The State of Ethics in Public Relations

Ethics in public relations has long been a hot topic and issue for debate. Many critics think public relations ethics is an oxymoron. They think the average PR practitioner is little more than a charlatan and spin-doctor.

Frankly, I can understand why. Looking back at the roots of public relations to the “father” himself, Edward Bernays, there was little regard for ethics and the public during the nascent years of public relations. In fact, Bernays went to far as to call the era of 1850 to 1905 the “public be damned era.”

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. While dangerously treading the waters of falsehood, stereotypes certainly start with a degree of truth to them. Unfortunate though it may be, this is the foundation with which we have to work.

The public relations practitioner is under so much scrutiny, even the slightest misstep receives superfluous attention. It seems, for now at least, the public and the media focus much more attention on blunders than success stories.

So, how do we combat this image? What should the role of the contemporary PR practitioner be today?

Great strides have been made toward legitimizing the profession, and a backbone of ethics is essential to this continued progression. We now have large, powerful associations that have established codes of ethics as the guiding tenets of any PR practitioner. Through continued diligence and a commitment to ethics, the industry can only continue to grow and improve.

Within an organization or company, the role of the PR practitioner should be to lead the company down a moral and ethical path to success. Ultimately, the bottom line is what drives any business. This quest to operate in the black may entail following some less than reputable business practices. It is the moral obligation of any PR practitioner to right the ship and make sure the business or organization operates in an ethical manner.

This is certainly easier said than done, but associations like PRSA make this goal easier. These associations represent an invaluable resource and tool any PR practitioner can utilize. Using their codes of ethics as guideposts, the PR industry is poised to excel and shed its image as a seedy deceiver. To this end, a PR professional should be both an advocate for the public good, as well as an advocate for their respective organization’s goals.

How do we balance these two seemingly conflicting things? Perhaps a re-evaluation of how we perceive business is needed. Why is it that the public good and an organization’s goals are seen to be at odds? They don’t have to be. With a PR practitioner at the forefront who is guided by good ethics and morals, an organization can succeed while maintaining ethical business practices.

Following an ethical model stands to benefit everyone involved. The business can excel, the public doesn’t feel deceived and the PR industry can finally earn the respect it deserves.


Power and Influence in Public Relations

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a presentation for my J452 class. After ruminating over a number of topics, I decided to focus my presentation on an interesting book called “Gaining Influence in Public Relations: The Role of Resistance in Practice” by Bruce K. Berger and Bryan H. Reber.

It’s a fascinating book, and I’d recommend it to anyone in the field. However, I realized there was a lot in the book I wouldn’t be able to fit into the presentation, so I thought this would be the perfect place to discuss it a bit further.Business

First, a basic premise of the book is essential. Berger and Reber contend power is the number one issue in the industry today. This, they conclude, essentially means holding a seat at the organization’s decision-making table.

Now, this isn’t simply power for power’s sake. The role of the PR practitioner today is to lead an organization or company down a moral, ethical road to success. In a capitalist society where the bottom line is paramount, ethics are extremely important. However, they’re often cast aside as the need or desire to make money dictates business decisions. With a certain degree of power and influence, a PR practitioner can be the guidepost toward ethical business practices.

So, how do they suggest this could be accomplished? Through resistance.

This seemed unorthodox at first, but further reading shed some light on the issue. Practitioners can use a number of resistance techniques, most of which fall under three broad categories: Advocacy, dissent and activism.

Advocacy is publicly representing an individual, organization, or an idea It is one of the most common forms of resistance within an organization. It can be as simple as resistance to proposed policies, plans practices, procedures, ideologies and so forth. In this view, it happens nearly every day in every organization.

Dissent is expressing contradictory views about an organization in the workplace. Berger and Reber identify three different kinds: direct or articulate dissent, antagonistic or latent dissent and displaced dissent.

Direct or articulate dissent refers to upward communication within an organization. This occurs when employees express dissent within the organization to someone who can effectively influence the organization.

Antagonistic or latent dissent occurs when employees believe they will be perceived as adversarial, but express dissent anyway because they feel protected in some way. This could include seniority, family ties, minority status or vital expertise.

Displaced dissent occurs when an employee believes they will be perceived as adversarial, and this will lead to retaliation. This form of dissent is typically expressed outside the workplace to friends, family, professional associations or even the media.

Activism refers to efforts to influence public policy, organizational practices, social norms and so forth. Activism can rely on having strong personal characteristics, building relationships and alliances, creating access to powerful individuals and using self-knowledge and moral consciousness.

