PR ethical complexities

The problem with most PR industry discussions of ethics is that they are often a mix of the banal, the simplistic, the confused and the delusional – leavened occasionally by some good case studies, some philosophical thinking and some virulent criticisms by the industry’s opponents.

An indication of the simplistic and the delusional was displayed recently by one of the US industry’s most senior practitioners, Rob Flaherty, Ketchum senior partner, president and chief executive officer. In a message to the World Public Relations Forum before the group’s Madrid meeting later in September he touted the inspirational thoughts that communications, and the endless quest for better dialogue, is inherently a force for good in the world. He went on to say that our industry can offer extremely valuable advice on what audiences expect, what they will look for and how to meet their expectations.

Up to a point Lord Copper we might well say. Many would like to see the industry that way, and hope that is how it is perceived, but the reality is that it is neither that way nor perceived that way. Or as the blog’s wife and children were wont to chorus when they thought some comment was trying to justify the unjustifiable: “PR PR PR!”

The problem is that ethical behaviour is a complex subject. The blog lectures to students on the subject and canvasses the usual subjects: industry ethical codes; the dangers of instrumentalism; the incremental nature of poor ethical decisions caused by culture or concern about paying the mortgage; and, the usual philosophical suspects such as Kant and Rawls. The Grunigs’ distinction between symmetric and asymmetric communications also underpins much of the discussion because ‘dialogue’ is somehow seen as inevitably honest and moral – as demonstrated by Rob Flaherty’s comments above. Science throws some doubt on that – particularly in the context of social media – and illustrates a phenomenon, called a ‘duologue’ by the philosopher Abraham Kaplan, in which neither party in a conversation is listening to the other. The Economist (16 August 2014) reports on some research by Bruno Galantucci and Gareth Roberts on pairs chatting on an instant-messaging program. Without going into the precise details the pertinent point was that during the chats the participants in separate conversations were swapped without the subjects knowing. Despite this, between 27% and 42% of participants didn’t notice the switch. “The two researchers have not definitely proved that many dialogues are actually duologues. But this research certainly adds to the suspicion that even supposedly purposeful communication often isn’t,” The Economist said.

Ethical and moral complexity was a subject long pursued by the late British philosopher, Bernard Williams, who disputed Kantian and utilitarian views of moral perspectives. Like Nietzsche he wondered about “how totally problematic morality, as understood over the centuries, has become.”  The NYRB Samuel Freeman review (10 July 2014) of the fifth volume of Williams’ essays and reviews explores these issues in more detail.   Dr Johanna Fawkes, a lecturer at the School of Communication and Creative Industries Charles Sturt University, also explores some of these complexities in a new book Public Relations Ethics and Professionalism: The Shadow of Excellence. Details, and an opportunity to explore some of her discussion, can be found at  The book is rather expensive so the blog recommends getting a library or a collective of PR people to purchase it when it comes out early next year.

Her book focusses on the ‘confusion and uncertainty’ about PR ethics and the fact that a simple Manichean view of the difference between the ethical and the unethical is not helpful, nor are the artificial distinctions made between the two.The Routledge website blurb says: “Do professions really place duty to society above clients’ or their own interests? If not, how can they be trusted? While some public relations scholars claim that PR serves society and enhances the democratic process, others suggest that it is little more than propaganda, serving the interests of global corporations. This is not an argument about definitions, but about ethics – yet this topic is barely explored in texts and theories that seek to explain PR and its function in society. This book places PR ethics in the wider context of professional ethics and the sociology of professions. By bringing together literature from fields beyond public relations – sociology, professional and philosophical ethics, and Jungian psychology – it integrates a new body of ideas into the debate. The unprecedented introduction of Jungian psychology to public relations scholarship shifts the debate beyond a traditional Western ‘Good/Bad’ ethical dichotomy towards a new holistic approach, with dynamic implications for theory and practice.”

The blog is no great fan of Jung, nor for that matter Freud, for reasons too complex to go into beyond general references to scientific method and/or its absence. The Routledge marketing team is also a bit off the mark in suggesting ethics are barely explored in texts and theories that seek to explain PR, but that doesn’t detract from the ongoing need to approach PR ethics in innovative and interdisciplinary ways which recognise the complexities of any discussion of moral issues, and the consequent value of this book. As the book also encompasses lessons from life and professional experience, as well as the disciplines mentioned, it is obviously going to be an important contribution to a debate which Rob Flaherty should read when it comes out.