The profession of public relations involves the control and dissemination of information in a corporate setting. It also involves control of information to the public from individuals or a company. The main objective behind this profession is to ensure that the public maintains a certain image of an individual or company’s products, governance, or policies through persuasion (Smith 62).
However, during the process of persuasion, it is important for professional communicators in the public relations field to maintain some level of ethics to prevent tarnishing the very image they hope to create through the dissemination of certain information to the public. Ethics are rules that comprise notions on individuals, corporate morality, and best practices, which are usually dependent on societal views (Seitel 88).
Although most laws do not govern business ethics directly, they provide for the creation of codes of conduct specific to a company or an individual with which the corporate relationship should comply. Ratification of codes of conduct enables a party to have justifiable cause to seek legal redress in case there is a breach of the code of conduct by the involved parties.
Ethical dilemmas in public relations: case study
In the case study, the main problem arises from the client’s deceit concerning the independent nature of the scientist testing the products in a bid to ensure a favorable public image of the products to the distributor’s stakeholders. Although the problem is clear, some dilemmas rise in how to deal with the issue appropriately in a bid to obtain the best solution for all parties involved.
Patricia J. Parson, in her book, Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice, identifies the issue of morality as one of the reasons such dilemmas occur.
In chapter two of the book, Parson analyzes the concept of truth and the role it plays in the decision-making process (15). She explains that in order for a public relations communicator or firm to maintain integrity, the communicator should develop the habit of telling the truth starting from an individual level.
Article 1 of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) reinforces this concept by stating, “Professional communicators should uphold the credibility and dignity of their profession by practicing honest, candid and timely communication and by fostering the free flow of essential information in accord with public interest” (IABC Para. 4).
Article 12 further states, “Professional communicators are honest not only with others but also, and most importantly, with themselves as individuals; for a professional communicator speaks the truth first to the self” (IABC Para. 6). Although the concept is straight forward, establishing what truth is often leads to a dilemma, as truth is a subjective concept dependent on individuals and circumstances.
Truth also changes when factors such as additional information come into play. For instance, in the case study, the PR firm conducted the press conference according to the information that the distributor gave and this aspect formed the truth at the time.
However, circumstances changed when the firm received additional information indicating that the alleged independent scientist was actually an employee for the distributor working under its manufacturing section. In addressing the issue, the firm should investigate the matter and establish all the facts before making a determination on the truth.
Various possibilities arise including the fact that the alleged scientist may actually be an independent scientist hired by the distributor for a specific period or he may not even be a scientist, but just a mere employee at the company.
Another dilemma that Parson identifies is the conflict between personal perceptions of morality and corporate perceptions codified in codes of conduct. The different levels of morality exist amongst different individuals depending on their social background, prevailing circumstances, and their interpretations of the codes of conduct.
Utilitarianism is one of the theories that individuals apply in their interpretation of actions that comply with the concept of morality. Parson refers to utilitarianism as the “Robin hood ethic” (44). In essence, the theory suggests that moral behavior constitutes acts that result in the greater happiness for the largest number.
John Stuart Mill, the main proponent of the theory, states that individuals should do what results in the greatest happiness and the least pain for people living in a community (Mill 31). For instance, if a person decides to burn his or her own house, the act is moral if it does not harm the rest of the people neighboring the house.
It is noteworthy that the theory bases its premise on the outcome of an act instead of the intention. Therefore, application of the theory to the case study involves an evaluation of the outcome rather than the intention of the action available to remedy the situation. According to the theory, the firm should choose a course of action that results in the greatest happiness for everyone involved, including the public, the firm, and the client.
For instance, the favorable results on the products might be authentic even though the distributors lied on the independent nature of the scientist. In addition, Code 4 of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) states, “a member shall deal fairly with past and present clients, fellow practitioners and members of other professions (CPRS Para.4). Therefore, it is imperative that the firm seeks redress that is fair to the distributor regardless of its deceit.
Parson (67) also mentions the theory of moral relativism and explains the dilemma it creates for individuals who subscribe to the theory in consideration to rules. Article 5 of the IABC holds, “Professional communicators should refrain from taking any undertaking which the communicator considers to be unethical” (IABC Para.4).
While rules make it easy for some people to make decisions, they create dilemmas for others, especially in relation to morality. Parson states, “The trouble with rules is their specificity to situations and people’s relative views on which circumstances certain rules should apply” (38).
The theory of moral relativism, as proponents such as William Sumner explain, suggests that there is no universal right or wrong as such concepts depend on individual circumstances and factors such as culture (Lukes 32).
For instance, some cultures take legalizing prostitution as a moral act, while others view the same as immoral. In the same way, some individuals in the firm may view the distributor’s actions as moral, thus negating the need for any further action.
Parson refers to the act of withholding bits of information in order to create a favorable outcome as a ‘spin’ and she adds that the morality and subsequent legality of ‘spinning’ information is relative to individual perceptions (Parson 163). Others may view the situation as immoral, thus leading to a need for remedial action through the application of the codes of conduct.
For instance, a person who chooses to view the entire scene from the point of view of the distributor and its need to increase sales through the legal use of a PR firm may view the company’s need to retain information on the independence of the scientist as moral.
On the other hand, a person who chooses to focus on the introduction of new information concerning the alleged scientist and its effect on the firm may regard the same situation as immoral.
Application of a code of conduct is voluntary. Oliver (56) suggests that individuals should seek objectivity by exploring all available factors and looking at the entire situation as opposed to specific scenes when forming a decision coupled with seeking advice from independent sources with no stake in the matter.
