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6 A.M.

ethics, values, communications

A New Look at the Ethical Practice of PR

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I met this morning with my former client, Dick Martin, who had been Chief Communications Officer at AT&T. Dick is well into the writing of his latest book, “How to Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul,” with co-author Professor Donald Wright of Boston University. Martin’s goal is a practical framework for decision-making, that can help PR practitioners make the right calls in their daily counseling.

Martin told me that there are three principles in the framework. He begins with virtue, which he traces back to the philosopher Aristotle. He noted that the Arthur Page Society’s work on Corporate Character is a vital component of this first principle. He goes on to the notion of duty, which he takes from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a concept that would be familiar to any professional practicing a trade. His final idea is consequences, based on the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was the advocate of utilitarianism.

The book has a cautionary tale about work that John Hill carried out on behalf of the tobacco industry in the wake of a story in Readers’ Digest on the health risks of smoking. “Hill was hired to sow doubt about the science, to say that the sample size was flawed and that the conclusions were unfounded. The work was done under the auspices of a front organization, The Tobacco Industry Research Council. This kind of activity would not be acceptable in today’s world, which requires transparency and accountability,” Martin contended.

Martin and Wright also have a chapter titled, “Is PR Inherently Unethical?” Martin asked rhetorically at this morning’s meeting, “Is it in the very nature of PR to deceive people? Do we persuade people to do something they otherwise would not do?”

​We had an extended discussion of the nature of the public interest and the obligation of the PR person to contribute to achievement of that end. I made a particular point of the higher responsibility of PR practitioners in a world of dispersed authority and democratized media to make sure that there is fact checking with third party experts because we are no longer going through a reporter’s filter.

We reviewed the events of the Walmart case in 2006, in which Edelman was accused of insufficient transparency on having funded a national tour by a blogger. I reiterated my thinking that this was a firm-wide failure to understand the best practices of the emerging social media, which prompted the implementation of a training program for each account person. We also partnered with the Word of Mouth Marketing Association to help to write industry standards and reported back each year on our compliance. This incident ultimately led Edelman to adopt a Code of Conduct which is signed by each employee when joining the firm.

The opportunity for our profession has never been clearer. But the risk of stigmatization has also never been higher. “What do we mean by doing right?” Martin asked. “We have to measure our behavior and our culture. PR people may know that it is not right to lie. But do they understand why it is wrong?”

We operate effectively only based on public trust. This must be earned every day by advising clients to do the right thing, then to communicate the client’s position in a clear and transparent manner. We must laud the best behaviors and criticize publicly those who fail to live up to the ethical bar. Martin and Wright are making a great contribution by moving from case history to conceptual, from tactical to intellectual, in establishing a high standard of practice.

Richard Edelman is president and CEO.

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