Sunday, 21 November 2010

Ethical public relations is not an oxymoron

Parsons P.J. suggests that public relations ethics is “the application of knowledge, understanding and reasoning to questions of right and wrong behaviour in the professional practice of public relations”.

The pillars of PR ethics are: fairness (being socially responsible), confidentiality (respecting privacy), beneficence (the act of doing good), non-malefesance (causing no harm) and veracity (telling the truth).

Seib and Fitzpatrick (1995) suggested, “Every profession has a moral purpose. Medicine has health. Law has justice. Public relations have harmony – social harmony”. They also created the Potter box model to try to further explain ethics in public relations.

As you can see from the above model, the values that I identify with are: punctuality, money, security, status, charm, loyalty, respect and hard work.

During a seminar we were given some scenarios where the values and ethics I value may be compromised and I had to explain how I would approach the situation. For instance, you have been working for a fairly large company for several years, you are living with your sister who also works in the same industry, but not the same company and you have discovered something about her organisation (the competition) that would certainly get you ahead in the business. What would you do? Get ahead or stay quiet? This is remarkably EASY for me to answer, as nothing is more important to me than my family- yet if this weren’t a member of my family and a loose acquaintance instead, then I think I would show only a little remorse.

An example of a company with apparent, good organisational values and ethics is Virgin. Virgin states in their code of conduct that:

“You must conduct the Company’s business in an honest and ethical manner, including the ethical handling or avoidance of actual or apparent conflicts of interest between personal and professional relationships, and never act in a manner that could cause you to lose your independence and objectivity or that could adversely affect the confidence of our customers and suppliers or your fellow employees in the integrity of the Company or its procedures”.

There are many companies with a poor ethical stance and lack of values. Such as: Ikea, Primark, Nike, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Walmart, to name a few. However, you perhaps wouldn’t think of Coca-Cola being included in this category. Coca-Cola is the largest carbonated drinkscompany in the world, with some of the most memorable televised adverts such as the ‘holidays are coming’ Christmas ad and the rather humorous Coca-Cola vs Pepsi ads. Yet, it would seem that Coca-Cola are not just experts in the beverage domain, but also at keeping their labour violations under tap. On February 25, 2010, Coke was sued by Guatemalan laborers, who claim that they, “endured a campaign of violence” from the people who worked for the bottling or processing plants owned by Coke (Business Week). Not only was one of the workers shot at and threatened at the bottling plant, but armed men broke into his home and threatened his family (Atlanta Business News). Then several weeks after this invasion, he was fired without reason. As to the crisis management strategies carried out by the PR practitioners of Coca-Cola, I am aware of none, but it appears that on my questioning, none of my friends and family know about Coca-Cola’s labour mishaps. Therefore, it can be concluded that the practitioners did a good job at keeping the issue clandestine, thus not to tarnish and undo the years it took them to create a superior public image for the brand. In companies such as these, where workers are mistreated, it would be interesting to uncover the PR practitioners’ stance on the situation. For instance, where do their loyalties lie? With the client, employer, society, friends, family, self, profession etc?

As a task in a PR lecture we had to complete a quiz to find out about our professionalism. An example of a question included:

Do you always do tasks to the best of your ability?

a. Always

b. Usually

c. Rarely

d. Never, if I can get away with it

The results were that I need to have a look at my personal code of ethics and my work ethic-but there is hope. Yet, I achieved one of the top marks in the lecture theatre. Does this mean that in the future our generation of PR practitioners will actually be able to own the name ‘spin doctors’ and will be less ethical and moral than the PR practitioners at present?

Are lack of values and beliefs, therefore a product of the young society today? Is it because of our social circles? Or how we are brought up?

Values, beliefs and attitudes are learnt, for instance we are not born with prejudices in relation to culture/religion or up-bringing/socialisation. These are all learnt habits, not innate ones.

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