A deep commitment to ethical behavior is an essential attribute for public relations practitioners, according to Deborah Silverman, associate professor of communication at Buffalo State. Silverman, who has chaired the board of ethics and professional standards for the Public Relations Society of America, has also worked to integrate ethics training throughout both undergraduate and graduate public relations programs through her membership on the Commission on Public Relations Education.
“As we educate professionals,” she said, “ethical behavior will permeate the profession. From my viewpoint, it’s working.”
At Buffalo State, Silverman has been instrumental in embedding it across the communications curriculum. “One strategy is to tie it to relevant legal issues,” she said. “Law and ethics go together.” She noted that some of the most spectacular public relations disasters are the result of illegal activity.
“Helping organizations avoid lawsuits is another role that public relations professionals can play,” she said.
To be most effective, Silverman argues that PR staff must be involved at an organization’s highest level, where courses of actions are set. Citing a ConAgra promotion that backfired, she pointed out that dishonesty was at the root of the problem. “Our job is to tell positive stories about organizations,” she said. “But it’s important to be honest, and it’s even more important in an era when social media can expose dishonesty and dubious practices instantaneously and everywhere.”
Dealing with Ethical Issues
Of course, few people interact with top management when they begin their career in public relations. It’s not common, but it happens: students sometimes encounter ethical issues during their internship placements.
“A company might ask an intern to write fake reviews for them on social media, places like Yelp or Trip Advisor,” said Silverman. “We tell them, ‘Never do that. It’s not only dishonest; it will come back to haunt you and damage your reputation.’ ”
Silverman understands that it can be a challenge, especially for younger employees who, she said, are the most likely to be asked to do something unethical. Ideally, entry-level employees should be able to approach a supervisor or the human resources department. If there is no recourse, Silverman advises employees to look for another job. “I wouldn’t work for an organization that I deemed unethical,” she said.
Ethical Behavior Is Good Business
In addition to incorporating ethics in public relations programs in higher education, Silverman notes that professional associations like PRSA include a Code of Ethics that members are expected to follow. “Professionals who have earned PRSA’s accreditation in public relations commit to uphold ethical standards annually,” she said. Further, Silverman’s research shows that many public relations agencies have their own codes for ethical behavior—“it’s just good business.”
When it comes to a crisis, the ethical rules don’t change. “Most crises don't come out of the blue,” she pointed out. “You can anticipate the problems you’re likely to encounter in your industry. You have to have a plan in place, and that plan has to be developed in conjunction with your senior management. Any organization that doesn’t involve public relations professionals before embarking on a course of action is overlooking a valuable resource. It’s easier to avoid problems than to clean up after them.”
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