Ethics and Perceptions… ‘Do You See What I See?’

A recent Huff Post item caught my…and apparently several other folks’…attention. The gist of the article was that a public relations practitioner was overheard in spirited conversation with senior representatives of an industry represented by her firm as she shared how she used “insider knowledge” from previous work experience to increase her firm’s chances of getting positive results from efforts on behalf of clients at her current place of employment.

(Note: I word this introduction this way because of the situation’s applicability to a host of situations…not just this particular instance.)

The author of the article suggested that both the practitioner and the firm for which she worked were acting unethically in their efforts on behalf of clients, which led to my own comment on the post regarding the continuing need to educate members of our profession on the guidelines for ethical practice.

On the surface, I would offer that there is no immediate problem. Many of us…probably the majority of us…have progressed in our careers based in large part on the knowledge and experience gained in previous workplaces. So that is not the issue.

You see, my concern here is one of perceptions…what do others think of me based on my actions as well as my words? How do they view me based on the way they think I achieve my successes?

As public relations professionals, we must always be attuned not only to the way in which our client or employer is perceived, but also how we ourselves are viewed by others.

Yes, we should be proud of our accomplishments on behalf of clients or employers. I know I am…my undergrad Communication students at Curry College will be among the first to tell you that I cite as examples, in our Public Relations classes especially, how I dealt with various situations and was able to succeed in my efforts based in large part on my previous experience.

The Huff Post item misses the mark, I would argue though, in its citing of the PRSA Code of Ethics provision that addresses “free flow of accurate and truthful information.”

This situation, as I see it, is not one of “misinformation” or “disinformation.” The PR firm in question is presenting information to the public based on data that it believes advances its client’s cause. As ours is a democratic society, the opposition is equally free to present and promote its beliefs based on its own data.

No, the issue in my eyes is one of perceptions…of a public relations practitioner (I don’t use the term “professional” when I don’t feel someone is acting in such a way as to promote a positive image of the public relations profession.) showcasing her “insider knowledge” as the “value” that she brings to the client.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics includes “Provisions of Conduct”…guidelines to help us identify the paths to take both ethically and professionally. Particularly applicable in this situation is the provision for “Enhancing the Profession…Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”

Being observed…and recorded…boasting of one’s ability to use specialized knowledge to thwart the efforts of those in opposition does not “strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.”

About the author

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk was inducted into PRSA’s prestigious College of Fellows in 2009 and is one of just two actively-teaching college professors in Massachusetts to have earned this distinction. You can read more of Kirk’s musings at his blog “A Professor’s Thought” and follow him on Twitter @KirkHazlett.

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