat sinking of the RMS Lusitania in World War One, which helped to propel the USA into the conflict.

Except that the nurse’s testimony was a fabrication. She was, in fact, a member of the Kuwaiti Royal Family. America took military action, and Saddam was expelled from Kuwait.

Her testimony was, of course, unethical; so too the activity of PRs who promulgated it. However, the really tricky Machiavellian question is: did the means justify the end? Was the West right to take military action? Were all the deaths worth it? Was kicking out one dictator to restore another dictator a good thing?

From a Kuwaiti perspective, yes. From a Western perspective, no. Truth might be the first casualty of war, but a lie is never a good justification for war.

In the scales of ethical balance, it’s worth noting that there are now many more PRs than journalists. Chuck in constantly-evolving websites, blogs, forums and social media and ethical questions proliferate. As Mark Twain remarked: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

In other words, in a news landscape where the media are following target individuals, companies and organisations on Facebook or Twitter, there are no longer any clear boundaries to where PR begins or ends or, therefore, codes of ethics that apply to everyone.

However, I remain sanguine about the role that PR plays in our society, and of the professionalism of the media to see through flim-flam and the fog of spin. In a democratic society, we have the right to voice our opinions, sometimes bend the truth – but, hopefully, never, never lie.

The conduct of PR in liberal democracies might not be perfect, but compare that to some other regimes around the world, where PR and propaganda have entirely replaced an independent press and media.

According to one estimate, 1.6 billion people – over 20% of the world’s population – have no say in how they’re governed, and can face extreme consequences if they try to kick the system.

Take Syria. The Syria Times is currently running with a “story” that suggests that “the recent US Israeli escalation against Syria after the failure of their successive sinister attempts…explains the real objectives of the US Zionist project in the region.” Really?

Or North Korea’s Rodong Sinmum newspaper which this month carried an article extolling the publication of supreme leader Kim Jong Un’s work, “Let Us Brilliantly Accomplish the Revolutionary Cause of Juche, Holding Kim Jong Il in High Esteem as the Eternal General Secretary of Our Party.”

Snappy title, and I won’t bore you with the newspaper’s fawning coverage that makes reading a telephone directory seem interesting. Suffice to say, I would rather live in a free country than in the shadowland that is Pyongyang.

Maybe PRs and the media should try to get on a bit better, or recognise that creative tension and differing agendas are pivotal to press freedom and public accountability. I could, of course, be quite wrong but, for moral and ethical reasons, would never say so publicly.

Charlie Laidlaw is a director of David Gray PR and a partner in Laidlaw Westmacott.

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