ETHICS AND PROFESSIONALISM IN PUBLIC RELATIONS
APRIL 8, 2013
Legal and ethical issues are closely related in public relations practice, however they are not identical. Even when no violation of the law can be proven a practitioner can be sanctioned for unethical conduct under the Public Relations Society of America. Ethics are seen as moral issues that border on right and wrong, good and bad. Ethics could also be referred to as morals and principles and beliefs concerning right and wrong behaviour; virtue and vice.
Ethical Questions often arise in professional relationships with colleagues, clients, employers, news media, other professional bodies, financial analysts, and others. Increased professionalization is however, one possible answer to questions raised regarding ethical practice. It should however, be noted that even with the legislative force of certification, equated with licensing, ethical practice is still a function of individual behaviour.
PUBLIC RELATIONS AND ETHICS
No profession can succeed until backed by a code of ethics, and the public relations profession is no exception. The words ‘ethics’ means a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conducts of a person or a group. It includes many components, one of which is behaviour. It implies behaviour, personal or organizational, which must comply with certain standards. There are hardly two opinions about behaviour being ethical, but the subject becomes debatable as to, which behaviour is ethical and, which is not. Disagreement sets in when we begin to specify those ethical standards. Different people set different standards. These standards depend on the values and norms held by the people concerned. Since they differ from one person to the next, standards of behaviour also differ.
In the corporate and industrial world, it is generally agreed that the minimum standard for behaviour is that the laws of the country or state should be observed. Laws, however, are a reflection of the norms, values, beliefs, as well as the political system of a country. These vary from country to country. Among such values, truth and justice are of prime importance. Besides, both these values represent universally acceptable principle, which have a special relevance to the field of Public relations.
SOME LEGAL ASPECTS
Most of the ethical standards are not mandatory in nature and are expected to be accepted on a voluntary basis by members of a society. Despite several social controls that the society imposes on its members to follow, there is never a situation when people follow the ethical code put forth by a society. The situation calls for the formation of certain laws, which have the sanction of government and made mandatory to be obeyed by all citizens, and flouting of which warrants certain punishments. It is, therefore, important that Public relations professionals have a thorough understanding of the country’s laws, especially those laws which apply to the information area. The laws that govern information dissemination, which is the prime responsibility of Public relations practitioners are: libel, slander, defamation, copy right act, intellectual property rights, and privacy rights.
It tantamounts to libel when an untruthful statement about a person, published in writing or through broadcast media, injures the person’s reputation or standing in the community. As libel is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. Libel is a form of defamation, as is slander (an untruthful statement that is spoken, but not published in writing or broadcast through the media).
The law recognizes in every man a right to have the estimation in which they stand in the opinion of others, unaffected by false statements, to their credit. Any discouragement of a person’s good name is a wrongful act, and in Nigeria, the remedy is available to the aggrieved person in a civil action under the common law or criminal proceedings for defamation. In a civil action, the claim is one essentially for damages by monetary compensation for the wrong done namely injury to character. In criminal proceedings, vindication of the grievance of the complainant is punishment with fine and /or imprisonment.
A slander is a type of defamation. Slander is an untruthful oral (spoken) statement about a person that harms the person’s reputation or standing in the community. As slander is a tort (a civil wrong), the injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person, who made such a false statement. If the statement is made via broadcast media, for example over the radio or on television, it is considered libel, rather than slander.
Ethical behaviour goes beyond just observance of the law. Observing the law, in letter and spirit, warrants the minimum required behaviour. Therefore, a voluntary discipline called a ‘code of conduct’ has been devised by Public relations practitioners and other professionals for themselves. Such codes, because they are based on actual practice and are devised by people professionally operating in that area, become relevant and acceptable.
Some common principles can be found in most codes of professional conduct and they apply to most professions. One general principle applicable to all professions is that there should be no conflict of interests. This means no client, who is in an adversary or competitive role to another, should be contracted. The Public relations practitioners should also not have any vested interest in the activity that they undertake. This principle also states that one’s own interests should be disclosed fully to stay clear of any complication. If the practitioners stand to gain commercially from a certain course of action that they recommend, then they should disclose their interests fully. Transparency is the bottom line of professional ethics.
As many provisions of the codes deal with information, it is advisable not to knowingly or recklessly disseminate false or misleading information, and even avoid doing so inadvertently. Information should not be used or divulged without express consent of the client or employer. Any form of action, which would tend to corrupt the integrity of the media communication, must be avoided.
Codes are also formulated by several specialized groups amongst members. More attention is paid to the requirements of its own members. Despite attempts to be as comprehensive as possible, codes can never be complete. There is also no compulsion in observing them. Yet, the moral force behind these principles make the members believe in the codes and also find it advantageous to follow. Non-observance of these codes may attract penalty, though not legal, yet by peer censure, which may hamper or lower the reputation of a professional amongst his colleagues, friends, and competitors in the same vocation.
