Follow the green brick road for an ethical PR future

imageLast year I wrote three “Back to School” posts on Preparing to Study PR, Starting to Study, and Making the Most of Work Experience.   Each is still relevant for those starting their career in public relations, so this year I am writing a series of posts looking at the future of work in the field.

This first post offers a trip down the green brick road for an ethical PR future.

We’re not in Kansas now.  Like it or not, things will never be the same again with our SatNav offering a digital road ahead to the Emerald City.  But as with most technologies, the novelty will soon wear off, and PR practitioners will be expected to integrate skills and knowledge of “new media” in their everyday work.  This could even mean working in “call centre” PR environments where practitioners spam marketing messages, craft “content”, upload multimedia nonsense and try to spin creatively in an increasingly cluttered online world.  All for a winged monkey’s pile of peanuts – ie outsourced to a low cost market.

If I only had a brain/heart/nerve. PR could think of things not thunk before, be more kind-a-human and demonstrate vim and verve – that is, use its power wisely and create a different future.  Intelligence, responsibility and courage sound a more attractive scenario.  The potential exists within PR to reflect these virtues.  Rather than focusing on tactical delivery at a bargain price, practitioners can recognise they already possess what they most desire.  So if we use our brain, heart and nerve our future should involve considered, meaningful, challenging work.

Somewhere over the rainbowHow can we ensure our promised reward is not just humbug but offers something of value where the dreams we dare to dream can come true?  It is interesting that the Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, so is roughly the same age as modern PR, and after a troubled beginning both grew to be cultural phenomena.  Like the main characters, PR has a complex, contradictory nature and lacks the self-confidence to reflect virtues of intelligence, caring, and courage.  Rather it often presents an image of fluffy airheads, heartless spindoctors or timid technicians obeying orders.

Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh myLooking at the future we may wish for PR, we clearly face many challenges.   But fittingly in the PRSA Ethics Month we can draw on the lessons from Wicked and take a revisionist look at public relations.

Our parallel narrative requires reflection on what it means to work in PR and consider the ethical dimensions of our role.  By this, I mean going beyond simply seeking to distance the good witches from the wicked, or justifying bad outcomes by reference to good intentions.

Arguments for PR to secure a place in the boardroom of the Emerald City must be accompanied by evidence that we have the intelligence, responsibility and courage to lead on ethical challenges – which means having a robust understanding of the philosophical aspects of values, ethics and morals.

We need to avoid platitudes relating to codes, corporate social responsibility and social marketing approaches.  PR practitioners can only advise on ethical behaviour if they really offer more than an illusion of wizardry.  This means engaging with issues relating to power in society, ethical resistance, meta-ethics as well as normative and applied ethics.

I don’t believe the best road is to embed ethical codes within consultancies as some argue.  Rules alone do not make people ethical – rather they tend to simplify the issues that are worthy of deeper reflection and understanding.

In a complex world requiring difficult decisions to be made we need to invest in a field of ethical enquiry for public relations.  This should involve experts in areas such as moral/ethical philosophy working with leaders in PR (practice and academia) to study issues relating to our area of responsibility.  Such an approach is evident in medicine, law, accountancy and business ethics.

Let’s get serious about the road public relations needs to tread and establish a centre for ethical enquiry which would:

  • draw together existing knowledge,
  • undertake research, training and education,
  • engage with various experts and indeed, critics of PR
  • investigate and guide on issues of debate and practice
  • co-ordinate the interest, commitment and plans of those who wish to reflect intelligence, integrity and intrepidus in their work
  • develop a credible leadership position globally for PR ethics.

So close your eyes, tap the heels of your ruby slippers together and let’s see if we can’t reach “far, far away… behind the moon… beyond the rain…” and discover an ethical future for public relations.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

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