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In Praise of Secrecy
The ethical foundations of public relations.
 More of this Feature
 Part 1: Praising Secrecy
 Related Resources
 Ethical PR: Oxymoron?
 PR Codes of Ethics
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 O'Malley Communications

by Peter O'Malley
O'Malley Communications


I offer the following four propositions which give public relations an ethical foundation:

  • We live in a society which espouses and values "freedom of the press," which in practice means that the only people who can control what is reported are those who own media, and who can therefore assign and pay the reporters, and start and stop the presses.

  • Reporters in our society operate according to a standardized set of reporting protocols and practices which, in general, shape and determine the reporting outcome, which is the published or broadcast news report.

  • Through study and experience, a person can develop expert knowledge of the standard reporting formulae. Using this expert knowledge, it is then possible to intervene in the reporting process in a manner that has a reasonable chance of influencing the reporting outcome in predictable ways. This is what public relations professionals do.

  • Finally, our society affords individuals the right to try to manage their self-defined interest in the reporting process as they see fit, within the parameters of the law. Persons can therefore avail themselves, by financial or other inducements, of the services of those who are expert in doing this.

Thus understood, the very existence of public relations is rooted in our societal commitment to freedom of the press, and to the freedom given to citizens to look after their interests in dealing with media. If you don't have a free press and free citizens, you don't need PR people. This is why totalitarian regimes deploy propagandists, who disseminate information through controlled media, but have no domestic need for PR practioners  who are skilled at influencing reporting outcomes, but who do not control it.

From these propositions it follows that the "public good" served by public relations lies in our ability to promote the lawfully-pursued, self-defined interests of those we serve. This means that the central ethical decision to be made by a public relations professional is not tactical, it is whether or not to undertake a particular assignment, and to cash a particular cheque. Further, it means that unethical professional conduct is any conduct which deliberately undermines the interests of the client, in breach of the contract with them.

It is apparent from this that it is the practitioner's personal view of the ethics of the client's interests that circumscribes their ethical conduct. PR ethics are not defined by the techniques of a public relations intervention, such as deciding what to disclose and not to disclose, to whom, when and how. Nor are PR ethics rooted in the transcendent values of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth in public communications. If we are ethical as PR practitioners, it means we choose to serve clients whose self-defined interests are, in our view, ethical. Or we clear out. Period.

So where does "public enlightenment" come into the picture? In a free society with a free press, PR and public enlightenment meet up like this: the responsibility of the newsmaker, or their PR agent, is to advance those facts and advocate those views that they want the public to receive; reporters, for their part, have a responsibility to report all the facts and viewpoints they can gather which they feel are relevant so as to allow them to present a fair and balanced account of the matter being reported. Public enlightenment should be the goal, and end result, of this dynamic process.

In practice, needless to say, this process seldom works perfectly, but in the long run, it works reasonably well, or at least better than any apparent alternative, provided everyone does their job right. However, confounding the role of the public relations professional in this process with that of the journalist, serves neither the process, the profession, our clients, or the public interest. It is, at best, a muddle-headed self-deception. Ultimately, it makes us look foolish, or dishonest, or both.

Time for a Code rethink, I'd say.

  First page > In Praise of Secrecy > 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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