Ethical responsibility and public relations

Public relations is often attacked for skewing the truth in favour of its clients.

Public relations is often attacked for skewing the truth in favour of its clients. As the goal of public relations is to build and maintain reputation, PR practitioners are always walking a fine line between presenting a client accurately and positively. That does not mean the two are necessarily contradictory - the vast majority of clients have little or nothing to hide - but as a professional, the PR practitioner is always trying to paint a positive picture while staying accurate enough to maintain cRedibility. This, in a sense, is ethical issue number one in the industry. Most agree that lying to the media is professional suicide. And most would likely agree that an accurate picture has much More traction than a flowery, over-hyped one. Ethical issue number two is much deeper and More complex, although this complexity is somewhat offset by its rarity. The second ethical issue is when does a public relations (or public affairs) practitioner refuse to communicate on a client's behalf for ethical or moral reasons. And, as an extension of that, when does the practitioner attempt to sway a client's position. As stated above, this is thankfully a rare issue in most PR people's lives, but it's one that certainly could come up in almost every career. An easy example is the now almost universally disliked tobacco industry. The tobacco industry has maintained, with little deviation, that Cigarettes do not kill people. Almost everyone outside of the tobacco industry says they do. It would be very difficult then for a publicist to deliver information to the media that glosses over the hazards of smoking Cigarettes. More importantly, it would or should be very difficult for that publicist to participate in something that furthers the business of a harmful industry. War is another hot topic in the industry. PR in wartime quickly becomes propaganda. Yet the people active in the field are not hidden away in military compounds, they share offices with the practitioners promoting toothpaste and soft drinks. It's common practice for governments to hire international firms to not only maintain public support for a war, but to actually create that public support, sometimes through outright fabrication of news. That's nothing new. The question for the practitioners themselves is when is it appropriate to refuse a client or to even walk away from a job. The issue is complicated by the fact that it is a job - a job that pays mortgages and car payments, possibly a daughter's college or a son's medical bills. Does the publicist have a moral obligation in this case? Yes, he does. Will it ever be a clear-cut decision? No. The second half of this is when does a publicist have the responsibility to try to change the client's plans. This might sound far-fetched, but in a broader sense the publicist is always acting as a consultant. She does have a role in developing a client's strategy and by extension helps the client make decisions. Will the publicist ever convince the tobacco company to stop selling Cigarettes? That's not likely. But taking cues from the alcohol industry, which causes its own share of pain and suffering, the positions of "drink responsibly" and "drink in moderation" have done wonders for the industry's collective image. This could extend to the tobacco industry - warn people of the dangers; let them make their own decisions. People drink and people smoke (this author included) - but properly informed people have the tools they need to make responsible decisions. Ultimately it's up to the professional to establish their own moral and ethical guidelines and to choose to follow them. The only thing that's clear-cut in this clouded issue is that a publicist does have a responsibility for how and what she delivers to the media and the public. Matthew Smith is chief operating officer of Vivaldi Public Relations, a local public relations consultancy. He can be reached at or see


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