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PR, Ethics and the First Amendment

Published on March 2, 2020, at 6:51 p.m.
by Macy Krauthamer.

Freedom of speech is crucial to the truth now more than ever — especially when it comes to public relations. It gives United States citizens the right to express their opinions and not disparage others. To be an ethical public relations practitioner, it is essential to familiarize oneself with the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

Courtesy of Andrew Ruiz on Unsplash

“The First Amendment safeguards anyone in the communications field whether it’s journalism, advertising, public relations or marketing — whatever it is, they are all speech-based activities,” said Dr. Clay Calvert, Brechner Eminent Scholar in Mass Communication for the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project.

PRSSA blog post stated that the First Amendment permits public relations professionals to communicate openly with the public by enabling “us to offer the best communication possible on behalf of our clients without having to appeal for government approval.” However, it also allows an organization’s publics to “freely express” their opinions. PR practitioners must view the First Amendment as a responsibility just as much as a right.

“There is a certain amount to which, as a public relations professional, I have to know those laws, and understand that the way in which I communicate does have some boundaries,” said Peter Carson, managing director of public affairs at Weber Shandwick,.

One of the hardest parts of the job is advising a client on what they should or should not say. For example, it might not be a good idea for the client to say something, but it certainly, in most instances is the constitutional right of that company or individual to make that statement. Here’s the tricky part of public relations: freedom of speech can be a double-edged sword.

“The freedom of speech is almost the freedom to decide whether or not you’re going to exercise that speech,” said Carson. “It’s an awesome power to know that you can, but also to decide that you’re not going to. It’s still your choice [either way].”

Courtesy of Austin Distel on Unsplash

With the rise of social media, people expect a company or brand to have a personality. This expectation makes it critical to stay aware of what is being said online and to constantly monitor comments so that client organizations can respond in a timely manner. PR practitioners must decide what to address or what to ignore because everything stated online about an organization does not always need to be addressed.

“You can’t shut [responses] down. You have to allow the negative comments to be on there and address them, even if this has to be done offline,” said Dr. Karla Gower, professor at The University of Alabama and director of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

“It’s important that companies challenge things and speak out. Your publics can speak against you, so you should be able to speak out and share your company’s views of things too,” continued Gower.

Another difficult part of the job is following a client’s request — particularly when it does not line up with the direction, strategy or objective of the campaign. Sometimes ‘the ask’ may even be unethical. So it is important to ask oneself, “What would I want to know if I were the public?” and “Is what we’re doing right?” before making a decision. The First Amendment does not say anything about ethics, so it is up to PR professionals to exercise good judgment.

“Laws are like a minimum standard of behavior, whereas ethics is often above that,” said Gower. “Sometimes to be really ethical you have to go above what the law requires.”

Betsy Plank always said that to be a good PR practitioner one needs to have strong personal morals. In a democracy, it is very important to hear all sides and especially as an ethical PR practitioner giving a voice to organizations, brands or people. As PR practitioners, it is our duty not to abuse the freedoms of the First Amendment.

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