Without Credibility and Ethics, PR Is Just Spin

Is our society becoming less ethical? It’s a good question to ask as we guide our companies and our employees into a new year. 

Ethical breaches seem to be everywhere, from parents paying others to take college tests for their kids, to lawmakers admitting to improper relationships with staff, to auto companies cheating on emissions tests.    

It’s hard to know whether there are more bad actors these days. But doing the right thing seems to be a challenge in every part of society, including business. When ethical breaches happen in the public relations industry, they reinforce every bad misconception the public has of the profession.  

For example, Cambridge Analytica has been accused of improperly acquiring the private data of millions of Facebook users and their friends, building personality profiles of them and using fake news to influence their votes in the U.S. and U.K. 

Definers Public Affairs, hired to represent Facebook, allegedly mounted a smear campaign against competitors and a prominent political donor, and created a fake news site to curate that content. 

Are these tactics just a part of what PR firms always do? No. They run directly counter to accepted practices. The PR Council, which represents PR firms, and the Public Relations Society of America, which is made up of individual professionals, have established codes of ethics that are almost universally accepted within the industry.  Both organizations recognize that:

  • Public relations plays a valuable role in furthering public debate by adding to the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints.
  • Effective public relations requires public trust, which is built on integrity, honesty, accuracy and transparency about whose interests a firm represents.
  • Clients deserve to have their voices heard, but not at the expense of the truth or by denigrating a competitor. 
  • Public relations professionals can be an effective channel for moving solutions ahead on important social issues and can help resolve conflicts in ways that help both clients and the public. 

Public relations has a vital role to play in corporate America and in society. At its best, it sheds light on complicated issues, informs important debates and helps journalists do their jobs better. Just as journalists must convey stories that are understandable to their readers, public relations professionals help organizations convey the complex nuances of any story at hand in terms that are clear and concise. The foundation of public relations isn’t “spin” – it’s credibility. And that’s the most important business asset any of us can ever have.