I spoke to a capstone public relations class at a local university last week. The future of PR is extremely bright if these men and women are a fair cross-section. They asked some great questions and made some astute observations. Today, I want to delve into one question about ethics worth sharing.
Question: Where do we draw the line between advocating for transparency and simply doing what our bosses tell us because, well, we work for them? Especially when that boss is a client or a manager who views concepts like credibility and integrity as ephemeral or “nice to have, but neither here nor there in the grand result.”
That was a question (paraphrased – almost entirely – but you get the gist) posed by a Clinton scholar in the back row, by a window, which represents a genuine concern and possible – if not entirely likely – scenario for all practitioners, novice and veteran.
This is a scenario my writing partner Brandon and I have flirted with on many occasions, made more disconcerting by the fact that we were also in the military and were required to obey orders. Though unlawful orders could be challenged, it was never a small thing to push back in the thick of the moment (we referred to them as “But, sirs” and, depending on the commander, you might get one but, rarely more than that.)
I recall only once being “asked” to flat-out lie to the media, very early in my career, but never had to execute that order – to this day I can’t say with any certainty whether I would have carried it out. Of course, most of the time these ethical dilemmas fall into grey areas – it’s not uncommon to be asked to communicate in a less-than-forthright manner that, while it may not be a lie, somehow makes you feel all icky inside.
Those in our profession must also accept that we are advisors and counsel to our clients or principals; very rarely are we the decision makers. This means we can advocate for transparency and truth but can’t enforce it. If we don’t like the ethics of a final decision and we’re expected to be part of its implementation, we essentially have three options:
- Carry out and support the decision but start looking for another job that aligns more closely with our professional values.
- Leave our values at the door and do whatever it takes to earn the paycheck.
Even the most talented, well-known, established public relations professional will only be as good as her level of credibility and her reputation with media and her networks. Intentionally lying or misleading because the client told us to is a choice that may keep us employed for a while, but ultimately leads to the erosion – if not flat-out obliteration – of credibility; in which case, never mind looking for a new job – time to find a different line of work altogether.
The choice to adhere to the values and principles of the profession and maintain your credibility as an honest broker of information may result in temporary unemployment, or an unexpected job search, but we’ll still be in our chosen profession, which is good, because it needs people like us.