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Ethical Standards of Public Relations and Their Enforcement

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The general attitude toward public relations, now over five decades old, is often characterized by ignorance, prejudice, skepticism, apathy, confusion, and even malice. That is typical of public attitudes toward new professions. The financial success of some early public relations professionals brought into the field many whose main qualification was desire for money. Since the profession is neither registered nor licensed, many people in it had neither the experience nor the education to be able to practice it ethically. Any profession can be used for antisocial acts as well as socially beneficial ones. Practiced ideally, public relations serve a useful role in adjustment between groups in society. It should work for a better adjusted, better informed public in which the free competition of ideas and things will be permitted to continue.

The profession should serve the public interest. It might be well to define this. Does the public interest represent abstract values of the social pattern of a given public at a given time? Is the public relations practitioner's responsibility only to obey the law? Or are there obligations to adhere to standards of conduct above those societies has incorporated into law?

The conscientious public relations practitioner will not accept an antisocial employer or client. For instance, an ethical practitioner will not accept a tobacco manufacturer, even though cigarette sale is legal, because it is known that cigarettes cause cancer. He will not accept a client who favors greater speed on the highways, when highway safety experts have determined what is a safe maximum speed.



The public relations practitioner has multiple loyalties, to his own ethical sense, to employer or client, to those publics contacted on behalf of the principal, and to the media dealt with. Loyalties must be balanced to ensure fair treatment of all, and this is not easy. To what degree and when should loyalty to one's own ideals be set aside for loyalty to employer or client?

Problems of ethics arise in conflicts between one's own and one's client's interest. One cannot advise two companies in direct competition with each other in the steel industry. A practitioner may be advising a steel company and find that an aluminum manufacturer wants his services and that the company is in direct competition with his steel client. Obviously the practitioner should not accept the aluminum company.

The public relations practitioner owes the principal his conscientious, effective service. One obligation transcends all others. No public relations counselor or employee accepts a position that puts duty to those advised above duty to personal standards of integrity and to the larger society. It is obvious that the duty to the larger society is not to affect the public interest adversely, always remembering that we are living in a competitive society. The public relations practitioner is governed in his actions by two determining factors-the public interest and his conscience. By public interest, we mean that he or she must serve the public in the broadest sense. By conscience, we mean that he or she must be guided by what is right as to conduct. Unlike a lawyer, the public relations practitioner will take only causes that represent the public interest.

In the early 20th century the term "shirtstuffer" was applied to those who made their employers or clients appear in a more favorable light than facts and the truth warranted. Public relations practitioners today are justified in using their knowledge and skill for those seeking public favor provided they rest their case on real merit. Words are no substitute for reality. An attempt to build a reputation of social worth without a basis of fact is like printing counterfeit money. In the practitioner such activity results in eventual professional bankruptcy.

Public relations practitioners must know when to give up a principal if activities conflict with their conscience. This problem is difficult to solve, but unless it is solved it is bound to end unfortunately. I recall a young man who came to our office looking for a job. His employer had asked him to paint out all faces of blacks in a photograph to be used in a pamphlet depicting workers at a company plant. He felt this was wrong and resigned. Follow the example of that young man-and sleep at night.

Standards and Their Enforcement

Problems and pitfalls face the thoughtful public relations practitioner. There is some unethical practice, dishonesty, lack of integrity, poor performance, unscrupulous operations, inconclusive methods of measuring results, vanity peddling, and expediency; but comparable evils exist in other fields. It must also be remembered that no legal standards are set for individuals who call themselves public relations practitioners.

Socrates said, "Know thyself." Modern psychiatry regards self-recognition as vital in therapy. Honorable public relations practitioners are aware of existing evils. As long as anyone can enter the profession without previous preparation or examination, deviations are bound to exist.

Standards of education and ethics should be set by the state. Only through state registration and licensing will public relations practitioners really come into their own.

Voluntary public relations associations try to cope with the situation through codes of conduct, which members pledge to follow. However, voluntary associations can apply no economic sanctions. They can try to expel violators, but such expulsion carries with it no penalty. Voluntary codes usually represent pious promises to abstain from antisocial practices. They do not end abuses, and they may even encourage them by setting up a front of high standards that unscrupulous practitioners can avoid and evade.

