Ethics, again

The discussion in the PR blogosphere of social media PR ethics makes me happy 🙂 It’s wonderful to see PR critics in the field – not only in books such as Toxic Sludge is Good For You or in academic journals only academics have access to. The very fact that this conversation is taking place is a huge step towards more ethical PR. Shel Holtz calls this a nice thought and claims it won’t solve the problem of unethical social media PR practices… no, it won’t, not it the short term. Besides, no one solution will be enough to solve the problem. It needs to be attacked from several fronts, and this is but one of them.

Another solution is the one that Shel proposed, that each agency publish a case study after implementing a campaign. I called that solution unfeasible. It won’t hurt, but here are my doubts about it:

  1.  It relies on trust. If people are OK with engaging in unethical, misleading PR tactics, they’ll be OK with not publishing these tactics in their case studies. How can we trust them to provide an honest account of all their tactics?
  2. It assumes education that might not be there. This fellow who explained his misleading tactics did just what Shel recommends  – and when I read the comments I noticed it didn’t even occur to him something was wrong with his approach! Similarly, if clients don’t know the difference between ethical and unethical PR, they might be drawn to the unethical practices that bring impressive immediate results (never mind the long-term consequences…)

A comment on Shel’s post states that client education is the answer. If clients know the difference between ethical and unethical PR, they’ll only pay for the ethical kind. This is a good idea, I think, but how do we do that?

To recap, I believe there’s no ONE solution to the unethical social media PR problem. It has to be addressed on several fronts. So far, the ideas I encountered are:

  1. Put peer pressure on PR folks to  publish their tactics
  2. Keep a PR watch, keep critiquing and calling people out on unethical practices – maybe our posts will come up when their names are googled!
  3. Educate (some) PR practitioners and clients
  4. Use a WIC (wisdom of the crowds) rating system for PR practitioners & agencies (another good idea in a comment to Shel’s post)

Do you have more ideas for possible ways to tackle this problem? Do you have practical recommendations for how to accomplish 1, 3, and 4 above? (2 is already happening, although we might be preaching to the choir…)

3 thoughts on “Ethics, again”

  1. Shel, I like the idea of the “god ones” differentiating themselves instead of policing the “bad ones.”
    Thank you for starting this conversation!

    BTW, it’s great to exchange ideas with you. I’ve used your PR on the Net book when I taught Internet PR at Purdue a few years ago, and my Clemson students still find it useful.

  2. Mihaela, there’s already a PRWatch: has been around for a long time. It doesn’t seem to have influenced the profession.

    The PR blogosphere has been applying plenty of pressure, to little avail.

    Increased education is great. But ultimately, my suggestion is based on coming to terms with the fact that there will always be opportunists, lazy people, evil people, and ne’er-do-wells in our business (as in any other). Making the bad ones good just won’t work in most instances. In the meantime the bad ones paint the picture that more and more people accept as THE portrait of PR. That’s why I’m looking for ways for the good ones to differentiate themselves and begin portraying an altaernate image.

    Of course, I’m open to as many ideas as possible. As I said in my reply to your comment on my blog, I never intended for my proposal to serve as THE ONLY solution!

  3. Mihaela, are you familiar with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management? It aims to build an international body of knowledge to assist public relations and communication management professionals in their work.

    One of the current areas being worked on is the ethics protocols of member organizations (i.e., national PR associations). You can find existing ones here in The Ethics Protocol section:

    The GA also has an Ask the Experts function related to ethical issues:

    I hope you find these resources of use and interest.


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