Friday, March 02, 2012

Defining PR ethically

We suddenly have an American definition of Public Relations from the PRSA.

For our American colleagues it raises lots of issues and they will have to ponder deep and hard at what it means for them.

They may want to consider what a "strategic communication process" is and, in addition, what are "mutually beneficial relationships" not to mention what is meant in the 21st century by the word 'publics'.

These are, believe it or not, ethical questions.

Let me start by asking if composing a song or writing a mobile app might be part of a strategic communications process. If it is, should we be teaching a wider range of communications capabilities such as song writing and app building in PR courses? If it is not, what are the elements of the process? Is it a virtue of Public Relations that its practitioners should be both conversant and capable in all forms of communication? From an Aristotelian perspective would it be unethical to be ignorant of the value of semantics in communication?

A beneficial relationship is an interesting concept. Is building a beneficial relationship with the President of Syria also going to create a beneficial relationship with Syrian rebels? If not, where is the essence of mutuality over time when some rebels will be in power? John Stuart Mill might suggest that there are major ethical issues here.

Finally if publics are a description of those people who form round issues (Grunig), the idea of mutuality means that organisations will need to take sides. Once again this raises ethical issues of Kantian proportions.

Why on earth should this matter?

Well it does because it moves the debate on towards the PR industry's approach to Codes of Conduct and ethics. Here are three current reasons:

It is time to explore this ethical element much more closely.

The Wikipedia argument goes along the lines of '... all they ever write is biased in favour of their paymasters and is, thereby incompatible with the Wikimedia ethic...'

The evidence (and some of the profession's responses) they use is described quite well by Amanda Guisbond at Shift.

She says that Shift have a Wikipedia policy not to edit Wikipedia because it is against the rules and is not ethical.

Having evoked the ethic argument, ethically she cannot stop there.

Is it acceptable for someone or an organisation to claim the ethical high ground, and point the finger at a competitor, when they are perfectly aware of many contributors to the Wiki (who are academics paid to be knowledgeable about their subject by, for example, a University) are sullied by 'cash for contribution'?

Where is the arete in standing aside? How can we find happiness when there is so much Wikipedian equivocation. Kant would be dissatisfied and Bentham and Mill would weep.

When we have definitions they are used, as in the case of the PRSA, as part of their code of conduct. Members sign up to such codes for the PRSA (which has a largely deontological code of Ethics) and the CIPR, IABC (a Kantian approach code of ethics), PRCA (Professional Charter) and many more PR organisations.

This means that if a CIPR/PRCA/PRSA/IABC Member were to make entries in Wikipedia, they would be much more ethically qualified to make contributions than many of the present (and all too often, anonymous wikipedians) because they are subject to the codes of conduct laid down by their professional organisations. In the case of the CIPR, their Charter status provides for heavy duty sanctions against the Institute and any miscreant members.

Lets also take the PR evaluation case.

When a member of the CIPR tells a client that its process for evaluating outcomes of its PR programmes is of a particular nature (called PR evaluation), such a report cannot be gain said. It is the truth (AVE's and all). 


Are all PR claims about looking after reputation quantifiable? Can we demonstrate that people understand organisation better because of PR. Do PR activities really influence behaviour? What do we mean by mutuality of understanding?

Because the member is governed by the CIPR code of conduct and it would be against the code to present anything other than factual, audit-able, replicable and transparent evaluation of our work and all the capabilities and results we claim we can deliver.

It is time to work on all this which means we have all the joys of examining the CIPR definition:

Public relations is the discipline which looks after reputation, with the aim of earning understanding and support and influencing opinion and behaviour. It is the planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain goodwill and mutual understanding between an organisation and its publics.

Perhaps we can have a go at examining this definition in due course which will help us face the pressures facing members who lobby, contribute to Wikipedia and even provide press relations.