Tuesday, March 06, 2007

PR ethics - are these the right question?

There is a significant debate on the issues of PR ethics bouncing round the bloggersphere and media. Heather Yaxley has a good conversation going on about it on her blog. Tom Murphy has a take as does Leo Bottary at H&K.

I just don't think it has been thought through. We are constrained by old thinking. We are either looking in or looking out. But there is no inside or outside.

This whole debate and the issues of professional and ethical Public Relations, the survival of trades like marketing and the disintermediating effects of social media are moving corporate practices towards what some might call relationship management. There are no segments or stakeholdera snd few 'publics' in the new world.

Last year I proposed that people recognise tokens because they identify associated values and that when there are convergent values with another person or organisation empathy will create a relationship (Towards Relationship Management... 2006 JCM).

In many ways this goes beyond discourse/rhetorical, propaganda debates because they are comparatively insignificant to the nature of values and relationships.

In exposing the values (indeed, value systems) of organisations, the organisation survives because of its values or not in interactions with its wider constituency.

Is the ethical practice then to expose the values or to change them?

A purist practitioner would expose the values and be damned and would allow the organisation to be damned by its constituencies. It is a form of practice that can stand back from the consequences of foolhardy management.

On the other hand the PR manager (a person who attempts to manage the relationships between an organisation and its constituencies) would attempt to change the organisation.

If the organisation wants to use propaganda (aka marketing) the purist practitioner has an ethical duty to expose the value systems that support that approach in so far as they are values evident inside the organisation. It is an acceptable professional approach and there is no ethical issue in exposing the true nature of the organisation.

In many ways this is part of current practice with the 'bog standard' 'boilerplate' intro paragraph you see as the first par on most press releases. This exposes the organisation as having values that are propaganda (pejorative) based.
The decision to issue such a release, if taken consciously, is ethical because it exposes the value systems of the organisation. The constituent can then live with such value systems or not - Publishing is happy to do so which is fine for the publisher (and might go some way to explain away falling readership).

Dell-Hell was not about a computer it was about values and value systems of an organisation. Wal-Mart dito.

The practitioner who is not making the conscious decision between exposing values or not is, of course, not a professional practitioner and belongs in trades like marketing.

To those who would argue that 'spinning' and 'putting the best face' are unethical practices I would argue that there is now a discursive inevitability that these practices will be exposed by the online conversation in due course.

This inevitability may be a challenge from any quarter. It could be some comment in a blog or it could become the disintermediation of a whole industry.

The assumption that 'it can be hard for the public to evaluate viewpoints and come to a reasoned conclusion' is unreasonable (more marketing speak). Who is 'the public'? Who are we to judge? If we believe such ideas we doubt the very foundation of democracy.

The attraction of values that represent tokens is hugely powerful and more potent than scream marketing can guess at. Did Tesco and Morrisons do enough to allay fears of polluted petrol with its advertising campaign this week? Yes they did. They paid through the nose to pay for the repairs to customer's cars, but, a week after the problem arose, what have they yet to do to assure their constituencies that the values of supermarketing and their constituencies have common resonance. The backlash will not come where the petrol is cheap. People are not daft. It can now come from anywhere and the real damage is that Tesco and Morrisons have no way of knowing where or when it will happen. Reputation in crisis is not knowing where the damage will be manifest.


There is no dichotomy for the ethical practitioner exposing corporate (institutional) values. The values are reflected in the people who can live with such value systems and killing the messenger is not what the PR industry should be doing. Indeed, our inability to be purist or manager is giving rise to a massive 'Citizen Public Relations' (CPR) sector which is replacing much of PR practice.

Our role as business managers has some way to go if we are to be empowered to change the very nature (and values) of organisations.
We are not forgiven and have a reputation in crisis.


Picture: Charnine
Charnine.com features information on surrealist artist Charnine