Many people view public relations as unethical. Just the practice itself of shaping the public’s opinions of things, events, and people, and framing information in certain ways seems like just plain manipulation if you think about it. As an advertising major learning about PR and how it started, I had the same thoughts. The founder Edward Bernays, after all, wasn’t a very ethical man. He was very manipulative, pushing propoganda, and using the psychological teachings of his uncle Sigmund Freud to learn how to get inside people’s minds and manipulate them more effectively. He frequently used “third party authorities” to manipulate information and change public opinion. Many of his practices that gained him fame as the “father of public relations” are things that we in the industry would consider very unethical today. More information about Bernays and his public relations career can be found here.
I have often wondered how something that started so unethically and thrives off manipulating opinions and creating an image for something can incorporate truthfulness, openess, and operate in an ethical manner. I still have my doubts, although I have seen very good and ethical PR, it seems that many in the industry still have very unethical practices. While individually, there are still many that still lie to the public and behave in ways I believe are wrong, the ethics codes and regulations have come a long way from the unfair and deceptive practices used up until 2000 when the new code was written. I believe that there is reform occurring in the industry, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that PR professionals will behave more ethically now that the standards have been raised.
According to a recent study, younger workers (namely millennials) are more likely to observe workplace misconduct, feel pressure to break the rules, and experience retaliation. I believe that this is partially because of unethical precendent set by the older generation, but also because in this competitive job market, young people starting out will do nearly anything to keep their job, including many times behaving unethically. Also, entry-level and lower level workers feel pressure to impress the higher up executives, and are sometimes pressured into unethical situations that they feel they cannot say no to at the expense of their job. I believe reform in codes and ethical policies will help to set new precendents towards openness and honesty, but if a firm has been behaving unethically and finding success with it in the past, they are not likely to stop, especially when ethics in PR can be considered a gray area in many cases and is so loosely enforced. More information on this study and PR workplace trends regarding ethics can be found here.
From a consequentialist standpoint one might say that if these PR people are not harming the public, then even if they are twisting the truth, it is okay. One could argue that branding something or someone in a way that omits details and may not be completely truthful, is just part of publicity, and that things have always been framed in the media in certain ways. If it is entertaining, many times it is what the people want, even though it might not be truthful. Also, from a non-consequentialist perspective, some might say that many do not know what they are doing is wrong, and that they have good intentions, and that’s what matters. After all, according to an IABC study, the majority of PR personnel on an “upwardly mobile career path” said that they had little if any education or training on ethics, with 30% saying definitively that they had no academic ethics study of any kind. More information on this study can be found here.
To me it is just as heinous that people are completely not being educated or trained about ethics in a field that deals with altering the public’s perception, as it is that people are behaving unethically in the first place. We in the industry cannot continue to let others behave unethically and blame lack of education as an excuse, and we cannot let people go without the proper information and education to give them the tools to behave ethically in the first place. I believe that organizations like PRSA are moving in the right direction towards education on the matter, developing new policies and approaches for PR, and dealing with transparency towards both the public and the client. I am worried however that this might not be enough in an industry that has been rife with unethicality for so long. I feel that many believe that in order to succeed in this industry, especially in our current society, it is necessary to be dishonest and manipulative, and it seems that many media outlets are anything but unbiased and transparent, creating bad precedents and forcing less than savory chains of events. There is nothing we can do to stop certain people and media from being unethical, but I believe that further education and tools such as the TARES test of ethicality and other tools to measure decisions can help to provide the framework for a more ethical PR industry in the future and eliminate some of the grey areas. I am hopeful for more progressiveness in the field, as we try to move away from the unfair codes and dishonest precedents of the past.