Industry takes an ethical look at itself

NEW YORK: For an industry that is hired to protect and bolster the reputations of clients, public relations pros need to be just as proactive about elevating and advancing the reputation of the profession.

For an industry that is hired to protect and bolster the reputations of clients, public relations pros need to be just as proactive about elevating and advancing the reputation of the profession.

Dave Senay, CEO of Fleishman-Hillard, moderated a panel entitled “The PR Industry: Debating our Ethical Risk” at PRWeek's Power to the People conference at the Sentry Center in New York on Wednesday.

Thought leaders on the subject included Roger Bolton, chairman of the Arthur W. Page Society; Janet Robinson, former president and CEO of The New York Times Co.; and Joe Lockhart, former VP of global communications at Facebook and White House press secretary.

Senay asked the panelists to discuss where the industry fell in terms of its ethical standards. Should the status quo in the industry remain or, at the other end of the spectrum, will there come a time when there will be the need for third-party oversight to ensure ethical standards and practices are adhered to?

“The overwhelming majority are well-meaning people who don't know where the lines are. The industry needs a strong set of regulations and guidelines that are diligently enforced,” said Bolton. He added that regulations need to come from a strong regime at the top of corporations and agencies and not a third party.

Bolton also stressed the need for PR practitioners to elevate the perception of public relations as not an attempt to deceive or use spin to create an advantage, but as a way to “engage in dialogue aimed at arriving at the truth.”

Robinson noted that even though PR has become more challenging with the advent of social media, the role the profession plays in stemming the tide of distrust in big corporations and government is crucial.

The idea of a third party such as the government ever stepping in to handle oversight of the PR industry was, in Lockhart's opinion, very unlikely.

“There is no chance in our lifetime that federal regulators will look at this industry – they have bigger fish to fry,” he said with a laugh. Rather, Lockhart felt that the PR profession will be regulated more by the media and the power of public opinion aided by social channels such as Facebook.

Looking ahead on the media front, Lockhart cautioned that the rise of the partisan media and the decline of the mainstream media and a subsequent lack of checks and balance and “very little penalty for behaving badly” will create problems in the future.

He was also frank in his opinion about adopting codes of conduct for the profession, calling them “door stops.”

“What has to change is the culture of the business,” added Lockhart.

All agreed that industry executives must be diligent in training young people coming into the industry. “You can't teach good judgment. There is always going to be interpretation that enters into it, but we can help young people have more accurate answers when they are asked questions,” said Robinson.

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