By Gerard Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, 2012 Chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America; and Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards
The year 2011 could be described as a somewhat difficult period for public relations ethics. There were a few high-profile ethics scandals earlier in the year, including Facebook’s attempted smear campaign against Google and a major New York firm setting up a dubious blogger campaign in which it tricked food bloggers into writing about a gourmet food sampling that used frozen food items.
And now, the year is ending with allegations of extortion, bribery and intimidation against a former client by the CEO of a leading publicity firm, as reported last week in The New York Times.
It’s not exactly a stellar way to cap off what has been, on the whole, a strong year for the PR industry. Private equity firm Veronish Suhler Stevenson reported in September that the U.S. public relations industry concluded a remarkable five-year growth period in 2011, reaching $5.7 billion in annual client spending. By 2015, VSS anticipates annual U.S. spending on PR will nearly double to $10.9 billion.
Heading into 2012, there are some encouraging signs coming from the field of public relations ethics. The response to the Public Relations Society of America’s 2011 Ethics Month activities indicates that interest in learning about ethical communications practices is rising. Those activities included:
- An international #PRethics Tweet chat with PRSA’s counterpart in the United Kingdom, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.
- A free webinar, “Social Media Ethics: Letting the PRSA Code of Ethics Guide Your Behavior,” attended by more than 150 professionals.
- An ethics roundtable discussion on rescuing corporate reputations at risk.
Another encouraging sign for 2012: the Federal Trade Commission plans to introduce more robust online advertising disclosure guidelines in 2012 as part of a broad overhaul of its advertising and marketing regulations. As PRSA noted in formal commentary it filed in August with the FTC, enhancing online advertising and marketing disclosure guidelines is vital to ensuring that the disclosure of corporate relationships, motivation, compensation and other pertinent factors is maintained as the basis of all forms of marketing and communications, including emerging practices like social media and online contests.
With that in mind, here are a few ethics issues that PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards will be monitoring in 2012:
- PR firms representing dictators. An issue PRSA has taken a strong stance against, this is a slippery slope for the PR industry. Every person or organization has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.
- Ethical use of interns. A 2011 update to PRSA’s Code of Ethics made clear our belief that it is unethical to not provide some type of compensation to students who perform work for an employer. In the coming year, PRSA will take a three-prong approach to eradicating this pernicious issue: advocacy against the use of unpaid interns; research into the effect that unpaid internships have on PR students’ future career success; and education efforts aimed at informing internship supervisors on the issue.
- The growth of brand journalism. As media fragmentation continues relatively unabated, look for more companies in 2012 to explore brand journalism by hiring their own “reporters” to produce brand content and news. While brand journalism is enticing, companies will need to carefully weigh its ethical perils.
- Maintaining PR’s ethical standards in the digital age. The rapid rise in the adoption of technology and use of social media has been a boon for the public relations profession. It raises concerns, though, over whether proper ethical and professional standards are always in place. We will continue to explore necessary updates to the profession’s ethical standards in order to meet evolving practices and technology.
Gerard Corbett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is 2012 chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America. Deborah Silverman, Ph.D., APR, is chair of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.