Steven R. Van Hook, PhD
Public Relations department is
frequently the ethical heart of an
organization. Internal and
PR communications control of
the flow of good and bad news to
the staff and community. The
PR team copes with
company crises. PR pros sit
at the elbows of top officers
drafting a company's mission
statements, its strategies, its
are often put on the spot if
not to determine the morality
of a course, at least to help
envision the fallout. Fortunately
there are valuable touchstone
tools for finding our way.
dive deep into pools of
ethical thoughts by such
Ethics theories range from
("The greatest good for the
greatest number") to
("Do what is right, though
the world should perish").
Or, more to
the point, we can examine codes of
standards through public
relations guilds such as the
On a global scale, there's
the International Public
adopted in Venice in
project gathered 850 codes of
from professional societies,
corporations, government, and
academic institutions. And we can
exercise a quick reality
check courtesy of PR
Watch, a watchdog group
combating "manipulative and
the many schools of ethics
and conduct, there are some common
Don't lie. Ever. One thing we've
learned well in recent decades is
that the uncovered
cover-up frequently incurs
more wrath than the original
offense. Even the highest
potentates with all the levers at
their power cannot keep a lid on a
secret boiling over.
people perceive public relations as something less than respectable as
clever strategies to convince the public that what's wrong is right. Some
see public relations professionals as manipulators of the public mind,
rather than conveyors of truth.
That is likely the reason most every code of
conduct, especially those targeted at the PR profession, stresses
honesty above all else. Too often our conduct falls short of the code.
Spin substitutes for truth. Perception substitutes for reality. Victory
substitutes for success.
The shadings are subtle. The arguments are heated.
The proponents are ostracized. But it does matter, both in the big picture
and the bottom line.
Theologians say it. Physicists say it. Even
squinty-eyed comptrollers now realize it. In our interconnected systems,
everything matters to everything else. What we are is a composite of our
daily decisions, thoughts and actions, large and small. As business
Ellis says, "The truth matters. Loyalty matters. Lies
matter. Values matter. You know a Dilbert company the minute you walk into
it. Dilbert-company employees know the exact calibration of corporate
An organization's ethics flow from the top down and
back up again, and permeates throughout the company mindset. A stranger
off the street can sniff it out just by walking in the door. Nothing is
hidden, especially in this wired age where news especially bad
news gushes in an instant.
These matters must preoccupy the devoted PR
We might remember, too, that public relations
is a two way street: not only do we represent our organization
to the public, but we must also present the public back to our
organization. We should help our colleagues understand how
the public perceives our actions.
Just like little Jiminy Crickets, public relations
professionals are often the conscience of a company. Its not always a
popular spot to be in, but it is our duty. It's what we're paid to do.
And, as we sometimes confess to one another, it's what we largely love
most about our job.
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