Our Ethical Obligations as PR Professionals

“Truth is the foundation of all effective communications.” That’s the opening sentence of PRSA’s excellent rebuke of the term “alternative facts.” As professional communicators, none of us would question that. In these challenging times, it’s worth reviewing a few other basic premises in the PRSA Code of Ethics that guides our profession.

  1. Preserve and protect the free flow of communication. In the code, there is specific reference to giving or receiving gifts and entertaining government officials as possible violations here. However, this section also emphasizes honesty and accuracy in all your communications, and the obligation to correct any erroneous information immediately. a. The “Expertise” part of the code recognizes the need for continued professional development, research and education. It is through your research and thorough knowledge of the organization and the issue at hand that you will be able to achieve accuracy in your communication. It is through your education and professional development that you will understand the best channels, strategies and methods for accurately conveying information.  b. Being honest is, of course, assumed. It is our job to speak truth to those who supervise us and employ us, and then to carry that honesty through in all our public communication. If people begin to suspect that you and your organization are deliberately misleading them, then credibility will be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild. The old saying that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation and five minutes to destroy it remains as true as ever.
  2. Avoid real, potential, and perceived conflicts of interest. The points of this is “to build trust with the public by avoiding or ending situations that put one’s personal or professional interests in conflict with society’s interests.” I have a personal story to tell here. Some years ago, I worked on an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) project for the Montana Air National Guard, which of course was under the auspices of the U.S. Air Force, and thus the Pentagon. At the same time, I had started fighting the Pentagon tooth and nail over its mandatory, experimental and dangerous anthrax vaccine. I formed a web site, formed a national group, and even twice walked the halls of Congress. It was obvious that I had better inform the supervising officer of the EIS project what I was doing in my personal life, so I did. She took my written information and forwarded it to the appropriate attorneys in the Pentagon.I waited. A couple of weeks went by, and finally the answer came back down: “Tell her it’s fine – just to keep the two projects entirely separate.” What would I have done if the answer was negative? I would have had to resign from the project or stopped my anthrax work. At that time, the anthrax work would probably have won out, because my own son had received some of those shots and I had gotten to know several veterans whose health was permanently compromised by the shots. But I’m glad it never came to that. The Montana Air National Guard and the Air Force did an incredible job on the project, and it was a privilege to be part of it.
  3. The independence and loyalty statements in the code can be difficult in practice. They are:
    INDEPENDENCE: We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.
    LOYALTY: We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.The independence statement harkens back to speaking truth to power. We are obligated to provide objective, honest facts and truth to those who employ us. We are not “yes” people. I used to explain this to my clients within the scope of our first one or two meetings, and everybody would say yes, they understood. Well – they didn’t always. When a company hires an employee or an outside contractor, the assumption is that the person hired will do as told. We are in the position of being sure we do what’s right first. I overheard a hilarious conversation between a nurse and a doctor this weekend, who had just met at a gathering, and were laughing when the doctor said “Nurses are critical – they save your butt!” The nurse told the story of overriding a physician’s orders at one point, because those orders would have killed the patient. She wrote up her own orders, which could have gotten her fired, but the physician later thanked her for her foresight.We’re not quite in that position, thankfully. But any amount of time we spend training the management team about what’s ethical and legal, and explaining the possible ramifications of any given situation is time well spent.This of course feeds into the loyalty statement: we are faithful to those we represent, but at the same time we have an obligation to serve the public interest. If a chemical has leached into the ground from a company’s operations, it’s in the public interest to be informed of any danger that chemical poses to the public. Whether or not the company wants to release the information is not the point. This kind of situation plays out across the country nearly every day. However, if the public interest is endangered, it’s my belief that the public interest takes first priority and the public relations counsel must work to ensure the company understands and takes the appropriate action.

To echo an excellent speech by NBC news anchor Lester Holt, the best thing we can do in these challenging times is continue to do our jobs. Do your homework. Be honest. Be accurate. Build good mutual relationships. Build trust. Tell your story. Be fair. Be loyal. Advocate for our profession. And serve the public interest as well as those we represent.

Kathy Hubbell

Kathy Hubbell, APR, M.S., Fellow in PRSA, is the 2014 William W. Marsh Lifetime Achievement Award winner. She founded the Montana Chapter of PRSA, has served as the Pacific Northwest District Chair and has served on PRSA’s national board of directors. She is a co-author of the 2016 PRSA Career Guide with Aaron Sewell, and serves the Oregon Chapter by working on the mentorship program and providing guidance on ethical matters. Kathy has a 35-year career in public relations, and enjoys teaching PR whenever possible and working with private clients.