Advocacy Pulse of the Profession

Can Ethical PR Practitioners Represent Dictators?

Editor’s note: A version of this post was originally published as an op-ed in CommPro.biz.

Can a public relations professional represent a dictator or an authoritarian government and remain faithful to the PRSA Code of Ethics? Asked another way: Do all clients and organizations deserve representation in the court of public opinion, as long as their behavior is legal?

That’s the essence of an issue boiling over in the London media and among certain NGOs who are concerned that PR firms are, in their view, whitewashing the bad behavior of bad people.

Gideon Spanier, writing for the London Evening Standard, notes that “critics claim that London has turned into the global capital of reputation laundering.” Spanier also quotes Lord Bell, chairman of Chime Communications, as saying, “No amount of media harassment or sensationalism is going to stop me representing clients that have a legitimate right to tell their story.”

If these London public relations practitioners were members of PRSA, would they find themselves at odds with our Code of Ethics? Could they ethically represent despots and dictators?

To put it more directly, does Libyna dictator Muammar Gaddafi deserve professional PR counsel?

There are several sections of the PRSA Code of Ethics that address this. My read is that it would be difficult — but possible — for a PR professional to be an ethical practitioner while representing dictators or authoritarian regimes.

Among the professional values stated in the Code is the commitment to loyalty to both clients and the public, putting the public interest first. The Code says, “We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.” In other words, when our client’s or employer’s words and/or actions are in conflict with the public interest, we are obligated to end the relationship.

The Code states as a core principle that public relations professionals are responsible for “protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information, (which) is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.”

The Code also suggests public relations, practiced according to ethical standards, contributes to a democratic society. In fact, the ability to practice in accordance with the code may only exist in a democratic society. With an expectation in the Code that all information provided by a practitioner is accurate and truthful, how long would a relationship with despots and dictators last?

Another core principle of the PRSA Code of Ethics concerns a commitment to open communication that “fosters informed decision making in a democratic society.” The intent is “to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making.” That commitment includes revealing the sponsors for causes and interests represented and avoiding deceptive practices.

Lying by omission, or misleading by distorting information, is as great an ethical failing as an obvious lie.

In addition, public relations practitioners are encouraged in the Code to enhance the profession by working constantly to “strengthen the public’s trust.” Representing clients or undertaking activities that diminish public trust may place the practitioner in a position that will bring harm to the individual’s reputation, the client’s reputation, and that of the profession.

Therefore, it’s theoretically possible to represent a dictator ethically if that client is truthful, puts the public interest first, supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information through a free media, and reveals all information needed for responsible decision making. Your responsibility as a practitioner would be to complete the due diligence to ensure you’re working with the truth, and to resign the moment you lose confidence in the dictator’s information.

Our obligation as ethical practitioners is much broader and far more important than simply providing a public voice for anyone who needs it and operates within the law. Our professional responsibility and commitment is to truth, full disclosure, the public interest, and other values expressed so well in our Code.

Thomas E. Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, Chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS)

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