Successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners. Like journalists, PR practitioners often face challenging ethical issues that are best solved by adhering to the industry’s code of ethics.
The biggest difference between public relations and journalism’s adopted ethics codes are the people each code serves. Journalists serve the public and its right to know; PR professionals primarily answer to their clients and companies.
The Public Relations Society of America’s ethical guidelines
are perhaps the industry’s most widely recognized code for ethics. They cover the necessity for honesty, accuracy, integrity, and confidentiality.
The Professional Standards Advisories
(PSAs), designed to keep the PRSA code timely, address PR-specific areas and modern practices, including recording conversations, use of interns, video news releases, pay-for-play journalism, and disclosure guidelines.
Both codes are quite comprehensive and benefit PR agencies and companies when followed. But are they comprehensive enough? Perhaps it’s time for PR to adopt some of journalism’s ethical guidelines. PR inherently serves the public (it’s in the name), and PR practitioners are functioning more as journalists; more PR content
is now reaching the public directly without review and without editing by independent journalists.
With this in mind, we’ve examined some principles from The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics
, not (yet) covered in PRSA’s code, that PR pros ought to consider adopting.
Give both sides the opportunity to respond to allegations. Support the open exchange of views, even views found “repugnant.”
To follow their promise of being “fair and balanced,” reporters must always get all sides of the story. This is why you’ll often see statements like, “Mr. So-and-So did not answer calls for comment.” The mention is proof that the reporter attempted to get the other side’s point of view.
Even recognizing that PR is an advocacy profession, the inclusion of some balance would likely enhance the credibility of PR-produced communications materials. That balance is especially important in the appropriate use and interpretation of facts and statistical data. Suitable balance can be achieved by including the viewpoints of independent experts.
Adding the layer of credibility can gain trust of PR practitioners and the businesses they represent from both journalists and consumers.
Make certain that headlines and content do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or take incidents out of context.
Public relations specialists should never choose a witty or mysterious headline over one that tells the truth. Make it a principle never to mislead your audience, especially on social media when creating clever messages to attract more attention.
Out-of-context messages can also backfire, as "The Colbert Report" PR team recently learned through this social media post
Avoid misleading reenactments or staged news events. If reenactment is necessary, label it.
This guideline pertains mostly to photographs and videos used in news articles. Staged photographs have gotten journalists fired because they don’t accurately represent the scene.
When you stage a product demonstration, the demo must accurately and precisely portray the capabilities of the product or service as it exists at that time—not as you expect or hope it will exist in the future.
Up until 2011, the White House would often reenact speeches and photo ops for the press. For example, when President Obama finished his on-air address
about the death of Osama bin Laden, he then reenacted his walkout and the first 30 seconds of the statement for the press. The White House has since stopped its practice of staging photos, but until that point, the public could not be sure whether footage of the president’s speeches was real or fake.
Never distort the content of news photos or videos.
Similar to the guideline above, PR should take all steps necessary to be honest with their audience. When using photographs, it is inappropriate to distort them through editing.
Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, or social status.
Stereotyping is not always deliberate, but can sometimes show up in PR materials. Prohibit it, and always look out for it.
Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
Stifling dissent and criticism, once a standard responsibility of PR, is no longer an effective PR tactic given the permeating nature of social media.
On social media, anyone can be a witness, everyone has a story to tell, and, eventually, everything gets out. Covering up dissent or criticism is nearly impossible. Like journalists who are bound to present all sides of the story, PR can successfully embrace open discussion by encouraging fans and critics to share content. Companies that are “good guys” and do the right thing ultimately win the battle of minds.
Other important journalism ethical guidelines to consider:
Recognize that the process of gathering and reporting news may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news and defense of published materials does not give license for rudeness or arrogance.
- Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
- Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel, and special treatment.
- Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money. Avoid bidding for news.
- Accept, work with and even encourage the public’s ability to voice grievances against the news media (or in this case, your company or PR agency).
PR is best served by adhering to both PR and journalism ethics. Some journalism guidelines are not entirely appropriate for the PR industry, but they may provide guidance on behavior not addressed in PRSA’s code of ethics.
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Which journalism guideline(s) do you think PR should follow? Please share in the comments section.
William J. Comcowich is the editor of Media Monitoring News and the CyberAlert Blog, where a version of the story originally appeared. He is also founder, president and CEO of CyberAlert, Inc.