PR ethics

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This article was first published as "Flack Attack", PR Watch, volume 5, number 2, Second Quarter 1998. The article is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

The PR industry talks ethics

Watching the public relations industry discuss ethics is a little like watching tourists from a foreign country attempting to speak a language they barely understand. They seem enthusiastic and sincere, and many of the right words come out of their mouths, but they just don't quite manage to make sense.

The problem, fundamentally, is that PR is preoccupied with symbolism, imagery and perception rather than substance. From a flack's perspective, appearing ethical is equivalent to, even better than, being ethical.

One way to appear ethical is to talk about ethics, which undoubtedly explains the current moral preoccupations of former Hill & Knowlton chief executive Robert Dilenschneider. His lecture about the unethical nature of "spin" is described in this issue's cover story.

Of course, if Dilenschneider really thought spin was unethical, we would expect him to offer a full public accounting of the role that Hill & Knowlton played in promoting the Persian Gulf War. Neither he nor the company has answered repeated requests from reporters for complete answers to the questions that still persist, eight years after the war itself has ended.

Talk is cheap, but real ethical behavior is sometimes expensive, and that's where the PR industry's ethical dilemma originates.

There is no ethical way to help the tobacco industry increase market share for a product that kills its customers. There is no ethical way to protect polluters, sweatshops and makers of defective products while they continue to practice business as usual. There is no ethical way to create corporate "grassroots" front groups. And there is no ethical way to harass and censor journalists whose reporting threatens a client's controversial product.

All of the major public relations firms--not just Hill & Knowlton, but Burson-Marsteller, Ketchum, Edelman, Porter Novelli and the others--routinely engage in these types of offensive practices. They don't do it because they are evil people. They do it because their wealthy clients have problems, and cleaning up their image is often easier (and cheaper) than cleaning up their mess.

Meanwhile, their ethical talk will always ring hollow.

Studying the Ethics of PR Practitioners

In August 2005 O'Dwyers PR Daily reported that journalism professors Renita Coleman and Lee Wilkins had gained a $10,000 grant to test the hypothetical ethical choices of PR professionals. Those participating in the "Issues Defining Test" will be asked "to choose between two 'goods' or two 'evils,' such as whether they would take a multi-million dollar beer account even though they feel alcoholism is a big problem, or urge a client to use a minority in a campaign knowing the client was opposed to that particular minority group." The project is likely to be completed by May 2006. [1]

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