No other mechanism of enforcement may be necessary, if the code is respected and adhered to by all. The observance of ethics goes to enhance the professional reputation of its members. By fostering spirit of ethics, there emerges an ethical relationship amongst the members of the association and the publics.
A code of ethics, when accepted voluntarily, serves as a professional benchmark by which one’s colleagues can be measured. It provides strength and justification to those who insist on doing only what the code of conduct advocates. Contrary to the general comment that ‘Everything is fair in business and love’, the observance of moral code leads to emergence of an image which is invaluable in business. Public relations practitioners are particularly mindful of this professional fact of life. Several global companies fanatically guarding their policies and practices world over, testify this value system.
THE CHALLENGE OF ETHICAL PRACTICE
Ethics is an area of particular concern for public relations for three reasons:
- Practitioners are aware that to some, public relations has a reputation for unethical behaviour;
- Public relations is often the source of ethical statements from an organization and the repository of ethical and social policies;
- Practitioners have struggled to create a suitable code of ethics for themselves, Public relations practice is based on a function of trust. Members of the profession who violate that trust harm their colleagues as much as themselves.
Like any other group or profession, public relations has ethical as well as unethical practitioners. However, since public relations as a profession attempts to represent the public as well as the organization in business decision making, its practitioners are frequently held to a higher standard. The media and various publics will quickly point out deception in what might be considered normal behaviour for members of other competitive businesses.
At the heart of any discussion of ethics in public relations are some deeply troubling questions for the individual practitioners. Some examples include: Will he or she:-
- Lie for a client or employer?
- Engage in deception to collect information about another practitioner’s clients?
- Help conceal a hazardous condition or illegal act?
- Provide information that presents only part of the truth?
- Offer something (gift, travel, or information) to reporters or legislators that may compromise them?
- Present true but misleading information in an interview or news conference that will mask some unpleasant fact.
Many public relations practitioners find themselves forced to respond to questions like these. Even though most report that they are seldom pressed to compromise their values, the questions are still asked. By conscientiously considering their ethical standards, practitioners can avoid difficult and embarrassing situations. Maintaining ethical standards is the key to establishing trust relationships with employees, employers, clients, media contacts, and others.
Because of the importance of ethical behaviour to the general practice of public relations, attempts have been made to improve sanctions against individuals who violate professional standards. Coincidentally, whereas the PRSA has a 14 point Code of Ethics, the NIPR has a 12 point code which was adopted on January 30, 1981 and this code is entrenched in Section 3 Subsection V of the NIPR Constitution. This was prior to the promulgation of Decree 16 of the 1990 now Act of the National Assembly.
ETHICAL DEALINGS WITH THE NEWS MEDIA
Perhaps the most critical relationship to be managed by public relations practitioners are those with the news media, here, anything less than total honesty will destroy credibility and with it, the practitioners usefulness to an employer or client. All news media depend upon public relations sources for much of the information they convey to viewers, readers, and listeners.
Although, public relations releases are sometimes used simple as leads from which to develop stories, at other times, reporters and editors rely upon the accuracy and thoroughness of public relations copy and use it with little change.
Trust is the foundation of all public relations practice and can be achieved only through ethical performance. Therefore, providing junkets for the press that have doubtful news value, throwing extravagant parties, giving expensive gifts, and doing personal favours will ultimately destroy a practitioner’s effectiveness. Even if journalists ask for favours, the ethical public relations professional must find a way to tactfully decline. In the long run, establishing a reputation for honesty and integrity will yield dividends in media relations.
Although several studies have consistently shown that public relations practitioners and journalists have similar professional values and make similar news judgments, the same studies show that journalists strongly believe public relations practitioners do not have professional values. The unwillingness of the few practitioners to uphold ethical standards could be the reason these misconceptions persist.
ETHICS AND LAWS
While ethical and legal issues frequently evolve from similar circumstances, the public relations professional must understand the differences. Keeping to the letter of the law does not guarantee ethical action. Many unethical claims and promotions have been structured to stay within the legal limits, even though their intent was to trick or deceive someone. While an understanding of the law is important, a professional must rely on a higher standard for decision making.
Public relations practitioners working for publicly held companies have both an ethical and a legal obligation to promptly release news about dividends, earnings, new products, mergers, and other developments that might affect the value of securities. A delay in releasing such news could allow insiders to derive unfair financial benefits. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the individual stock exchanges strictly enforce these regulations.
Ethical questions arise frequently for public relations professionals during the course of their daily business with clients, the media, and others. In addition, practitioners are often called upon to be the source of ethical statements on behalf of the organizations they represent. Thus, public relations professionals are especially sensitive to any suggestion of misconduct. To encourage commitment to ethical standards, both PRSA and NIPR among others have established codes for ethical behaviour, and PRSA has set up an enforcement procedure as well. Some believe that practitioners would be further influenced to abide by ethical standards if they were required to become legally certified, but licensure is still a controversial issue and has not been implemented. Codes, policies, and laws alone cannot achieve ethical standards; the ultimate responsibility lies with each individual practitioner.
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