In this new age of “alternative facts,” the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Code of Ethics has taken on far greater importance for those who care about our profession’s reputation. Public relations, like journalism, isn’t regulated by the government, nor are its practitioners licensed by any professional body, so we’ve established codes of ethics to help guide our activities. PRSA’s code encourages honesty, confidentiality, fair competition, avoiding conflicts of interest, transparency, and other essential values.
Last week my PR Fundamentals students and I looked at several case studies in which I posed hypothetical ethical situations and asked how they would react. For example, we talked about what they might do if they were asked to exaggerate facts within a press release, how they’d approach a CEO who won’t let them talk to the media for fear of lawsuits, and pondered how they’d respond to a reporter who suggests a bribe in exchange for covering a client’s story. Some of these events actually happened to me in my quarter-century as a PR practitioner; they’re the kinds of situations in which we could–but hopefully won’t–find ourselves.
One real-life ethical question came to me after I began teaching at Hofstra University. A student of mine (I’ll call her Betsy) was doing a summer internship at a Manhattan PR agency that represented various entertainment venues including restaurants. One particular establishment was getting negative reviews on Yelp and wanted the agency to fix them. Betsy’s supervisor ordered her to write several positive reviews of the restaurant; she was to use a fake name for each so the negative comments would be pushed down and become harder to see. Betsy called me and suggested that she wasn’t comfortable doing this, but wondered if she should anyway. Besides, her supervisor at the agency told her this kind of thing is done all the time in the industry, and paying clients’ needs come first.
What should Betsy have done? What would you have advised her regarding her supervisor’s directive, and how should she have responded to him? Is the ethical answer obvious here? Your thoughts?