PR Training Pulse of the Profession Thought Leadership

What’s Next? Or What Should Be Next?

Editor’s note: This is the 9th in a series of guest posts from industry thought leaders predicting key trends that will impact the public relations industry in 2014. Hosted under the hashtag #PRin2014, the series began Jan. 8, 2014, with a compilation post previewing some of the predictions.

As we enter the new year many of us think back on the immediate past and look with anticipation to the “What’s Next?”

Predictions are very popular at this time of the year.

The Motley Fool (Trends to Watch in 2014) predicts that solar costs will continue to fall and that gas production will remain flat.  Chenda Ngak of CBS News (10 Technology Trends to Watch in 2014) says that robotics and artificial intelligence will rise, and that the use of 3D printers will increase significantly. In women’s fashion, Glamour.com (The 10 Most Wearable spring 2014 Fashion Trends, Straight Off the Runway) predicts: “pretty pastels, contrast color button downs and wide-leg trousers.”

The right predictions can make a critical difference in our individual, national and global existence. Yet how accurate are they? The reality is, we rarely really know. An educated guess is probably the best we can do, based on extrapolation. So, instead of writing about what I believe will be the coming trend(s) in Public Relations in 2014, let me propose what I think should be the coming trend.

Since my field is ethics I will propose more transparency-truth telling in the exercise of the profession.

Here is why:

Every industry and profession has its own temptations, or to be less moralistic, its own “risks.” The common denominator to risk situations is power, the greater the power the great the risk. Certain professions (and professionals) hold more power than others and therefore are at greater risk of abusing that power. The legal, financial and the medical professions, for instance, hold much power and therefore have high ethical risks. Their actions can cause significant impact, positive or negative on the lives of their clients or patients. That is probably why both professions have very strict codes of conduct.

The same is true for the PR profession. The Public Relations profession holds considerable power because of its use of the media. By communicating clients’ messages to a targeted audience, the PR professional has the capacity to influence behavior. That influence can have a positive or a negative impact on the public.  If, for example, we advocate a product that we know or suspect is unsafe, on behalf of one of our client, we could be morally and possibly legally, responsible for any harm caused to the public by that product.

If one looks back and analyses recent ethical lapses in the PR industry, we would find out that in almost all of them, deception was involved. Deception is involved in “whisper campaigns”, in pay-for-play situations and in fake blogging.

Deception is probably the number one reason the public criticizes the PR industry.

Ryan Holiday in the introduction of his book Trust Me I’m Lying says it candidly, about himself when he writes:

“If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and public relations, or online strategy and advertising. But that’s a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator- I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media, so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe and connive for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do so.”

While Holiday might be extreme in his description to dramatize his confessions, his depiction of the industry practitioner is often portrayed on television, in books and other media. The problem with this portrayal (and what the public might believe) is that it is also inherently wrong.  There is no PR person that I know that revels in lying to, deceiving or manipulating the public to drive their goals. There are, as in any industry some “bad apples” that damage the reputation of the profession. The reputational risks are particularly high in PR because we are in communication with the media. To change the face of the industry, we must take an ethical stand.

Avoiding deception at all cost would protect the PR professional from the high risk of ethical lapses and what better way to avoid deception than by being transparent and truthful? It is imperative, that as an industry we each do our part to shine a light on deception and other detrimental practices when we see them. If we don’t, many who don’t understand what we do will be inclined to continue believing that we are how Holiday portrays us.

As Alexandre Solzhenitsyn once wrote

“The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world.”

 

Emmanuel Tchividjian is a senior vice president and chief ethics officer at Ruder Finn, Inc. He has been with the agency since 1997 when he worked on the Government of Switzerland’s account on issues relating to Swiss Banks and the Holocaust. Tchividjian was the program director of the New England-Israel Chamber of Commerce in Boston. He is the ethics officer of the New York Chapter of PRSA and an ex-officio member of the National Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. He is a frequent public speaker on ethics, public relations and crisis communication at major universities including Columbia University, NYU and Penn State. Tchividjian writes weekly ethics blog

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