Ethics have always been important in PR, but they have officially become more important than ever. The world is changing by a significant degree, and so is the public relations industry. Nearly every single PR organization follows a code of ethics. These can either be company policies that they will follow when working with clients or rules from a proper board. PR Council, PRSA, Institute of PR, ICCO, and Global Alliance are just a few of the boards that offer their own code of ethics.
However, the rising importance of ethics raises an important question about why it is becoming so important. And to answer that, it is best to look at what ethics really mean for PR firms in general.
What Is Ethics?
Simply put, Ethics are rules or principles put into place that every individual who is working in the firm will have to follow. These rules guide PR professionals in a way that allows them to act responsibly and treat their clients with fairness. These principles also happen to be very strict, as people who do not follow the rules set out by a board are blacklisted from the industry.
However, the perception surrounding PR firms and professionals alike is much less positive. Despite various ethics boards having their own rules in place, people have mixed feeling about them, to say the least. A 2018 global report on ethics and its evolution found that over 57% of participants in the US thought that PR, as a field, was unethical. This report tends to stand out compared to the 44% of individuals worldwide who believed the same.
Why Is Ethics In PR Important?
Despite what many have come to believe about PR in general, ethics is the glue holding everything together. A few reasons why Ethics in PR is important:
Helps Sustain the PR Profession
One of the most important reasons why ethics exist in the PR space is to promote healthy competition. If ethics were no longer part of the equation, healthy competition could very well go out the window. Firms will start a race to the bottom as they try to gain the upper hand regardless of the cost.
Without proper Ethics, companies will start relying on underhanded tactics to get ahead of each other. Aggressive procurement tactics and spreading misinformation are just two of the many dangerous ways companies will try to get ahead. As a result, PR firms, their clients, and their employees will suffer. The ethics boards strongly advise against unfair competition in the industry, as no one benefits from it in the long run.
Improves Relationships with Clients
Another important thing to understand about PR firms is that they rarely ever work independently. Whenever they work with another company, they become an extension of their beliefs and morals. And if they happen to act in a way different from their employer, that could be bad news for the entire industry.
With a proper code of ethics in place, PR firms will always be sure to represent their clients according to their public image. The PRSA code of conduct specifies various instances where professionals who act out of the interests of their employer will be violating their regulations.
Maintains Positive Public Perception
Although most PR firms act as an extension to various companies, they also represent the greater industry. Therefore, their actions can carry consequences for other PR firms, where ethics comes into play.
The ICCO has even created its 10-point Helsinki Declaration, where it details the ethical standards that companies will have to meet to continue working under the board. This massive change came because of a major scandal, which included various PR firms. Buzzfeed chronicled the rise of such firms that were using unsavory methods to benefit their clients.
How is the PR Industry Changing?
Media consumption and the PR landscape, in general, are shifting so rapidly that it is hard for most companies to keep up. The shifting tide of PR is especially dangerous when considering how slow some boards of ethics can be when updating their rules.
The Rise of Convincing Sponsored Content
One of the major changes coming to social media and people’s consumption of it was the rise of paid content. According to the same global report of 2018, 64% of surveyed professionals believe that most people will not be able to tell the difference between content owned and paid for. What is more worrying is that 60% of the professionals believe that people will not care.
Therefore, if a PR agency has not aligned itself with a board of ethics, it will be under heavy fire from the public that cannot distinguish between fake and real news.
The Changing Multi-Media Landscape
70% of professionals believe that the PR industry as a whole will be changing drastically within just five years. 36% of these professionals believe that their firm is not ready for such a change, whereas the rest believe they are. The factors that are influencing this change are paid influencers, branded content, and fake news.
All of these three things can prove to be detrimental to a PR firm. Only with a proper ethics board on its side can PR agencies survive such a drastic change. Furthermore, the code of conduct board has the power to properly investigate the possibilities of PR firms engaging in such convincing under-handed tactics.
How Can PR Firms Prepare for the Future?
The future for PR firms is looking a little bleak, considering how quickly the industry is changing. Over time, fake content will be almost indistinguishable from curated content, putting PR firms in a difficult position. If PR firms focus on their code of ethics or align themselves with a specific board, they can better prepare themselves for such a future.