The one way to eliminate dishonest, unethical chiselers and other deviators from sound practice is by meaningful punishment, established and invoked by law. Registration and licensing helps the profession and public alike.The profession should serve the public interest. It might be well to define this. Does the public interest represent abstract values of the social pattern of a given public at a given time? Is the public relations practitioner's responsibility only to obey the law? Or are there obligations to adhere to standards of conduct above those societies has incorporated into law?

The conscientious public relations practitioner will not accept an antisocial employer or client. For instance, an ethical practitioner will not accept a tobacco manufacturer, even though cigarette sale is legal, because it is known that cigarettes cause cancer. He will not accept a client who favors greater speed on the highways, when highway safety experts have determined what is a safe maximum speed.

The public relations practitioner has multiple loyalties, to his own ethical sense, to employer or client, to those publics contacted on behalf of the principal, and to the media dealt with. Loyalties must be balanced to ensure fair treatment of all, and this is not easy. To what degree and when should loyalty to one's own ideals be set aside for loyalty to employer or client?

Problems of ethics arise in conflicts between one's own and one's client's interest. One cannot advise two companies in direct competition with each other in the steel industry. A practitioner may be advising a steel company and find that an aluminum manufacturer wants his services and that the company is in direct competition with his steel client. Obviously the practitioner should not accept the aluminum company.

The public relations practitioner owes the principal his conscientious, effective service. One obligation transcends all others. No public relations counselor or employee accepts a position that puts duty to those advised above duty to personal standards of integrity and to the larger society. It is obvious that the duty to the larger society is not to affect the public interest adversely, always remembering that we are living in a competitive society. The public relations practitioner is governed in his actions by two determining factors-the public interest and his conscience. By public interest, we mean that he or she must serve the public in the broadest sense. By conscience, we mean that he or she must be guided by what is right as to conduct. Unlike a lawyer, the public relations practitioner will take only causes that represent the public interest.

In the early 20th century the term "shirtstuffer" was applied to those who made their employers or clients appear in a more favorable light than facts and the truth warranted. Public relations practitioners today are justified in using their knowledge and skill for those seeking public favor provided they rest their case on real merit. Words are no substitute for reality. An attempt to build a reputation of social worth without a basis of fact is like printing counterfeit money. In the practitioner such activity results in eventual professional bankruptcy.

Public relations practitioners must know when to give up a principal if activities conflict with their conscience. This problem is difficult to solve, but unless it is solved it is bound to end unfortunately. I recall a young man who came to our office looking for a job. His employer had asked him to paint out all faces of blacks in a photograph to be used in a pamphlet depicting workers at a company plant. He felt this was wrong and resigned. Follow the example of that young man-and sleep at night.

Standards and Their Enforcement

Problems and pitfalls face the thoughtful public relations practitioner. There is some unethical practice, dishonesty, lack of integrity, poor performance, unscrupulous operations, inconclusive methods of measuring results, vanity peddling, and expediency; but comparable evils exist in other fields. It must also be remembered that no legal standards are set for individuals who call themselves public relations practitioners.

Socrates said, "Know thyself." Modern psychiatry regards self-recognition as vital in therapy. Honorable public relations practitioners are aware of existing evils. As long as anyone can enter the profession without previous preparation or examination, deviations are bound to exist.

Standards of education and ethics should be set by the state. Only through state registration and licensing will public relations practitioners really come into their own.

Voluntary public relations associations try to cope with the situation through codes of conduct, which members pledge to follow. However, voluntary associations can apply no economic sanctions. They can try to expel violators, but such expulsion carries with it no penalty. Voluntary codes usually represent pious promises to abstain from antisocial practices. They do not end abuses, and they may even encourage them by setting up a front of high standards that unscrupulous practitioners can avoid and evade.

The one way to eliminate dishonest, unethical chiselers and other deviators from sound practice is by meaningful punishment, established and invoked by law. Registration and licensing helps the profession and public alike.
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