What comes first for PR pros? Service to the client or serving the public interest?
Because efficient communication between organizations and the public, as well as between organizations themselves, is at the core of the democratic process our political system is predicated on, ethical public relations are of public interest.
For PR to be eventually recognized as a profession, society must recognize their usefulness. What is the nature of this usefulness?
The answer lies at the core of the bonds that unite our society. The democratic process on which our political system is predicated is intimately linked to the free flow of ideas and opinions. For ideas to circulate freely and for debates to occur, some form of organization is required. For information to be widely shared, it must be organized and distributed.
The art and science of efficient communication is in itself a field of expertise
Efficient communication requires the mastery of the spoken and written word, knowledge of the mechanisms of perception and of the multiple ways in which messages can be altered. If for no other reason than to talk with the media, organizations require expertise. But there is much more. Organizations must also talk, exchange, discuss, and negotiate with one another, as well as with their publics and markets. They sometimes do this through the media, but they also have to communicate directly. They also need to participate in the ever-growing consultation mechanisms that have spread throughout society.
Thus, the efficient management of relations between organizations contributes to the common good. Public relations have become very important to society. Hence the importance of defining adequate ethical safeguards, as with any other profession, not only to protect our clients, but also to insure that our practice is in line with public interest. I strongly urge all PR professionals to read the many codes of ethical public relations that can easily be found on the Internet. At the risk of sounding simplistic, here is what I feel is the main thrust that emerges from such an exercise: Public relations that encourage the free flow of information and that aim to shed light on debated questions are legitimate and ethical. Public relations that aim to suppress opinions or to obfuscate debates are illegitimate and unethical.
Ethics and the social usefulness of PR
Article 3 of the CPRS Code of Ethics reads : «A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information.»
The Code of the Public Relations Society of America explicitly links the free flow of information and the public interest: «Protecting and advancing the free flow of information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.» And also this: «Open communication fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.»
The Code of Conduct adopted earlier this year by the International Public Relations Association (IPRA), which amalgamates and replaces their three previous codes of ethics, legitimates public relations by linking them to basic human needs as well as to the democratic process. Here are some excerpts:
(a) RECALLING the Charter of the United nations which determines “to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, and in the dignity and worth of the human person”;
(b) RECALLING the 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and especially recalling Article 19;
(c) RECALLING that public relations, by fostering the free flow of information, contributes to the interests of all stakeholders;(d) RECALLING that the conduct of public relations and public affairs provides essential democratic representation to public authorities:
Public relations practitioners shall:
- Observe the principles of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
- Act with honesty and integrity at all times so as to secure and retain the confidence of those with whom the practitioner comes into contact;
- Seek to establish the moral, cultural and intellectual conditions for dialogue, and recognize the rights of all parties involved to state their case and express their views;
(End of IPRA Code of Conduct excerpts)
The legitimacy and social usefulness of public relations and the vital importance of dialogue are thus clearly established. They are based on fundamental human needs and on the requirements of society. But this legitimacy is only valid within the framework of ethical practice.
The CPRS definition of public relations
The CPRS definition of public relations reads thus: «Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.»
Public relations do not serve any and all purposes; their specific purpose is to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest. I did not participate in the discussions leading up to this definition and I do not know of its exegesis, but I believe the order in which these three goals are set out is capital. It is necessary to achieve mutual understanding first, in order to be able to realize organizational goals. One does not go without the other. It is in the interest of the organization as well as in the general public interest that it be so.
The importance of maintaining a respectful dialogue
This requires an explanation. Mutual understanding does not mean mutual acceptance or mutual agreement; nor does the establishment of “confidence” as required by article 2 of the IPRA Code of conduct. The establishment of confidence, or of mutual understanding, means that both parties know exactly what the other party’s opinions, ideas and goals are. Mutual understanding can easily coexist with fundamental disagreement. What is essential from the PR standpoint is not to reconcile the parties (but it is of course the most desirable outcome); what is vital is that both parties know exactly what the other party stands for, and that efficient communications channels (dialogue) be kept open between them. For when disagreement occurs in the context of open, honest and respectful communication, it is possible to circumscribe the negatives to the real areas of disagreement, to work towards resolving conflicts, and to discuss mitigation or compensation measures. But if disagreement occurs in a context of bad faith and concealment, then the negatives will multiply into a cascade of incomprehension and mistrust leading to rupture. And problems start when parties stop talking to one another. Problems such as strikes and lock-outs, law suits, sabotage, bad media coverage, damages to reputation and loss of market shares.
Summing up this point: the long term interest of the client is that dialogue always prevail over conflict, even in situations where interests are diametrically opposed. Another way of saying it is that for the winners as well as for the losers, diplomacy is always preferable to war.
If we extend this line of thinking to all interactions between organizations everywhere in society, it becomes clear that mechanisms that favour dialogue, the peaceful resolution of conflicts and the construction of sound individual and collective opinions are conducive to the public good.
There can be no opposition between the interest of my client and the public interest
My client’s interest is not only to achieve his organizational goals, but to do so in a climate of mutual respect and understanding, even if one or both parties are unhappy with the end result. I would do a great disservice to my client by pursuing a strategy based on deceit, lies and the refusal of dialogue, where gains are at the expense of social harmony. Such strategies can generate short-term positive results but they inevitably produce a long-term loss of trust, with the negative consequences that ensue. I refuse to undermine my own credibility – and that of my profession – by condoning practices that are contrary to my clients’ interests, and to the public interest.
 “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”