Opting Into Ethical Behavior

Perceptions of corporate America’s ability to act ethically took a hit last week. A banking investment firm was accused of short selling its clients. A mining company was slammed for putting profits before worker safety. A trendy technology blog was accused in the media of theft after paying $5,000 for the so-called lost next-generation iPhone.

What about the reputation of our own industry, public relations? We start in a hole. You no doubt have heard the one-liner: Public relations’ ethics is an oxymoron.

Legendary director and actor Woody Allen, who is no stranger to controversy, presents one perspective on ethical behavior to us: “The good people sleep much better at night than the bad people. Of course, the bad people enjoy the waking hours much more.”

Jokes aside, not only do professional communicators need to keep up to speed on the latest tools and trends of the trade, they need to be grounded in the fundamentals of ethical principles.

There is plenty of help to do this. Decades of thought and practical experience give us contemporary ethical codes of behavior in the communications profession. Those of us in PR may turn to codes prepared by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). CFM’s research team follows an ethical code developed by the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). At a national level, each of these professional associations has a panel that reviews and rules on disputed behavior, with the ability to shame wrong doers.

  • For example, the PRSA code includes principles such as:
  • Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
  • Foster informed decision-making through open communication.
  • Protect confidential and private information.
  • Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

Additionally, the PRSA ethics board has applied its code to specific scenarios, including prohibitions on:

  • Pay-for-play journalism.
  • Anonymous Internet posting, “flogs” and viral marketing.
  • Using front groups.
  • Overstating charges or compensation for work performed.

Public opinion and market research professions are guided by the AAPOR code, which says in part: “We shall exercise due care in developing research designs and survey instruments, and in collecting, processing and analyzing data, taking all reasonable steps to assure the reliability and validity of results.”

And, an important guide at CFM is a book that is mandatory reading for our staff entitled “Do the Right Thing,” by James Hoggan, a senior public relations practitioner. Hoggan writes, “People have learned to recognize authenticity.” Or, as CFM Partner Gary Conkling wrote in a Tips&Trends article: “He (Hoggan) might have put it more bluntly by saying the public can smell bull crap.”