Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rethinking the Meaning of Ethics in Public Relations

It’s September. That means it’s ethics month in PRSA and an appropriate time for every PRSA member to ask themselves: what does it mean to be an ethical public relations practitioner in 2020?

I believe developments in the past nine months have fundamentally changed how we need to think about our responses to this question. The pandemic and heightened attention to racial injustice in the U.S., among other events, have raised myriad complex, emotionally charged issues. We can no longer avoid these issues; social media stokes the flames so we have to make choices, each of which has consequences for us and our organizations. 

Given this current environment, public relations practitioners would be wise to actively engage all of an organization’s stakeholders. That commitment to engage everyone—not just media—is by its very nature an ethical choice. That is, it shows we take seriously the potential ramifications of what’s going on around us on the lives of all those who matter most to the organizations we have the opportunity to serve. 

To this end, I believe public relations professionals ought to step back and consider six sets of questions. They’ve been crafted with an eye towards helping practitioners recalibrate what they do given current and future challenges, as well as accelerating our collective evolution as ethical practitioners of our craft.

  1. Do we say or do something when something happens outside our organization (especially when our organization’s interests aren’t necessarily clear)? Why? Why not? 
  2. If we choose to act, what do we say, how do we say it, when do we say it, and where do we say it?
  3. How do we best advise organizations (and their stakeholders) on how to manage this new, ever evolving maelstrom of events and issues?
  4. Do we have the skills to take on this advisory role with clients? In other words, do we have strategic and tactical tools to think through the complexities of what’s involved, how developments impact our organizations, and how to implement our guidance at the most granular level?
  5. Do we have the opportunity to assume these responsibilities? That is, what does the public relations function actually do in our organization? Is the focus on social media and traditional media? Or is it framed more broadly in terms of public relations’ role in managing the organization’s reputation? Does senior management look to public relations for guidance, or consider them solely as tacticians? 
  6. Are we as public relations professionals willing to assume these broader responsibilities? In other words, are we willing to grow our skillset and/or move to a different organization that would provide us the opportunity to take on an expanded role?

In short, our willingness to grapple with these questions tests our ability to flourish as ethical public relations practitioners. I believe our times, and the future of our profession, demand we rise to this challenge.

(The Public Relations Society of America San Francisco Bay Area Chapter recently published this article on their web site, here

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