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Ethics under scrutiny in USA

September 21, 2011


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September in the USA has been declared ‘Ethics Month' by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), with a range of activities, blog posts, debates and webinars underway in America as well as joint-venture social media collaborations between PRSA and CIPR in the UK.  All Global Alliance members must sign up to the GA Code of Ethics and this month, as part of an occasional Global Alliance interview series with our member association leaders, we ask Rosanna Fiske, PRSA Chair and CEO to expand on their ethics discussions.



Global Alliance:

In their Harvard Business Review article Michael Porter and Mark Kramer say that: "companies remain trapped in an outdated approach to value creation that has emerged over the past few decades"..... and .... "companies must take the lead in bringing business and society back together"... Can public relations help companies to take the lead on business ethics?  Particularly when many believe that public relations does not have its own house in order when it comes to ethical practice? If so, what do you believe practitioners should be doing?

Rosanna Fiske: "Although there are differences, business ethics and public relations ethics go hand-in-hand. If a company does not respect ethical standards in how it communicates with its publics, both internally and externally, how can it say it has high ethical standards in its business practices? Given that a CEO will spend a good majority of his or her career communicating, whether orally or in writing, with various audiences, it stands to reason that a firm should respect and adhere to stringent ethical standards in its public relations, in order to ensure it is leading its industry in business ethics.

Public relations practitioners can aid in this process by being vigilant in training executives and their clients in the ethical standards of public relations. Going back to PRSA's "Business Case for Public RelationsTM," it all starts with a firm understanding of how public relations has a direct impact on a company's bottom line. Public relations professionals should be vocal in helping executives understand that without proper respect for ethics in public relations - transparency, honesty in communications and a commitment to aiding society's decision-making process - the company's value and reputation will be diminished if not damaged".

Global Alliance: How ready is public relations to ‘take up the challenge' espoused by Elliot Schrieber in his PRSA blog post?

Extract: " PR has a new challenge. It can continue to call for social responsibility programs that often sound like "soft diversions" from value creation, which is the first order for a CEO, or PR professionals can refocus to help companies find social problems for which the company's resources and competencies can make a real, recognizable difference."


Rosanna Fiske: "Mr. Schrieber's commentary is spot-on. He is alluding to the relatively new concept of shared-value CSR, which espouses corporate social responsibility programs that aren't just a superficial attempt in a company's community relations, but achieve real results that have a positive impact on both society and a company's bottom line. That's a big change from what public relations has been focused on for many years concerning CSR. But it's one I think the profession is well primed to tackle.

As we continue to look for more ways to demonstrate public relations' real business value, it is important that we demonstrate not only the intangible value of CSR, but its financial value. The challenge - and this is one I think PR is well suited for - is to do so in a way that does not come off as overly opportunistic. Given that public relations practitioners are well suited to communicate a company's values to a variety of internal and external audiences, I'm confident our colleagues will achieve what Mr. Schrieber advocated."

Global Alliance: What do you believe is the key role for public relations associations when it comes to meeting this challenge?  What is PRSA going to do once Ethics Month is over?

Rosanna Fiske: "Ethics is at the heart of everything at PRSA. It is part of our mission, part of the fabric of the organization and a core component of every strategic goal we have. So a focus on ethics does not end when Sept. 31 rolls around. Rather, it continues forward with a renewed focus by our members, and the broader profession, for the role and value of ethical communications. I said this from my first day stepping onto this post.

I've been encouraged by the positive feedback we have received so far to Ethics Month 2011. Many professionals, some PRSA members and some not, have written blog posts, Tweets and sent me emails discussing their commitment to ethics in public relations. That leads me to believe that ethics in public relations is something that PRSA is not alone in "living"; it is built into the fabric of modern public relations." 

Global Alliance: As a result of Ethics Month will PRSA be updating its Code of Ethics or still maintain the process of advisories?

Rosanna Fiske: We will continue to maintain the use of Professional Standards Advisories (PSAs), which are considered direct extensions of the PRSA Code and have the same force and effect as any provision within the PRSA Code of Ethics. The PSAs are developed by our Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, which has oversight of the PRSA Code of Ethics. PSAs serve to keep the PRSA Code timely. They provide practitioners with specific and current guidance to deal with new situations and circumstances as they arise in the daily practice of public relations, thus keeping the Code intact as a basic instrument of practical guidance.

Global Alliance: The PRSA and CIPR held their #prethics tweetchat this week - what was your view of the conversation?  What issues did it flag or highlight as a priority for PRSA?

Rosanna Fiske: I was very impressed with the level of interest and excitement for ethics in public relations, especially as part of this first-of-its-kind transatlantic Tweet chat. While some may scoff at a monthlong celebration of #PRethics, we firmly believe it is a valuable endeavor that helps our members and the broader public relations profession rethink the role of ethics and reaffirm their commitment to communicating in a fair and honest manner.

I co-wrote a blog post with Jane Wilson, CEO of the CIPR, that reflected on the first #PREthics Tweet chat and offered some key points that we found of interest. PRSA is hosting Ethics Month Tweet chats at 3 p.m. EDT every Tuesday during the month of September. The hashtag is #PRethics.

Global Alliance: How well has the ‘Ethics Quiz' been received?  Have many people completed it - and what sort of understanding of the Code of Ethics has it shown?

Rosanna Fiske: "Of all the Ethics Month activities we provide, PRSA's Ethics Quiz is perhaps our members' favorite. Given PR professionals' competitive nature, this isn't all that surprising. But what is a bit surprising is the level of interest they have in measuring their ethics knowledge against their colleagues. Time and again, we see PR professionals taking ethics seriously, which is very encouraging.

What we find most valuable with our Ethics Quiz is that it provides our Board of Ethics and Professional Standards with immediate feedback on which ethical standards practitioners widely understand and which tenets need to be readdressed during upcoming BEPS webinars and other activities. So it is an educational tool that's greatly received."