Would the forefathers of ethics be proud of public relations today?

by cindybrugge

As a public relations professional, I find myself occasionally put in ethical dilemmas, where the “right” thing to do doesn’t line up with what seems necessary in a situation. For these questionable situations, the Public Relations Society of America created a code of ethics for us to rely on. The code is broken into six values of ethical conduct. However, are these values in line with traditional ethical frameworks? Would our friends Aristotle and Kant agree with our public relations practices today? This post digs into each value and analyzes it from a traditional ethical framework to see if our ethics forefathers would support our practices today.

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Advocacy: As public relations practitioners, we agree to serve our client responsibly while considering public interest.

Aristotle would have agreed most comfortably with this value, through the lens of virtue ethics. Aristotle built virtue ethics around the philosophy of the golden mean, which claims that ethical actions are the middle ground of two extremes. Advocacy uses balance to keep a practitioner ethical. We must recognize the needs and desires of both of our audiences to decide upon our actions. We must always operate to serve both parties, rather than only acting to benefit the client. 

Honesty: Accuracy is paramount in public relations. We must be honest first and foremost, when communicating with the client and the public.

This value makes it clear: there is no excuse for dishonesty. The truth is our only option. Immanuel Kant, founder of deontology, would likely be on the same page. He believed we should do the right thing simply because it is right. PRSA values honesty and expects its members to abide by this value. However, the reasoning might have been slightly different than Kant. Our first priority is to speak truthfully because lies devalue our credibility. We recognize that lies portray a person negatively and make for bad relations with the media, which isn’t an option in our field. He might not agree with the motive but he would agree with our resolve to abstain from this major no-no.

Expertise: Public relations professionals must work to acquire and utilize specialized understanding. Through continued education and professional development, we must build credibility amongst our profession.

Acting in line with this value helps boost the community of PR professionals and, therefore, promotes communitarian ethics. We work as a group to advance the quality of the public relations profession. By pushing ourselves to create a better name for public relations, we deny our selfish desires to do what is easy in order to do what is best for the industry.  This value also motivates many people to help PR newbies. This cooperation is fundamental to PR ethics and communitarianism.

Independence: We are not the property of those we represent. Because we are held accountable for our actions, we must provide objective counsel to our clients.

The theory of egoism encourages one to act if it best serves his own long-term interest. This framework easily fits to this value. As PR practitioners, we are masters of our own fate. We should not operate in any way we do not feel comfortable because it will be our heads on the chopping block if we act unethically. It is very important that egoism considers long-term interest. Although it might seem that acting unethically is in my best interest at the moment, in the long-term it could be very detrimental. For example, if a client wants me to plagiarize someone else’s work. As a young low-level employee, I might feel uncomfortable speaking against my boss and might worry about losing my job. However, if it is uncovered that I plagiarized, I can face criminal charges and my industry will lose respect for me as a practitioner.

Ultimately, you are a free consultant. You choose your own fate. Act independently when considering ethical dilemmas.

Loyalty: Without forgetting our responsibility to serve the public interest, we remain loyal to those we represent.

Jeremy Bentham believed that we best course of action is the one that brings the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. His theory of utilitarianism sometimes overlooks the minority but sincerely aims to protect the public. In our profession, it’s important to consider this framework. We should primarily be servants to the public interest. Bentham would recognize that we should also be loyal to our clients because if we don’t serve them, then we could lose our jobs. It’s important to consider both and if stuck in a bad situation, turn to utilitarianism and ask, “Which option brings the greatest good to the greatest number?”

Fairness: This one is very specific, so here’s the direct quote from the Code of Ethics. “We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”

Distributive justice is a framework that aims to consider the minority, which is also the goal of fairness. PRSA takes great care to mention all groups of people that we should protect and treat fairly. By considering EVERYONE, we can be sure that no one is being mistreated by our actions.

The PRSA has been thorough in their code of ethics. They have left no stone unturned and no framework unnoticed. If they were willing to look for our best, our ethics forefathers could find something to be proud of. As public relations practitioners, we can act confidently knowing that we have the support of the great ethical men who came before us, if we are willing to implement these values into our decisions. 

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