Debate about ethical PR. Leave your boxing gloves at home, please!

Is there such a thing as ethical PR?

Is there such a thing as ethical PR?

I recently took part in a debate titled “The Only way to practice ethical PR is to work for the not for profit sector. Everything else is just corporate, political or consumer propaganda”. No doubt about it: this is quite a radical statement. As luck would have it, two colleagues and I wound up defending it…reluctantly, I might add. No self-respecting PR practitioner would agree with such a thing. Or would they?

Please note that we started off by having a show of hands which quickly showed none of the attendees were on our side and that we actually managed to come up with some pretty convincing arguments. Would we manage to convince anyone to support us? 

Let me present the arguments for each side so that you can decide for yourself. In a nutshell,  the opposing team maintained that:

  • As long as the PR firm respects their agreements with their clients, they’re acting ethically.
  • NGO’s have commercial interests as well, as several case studies prove.
  • NGO’s practice disguised political propaganda, as proven by other case studies. 

While we argued that:

  • PR Professionals of the Non-Profit sector are aware that ethics are crucial and usually have a personal involvement with their cause, compelling professionals to act ethically. In fact, many professionals working within this sector do not earn a lot of money, which could be indicative of the possibility that they represent a charity for more personal reasons. They understand that the greatest threat to their organizations is the betrayal of public trust and that unethical behaviour would result in the loss of support for the charity. 
  • The public trust nonprofits. The 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer shows that trust in nonprofit organizations has steadily increased since 2001 and has grown 5% in the past year. This sector is significantly more trusted by the worldwide public than are the fields of government, media and business, which is a lot to say considering that the public has become very critical of unethical conduct. The American Management Association Corporate Values Survey found that about one third of executives believed that their company’s public statements on ethics sometimes conflicted with internal messages and realities” (Rhode and Packel, 2009).
  • The motivations behind CSR activities and corporate partnerships with NGO’s are not entirely ethical. Through these activities, corporations seek to enhance their reputations and the sales of their products.  Nonprofit organizations provide social, educational, cultural and welfare services and in doing so do not attempt to generate profits for the organizations themselves, but for the causes they support.

After 45 minutes of heated yet respectful debate we had another show of hands. As this is not a Disney movie in which you know that the main characters will succeed in the end, no matter what, in the end we only managed to sway one person’s vote (sort of, she was actually undecided, but still…). 

However at the very least we held our own, we gave people some food for thought and hopefully presented some facts that they (and you) will consider when the time comes to make ethical decisions in their everyday work lives.


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