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Ethics In Public Relations

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Ethics in the field of Public Relations Public Relations (PR) is a growing field today. Many people view the profession as unethical, because its goal is to influence public opinion. Just a few unethical people can tarnish an image of a whole field. One of the first people to use PR techniques was P. T. Barnum. For example, he created a birth certificate for a woman who was claiming to have been George Washington’s personal nurse. This would have made the woman over 160 years old. People like P.T. Barnum contribute to the general misperception of PR as an unethical profession. If there was a code of ethics back then it might of helped today’s perception of the field of Public Relations.

As the Public Relations field grows “the general public is on our case the news media is on our case even we are on our own case.” (Mivamoto 1) The public as a whole is demanding higher ethical practices from business firms and organizations than it did in the past. Even college students are developing a negative disposition towards public relations because of the way textbooks present it. For example, the P.T. Barnum story creation above shows how far someone will go to bring in a crowd. Barnum lied to the public.

A public relations practitioner holds huge responsibilities in promoting and defending his or her employers. Mivamoto lists a few responsibilities of public relations representatives in [his speech] “Public Relations Ethics 201: Challenges We Just Can’t Ignore.” Here are some of the challenges public relation professionals face: § Misleading Information: We’re counted on and trusted to provide accurate information to our publics. It’s so easy to send out-on purpose – incorrect information designed to lead them astray.

§ Promotion of Inferior Products: How ethical is to promote products made by our company that we know are inferior – products that we know are unsafe, or of poor quality, or will be used illegally? § Political Influence: Does money still buy influence in politics? Should public relations professionals use Political Action Committees to gain influence with elected officials through economic support? It happens all the time. Is it ethical? Or is it just good business? § Promotion of US Products: In many foreign countries, American companies are promoting and selling products deemed unsuitable for use in the USA.

The huge responsibilities and decisions come easier the longer one is in practice. Age and experience assist professionals in making ethical decisions. Moreover, studies show that female practitioners are significantly more ethical than men. Many practitioners have said that the reason why they are unethical is because of the competitive environment. According to the article by Pratt, “some practitioners blame the availability, or lack thereof, of good, effective role models, particularly among top business executives, for both practitioners and society in general.” {The media is always spotlighting the bad PR professionals when they make unethical decision. CUT THIS OR MOVE IT} Mivamoto goes on to talk about the two basic ethical systems: Deontology and teleology. Deontology is a system of duty-based ethics, which teaches, “That all actions are inherently right or wrong. It all depends on the inner-based, self-discipline of each individual public relations practitioner.” Teleology is an outcome-based system wherein ‘the ends justify the means.'”

The example Mivamoto gives is “Christianity began with one man battling what he considered corrupt religion. Jesus Christ used what we today would call classic public relations techniques: He used the two-step flow theory of communication, He did a lot of public appearances, He staged special events, He identified and targeted specific audiences, and He adapted His message to each audience. In the case of Christianity, did the ends justify the means?” (Mivamoto 3) Any profession might examine itself to determine what actions would improve its public image. Public Relations professionals have done this and proposed many arguments on how to improve the field. Mivamoto suggests that we make sure the organization we serve understands ethical behavior and that we communicate ethics clearly to everyone associated with the organization. He also proposes PR representatives would improve the field by belonging to professional organizations, like Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Members of professional organizations are more likely to abide by their code of ethics for fear of expulsion. However, the PRSA website says that only, “roughly ten percent of the estimated 15,700 public relations professionals in the US are members of PRSA.” Some ethicists think that there should be a code of ethics for public relations like the code for accounting. For example, PRSA has its own code of ethics. The PRSA code consists of 17 articles “dealing with fairness toward clients, employers, and the public; with intentional communication of false or misleading information; and with engaging in practices that corrupt the channels of communication of processes of government.” (http://www.prsa.org)

If a member of PRSA violates the code or is suspected of doing something unethical the organization’s Board of Ethical and Professional Standards investigates the member. The member can be suspended, expelled, or reprimanded. However, since membership is optional, expulsion or suspension does not hurt a member’s career. He/she just looks bad within PRSA. However, if memberships were mandatory and the code of ethics were universal the PRSA could do a better job of ending an unethical member’s career quickly.

Kruckeberg claims that a “universal code would be meaningless due to the lack of legal power to enforce ethical behavior.” If it were mandatory for all PR practitioners to belong to an organization like PRSA, it would be easier to enforce a code of ethics, because it would be easier to impose severe penalties on those who violate and tarnish PR images.

Hunt and Tirpok suggest “that the best ways to move the field toward consideration of a universal ethics code would be for someone to draft such a code that would be generic enough to cover the various activities that public relations entails, as well as globally-different ethical standards.” Once there is an universal code in set, the public might start seeing a better side of the PR profession. If it weren’t for PR, the world just wouldn’t be the same. PR practitioners need to work on improving their image by using ethical judgment instead of listening to employers or colleagues who urge them to act unethically. It is easier to live with oneself when one is not responsible for killing millions by making an unethical decision. Therefore, to be an ethical public relations practitioner, one should always ask oneself “Can I sacrifice my own personal values for the client, for my employer, for my profession, or for society?”

Works Cited

Hunt, Todd, and Andrew Tirpok. Universal Ethics Code: An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Public Relations Review Spring (1993): 1-10.

Kruckeberg, Dean. Universal Ethics Code: Both Possible and Feasible.

Public Relations Review Spring (1993): 2130.

Mivamoto, Craig. Public Relations Ethics 201: Challenges We Just Can’t Ignore. http://www.geocities.com/wallstreet/8925/ethics.htm.

Pratt, Cornelius B. PRSA Members Perceptions of Public Relations Ethics.

Public Relations Review Summer (1991): 145-159.

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