In the PR Major this week, Laina Hughes gave a thought-provoking presentation on Lance Armstrong's recent announcement that he would give up the fight against doping charges (without admitting to the charges).
It was natural, given the topic, that our discussion should turn to ethics -- and in particular, the ethics of communicating for a client who isn't telling the truth.
To be clear: I am not suggesting (nor was anyone in the class suggesting) Mr. Armstrong has been lying about his innocence on the doping charges. If he is innocent, he is likely the only person on the planet who can say he knows this for certain -- and he's in the impossible position of trying to prove something didn't happen.
The topic, however, raised the question: would you work to help a client deceive its publics, no matter how admirable the end goal (e.g. raising millions to cure a terrible disease)?
Our personal values inform our sense of what's "right" -- objectively, what's "right" isn't always obvious.
Most of us wouldn't consider accepting a job to help Charles Manson clear his name... even if he still claimed innocence.
But it's not always that black-and-white: some of us are perfectly comfortable working to further the business objectives of a tobacco company, or a cattle producer, or a casino, or a logging company... others not.
A PR professional has every right to draw her/his own line, and decide which clients (s)he is willing to take on. Your job is just your job; your beliefs and morals are part of who you are. You shouldn't feel you have to contradict them in the interests of a paycheque (there's always another opportunity for a paycheque).
The question of whether we should be willing to lie on behalf of a client because we believe some greater good would be served by doing so isn't quite so tough.
The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS)'s Code of Ethics spells it out clearly:
A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information
If I know my client is lying, I shouldn't help him/her/it do so.
If the client is unwilling to be honest about the issue and insists that dishonesty is the only option, decline the role. If that means quitting, quit -- but don't let a client's ethics supplant your own.
Our profession has come a long way in the last century or so...
Public relations has become a management function in large organizations; our access to our publics has improved dramatically; the ways we work with influencers, journalists (in mainstream media and on blogs) and other stakeholder groups are evolving quickly with advances in technology and business practices.
... but there's still a long way to go.
Despite PR's continuing evolution, there are still journalists who refer to our profession as "the dark side," and people who think PR is about fooling the public into thinking certain things and in certain ways. And every time someone using the tools of PR helps a client to deceive its publics, they're proven right.
Reputation is everything in PR
Professional PR associations like the CPRS, Public Relations Society of America, International Association of Business Communicators, International Public Relations Association and others around the world work to combat this by developing and promoting professional codes of ethics for PR practitioners. Each of these organizations' ethics codes requires members to promise to communicate honestly and with integrity in all their dealings.
It's the only way our profession will survive.
If journalists and our stakeholders at large can't expect us to tell the truth, there's no reason for them to believe anything we say. And if they don't believe what we say, frankly, we can't add much value.
Your career is more important than your job
If a client wants you to disseminate information you know to be false, decline.
If it means you have to leave the job and find another one, so be it. It'll be uncomfortable in the short term... but you'll be happier working for someone different, who doesn't put you in that position.