As students of public relations (PR), you have probably heard the terms “ethical compass” or “ethical conscience” used when describing the PR practitioner’s role. Many students are surprised to learn that one of PR’s primary functions is setting the ethical bar and direction of the organization. It would be logical to assume that corporate counsel would set the ethical standards and practices – and, in many instances, this is the case. However, ethics and the law are not the same thing. According to the website, SchoolJournalism.org, “Laws say what we should do. Ethics suggest what we could do, helping us explore the options. [The] goal in asking ethical questions before stories are published is to carefully consider the implications and consequences …”
It’s also important to note that an organization’s legal team is not always 100% objective; that is, their goal is to protect the organization from risk, exposure, liability, and litigation, and to interpret the law in the best interests of the company. Factoring ethics into the legal equation can prove challenging. According to Nicole Hyland, a partner at NYC firm, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, PC, and Chair of the Professional Ethics Committee of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, “Like law firm practitioners, in-house lawyers will confront a wide range of ethical issues over the course of their careers. Unlike law firm practitioners, in-house lawyers have fewer clear guideposts to help them navigate the ethical landscape.”
Hyland goes on to state, “Of the scores of ethics panels I have been invited to speak on over the years, only one was titled ‘Ethics for In-House Counsel.’ In-house lawyers are like the proverbial ‘square pegs’ trying to navigate the ‘round hole’ of legal ethics.”1
Here is where PR can be especially helpful. When practiced as a legitimate social science, PR remains objective in its mission and its ethical considerations. While corporate counsel might suggest a certain course of legal action because it’s in the best interest of the company, PR will make recommendations based on what is right – no matter who benefits the most. This is also a critical differentiator in terms of the “Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) mix.” While PR is often considered to be under the IMC umbrella, PR should actually drive the IMC function and be responsible for creating the solid, ethical foundation upon which all other areas of integrated marketing communication are developed. That means that PR’s key message points drive the advertising, marketing, promotions, publicity, and sales communications, ensuring truthfulness, integrity, and transparency across the board. By remaining somewhat autonomous, and completely objective, PR can best serve the organization – and its audiences.
Finally, PR can provide important input and guidance to legal counsel with regard to communications and responses. This is especially critical during crises and other scenarios where external and/or internal perceptions are at risk.
PR has an exceptionally unique and valuable function in the organization; it should always be practiced using the scholar-practitioner approach to ensure the utmost in professionalism, credibility, integrity, and transparency.
Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.