Public Relations & Ethics: Why the Bad Reputation?

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Let Me Tell You A SecretWhile PR pros are known for being able to “spin” even the worst news into good press, they are often reluctant to tackle their own industry’s bad ethical reputation.   This reputation is a dirty little non-secret, and one many public relations professionals prefer not to talk about. But where does this bad reputation come from?

The Spin Zone

Have you ever heard the CEO of a company accused of employing child laborers suddenly extolling a new charitable foundation? Or a public figure caught in a sex scandal suddenly turning toward a higher power? You probably rolled your eyes at the behind-the-scenes PR pros who undoubtedly put their own “spin” on these incidents until their clients came out looking like roses instead of the rascals they initially seemed to be.  This habit of spinning bad actions into a positive light is perhaps the top reason why the public does not trust the PR industry.

Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of interest in public relations can consist of anything from not disclosing that a celebrity has accepted money to promote a product or a PR agency having two clients who work against one another. An example of the latter is the case of Hillary Clinton advisor Mark Penn. He got embroiled in a conflict of interest while working on the Clinton campaign when it was found out that he met with Colombian officials as part of his agency work despite the fact that Clinton was against a trade agreement with the country.

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Threats to Democracy

This accusation may sound over the top. How can one company threaten the entirety of democracy? But at least one public relations firm, Hill and Knowlton, has been accused by the UK group Corporate Watch of doing just that after the company was caught creating false testimony before Congress that encouraged the U.S. government to come to Kuwait’s rescue in the Gulf War.

More Reasons for PR’s Bad Rap

But it isn’t everyday that a public relations campaign threatens to topple states. Unfortunately, it is much more common to see PR stunts such as pay-for-play television programming, where businesses pay to appear in news casts, blurring the line between editorial content (i.e. hard news) and advertisement. It’s also common to see anonymous internet postings where PR pros attempt to create fake word-of-mouth campaigns to promote products.  Or even “astroturfing,” where corporations advance an agenda while trying to appear as if the effort were merely an astounding grassroots movement.

What Can Ethical PR Pros Do to Fight the Stereotype?

Primarily, PR pros can hold their own conduct the high ethical standards. There are several PR codes of conduct, including the International Public Relations Association’s Athens Code of Conduct. This code requires that PR pros, among other things, refrain from “subordinating the truth to other requirements” and “taking part in any venture or undertaking which is unethical or dishonest or capable of impairing human dignity or integrity.”

“But I’m just trying to get my clients some good press,” you say. “How am I violating any ethical codes?” Fortunately, you’re not. And most PR pros are simply trying to do their jobs. If the honest PR pros continue to uphold their ethics while denouncing PR pros that cross the line, then the industry can eventually shed its bad reputation.  If you feel strongly about PR ethics, you can even get involved with the local chapter of your PR association, such as the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and encourage an ethics pledge.

Now is it possible for one person to change an entire industry? Hey, if PR pros can change the course of presidential elections, then why not?

This article is written by Mickie Kennedy, founder of eReleases (, the online leader in affordable press release distribution. Grab your free 160-page copy of the Big Press Release Book – Press Releases for Every Occasion and Industry here:

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