Archive for the ‘spin’ Tag

Is there anything called ethics in PR?

Time and again, Public relations has been associated with all things unethical – lying, spin-doctoring, and even espionage. Many critics argue that there can be no ethical public relations because the practice itself is akin to manipulation and propaganda. Or how else would you justify those PR agencies who deal with the tobacco or ammunition clientele?!

There is considerable body of evidence to prove that modern PR practices have thrown ethics out of the window. To list a few popular spin doctors of the industry, Hill and Knowlton who have many a scandals in their kitty. Max Clifford, the famous media manipulator who honestly admits that telling a lie is sometimes necessary and he’s proud of being able to do that. Alastair Campbell, communicator, writer and strategist had a major role in justifying USA’s attack on Iraq.

 An unfortunate belief among many journalists, policy makers, and laymen is the belief that the term ‘public relations ethics’ is an oxymoron: either an unreal possibility, or smoke and mirrors to hide deception.

Take coca cola India for example. The fizz giant is struggling to brush away a series of scandals by trying to spin the facts and shed their responsibility. The bottling plants have been discharging toxic wastes into the sacred rivers; the only source of harvesting for the farmers, have reduced the underground water tables to an all time low and have been careless about pesticide traces in the beverage.

On the other hand, a fashion retailer deserves a mention in terms of being ethically and morally upright in their PR practices. I once presented a case study in my fashion PR class about Monsoon Accessorize which is now a global brand with 1000 stores. I have never come across a more environmentally responsible and socially contributing company ever. And hey, if twisting some facts and hiding some malice is what PRO is ought to do for a client, then I think it’s high time they learn from Monsoon.

But Simon Goldsworthy, a senior lecturer in PR, Westminster University says in an article in PR Week that, “BBC journalist Andrew Marr says we must all deviate from the truth every now and then – he says ‘a day of honesty would be enough to finish most of us’Could you imagine a world where PROs spoke freely about every single worry affecting their company? Of course not. It would be a foolhardy PR professional who would say a client has big problems.”

At times, telling a lie just becomes a necessary evil or a part of his duty towards the client. PRO owes full responsibility to keep up the reputation of his client at any cost.

Max Clifford Founder, Max Clifford Associates says in the PR Week February 2007, “The only mantra I work to is that your duty is to your client. If I’m not comfortable lying, I won’t do it, but there will be plenty of other agencies lining up to take the business. All PROs at all levels lie through their teeth. I lie on behalf of a cross-dressing MP, a prominent businessman who is having an affair with a man, and a gay footballer. Always the aim is to keep their identity out of the press. There’s only been one footballer who was revealed to be gay, and he hanged himself. I know the ruin that will befall these people if news gets out. Here the truth is destructive – I lie because there is no choice.”

The current state of ethics in public relations practice depends heavily on codes of ethics adopted by every company and individual practitioner. Truth as said is very relative. A former editor of The Observer once said, “There’s your truth, my truth, and then there’s the real truth.” It all boils down to an individual’s choice of how much can he compromise with his moral values and where does he choose to draw a line. Same stands true for a company.

Non profit PR v/s the other sectors

” Charities is the only sector that practices ethical PR and all other sectors mainly practice spin or propaganda”

 

Being a part of this debate, i had to support one side of the statement that yes, charities is the only way to do good, ethical PR for a simple reason that charities work for a philanthropic cause and not for scaling profits. So who cares what means were adopted to achieve a noble end! ” greater good for a greater number”. But unfortunately, the world isn’t like a black and white grid of chess board that it would be so easy to seggregate the good from the bad!

My conclusion about this debate like all other debates is that if there have been a series of scandals in the corporate sector and our politicians (whom we love to hate) have been caught doing propaganda just to cash in more votes; the NGO sector has also had its fair share of bad press and public scrutiny. NGO’s have also been attacked as a puppet at the hands of corporate giants who aim to cash in more credibility for their CSR activites on behalf of the charity they loop in. And in return for their favour, they end up getting huge sums of donations!

It could be argued that NGO’s are also selling a “product” of contented conscience for two main motives 1) To gain more media attention 2) For more donations 3) Win more supporters. But there is a difference in the approach and the end result. They are not serving the way trade unions or trade associations do.

Trevor Morris in his book “PR- a persuasive industry” says that NGO’s are engaged in a sophisticated transaction where there are no tangible goods involved or a conventional exhange of services. But customers end up buying a contented afterglow after contributing money or investing their time. Good PR at work ensures sustainance of volunteers or donors.

According to the international journal of Not-for-profit law, volume 8; january 2006: there has been a gradual erosion of confidence in leaders, institutions of governments and corporate houses. The paralysis and poor performance of these groups who promise to serve for public good have given an endless stream of scandals and have shattered public trust. in such a scenario, NGO PR emerges as a credible source of information in an effort to address the deficiencies.

The key points that came out from the debate were:

Credibility and transparency are the two main credentials which an NGO seeks to have because that leads to more donations and good publicity. But this is impossible to achieve without being ethical. Since NGO’s are not accountable to any governed body; thus,PR techniques used by NGO’s should be subject to greater scrutiny to ensure long term public trust.  

NGO sector has to be more ethical in terms of practising PR to mobilise the cause that they believe in with no underlined selfish motive. otherwise, it fails the very purpose of being n the voluntary sector. The attitue has to be self(less) and not self (ish)

NGO PR would ideally not wait for a crisis to occur and act with profound responsibility towards all citizens; unlike other sectors who indulge in CSR only if there is a crisis, an emergency or bad press.

NGO PR believes in building a “brand image” through long-term relationships with its donors and media, active campaigning and spreading awareness without calling it an act of “PR”

NGO’s use tool of persuasion in order to bring about awareness and change in the public opinion towards an issue or a problem. Unless persuasion doesn’t cross the line of propaganda, spin or astroturfing, it is acceptable!

Diksha

Related articles:

How to get media attention for your cause: http://nonprofit.about.com/od/nonprofitpromotion/fr/attentionreview.htm

Issue management: http://nonprofit.about.com/od/mediarelations/tp/issuesmanagement.htm

propaganda: http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Pentagon_military_analyst_program

coke zero indulges in astroturfing: http://www.thezeromovement.org/