Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the fourth post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.
I remember walking into the board room of a downtown New York City office complex filled with some of the highest ranking executives in the public relations world. As I traded business cards and glad-handed my way around the room, I couldn’t help but sense the collective power of these people. To say it was intimidating is slightly understating my feelings.
But it was also an honor to have been asked to attend this famed Ethics Summit of 2005 because I was the only person in the room carrying the banner for journalism and newsrooms. Maybe that was an added sense of pressure.
A bit of background is needed.
I was serving as a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Ethics Committee when we received a request from PRSA to come to an ethics summit to discuss shared interests in maintaining and promoting the highest ethical standards in our professions. Leaders in PRSA thought it would be helpful to talk openly about ethics with their counterparts in hopes of gaining a better understanding of how our principles were interwoven. It was something of an unusual request, for no other reason than it had never been made.
I thought it was a proposal worth pursuing. A small number of our committee were in agreement, but the majority (make that most vocal of the majority) didn’t see it that way. They saw no commonly-shared principles, and therefore, no commonly-shared interest in participating. I can remember the mantra in that conference call. It went something like this: “They serve their clients, and we serve the public. That creates a division of interests and loyalty, and we cannot share the same ethical principles so long as there is that division.”
Now, let me step back a bit further.
I started my career in newspapers after earning a traditional undergraduate degree in print journalism. Within three years I moved into public relations where I enjoyed a great opportunity to use my journalistic training for my corporate employer — a hospital system. I moved back into a newsroom six years later and eventually made my way into academics, where I taught hundreds of students in journalism classes who had career ambitions in public relations.
So, to say that there were no common principles, wasn’t just wrong, but arrogant.