Advertising, Marketing & PR

Is PR your organization's conscience?

January 31, 2013
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Is PR your organization's conscience?
The PRSA has outlined a Code of Ethics to guide PR pros. Photo via fb.com

A new study about ethics and communication has received a fair share of discussion in the public relations trade publications recently.

The study, “PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience,” by Marlene Neill of Baylor University and Minette Drumwright of the University of Texas-Austin, is published in the current issue of Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

Academic journals are not often consumed by the general public or even current practitioners, but the study offers insights that are worth sharing with readers of the Business Journal.

Essentially, the study brings up to date a long-standing discussion among public relations educators and professionals about the role of PR professionals in guiding an organization’s ethical decision making.

Some would scoff at this, thinking that “PR” and ethics are incompatible. However, the study shows that public relations — when properly understood and practiced — is ethical by its very nature.

One point taken from the current study is that the attributes of individual public relations professionals are key determinants of an organization’s ethics.

Public relations professionals vary greatly in terms of having a degree in public relations, having earned the accreditation in public relations, designated by APR, or being a member in a professional association such as the Public Relations Society of America or PRSA. Those who have education or more formal professional involvement are more likely to know and seek to practice according to professional ethical standards, such as those outlined in the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Those with public relations responsibilities who also have a complete understanding of what public relations actually is will do a better job guiding organizational ethics.

What’s most interesting about the current study is not only that more public relations executives are embracing their role as “conscience” of the organizations they serve, the organizations where they work are finally adopting a more honest and complete understanding of public relations as a management function that is about mutual relationship building. Organizations that grasp this tend to allow PR professionals to identify and counsel on ethical issues that arise. Those organizations who pigeon hole PR professionals as mere publicity seekers or worse, “spin masters,” shoot their own feet by producing unethical communications.

Previous studies showed that PR professionals shied away from offering assertive ethical counsel to CEOs and other executives for several reasons.

One was a legalistic view, that as long as they were breaking no laws, their practice should not be questioned. Others took a view similar to that of Milton Friedman, who argued that it is a moral imperative for businesses to focus on profit maximization and doing things in the public interest or for corporate social responsibility was to violate the trust of stockholders. Other PR professionals in an earlier study simply said they felt unequipped to advise with regard to ethical issues or that they had no access to upper management to do so.

The current study shows a refreshing change of heart, at least among seasoned PR professionals. In their interviews with 30 senior level public relations executives, Neill and Drumwright find that PR executives who play the role of organizational conscience do so because of their broader understanding of PR as being about representing both the organizational and public interests.

In other words, they appropriately see PR as being not only about one-way publicity and communications, but an integral part of the overall management of an organization. That involves a "boundary spanning" role representing the public interest to management and the organization’s interest to the public. It’s what academics call “two-way symmetrical” communication, in which organizations respond and adapt to the interests of the publics and don’t just keep pushing their own self-interest.

It’s about relationships, and why the profession is called public “relations.” This has been the case since the time of early PR professionals such as Arthur Page in the 1920s, but it has taken nearly a century for many professionals to adopt this appropriate and complete conception of the profession. More PR professionals, and their counterparts in management, still need to come to this understanding.

Another reason modern PR professionals in the study are more engaged as ethical consciences of their organizations is the understanding that they need to not be “yes men,” but think independently and subtly counsel management and avoid the “kill the messenger” scenario on ethical matters.

In turn, this involves having regular access to the “dominant coalition” of key decision makers, encouraging an organizational culture that is participative versus authoritarian and committing to ongoing learning and preparation to be able to spot and appropriately advise on ethical issues.

While the study was limited to only 30 senior level PR professionals, it does demonstrate that when PR is properly understood and practiced, it is an inherently ethical profession that benefits entire organizations and the publics with whom they interact. 

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