The public relations industry is often portrayed as a mercenary trade dedicated to delivering corporate propaganda with little regard for the public good. To some extent, this slanted stereotype is rooted in the ethos of the old days of PR, long before the formation of professional groups with ethical standards designed to advance the practice and before it became a major academic field taught in prominent colleges and universities.
The fact is that we have come a long way since the Wild West days of PR, when sensational and sometimes deceptive information was used to influence the public. Today most American corporations rely on their public relations teams for strategic counsel, and PR executives often provide guidance to senior management on ethics. According to findings from a recent study, many PR professionals often espouse ideas for the public interest even when they are at odds with management views or not aligned with business interests.
The study, “Exploring Questions of Media Morality,” published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics, drew on in-depth interviews with senior public relations professionals who had held top positions at corporations, nonprofits and government organizations. Most of those interviewed viewed themselves as an “independent voice” in the organization they worked for, and not “mired by its perspective or politics,” explained study author, Marlene Neill, Ph.D., of Baylor University.
There are obvious limitations to the study. The sample size of those interviewed was only 30 people, and it’s hard to draw sweeping conclusions from self-reported data (most of us probably like to think that we are ethical professionals). Nevertheless, the fact that PR professionals are embracing their role as the “organizational conscience” is a good indicator that these professionals are at least getting a seat at the table to give their input on ethical decisions.
It also suggests that these professionals are keeping their ears to the ground to monitor public sentiment about issues that could impact their companies. For these companies, PR is more than awareness-building; it is relationship management, which requires two-way communication between the company and its publics. While it may be hard to quantify the financial value of relationship management, we can assume that it’s far cheaper than the cost of crisis management for poor ethical decisions and the potential for downstream damage to the company’s reputation.
There will always be differences between individual companies in the function of public relations, but as one respondent in the study commented, “the ‘yes man’ has no value” in PR.” To be truly valued by their companies, PR professionals must have an independent voice, even when it means going against the grain sometimes by questioning the decisions of higher-ups. This can be a risky proposition. It can expose PR professionals to a “kill the messenger” mindset, and potentially put strain on their relationships with their bosses and the company’s senior management, but it is a risk worth taking.
What are your thoughts? Can public relations provide a moral compass for the executive suite while also looking out for the commercial interests of the business?