Published on September 24, 2019, at 10:32 a.m.
by Emma Bannen and Whitney Blalock.
Every public relations professional, student and educator is familiar with ethics. But what does this buzzword really mean in action?
The Public Relations Society of America’s code of ethics is the industry standard for ensuring ethical conduct. It reads, in part, “To conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness, and responsibility to the public.”
“Being an ethical PR professional starts with being an ethical person,” said Collin Burwinkel, an assistant account executive at Ketchum.
It involves establishing your own ethical code, finding an organization that aligns with your values and forming open communication pathways with those around you.
Honoring your own ethics
With the PRSA code of ethics as your guide, develop your own custom code. Think about morals and values that are important to you and what you’re not willing to compromise. Where do you draw the line? What tasks or assignments would you not feel comfortable completing?
Andrew Cook, an assistant account executive at Edelman, said open conversations with his college professors and professionals in the PR industry paired with real-world ethics initiatives through the Public Relations Student Society of America helped develop his own moral foundation.
Even activities that are not necessarily PR-related can contribute to developing your ethical code. CJ McCormick, managing account supervisor at Ketchum, credits her work with her university’s newspaper as an important factor in establishing her personal ethics. Reporting for the paper taught her to be detail-oriented, as well as truthful and fair in the way she quoted her sources.
You know yourself best, so examine what you believe at your core and go with those gut inclinations.
Once you’ve formed your personal code, honor it. Siarra Hollingsworth, a senior consultant in healthcare communications at Booz Allen Hamilton, said it is imperative you stay grounded in your roots and true to who you are.
“It’s really important to never compromise your morals because, at the end of the day, your reputation is what you have to take with you,” said Hollingsworth.
“In life in general — inside of work, outside of work — you have to be you, you have to represent yourself,” explained Hollingsworth. “You’re no longer this collective group of students or just your friends anymore; you really branch out and you have to stand your ground.”
Seeking an organization with similar values
When searching for an internship or job, carefully research organizations to find the best fit. It can be easy to apply for every open position and jump at each opportunity in the hopes of securing a job, but finding an organization that aligns with your morals will make all the difference.
Hollingsworth encouraged exploring the company’s website, meeting for coffee and informational interviews, and visiting the headquarters to get to know the organization’s character on a deeper level. Familiarizing yourself with the people who make up the company will give you a glimpse into the culture, values and ethics of the organization.
“I evaluated the organizations that I was looking to work for, and knew I wanted to go somewhere where ethics was at the forefront and that they were going to make the right decisions, going to work with the right clients,” said Hollingsworth.
For Cook, learning about Edelman’s three core values — relentless pursuit of excellence, freedom to be constantly curious and courage to do the right thing — is what drew him to the company. Edelman’s values aligned with Cook’s, a great fit.
“At Edelman, we have a really strong culture and everyone is encouraged to do the right thing,” said Cook. “It’s a really supportive environment and there’s an expectation to live up to those ethics.”
Always remember it is important to interview the organization just as much as its employees are interviewing you. Finding an environment that aligns with your morals where you can thrive is vital, and doing your due diligence in researching the company will certainly help.
Burwinkel echoed this sentiment, saying that he chose Ketchum because its morals aligned with his own.
As Hollingsworth noted, “It’s so easy to feel like you can’t take the reins on this and that they have to pick you, but you have to pick them, too. It’s important that you feel comfortable and supported and happy.”
Building relationships and open communication
Once you’ve found an organization that aligns with your values, it is essential to begin building relationships with your colleagues. Get to know your supervisor or the person you sit next to. This familiarity will make it easier to seek guidance if you encounter an ethical dilemma.
PR agencies can foster success and avoid ethical crises by establishing open lines of communication and promoting relationships between co-workers. When people feel comfortable with whom they work, they are able to openly discuss ethical dilemmas and tackle them together.
Burwinkel said that having good relationships with managers is “embedded in the culture” at Ketchum. “When you have that good relationship with your supervisors, you can really have those open and honest conversations,” he added.
Strong relationships between supervisors and those they manage facilitate open communication about ethics. It is crucial that agencies and individuals create space for those conversations to take place when needed.
As the former intern manager and a current senior account executive for Porter Novelli, Kristen Ellis held weekly meetings with her intern to facilitate “two-way communication that was open and easy.” She wanted this time to be free for the intern to bring up any questions or concerns they had.
Ellis said, “When you don’t fear being reprimanded, you’re more likely to talk to your superiors about something that potentially makes you uncomfortable, knowing that they respect you as a professional and trust your intentions.”
Cook added that building a trusting relationship with your supervisor makes it easier to approach them with any “grey area” questions that might lead to miscommunication. Sometimes ethical dilemmas simply stem from a misinterpretation of what is being asked.
Establishing strong ties with co-workers will put you ahead of the game when it comes to ethics. It is always beneficial to have someone to go to when you face an ethical challenge. The more comfortable you are with your co-workers, the easier this will be.
Being ethical is simply the expectation of any PR professional, not an added qualification, said McCormick.
Acting ethically is always the best option, even if it’s not the easiest. Though ethics may seem like a daunting concept, following this process will allow you to identify and maintain your own ethical code.
Although new technologies and trends will arise, the standards of “honesty, transparency and fairness” will always be the benchmark for ethical PR, according to Ellis.
In the words of McCormick, “The situation will change, but the fundamentals will always stay the same.”