September is PR ethics months. To mark the occasion, the Public Relations Society of America is publishing a series of posts on the ethics and ethics training. Here’s one.
It began simply enough: a conversation about ethics with freshman and sophomore university students in my PR writing class.
Then, one young woman said that it was OK to be dishonest because “PR people are supposed to lie.” At least six other students nodded their heads in agreement.
Uh-oh, I thought. We have a problem.
Two things struck me about her comment. First, I was surprised by which student had said this—one of the brightest in the class. Second, these students were PR majors who saw lying as an accepted practice in their chosen profession.
I wondered why they held that opinion and how others felt about it, so I posted the comment on LinkedIn’s PRSA National discussion board and received more than 100 responses. Most writers passionately spoke of the need to always be truthful, posting comments like “Absolutely not!” and “Never!” But some comments also mentioned the lack of ethics education and training for young professionals.
The source of misinformation
My students provided a variety of reasons for their low opinion of public relations professionals. One mentioned the portrayal of PR pros in the entertainment media, particularly the character of Samantha on “Sex and the City,” who, the student said, would “frequently twist her words around to make clients look better.”
Another student cited corporate PR officials who mislead the public and investors.
Katie Place, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Saint Louis University, says her students have made similar comments in her PR classes. “Some TV shows and movies give the wrong impression about our industry—that it’s all about getting publicity instead of communicating with various publics to create relationships,” she says.
Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, agrees that many young students form a skewed view of the profession. “Are there Hollywood versions of the PR spinmeister working out there? Of course,” says D’Angelo, senior manager of communications at ITT Corp. “Is that the way the majority of professionals practice? I don’t think so.”
The lack of instruction
During the LinkedIn discussion, D’Angelo and several others commented that digital communications makes lying not only unethical, but also impractical. “We live in an incredibly transparent world, and the idea that you can say things in a certain way or outright lie and get away with it is foolhardy as well as unethical,” D’Angelo says. “‘Honesty is the best policy’ is not a cliché. It works.”
Students with misguided opinions of the PR profession need further instruction and training in ethics. However, student instruction alone cannot uproot the misperceptions that have been built over many years and reinforced by the media.
Place, who has researched and written about the ethical decision-making process of practitioners, says younger professionals “don’t have the training or the background to make good, ethical decisions. They just don’t know any better.”
Thomas Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, says many students don’t receive ethical training at home and have grown up in a climate of seemingly endless scandals among high-profile entertainers and politicians. “Distrust of any institution has grown dramatically over the past decade or so,” he says.
“We’ve raised a lot of cynics because of the things [students] see around them.”
The need for change
The lack of proper ethics education is not a new problem. A 2006 survey by the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) Research Foundation found that most practitioners received little, if any, academic training or study of ethics.
A report from the Commission on Public Relations Education in 2006 suggested that colleges and universities incorporate a dedicated ethics course.
When offering such a course wasn’t possible, the commission recommended that the schools offer short courses or mini-seminars on ethics. Today, most college and university PR programs still don’t offer individual courses on ethics.
“A lot of the new practitioners don’t have the training or background to make good ethical decisions,” says Place, who includes lessons on ethics in each of the classes she teaches. According to Eppes, PRSA will survey college and university PR programs this fall to determine the extent of ethics instruction.
“Students are interested in the subject of ethics but don’t always know where they can go to get information,” Eppes says. “This survey will give us a baseline of what percentage of schools offer dedicated ethics classes.”
Dario Bernardini, APR, is a teaching instructor in public relations and communications at East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C. He has more than 20 years of corporate and agency experience in PR and communications management. A version of this story first appeared on the PRSA blog Public Relations Tactics.