Article in Propublica about PR and Journalism ethics

Posted on June 10, 2011. Filed under: Ethics, Public Relations | Tags: , , |

The article below reprises familiar discussions about shrinking newsrooms and expanding PR operations, as the comments point out this can cast journalists as unfailing seekers after truth thwarted by the evil empires of PR. But it does seem that the necessary balance has gone so that the challenge to the corporate ‘line’ is no longer mounted, as it takes resources of time and effort that the 24/7 news cycle rarely allows. In this debate, as always, economics trumps ethics.


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Aberdeen adventure 2

Posted on October 24, 2010. Filed under: Ethics, Public Relations, Uncategorized | Tags: , |

Interesting evening at Robert Gordon University where the CIPR/Grampian PR group held the session on PR ethics. Good turn out with a group of MA PR students and people from different sectors. My bit went OK – hard to know if it was too academic but kept relating it to my own everyday PR experience with very few lit references. But still a sense overall that ethics baffles most people and they don;t spend much time thinking about it – work is too hectic for such indulgence. Students stopped to ask questions at the end and seemed interested.

Most interesting element was contribution of Matt Taylor a senior BP comms guy who seemed thoughtful and interested in the issues raised, as well as raising issues from BP experience. I quoted a BP copywriter who felt betrayed by Gulf of Mexico disaster and he seemed to ‘get’ that conflict between personal and employer values. In PR you are really close to embodying the values of the organisation, so these things matter. Like me, he seemed someone who needs to believe in their work – there are lots like that in PR, though the image of the indifferent agency dominates. If I can get any post doc funding I want to interview people like him to see how self image, image of PR and ethics interlock.

Aberdeen Travelodge was grim – and not cheap  – and train back packed but managed to squeeze a quick spin round the Aberdeen Maritime Museum, which was brilliant – fantastic building, full of fascinating information and artefacts, including 3 story model of an  oil rig.  Brief glimpse into Aberdeen world – that and busy docks visible from museum – a sense of a town that still labours physically, run on ships and machines and cranes, something missing from cities I know now – can just remember the sight of the cranes over London docks from childhood but most cities are just offices and shops now.

Aberdeen Maritime Museum

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Aberdeen adventure

Posted on October 17, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations | Tags: , , , |

Planning what to say to the Aberdeen/Grampian CIPR meeting on Thursday. The audience is mostly oil industry PR, my subject is PR ethics. Should be fascinating. I imagine they get double distaste, oil AND PR, yeuggh. But it occurs to me that all the disapprovers (including me) end up shoving sectors like oil and arms further into the shadow when of course we need to turn the lights on. The blame game maybe feeds that. Do oil industry PR people embrace the demonic, yeah I’m a bad dude, or deny it, we’re helping save the world, really? I’ve said before that I think the focus on employers in the debates on PR ethics are indicators of the poverty of the discourse, but it is interesting. Also credit: this is the only CIPR group to have responded to a UK wide call for meetings on ethics.

My intention is not to point fingers but to highlight the utter mess that is PR ethics. My most recent research has shown that codes are based on the excellence model, all ideals and symmetry and equality, but practitioners see themselves as advocates, with loyalty to client above society. This is a massive paradigm schism and helps explain why codes are so irrelevant to most practitioners: they are not speaking the same language.

Coupled with the split between PR as seen from the inside (serving humanity) and from the outside (propaganda and distortion), the field seems profoundly fractured. Interestingly there seems to be very little concern about this. Why is that, I wonder?

So I welcome the invitation to Aberdeen and greatly look forward to Q&A.

Ethics Event Flyer v3

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can you do ethical PR for unethical countries??

Posted on August 3, 2010. Filed under: Ethics, professions, Public Relations, Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

London PR capital for makeovers of dodgy countries

Today’s Guardian (see link) runs a big expose of the PR industry’s expanding market of re-branding for countries with appalling human rights records. It shows details of work done for Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and others, contrasting the PR statements with those from Amnesty and UN sources.

The PR people offer the usual defences – ‘we’re like lawyers’; ‘as long as I’m comfortable’ ‘my job is to assist communication not judge them’ ‘nobody’s perfect’.

As set out in the article these look specious to put it politely and there are real problems with these lines: for a start PR does not resemble the law at all, though many ethicists claim a legal approach to ethics (esp. US- based on First Amendment arguments). There is no courtroom with equal  rights for prosecutors and defenders, no public defence lawyers, rules of evidence etc. It’s more like a back-alley fight, no rules.

