Ethical lessons have wide-reaching value

Courses in PR ethics need to be a crucial part of any curriculum as they will enable PR students - tomorrow's industry leaders - to better counsel their future CEOs and executive management.

Bruce Berger performed excellent service in his role as a PRWeek columnist in this space. His brilliant insights on education, PR students, and young PR pros was equally enlightening and entertaining. I thank him for consistently providing a rich and thought-provoking read. I can only hope to bring even a small portion of his wisdom and verve as I begin in this role.  

Ethics is a major concentration of mine and it's a focal point of my curriculum at the University of South Carolina. It's a subject that cannot be underscored enough to students. It plays a central role in the PR industry. That fact was underscored at the PharmedOut Conference I attended last month. The sessions, many of which were critical of the pharmaceutical industry, warned attendees about various promotion tactics and decried advertising to motivate patient interest in a drug. Presenters also critiqued continuing education efforts focusing on pharmaceuticals, such as those advocated by the Pharmaceutical Alliance for Continuing Medical Education.

Across the board, pharma and medical device PR and marketing communications was dismissed as patently unethical. Sessions attempted to "unveil" the mysterious and secretive efforts of PR.

Why the criticism? Undoubtedly, certain organizations have gone too far in incentivizing their drugs to physicians. I have even published work describing the ethical transgressions of some pharmaceutical manufacturers in their marcomms efforts. However, we must not assume that patients are empty vacuums and physicians are omniscient. Patients have every right to be informed of their options to manage medical issues – and they often need information from the pharmaceutical company to understand those options.

Why should a medical concern be any less worthy of the information necessary to make an informed decision than, say, a new car purchase? In fact, I argue that the import of such decisions means that the pharmaceutical firm has an ethical responsibility to communicate openly, honestly, and frequently with patients and providers alike.

Pharmaceutical sales representatives have certainly damaged the reputation of drug promotion, though PRWeek's audience understands that those representatives are in sales, not PR. An analogue would be saying that the used car salesman encapsulates the ethics of GM, Ford, or any other automaker. We must draw the line between sales and marcomms using valid and ethical approaches.

PharmedOut attendees might have good reason to be suspicious of the pharma industry's PR. They can point to numerous transgressions and imply that the roots of PR are in flacking, downright deception, and even propaganda. To overcome these sentiments, we must become more knowledgeable about the values of our publics and our function's consequences on them. Conferences such as the one I attended show the vast mistrust and misunderstanding of our field.

The ethically aware PR manager can save the organization from conflicts with publics, crises, lawsuits, and problematic issues of all types. Transgressions will still occur, however we must encourage all communications professionals to consider the ethics of their actions. PR's credibility heavily relies on consistently ethical and credible decision-making and advising.

Many people do not understand our field, as evidenced by the suspicion with which “PR” was regarded at the aforementioned conference. They seemed unaware of any of the capabilities of the field “beyond spin,” including ethical advising and strategic management. Studying and applying PR ethics has great value. Not only does it allow us to avoid making ill-conceived recommendations that do not consider the values of publics, it allows us to build trust among publics with each ethical decision.

Forward-looking PR academic programs around the world are offering courses in PR ethics. This needs to be a crucial part of any curriculum as it will enable PR students – tomorrow's industry leaders – to better counsel their future CEOs and executive management.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at

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