I’ve pondered those words ever since. While they may or may not be true, it’s sad to think that “Public Relations Professional as Hero” remains an alien concept.
Tristan West, the character in question, isn’t a Saturday-morning-style hero. He’s angry, self-centered and resentful. But at bottom he cares about what is right and true. Through a remarkable journey of pain, loss and astonishment, he embraces his ethical roots and stands for what is right.
Sounds heroic to me. So why should his profession get in the way of that?
The term “public relations” often summons a negative image. In a New York Times small-business blog, titled “The Problem with Public Relations,” a restaurant owner vented about his bad experiences with PR firms. “PR people are paid to twist reality into pretzels and convince you that they are fine croissants,” he wrote. “At some point, they actually believe their own concoctions.”
Negative stereotypes persist in part because many people wear the PR badge but lack an ethical code.
“The current idea most people have about PR is that it is lying,” says Sean Williams, owner of Communication AMMO and adjunct professor of public relations at Kent State University.
Public relations is supposed to inform and enlighten. But sometimes it’s used—or rather misused—to cover up scandals and deceive people. Williams points to politics, which employs many of the tools of public relations, as the worst field of offense. “The political world sharpens its teeth on misdirection and frequent misstatements,” he says.
Changing the stereotype, according to Williams, requires a clear understanding of, and unwavering adherence to, a code of ethics.
Of course, no career practitioner wants to admit he or she may be part of the problem. Yet even the most ethical professional can be tempted to bend the truth, however lightly, for the good of the organization.
Matt Friedman, co-founder of Detroit-based Tanner Friedman Strategic Communications, offers a common example.
“Search ‘resigned’ and ‘spend more time with family’ on Google, and you’ll find about 250,000 lines of bull,” he says. “Most who fit that category had the word ‘embattled’ or ‘controversial’ written before their title.”
Friedman adds, “So we live in a world where 67-year-old men routinely ‘resign’ to ‘spend more time with family’ and 50-year-old men ‘retire.’ What’s wrong with this picture? A lot.”
In short, Friedman says, it’s become acceptable to lie when top executives are fired—a lie that most public relations spokespersons don’t balk at telling.
He acknowledges that lawyers and carefully worded employment contracts hold much sway in what can be said when an executive is shown the door. But what irritates Friedman—and should concern every PR professional—is the outright lie that nobody believes, the fact that PR people tell it, and that the blame is thus laid at the feet of the profession.
Friedman asks, “Wouldn’t a line like this be refreshing, in the name of integrity? ‘The Board of Trustees fired the President on Tuesday, saying she failed to adequately address enrollment declines and rising costs.’”
In fact, Friedman says, those words actually appeared in a news release from a university located in Michigan. “That Board, accountable to the public, refreshingly asked the ‘typical bull’ to spend more time with family.”
Friedman’s example presents public relations practitioners with an uncomfortable question: How often do we bend the truth when the bending seems relatively harmless?
The preamble to PRSA’s Member Code of Ethics states: “The level of public trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically.”
It’s been said that ethics is how you behave when no one is watching. That’s true. But for public relations to change negative perceptions—to become heroic—ethics must also involve what we do when everyone is watching.
Education is a vital element. The greater the knowledge of the profession’s standards, tools, opportunities and expectations, the higher the quality of its practitioners. This includes support for rigorous curricula in degree programs as well as continued focus on accreditation and ongoing professional development.
Daily applying a robust ethical code, such as PRSA’s, is equally important. Tenets of truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public form a solid foundation for how the PR professional approaches every task.
The final element involves personal integrity—and that requires personal reflection. Know your own ethical standards before the winds of a PR crisis blow. Determining your standards on the fly makes compromising them much easier to do. In the end, ethical behavior is personal, and it must be personally and relentlessly applied.
In doing so, the heroes of public relations won’t be found in works of fiction alone. They’ll shine in the real world, too.