Ethics ‘Month’: Why Not Make It A Lifetime?

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A Guest Post By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

September is traditionally the time of the year when the Public Relations Society of America observes “Ethics Month,” and PRSA chapters nationwide are encouraged to present special programming. A comprehensive set of resources is available to assist in this effort.

While I support and encourage this educational emphasis, both on a personal and a professional level, I would prefer to see it a year-round, continuous initiative.

Here’s my problem…Since when (or better yet, why) has it become necessary to teach/preach/beseech to PR professional that ethical business practice is a “good” thing?

Then I recall an observation by Edward L. Bernays in “A definitive study of Your Future in Public Relations” [Richard Ross Press, 1961].

“Even public relations men who have achieved high positions are not always conscious that they are practicing a profession. In part, this may be because they do not define a profession correctly. A profession is a vocation in which art and science are combined, and in which the public interest [emphasis mine] rather than private gain is the primary objective.”

This was written a half-century, and we still haven’t solved this puzzle.

The recent landscape is littered with “public relations” efforts gone astray…

  • A government agency stages a press conference using its own employees and supplies the video news release to the media
  • A public relations firm takes on as a client a notoriously despotic regime and attempts to “enhance” the image of the leader
  • The Vatican brings in outside PR expertise to help gloss over an ongoing internal scandal that has the Catholic world abuzz

These are just three that immediately come to mind as I type…there are countless dozens other examples.

As I have written previously, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hide ethical lapses. Virtually everything is camped out on the Internet, and it doesn’t take a genius to find out what you have done, ethically or no.

And it lives there forever, or so it appears.

So we’re back to the basics, apparently. Once a year, roll out the program and remind everyone…again…that ethics is a “good” thing.

The adage goes: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Or, as Mr. Bernays also said: “Anyone with ingrained good sense does not need a specific code of ethics tailored to his profession to tell him how to behave….He will no more falsify facts for a client than a decent lawyer would. Nor will he function where he honestly believes the public interest and the private interest collide.”

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. He also is Visiting Lecturer, Organizational and Professional Communication (Graduate), at Regis College in Weston, 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 is a Member of PRSA’s national Board of Directors and has held leadership positions with PRSA Educators Academy and PRSA Northeast District as well as with the Boston and Hawaii PRSA chapters.

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