The US and the UK must maintain professional standards when using new technologies says PRSA’s chief exec Rosanna Fiske

The US and the UK must ensure we maintain professional standards when using new technologies says PRSA’s chief executive Rosanna Fiske. 

One wouldn’t have necessarily thought this the case, but America’s and the UK’s “special relationship” apparently extends to how our respective governments regulate commercial speech among bloggers and marketers.

For the uninitiated (and this may include American readers), the UK’s Office of Fair Trade (OFT) launched last December its “Handpicked Media” investigation in an effort to uncover the level of engagement of “handpicked media” of bloggers on a commercial basis. In essence, it’s a form of the United States Federal Trade Commission’s 2009 ruling of similar note, otherwise known as the “FTC blogger rules.

The details of the OFT’s investigation and the implications it may have on the UK public relations and marketing industries have been thoroughly deliberated. I thought it might be useful, however, to provide a perspective from America on where public relations stands. More specifically, the work many professionals, including my colleagues at the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), are currently undertaking to implement stronger ethical standards within emerging public relations and marketing practices.

The global public relations profession has had its ups and downs, no doubt. But one common thread that has held our work together for generations, and helped us increase our value to businesses and the public, has been our commitment to upholding ethical standards and best practices. Similarly, our profession thrives on smartly utilising modern technologies, strategies and tactics to meet our clients’ and organisations’ goals.

Facebook. Twitter. Foursquare. Quora. The list of new technologies, channels and other dazzling, real-time communication vehicles goes on and on. But so do the ethical concerns each raises – if we’re not prudent in our efforts to fully understand the implications of using new channels and technologies, and their benefits for clients and for serving the public good.

That isn’t to say we should delay our adoption or use of new technologies. Absolutely not.

But it does mean we have a responsibility to ensure the same stringent ethical standards and best practices guiding our traditional services are infused in work that engages new technologies and techniques.

A fascinating article in the January/February issue of the Columbia Journalism Review brought this into perspective for me. Author Paul Niwa’s juxtaposition of journalist and author Jacob Riis’ experimentation in visual storytelling with the entrepreneurial spirit this might engender in 21st-century journalists, provides an enlightening analysis of the technological challenges and opportunities that have greeted journalists for centuries. Niwa notes that Riis was fascinated by the new medium of photojournalism, yet employed caution when using what at the time was a new tool.

Caution isn’t always bad; in fact, it can give us invaluable time to reflect on our goals and objectives. But at a certain point, we must progress. That evolution should include a modernisation of ethical standards and best practices in order to meet today’s pressing business and societal concerns.

While we may not be measured by our proficiency with technology, the collective work of public relations professionals will most certainly be examined by how well we uphold our responsibility to the public and the business community to communicate in a responsible and ethical manner, no matter the medium or technology we employ.

Rosanna Fiske, APR, is chair and chief executive officer of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She is also program director of the Global Strategic Communications master’s program in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Florida International University in Miami.

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