Likewise the use of ‘comfort’ as a moral indicator is only valid if one is convinced a real moral struggle precedes the conclusion.

But what moral responsibility do communicators have for clients? Should there be a list of forbidden clients? Even though the UK government is doing business? Should PRs run boycotts when other trade is permitted? Should they aim for higher standards?

There is a conundrum in that PR often claims to ‘serve society’ , citing many examples of how communication aids understanding, motivates communities etc. But at the same time it asks to operate just like any other business.

The problem, surely, is that PR ethics is a complete mess, with minimal reflection, just a grab-bag of excuses and slogans, lacking any sense of the internal contradictions of these statements.

It would be more consistent to operate as a business, free to serve any client no matter how noxious, and abandon the claims to ethical standards. But that would jeopardise the ‘professional project’ the claim that the profession is entitled to trust and autonomy because it operates on ethical lines.

So what would a really ethical PR do?

I am not convinced that ethics lie in the client’s activities – whether its oil, tobacco or repressive regimes. What matters is that the communication is ethical – an outcome unlikely to be achieved if the client is looking to conceal or distort its central functions. I would like to see PR people turn down work because the client wants to withhold important information from the public, whether the client is Saudi Arabia or Amnesty International.

I also think we need to support investigate journalism like the Guardian piece because that’s the best defence against ignorance = maybe the PR profession should pay a tithe to support the exposure of their own deception?

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Interesting article from BP advertiser

Posted on July 9, 2010. Filed under: professions, Public Relations | Tags: , , |

This article appeared in Advertising Age and raises several interesting issues about ethics, personal and professional responsibility. The writer wrestles with his past involvement as copywriter for BP and current catastrophe in Gulf  of Mexico. Interesting that he ‘bought’ the original campaign – as I have done in the past, then wondered at the degree of identification with a set of arguments. I suspect self-persuasion and ego-defences kick in and this article reveals a damaged ego (the ID with dying pelicans for example). There are also interesting comments from others who have clearly shared the experience.

Will be useful material when I go to Aberdeen as part of a session on PR ethics for PRs in the oil industry!

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Ethics are not about employers

Posted on March 26, 2010. Filed under: Public Relations, Uncategorized | Tags: |

Noticed that several gatherings of PR people at conferences, talks and in a Feb edition of PR week tend to lurch straight from questions about ethics to working for tobacco, arms, alcohol industries as if that is the answer. Having ploughed through reams of lit on ethics in past year I have never seen issues posed in these terms. For a start it places all moral responsibility on the employer, as if working for an eco-friendly community network would automatically guarantee ethical communication. Remember the old SWP line that workers can’t be held accountable for actions of employers. On the other hand, PR people are centrally involved in comms strategies and influencing audiences. I still hold that a tobacco company COULD conduct ethical communication, it’s just they choose not to. I’ve worked for ‘noble’ causes and know full well the sleight of hand that goes into structuring ‘news’ releases.

Rather shocking, if not surprising, that PR discourse on ethics is so stunted. Suspect there will be zero interest in my work, but not too worried about that.

Saw Yes Men Fix the World on More4 a couple of nights ago – shows how unethical communication (lying about who you are to get to deliver keynote speech to oil tycoons etc) can reveal absence of ethics in audience. A presentation about cost/benefit analysis of deaths in relation to profit was greeted as ‘refreshing’. Recommended.

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PR Review paper on Propaganda and PR

Posted on November 28, 2008. Filed under: Papers | Tags: , |

Does the EU need a propaganda watchdog like the US Institute of Propaganda Analysis to strengthen its democratic civil society and free markets?

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Published papers

Posted on August 28, 2008. Filed under: Papers | Tags: , , |

Pdf versions of papers can be found under Blogroll heading on main page – click on ‘papers’ for links

Public Relations Models and Persuasion Ethics: a new approach

This is a paper published in 2007, based on conference papers delivered at ICA, San Francisco (May 2007) and Alan Rawel/CIPR conferences (July 2007). It predates the PhD work but outlines some of the thinking that led to it, as does the Ethical Space article from 2006 (below)

Can ethics save public relations from the charge of propaganda?

Recent paper (Fall, 2008) by Johanna Fawkes and Kevin Moloney in Public Relations Review on PR & Propaganda (pl note copyright restrictions)

Does the European Union (EU) need a propaganda watchdog like the US Institute of Propaganda Analysis to strengthen its democratic civil society and free markets?

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