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Get Your Ethics On: 5 Tips for the Ethical Practice of Public Relations

By Kerry Francis, APR

PR ethics sounds pretty straightforward and boring – always be truthful, disclose conflicts of interest and don’t plagiarize, right? Yet when you dig into it, the ethical practice of public relations is a lot more interesting and complex. Our jobs are more complicated thanks to social media, data privacy, social activism and today’s news environment, just to name a few. As the profession wanders into new territory, so does our ethical practice. For example, how many of us have grabbed an image off Google or used a GIF of a popular movie on social media? I know I have. The Code lays out what media is ok to use in what cases - personally, it’s probably ok to use much of this media, but using it professionally can get into a gray area.

Today it’s more important than ever to understand what is and is not ethical, not to mention legal. And it’s important that our work aligns with our personal ethics. As we close out Ethics Month, here are five tips from this month’s Coffee Chat to help you apply ethical practices to your work.

  1. Know your Code. PRSA’s Code of Ethics is simple, sets a strong foundation and offers guidance on some common areas. As members, we have all agreed to practice according to this Code.

  2. Promote good journalism. News-ed classes teach journalism as the fair, unbiased reporting of facts. With citizen journalists, the constant news cycle and competition for eyeballs and clicks, that’s not always the case. As PR pros, we can promote good journalism by supporting the outlets that do a good job, helping journalists report balanced news and calling it out when reporters don’t get it quite right.

  3. Know the regulations around endorsement. The FTC’s endorsement regulations specify what needs to be disclosed and when. They help guide work with influencers and work produced in- house as well as considerations for posting on personal channels. Knowing this ahead of time can keep you and your organization out of trouble.

  4. Research your target companies. It’s important to know what a potential employer or client stands for. This helps avoid personal conflicts later. And it helps us counsel clients on becoming involved in an issue or business and when responding to a crisis. These issues are bound to come up – just look at the discomfort Ogilvy’s employees had with taking on Customs and Border Patrol as a client, and the internal backlash at Google for its handling of sexual harassment claims.

  5. If you’re not sure what to do, seek guidance. Sometimes the answer isn’t very clear, or it can be hard to understand all the implications of doing or not doing something. Talk to a mentor. Talk to me, your Ethics Officer. Or talk with PRSA National’s Board of Ethical Practices and Standards.

While most of us likely won’t have to wrestle with a BIG issue, PR ethics is still critical. Small steps taken every day build our reputation as individuals and of the profession.

Thanks to Hinda Mitchell, president of Inspire PR Group, for sharing her expertise at this month’s Ethics Coffee Chat.

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