Got Ethics?

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Posted: November 25, 2013, 2:15 p.m.
by Jessica Smith.

The core of the public relations field is ethics. Ethics create guidelines for professionals to maintain their own credibility as well as their clients’.

The Public Relations Society of America, or PRSA, has a code of ethics for its members and other PR professionals to follow. Even though PRSA no longer imposes sanctions on members who violate its code of ethics — seeking to inspire rather than mandate ethical practice — unethical behavior can destroy one’s career and reputation.

Importance of Ethics

Deborah Silverman, chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and associate professor at Buffalo State College in New York, said ethics is fundamental to who we are as PR professionals.Got ethics ?

Even before she was chair of BEPS, Silverman was presenting ethics workshops and programs at various PRSAfunctions. Silverman mentioned the long struggle with unethical representation and behavior of celebrities.

“It’s probably always been that way,” Silverman said, “if you look at the public going back any number of years, from Miley Cyrus to Madonna before her. It’s whatever will get some ink in the newspapers, so to speak. It doesn’t make it ethical, but that’s what’s going on.”

During one of her recent classes, Silverman discussed how Cyrus was trying to re-make her image. Whether the way Cyrus is doing it is unethical depends on how you interpret the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Silverman also said there are several common ethical mistakes by young professionals. Fake online reviews and lack of disclosure are the main ethical issues for new professionals and interns, according to Silverman. In September, the New York State attorney general’s office cracked down on 19 PR firms with fines upwards of $350 million.

“We see interns and new professionals posting the glowing, positive reviews,” Silverman said. “They’re hired by a client and they’re posting on travel sites.”

Bloggers are also getting the short end of the stick when it comes to ethical dilemmas. Some PR firms are not disclosing information to bloggers. Silverman said PR firms are giving them free products to review without all of the appropriate information.

“Dealing with bloggers in an ethical manner and treating bloggers with the same respect as journalists is another area of concern we’ve seen in recent years,” Silverman said.

Being the chair of BEPS makes Silverman in charge of Ethics Month, which takes place during September. Silverman’s main goal this year was to overhaul the “Ethics” section of the PRSA website.

She incorporated new social media scenarios (changed from “case studies”) and updated the ethics quiz. She also scheduled Twitter chats with new professionals, Google+ hangouts and a webinar, which is now available for download to PRSSA students.

“Ethics is a year-round activity as far as I’m concerned,” Silverman said. “Our board of ethics is very much interested in education. Our code of ethics is not enforcement based. Since 2000, the code of ethics we’ve had in place has been educational in nature.”

Silverman also helped to develop the PRSA Ethics app, which is a free app designed as a handy resource for PR professionals.

PRSA Ethics App

In March, PRSA made its code of ethics mobile by launching the new ethics app. PRSA was looking for a way to make a handy resource with links to blog posts and ethics quizzes.

Mark McClennan, member of PRSA national board of directors, said ethics is central and essential to public relations, so why not make the code more accessible?

“The PRSA Code of Ethics is so valuable to its members,” McClennan said. “But unfortunately, usually if you want to talk ethics to people think it isn’t interesting and run away screaming. Anytime PRSA is creating fresh content on ethics, we could be pushing that out to our members so they could find it in one easily accessible place.”

McClennan said a great way to reach people of all levels from — students to senior professionals — was to create this app. The main goal was to make a handy reference for people to be able to keep updated on ethics in the workplace.

“Ethics are central to business, and people don’t necessarily always understand that but people talk about it,” McClennan said. “If you’re being an advocate for your organization, ethics is core to what’s driving the purchasing and buying decisions.”

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