Are PR pros 'professional manipulators?' This study says not

Columnist Shannon Bowen wrote this week that most PR executives don't think of themselves as "professional manipulators." Here's evidence to back it up.

Statements that seem to imply that lying is a natural part of the public relations profession as reported in a study presented at the 23rd International Public Relations Research Symposium, BledCom, in Slovenia, are indeed troubling. 

However, as Shannon Bowen says in this PRWeek article, "Perhaps most comms executives don't think this way." I believe I can provide evidence to support that view.

My experience conducting a study with 30 senior executives on public relations’ role as an ethical conscience with Minette Drumwright in 2010 suggests that these reported views are far from the norm.

Twenty-five of the professionals in our study resided in one of 10 US states, and five of the informants lived in Australia. Two discussed their experiences working in Europe and Asia. In our study, published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, we found senior public relations executives who would never compromise in order to protect their most valued asset, their personal reputation.

As one said, "I can’t afford to lose my credibility…As PR professionals, it’s all we have. And if I lose my credibility here, it’s not like [I] can just go start over with someone else, somewhere else. Credibility is something that you can’t afford to lose."

In fact, several of the participants provided specific examples of times when they did stand up for ethical public relations. While some were successful at persuading more senior leaders to accept their counsel, others resigned or faced demotion or termination.

When one executive was asked to place false information in a news release, she refused and offered ethical alternatives. 

"I gave her four different choices. You know, let’s reword the press release, let’s leave out the information that she perceived was damaging, although, I didn’t perceive it that way, but anyway, a number of choices," she said. "And those weren’t, I mean she wanted to issue it that way, because she wanted to basically to lie to position the company within that industry."

After her advice was not accepted, she resigned.

Another participant said he refused to lie to the media as the official spokesperson in a higher education setting. He recalled, "[A university official] asked me to lie a couple of times to the Associated Press, which I refused to do."

The PR executive said he was eventually demoted.

Fortunately, others had developed a valued counselor role with senior leadership where their advice was welcomed. As another executive said, "I think that our relationship is good, and part of that is that he [the CEO] can count on me to not always agree with him — raise issues before it becomes a problem."

I share these examples as evidence that indeed practitioners are willing to stand up for ethical practices in PR and as a reminder that we must preserve our credibility and reputation in order to perform our job effectively.

As one of the executives said, "I’m a firm believer in the theory that the truth will come out sooner or later. It may take a week, it may take six months, it may take five years, but if you don’t tell the truth, sooner or later you realize it’s going to come out." 

Dr. Marlene Neill is an assistant professor at Baylor University in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations, & New Media.

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