Profession needs shared standards

The landmark management book Built To Last made the case for long-term commitments to core values being key to long-term, enduring organizational success. And it is around these values that many PR pros anchor their practices.

The landmark management book Built To Last made the case for long-term commitments to core values being key to long-term, enduring organizational success. And it is around these values that many PR pros anchor their practices.

But, what of our own profession? It seems to me that the industry could make a significant advance if PR pros were to come together to identify, articulate, and own a set of shared values and responsibilities - something very different than a code of ethics.

What are some shared values and responsibilities we should own?

The first would probably be about the publics or audiences with whom we communicate and the importance we place on telling the truth. By "public," I'm referring to internal, as well as external, audiences. Maybe we need to say that we value publics or audiences that are well-informed about our organizations or clients, and not just partly informed. Transparency is a good value to own.

A second core value would be about the clients we serve. How do we see our responsibilities to our clients? We're accused of using "spin," of always putting our clients first and the best face on events. In reality, what we strive to be are honest advocates for the positions taken by our companies or clients and the objectives they seek to pursue.

"Honest advocacy," I believe, requires that we maintain the highest personal integrity and a position of independence and objectivity within our own organizations - the level of independence that allows us to counsel freely on the formation of organizational policy and then insist on behavior that is consistent with the public positions we have taken. We need to say this is what we value and that we're taking on this responsibility.

A third value would be around freedom of expression and the media - the news media - traditional media and new media. After all, in the classic sense of PR, we see the media as gatekeepers - the third party - through which we seek to achieve credibility for the messages we direct at our audiences. What are our responsibilities to the news media? Certainly we value and respect high journalistic standards, such as fairness and balance. Maybe we should say so. But maybe we also need to say that we believe in freedom of expression, and especially freedom of the press, as the foundation of society.

And, a fourth core value relates to our own profession. We surely have a responsibility to advance understanding of the legitimacy of our function, what we value, the principles that guide our practice, and the ethical standards we embrace. We also need to exhibit a personal commitment to the highest standards of individual character and integrity - standards that we expect from one another and anyone who seeks to take up this practice.

What I suggest is clearly aspirational. But we must talk about these issues and seek to define PR's character around agreed-upon values and responsibilities. In so doing, we have the opportunity to set ourselves apart, clarify our roles and responsibilities, and achieve a singular character for PR that is both palpable and enduring.

Bill Nielsen delivered this lecture for the Institute for Public Relations in London in October. He is former corporate VP of public affairs at Johnson & Johnson.

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