Ethics, Public Relations, and the 2.0 World

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A Guest Post By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

A cartoon that appeared in a business publication a few years ago always comes to mind when I hear the word “ethics.”

A business manager dashes excitedly into his office shouting, “Ethics is hot. Buy me some ethics!”

The memory bubbled up again recently when I was contacted by a PR professional in another country who’s prepping for her association’s version of the APR (Accredited in Public Relations) exam and wanted my take on ethics in today’s communication environment. Specifically, she wanted to know, from my perspective, if “ethics” has changed and, if so, what were the causes.

Her question was this: “How have social media and Web 2.0 applications changed the way PR practitioners apply and interpret ethics?”

Much has been written about ethics by members of the Public Relations Society of America, myself included. And over the years, in my varying roles of PR practitioner and, now, PR professor, I have fervently supported…and taught…PRSA’s “Code of Ethics” as guidelines for thought and deed.

In a nutshell, my response to the PR pro was that social media and Web 2.0 applications have not, in my opinion, “changed the way PR practitioners apply and interpret ethics.”

What HAS happened is that the onus now falls more squarely on the shoulders of the individual practitioner to ensure that he or she IS adhering to professional ethical standards.

There no longer is (or usually isn’t) someone else looking over your shoulder double-checking your work and questioning your information and sources. And, to complicate matters, “sources” themselves are becoming more and more blurred in the sense that information is available from so many directions…and the validity of that information is becoming increasingly difficult to pin down. (How many deaths have been incorrectly communicated via Twitter, for example, and reported by mainstream media as “fact”?)

The change is in individuals’ application of ethical standards. There seems to be an emerging pattern of thought that says “Cool! I didn’t get in trouble doing that, so it must be okay.” This is, for me, a worrisome trend that I spend more and more classroom time “preaching” about. I try to hammer home to my future practitioners the concept that “the end does NOT always justify the means by which it was accomplished.”

The greatest challenge that I see as a PR professional is that of ensuring that what you are communicating is factual, verifiable, and in the best interests of those publics with whom you are communicating.

The “do it fast; do it first” nature of social media communication plays into this in the sense that there is a temptation to “get the word out now and deal with the fallout, if any, later.” This runs counter to the concepts of honest, open, and accurate communication that have played so great a role in the evolution of communication.

Finally, the Web and social media enticingly dangle an aura of, if you so choose, anonymity. In theory, at least, you can “be” whoever you choose to be for the purposes of communicating.

But…and my students hear this time and again…sooner or later…you will be found out.

Recent history is jammed to the rafters with examples of company CEOs, journalists, PR professionals…deans of prestigious communication schools…who have taken an alias or “borrowed” someone else’s words thinking “no one will notice.”

Someone noticed.

To wrap up with one of my (many) favorite quotations, this one by George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I have all confidence that, by the time this post is published, yet another example of an ethical misstep by one of the above types of individuals will have been reported.

Mr. Santayana was, and continues to be, right.

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.

2 Responses to " Ethics, Public Relations, and the 2.0 World "

  1. Hi Kirk!

    We chatted a bit on Twitter but I wanted to thank you for continuing the discussing on ethics in the digital age. You are doing the profession a great service by “hammer[ing] home to my future practitioners the concept that “the end does NOT always justify the means by which it was accomplished.”

    Thank you for sharing your insight!
    Cision US, Inc

  2. Hi Lisa!

    Thanks very much! If nothing else, I’m that pesky little voice that keeps asking “Are you SURE this is what you want to do?”!!

    I really appreciate your reading and commenting. Let’s keep the conversation going!


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