Thirdly, determination of codes of conduct that apply to specific situations may result in dilemmas, especially when a PR practitioner subscribes to different codes. Cohen (138) points out that sometimes, ethical dilemmas develop out of technicalities in situations.
For instance, if the practitioner subscribes to the IABC rules and a client to the CPRS rules, sometimes provisions in the rules create a conflict that presents difficulties in resolving, especially if the two parties have conflicting views on the ethicality of a situation.
For instance, in the case study, if the firm and the client turn out to have conflicting views on the morality of withholding information or the course of action appropriate to the situation, they may need to seek legal assistance to resolve the stalemate.
However, the move would require an analysis of the relevant code of conduct. In case both parties happen to use different codes of conduct, it would be necessary to find a way of establishing which one applies, usually by choosing the one that best favors either sides or the application of an international code of conduct neutral to both sides.
The same dilemma may also occur if the firm subscribes to more than one code of conduct. Choosing the appropriate code may require the application of the one that is most favorable to the client.
Parson (120) suggests an analysis of each case on an individual basis when making decisions as each case thrives on different merits, involves different individuals, and different circumstances. Although cases regarding ethics sometimes bear certain similarities, some details in the cases vary and in the same case, circumstances differ, often requiring a change in approach.
For instance, in the case study, the PR firm finds out about the client omitting information, which may have a significant impact on the public’s view of the distributor’s products. Under similar circumstances, had the firm discovered the information before the press conference, it would have taken a different approach.
Even with cases bearing identical facts, a PR practitioner should look at the entire situation, including external circumstances such as the political atmosphere. Trevino and Nelson (104) suggest that weighing the costs and benefits of disseminating information to the public assist practitioners in making objective decisions in chaotic situations.
For instance, while revealing the truth about the scientist may clear the firm from future blame in case the products exhibit harmful effects on the population, the same information may cause panic to members of the public, especially considering the sensitivity of drug-related issues attracts.
It may also cause a rise in fraudulent claims against the distributor, thus ruining the reputation of the company and future business opportunities for the PR firm.
Possible solutions for case study
The appropriate solution for the case study depends on several elements, including the PR firm’s objectives and priorities. Proper consideration of the outcome of every possible option is dire. One of the firm’s possible solutions is to hold another press conference and correct the era. The firm would need to do it in a sensitive way that does not attack the client, viz. the drug distribution company, for omission of information.
The main reason behind this decision is compliance with codes of conduct such as Article 2 of the IABC, which urges professional communicators to, “disseminate accurate information and promptly correct any erroneous communication for which they may be responsible” (IABC Para. 3).
Further, Article 6 of the same Act calls for professional communicators to “obey laws and public policies governing their professional activities and, should any law or public policy be violated, [they] should act promptly to correct the situation” (IABC Para. 4).
In addition, Code 5 of the CPRS states, “members shall be prepared to disclose the names of their employers or clients, on whose behalf public communication is made. Members shall not associate themselves with anyone claiming to represent one interest or professing to be independent or unbiased, but who actually serves another or an undisclosed interest” (CPRS Para.5).
In the case study, the distributor presented the scientist to the public, through the press conference, as an independent scientist with full knowledge that he was not what he claimed. It is the firm’s duty to present the truth to the public as a matter of public interest in order to ensure that the public makes an informed decision.
Presenting the truth to the public would also exonerate the PR firm from blame and a possible ruin of its reputation in the instance that the drugs present harmful effects on uses in the future.
The second possible solution involves the use of another form of media announcement other than a press conference by the firm. The benefit of this move is that it allows the firm to present the truth in an appropriate manner that does not result in an attack on its efficiency in carrying out its responsibility.
Some of the questions that may arise in a press conference situation involve matters of due diligence, which require the firm to investigate the truth of information before sharing the same with the public. Preparing a well-thought announcement would allow the firm to explain its viewpoint without distortion of information famous with press conferences.
Thirdly, the firm may choose to settle the matter with the client and request its management to make the announcement to the public as a damage control measure that allows the client to defend its credibility. Although presenting the information may result in an attack on some of the drug company’s policies, it also gives the company the opportunity to explain its position to the public.
In addition, this option exonerates the PR Company from blame and situations that cause dilemmas in deciding which information is appropriate for the public to know.
Lastly, the firm may choose to institute legal proceedings against the client for misrepresentation. However, this decision should be the last resort as court cases sometimes drag on for years, thus costing the client and the firm valuable time and money. It may also cause negative or dark PR for the firm.
Choosing a decision depends on various elements and sometimes it results in dilemmas that make decision-making strenuous. However, it is advisable for PR practitioners to look at situations in their entirety when forming decisions and make decisions that appear most favorable for all parties without compromising the practitioner’s credibility, dignity, and goals for the firm.
Cohen, Martin. 101 Ethical Dilemmas, New York: Routledge, 2007. Print.
CPRS: Code of Ethics 2013. Web.
IABC: IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators 2013. Web.
Lukes, Steven. Moral Relativism (Big Ideas/ Small Books), London: Picador Publisher, 2008. Print.
Mill, John. Utilitarianism, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 2007. Print.
Oliver, Sandra. Public Relations Strategy, London: Kogan Page, 2009. Print.
Parson, Patricia. Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice, London: Kogan Page, 2004. Print.
Seitel, Fraser. The Practice of Public Relations, Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2010. Print.
Smith, Ronald. Strategic Planning for Public Relations, New York, Routledge, 2009. Print.
Trevino, Linda, and Katherine Nelson. Managing Business Ethics: Straight talk on how to do it right, Hoboken: Wiley, 2011. Print.