I was nervous and scared. As I left my college advisor’s office, I combed over the information I had just received. In my hands, I held my new life. After taking two years off from school, I would be returning as a public relations major. At that point, I knew very little about what PR involved. Due to the explosion of celebrity-obsessed media over the past decade, I saw a lot of coverage involving statements released by the publicists’ of various stars. After being somewhat successful in a sales position for several years, I thought, “I’m used to spinning stuff. That’s basically what a publicist does. I can do that.” I started on my new path with an unethical mindset, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.
Now, almost two years later, as I sit here reading over the PRSA Code of Ethics, I realize how much I’ve changed. The concepts and rules suggested by the PRSA, which once seemed so foreign to me, now register as simple common sense.
In the PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values, the first listed value is advocacy.
“We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”
This was the only aspect of PR I was somewhat familiar with when I restarted my education. The majority of people view PR professionals as spin-doctors, and I think that belief (incorrectly) stems from this particular aspect of our job. The key word in the PRSA’s explanation of advocacy is responsible, which I feel is unfortunately overlooked sometimes. We’re viewed as a paid mouthpiece for an organization. I can’t fault anyone for having that point of view; I was standing in their shoes once. The only remedy is to change the public’s perceptions through our actions, not just through our words. This is where the other values in the PRSA Code of Ethics come into play.
Honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness round out the Statement of Professional Values. Each one represents a key element to maintaining ethical practices in the world of public relations. These guidelines have not only significantly shifted my perceptions of PR, but they also changed the way I handle my everyday communication.
Under the “Independence” section, the Code of Ethics states, “We provide objective counsel to those we represent.” Additionally, under the “Fairness” section, the Code of Ethics says, “We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.” While it would be a stretch to say these two provisions directly influenced my behavior, they certainly added some new ingredients to the gumbo that is my brain. I once lost a friend because I refused to only see her side of the story in an argument she was having with someone else. I was trying to be objective, and that didn’t fly with her. If I had been in that situation before being exposed to various ethical codes, like the PRSA’s, I can’t say for certain I would have taken the same course of action.
Another crucial section in the PRSA Code of Ethics concerns the free flow of information. The guidelines expressed here directly combat the negative image many have about the inner workings of public relations. Specifically, that we only promote the good and try to bury the bad. Once again, we must show this change instead of simply talking about it.
The Code of Ethics isn’t a long read, but if I were to create a SparkNotes version, it would look like this:
These standards show up in one form or another in every communication organization’s code of ethics, including the International Association of Business Communicators, the American Advertising Federation and the Society of Professional Journalists.
In general, all the ethical guidelines set forth by these organizations can work for our personal lives as well. However, like I’ve written in several of my previous blog posts, money has an enormous influence when it comes to ethical decision-making. For some, the cliché is true: money makes the world go round.
These codes of ethics are vital to the survival our respective industries. They won’t be able to prevent every unethical action in the future, but they will be able to educate people entering the profession about proper conduct and best practices. Some will hold on to the information, some won’t. I’m proud to say I did.
Every section of the PRSA Code of Ethics is equally important, but the last section is what I take most seriously: enhancing the profession. When I tell people I majored in PR, the most common responses are, “Oh…what is that?” and “Oh, really?” with a raised eyebrow. One of my goals as a soon-to-be professional is to do my part to build the public’s trust in my industry. Thanks to greedy businesses and bratty celebrities, society’s faith in public relations is shattered. It can be restored.
Doing the right thing isn’t always easy. But a clear conscience feels a hell of a lot better than a fat wallet.