Employing these strategies can be tricky, however. Stirring the pot can be dangerous in an organization, and an intimate knowledge of the power structure and politics are necessary. It’s best to know what one is getting into before diving into the deep end unprepared. To that end, using these strategies should come with extreme caution.

As noted in the book, today’s delicate economy means companies are more prone to layoffs and high turnover rates, which further compounds the problem. Political astuteness, insight and savvy helps practitioners become more influential without upsetting the delicate relationships within an organization.

Understanding key people who make decisions and establishing relationships with them is essential. The more you understand, the more people will take your counsel. As a result, you’ll find yourself in a position to truly influence the decision-making process and ensure your organization remains ethical.

Is resistance the best way to achieve these goals? Perhaps. At the very least it provides an interesting, alternative path to gaining influence, power, and ultimately success. However, these tactics require a deep understanding of the political and power structure of an organization.

Do you agree power is the number one issue in PR?


Social Media Should be Cornerstone of PR Education

Given the recent boom of social media and its increased importance in public relations, it’s appropriate that universities across the nation cater their educational efforts to this transition.

In a Businessweek article, Dr. Elaine Young, an assistant professor at Champlain College, said students need to be prepared to begin their professional careers immediately after graduation, and for PR students, social media expertise is one of those requisite skills.

As Sally Falkow points out on her blog, The Proactive Reportfacebook_128x128, most teens and young adults are quite adept with social media, but it’s for personal use. They have no professional experience with it.

Which makes me wonder, is my education focusing enough on social media?

That was certainly one of my complaints for J440. Don’t get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the class, and it gave me many invaluable tools I’ll need to succeed in the industry. However, I couldn’t help but think that a little extra emphasis on social media would have been nice. It was seldom discussed, and when it was, it wasn’t with any detail.

J452, on the other hand, is quite different. It certainly has an extra emphasis on social media, which I find refreshing and encouraging. But is it enough? Sure, we’re taught the basics of blogging and twitter. We’re instructed on what language to use. The purpose of social media is made quite clear. We want to engage the community and start a relationship through honest communication. But, how do we actually use it?

For instance, let’s say I want to create publicity for a beer-tasting event some microbrewery is putting on, but we haven’t established an online presence. How do I get followers? How do I generate buzz? Traditional axioms in the corporate world say to define your target audience, goals and objectives. Next, use strategies to convince target audience to take action that would fulfill desired goals; measure success and repeat ad nauseum.

While this traditional method certainly has its merit, it doesn’t quite fit the bill for social media.

My education tells me a good tactic would be to start by following some of the more established bloggers and tweeters who have an online presence. These could range from brewers themselves to avid fans. In turn, I could direct tweets at these people about upcoming events, promotional opportunities, or even a good new beer. Tweeting and blogging are more about establishing trusted relationships than using them as promotional tools. After these relationships are established, tweeting or blogging about an event will come off more as a friendly invitation than mere promotion.

Now, diving headfirst into all forms of social media isn’t smart for every business or organization. However, establishing an online presence goes further than blogging and tweeting. Many avenues of social media must be explored, such Facebook, LinkedIn, Delicious and even podcasts. All of these social media can be used to humanize an organization, which helps foster trust and open dialogue — and that, after all, is the desired goal.

Social media represents an exciting new face to public relations and it’s doing great things for the public relations industry. However, careful analysis must be done to determine how to effectively use social media for each organization. It takes more than ascribing to the old methods that have defined the industry for so long. Nurturing trust, encouraging dialogue and establishing relationships are the linchpins of social media.

I’m fortunate enough to attend a university where social media is a very valued, important aspect of my education. I only hope this trend continues as social media becomes increasingly prevalent and influential.

And so it begins…

Wow, where to start? As many of you already know, we’re in an exciting time for the evolution of public relations and journalism. No more can we, as contemporary journalists, ascribe to the antiquated paradigm that has defined the field for so long. As the industry moves increasingly into the digital medium, blogs have become an invaluable tool to nearly every PR practitioner. So, given my desire to be a PR practitioner, the next step is to, naturally, start a blog. And so, here I am.

This aforementioned transition to the digital age connotes an exciting time for the industry.  Social media has surged to the forefront of every PR practitioner’s mind (if it hasn’t, it should), and through this blog, I will follow blogthe industry’s twists and turns as it continues to change — one tweet, post or comment at a time.