Despite scandals, PR's ethical standards remain solid

The classic Dickens phrase, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," comes to mind in looking back over the PR industry during the past year.

The classic Dickens phrase, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," comes to mind in looking back over the PR industry during the past year.

While there were many positives in 2004, we have also seen a "perfect storm" of incidents that have put at risk the reputations of our profession and those of us who practice PR.

Leading industry organizations, including the PRSA, have worked effectively to enhance the understanding of the role and value of PR by both the public and opinion leaders, and to challenge critics and the stereotypes of the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, when allegations of unethical practices make headlines from coast to coast, we all suffer.

The alleged overbilling of Los Angeles city government by an agency, VNRs that appear to deceive the public, agency staff presenting themselves as employees of a client company, and military public affairs officers intentionally misleading the media have all raised questions about our profession's ethical practices.

Now, as we begin a new year, we are witnessing indictments related to the Los Angeles matter and a new and potentially highly damaging event involving a government agency, a noted PR agency, and political commentator Armstrong Williams. The key element was the fact that Williams endorsed the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act without disclosing that he was being paid for his praise. But deeper digging by the media has revealed some questionable practices in the case by all involved parties.

Meanwhile, against the background of continuous national media coverage, the Federal Communications Commission and some congressional leaders are calling for investigations of government PR activities. They are concerned that these activities might violate laws against propaganda.

Coverage of these high-profile scandals has overshadowed the work of thousands of PR pros who are committed to the ethical practice of PR - work that makes positive contributions to businesses, organizations, communities, and society. Indeed, the reputations of all of us who practice PR have been tarnished. Business decision makers and other opinion leaders might be influenced by this coverage, and the damage to the practice of PR may take years to undo. Repairing the reputation of our profession is a task that falls to all of us collectively and to each of us individually.

Another aspect of these situations is especially troubling. Reporters and industry observers refer to a "blurring" of ethical standards for our industry. This is simply not the case. The foregoing examples indicate a blurring - even erosion - of industry standards as they are practiced. The fact is that the core tenets of PR ethics remain unchanged.

Certainly the media environment is changing, and the lines are growing less distinct among advertising, entertainment, and news coverage, but the ethical foundation of our profession remains strong and solid.

Truth and transparency have been the core of the PRSA Code of Ethics since its development in 1950, and today truth and transparency remain the keystones PR pros must turn to when confronting any situation that raises ethical questions.

In the next several weeks, the PRSA will convene a summit meeting of leaders of the profession to recommit to the ethical practice of PR as outlined in the PRSA Code of Ethics. This gathering will examine the issues that have arisen and will come again as the environment in which we work changes.

Clearly these changes will continue, thanks to the rise of blogs, product placements in movies and TV programming, the role of paid spokespeople, the use of advertising as a PR tactic, and more.

But just as clearly, as the boundaries of the media environment shift, our ethics and the ethical practice of PR must remain constant. With truth and transparency as our guides, we can ensure that our profession regains and retains credibility, value, and respect.

  • Judith Phair is president and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.

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