Ethics and PR in 2021: Why there is no consensus

I am not one to quibble with Albert Einstein, but a statement attributed to him has made me pause. He is widely quoted as saying "Relativity applies to physics, not ethics" and whilst I can’t find the original source, the sheer number of Google hits makes it feel true.

Plus, it sounds right: his theory of relativity bends the meaning of physical mass in the context of time and space, but some principles about what’s right or wrong should remain immoveable and universal. We can’t just willy-nilly change the rules for experimental medical treatments, or for how financial information is publicly reported, or regarding who’s entitled to legal representation, right?

The PR ethics struggle

Yet for some reason, we in the PR community seem to struggle with at least some of the ethical questions in our domain. Sure, we generally agree on a few bedrock ideals – lying is bad, transparency is good – but consensus on the ‘right thing to do’ falters quickly beyond these, revealing a startling possibility: that we are a relatively relativistic field.

I am not saying this is good or bad – who am I, really, to judge the state of ethics within a globally vibrant and important industry? Nor am I theorising as to how we arrived at this state of ambiguity; Simon Goldsworthy and Trevor Morris do a thoughtful job of this in their book, Public Relations Ethics: The Real-World Guide. (Spoiler: despite an abundance of national PR codes of conduct, they’re all subject to considerable interpretation, practitioners are rarely held accountable to – or even aware of – them, and the discipline has a history of negative connotations and evil or frivolous cultural depictions – all of which compounds a deeply held inferiority syndrome, and reflecting the reality that we are primarily regulated only by a need to seem socially acceptable).

I am, however, keenly interested in trying to do what’s right, even in our fast-changing, hyperconnected world. Actually, it’s especially because of our fast-moving and hyperconnected world that I want to try get things right. As communicators, we’re often what connects the businesses, governments and institutions we advise and the people they impact. What we do, matters, as time accelerates and space shrinks.

Tackling the ethics divide

And so I was delighted to join the PRCA Ethics Council last year, not to dictate what’s good or bad, but to begin identifying the real-life ethical questions facing us today, and to start sharing ideas, resources and decision-making frameworks to address them. We just published our first annual outlook on the key challenges as considered by some of the leading practitioners from around the world – take a look here – and from there we will take a closer look at each in the form of short summaries, training content and conversation-prompts.

Key issues

Some of the issues are obvious, relating to changing technology and the use of data. Some reflect shifting social priorities, internationally or wherever you may call home. A few touch on the evolving roles played by journalists, content creators and influencers. And virtually all reflect questions raised by the pandemic – how we view the function and purpose of business, government and community in our daily lives.

It occurs to me that with the world in such flux, relativity may actually serve the ethics of our business better than Einstein could have seen. Not to endorse moral relativism, but to consider the idea that much as mass changes in time and space, so might our understanding of the ‘best thing to do’ in do in communications.

Written by David Gallagher, ethics council chair of PRCA

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