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Ethical PR – Are You a Leader or a Follower?

By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

September is traditionally “Ethics Month” for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). We focus a great deal of attention throughout the month on educating our members, raising awareness and informing the public of our commitment to ethical practice and counsel.

In truth, these initiatives are ongoing and include year-round outreach and guidance, but September’s special focus allows us to emphasize ethical consciousness. This year, we have focused our efforts on ethical leadership, giving proactive advice and counsel to our clients or employers.

It’s one thing to mutter, “Yeah, I know about PRSA’s Code of Ethics.” It’s an entirely different thing to state confidently, “Yes, I refer to PRSA’s Code of Ethics regularly in my counsel to senior management on their own words and actions.” Having a high level of familiarity with this important code enables PR professionals to immediately weigh words or actions in against possible public perception and reaction.

Proactive public relations professionals don’t sit around “waiting to see” what the boss or the client says or does so that they can formulate supportive - or defensive - statements. Rather, they take the lead, anticipate actions, evaluate possible outcomes and act.

Edward L. Bernays, arguably the “Father of Public Relations,” had this to say in “Your Future in Public Relations” (Richards Rosen Press; 1961) about the personal qualifications of a public relations professional: “In every organization it is the tendency of the individual to bow to the will of the person above him … It is vital that a consultant or advisor be guided only by objective reason, facts, his honest, unbiased judgment, and his ideal of truth, rather than by a desire to agree with a client or to tell him what he wishes to hear. The extent to which one is able to follow this rule will be a test of strength of character.”

It's clear that Mr. Bernays wasn’t talking about sitting back and twiddling your thumbs when faced with a potential ethical challenge. Rather, he strongly suggests that an effective PR counsel takes action and takes the lead in formulating strategies and supporting words. This may often require that the counsel be willing and able to stand up to leaders at higher levels and challenge  prevailing bad practices if any exist.

A precursor to this, of course, is that you will have established relationships with upper-level management that will have made them aware of your qualifications to provide this type of guidance. When flames are erupting out the windows is not the time to start building a fire escape!

Public relations leadership, then, is defined by the action -  and the confidence in that action - of the public relations professional. Your willingness to provide, as Mr. Bernays says, “honest, unbiased judgment” will set you apart from others and will establish your position as counsel to senior management rather than “yes-man or -woman” to the boss.

Take advantage of the opportunities available through PRSA for education and training. Increase your ethical awareness. Take the lead in promoting ethical thought and action by setting an example for others. Be a leader, not a follower!

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