Monday, October 17, 2016

PR ethics: the good, the bad, the unethical

Heather Willard

Do you trust public relation professionals? Ethics and credibility is the foundation of PR, but the poll numbers for them have remained consistently low.

Journalists are seen as very trustworthy by 27 percent of the people polled in a recent Gallup poll, but advertising practitioners were only rated that trustworthy by 10 percent of those polled. While this is not necessarily the same as PR, it does give us an idea of where they might stand on the scale of public trust.

But a study by Baylor University refuted this perception by interviewing 30 senior PR professionals about how important credibility and ethics were for them. A few had even been fired for their resistance to doing unethical things. "I can’t afford to lose my credibility … As PR professionals, it’s all we have,” said one participant.

But when scandals break and you are working for the one responsible, it raises doubts about your character as well. Rupert Murdoch blamed his employees for unethical behavior at his company, but his character and credibility were already under intense scrutiny and his charges did not pass on to his employees.

While scandals draw the attention of people who were previously unaware, it can present challenges to PR professionals, sometimes even drawing previously honest people to do unethical things. Today, journalism is increasingly owned by corporations, with all of the good and bad parts of that. Being owned by a corporation can cause their credibility to be compromised due to the influence of money.

Staged attention opportunities also call into question the ethics of PR professionals, as it creates artificial environments that are sold as truth to the world. If staged events do create publicity that is not true and that story comes out, it creates not only a bad reputation for what was being promoted, but also the publicist.

Some of the worst stunts have created not only ill-will towards the company, but reinforced the publicity it has already received from other events. For example, Chipotle once tweeted a series of odd tweets that made it appear that they had been hacked. They had not, but were trying to garner followers for their 20th anniversary, before admitting that they had tweeted the random assortment of tweets for the novelty it would raise.

Some of the tweets posted during the media stunt Chipotle held for the 20th anniversary.

However, Chipotle has had some good PR experiences. When they found E. coli in their food in 2015, they continued to keep their good standing with customers due to the efforts of the PR professionals Chipotle hired. They attempted transparency about the issue, voluntarily closed restaurants and hired food safety firms as an extra precaution.

So while companies do end up in bad situations, it is up to the individuals within the company to present a good image to the audience they hold. PR professionals will be placed in difficult situations, sometimes due to superiors, sometimes due to outside influences that will sometimes create ethical concerns. Although ethics is murky ground, it is safe to say that lying or misleading their audiences during those tests would be the wrong response.

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