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In Praise of Secrecy
The ethical foundations of public relations.
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 O'Malley Communications

by Peter O'Malley
O'Malley Communications

When pondering ethical matters in the abstract, there is a natural and powerful tendency to want to reach personally comforting, and perhaps truly inspiring, conclusions, even if it requires that we overlook the obvious.

Such appears to be the case with the Code of Professional Conduct of the Canadian Public Relations Society. It preaches that ethical professional conduct for public relations practitioners has something to do with promoting "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth" in public communications. While this notion might be truly inspiring, it nonetheless ignores what public relations actually is all about -- namely, the advocacy and dissemination of the partisan viewpoints of those who engage our services, for the benefit of those who engage our services.

Contrary to what the CPRS Code says, the real basis for defining how we serve the public good, and for our ethical professional behaviour, is not founded in any set of transcendent values, however inspiring they may be. Rather, our ethics are embedded in the terms of the contracts we freely enter into with the clients we choose to serve. As with lawyers, the deal is not complicated. We agree to use our expertise to promote the interests of our client -- as ultimately defined by the client -- within the parameters of the law, in exchange for which they compensate us, usually in the form of cashable cheques.

In some specific instances, a client's true interest may lie in complete openness, transparency and disclosure in their communications, and even in tub-thumping to draw attention to their story and message. In such situations, we have every reason to be candid, open and forthcoming. We may even get to hire brass bands, barkers and clowns, balloons and airships to get the client's message out, thus fulfilling our sensible ambition to be enlighteners of the public, with a mark-up.

In many instances, however, the client's interest may lie in seeing that particular facts never see the light of day, and if they do burst forth for all to see, to minimize the impact, duration and even the clarity of any resulting reporting and public communications. This is called crisis avoidance, and damage control. As we all know, it constitutes a large part of what we do for a living. It is also what many clients most value of our work as PR practitioners.

In crisis situations where a client's real or perceived culpability in a matter is low, damage control can be, and usually should be, approached in manner that may happily promote "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth". (Example: the Tylenol crisis, where the company was seen to be a victim). In crisis situations where the client's perceived or real culpability is high, however, damage control almost always means being highly selective in what is said publicly, and in being very careful about when and where anything at all is said. (Example: Bhopal, or the Exxon Valdez crisis.)

In all instances, on both practical and legal grounds, effective public relations means not lying or defaming. But when perceived or real culpability is high, damage control inherently requires that engaged PR practitioners not volunteer facts they may know which may be true and may even be important to getting at the "truth" of the matter, but the disclosure of which would be harmful to the client's interest. 

And it frequently requires being steadfast in characterizing a "nearly empty" bottle as being "almost full". We may like to call all this "focused messaging", but in plain language, it means being highly selective in the presentation of information. Ultimately, it may mean being disingenuously mule-headed, and even secretive. In many settings, this may serve the client's interests, but it does not serve to enlighten the public.

If it is true that, as a profession, we are not, fundamentally and at all times, in the "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth" business, does it then follow that there is therefore no ethical foundation for what we do? I say, not at all, because there are a set of socially-sanctioned and important propositions around which to anchor our professional conduct, once we move beyond the silly idea that we are really journalists, once removed from the news copy.

  Next page > An Ethical Foundation for Public Relations > Page 1, 2

Peter O'Malley is an Ottawa-based communications consultant who has been a member of the Canadian Public Relations Society for 15 years, and has served on the Board of Directors 
of the Ottawa Society. |  

Copyright O'Malley Communications Inc. (Reprinted with permission)

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