Promo Fundamentals: What is Ethics in Public Relations?

By Tiara Ogabang

Ethics 101

Historically, ethics has been a highly academic field, meaning there has been much written on the topic, and most people first engage with the topic of ethics in an academic setting, most often a class in high school or a specialized college course. 

Ethical theory can be applied to just about anything in life, but today we'll be answering a very big question: what is ethics in public relations? To begin, let's offer a very basic definition of ethics. 

Ethics is understood as moral principles that dictate how a person should act in a given situation, and so ethics within the field of public relations is simply moral considerations relevant to the normal operations of a public relaitons company and its officers. 

The rest of this article will examine several key ethical considerations for professionals working in public relations

As with all discussions of ethics, there is a lot of room for disagreement and counterpoints, but we've decided to focus on ethical concepts that most professionals would agree with without hesitation. 

Honesty really is the best policy 

The first ethical topic we'd like to touch on is that of honesty, and in this case, honesty applies both to communications with clients and coworkers as well as honesty in specific marketing materials. 

When it comes to communication with coworkers and clients, being honest isn't just about working with efficiency and clarity, it's also about establishing and maintaining a sense of trust. 

Making sure that your coworkers trust you is essential to a positive working relationship that may continue for years at a time. But trust can be an especially important element of interactions with clients. 

Clients may choose to use your services after hearing good things through word of mouth or via an already established reputation within an industry, but those positive expectations need to be bolstered by your words and your actions. 

Potential Clients

Even an initial consultation is an important time to be fully honest with a potential client. You need to be honest about the work you've done in the past and the work you'll be able to do for this client. 

On the more practical side of things, honesty is also a way to explain the most likely timeline for the work that needs to be done. 

When you're dishonest with clients, even only slightly, you can imagine just how quickly wires could get crossed and lead to even bigger problems. 

Making mistakes (and making up for them) 

Continuing in the area of client relations and communication, let's discuss the ethics of reacting to a recent mistake you've made while working on a client's campaign. 

Whether the mistake is big or small, there may be a temptation to pass the buck or even try to convince the client that the mistake is ultimately unimportant. 

But in this scenario, the ethical (and difficult) choice would be to admit the mistake and make clear how you intend to make up for it. 

This is a great example of how certain actions that are definitely more ethical than others can also be inconvenient and challenging. 

However, in these cases, we hope that we have adequately explained how doing the ethical thing isn't just about easing your own conscience; it's also about doing what's best for your career in the long-run. 

If clients and coworkers can easily identify you as someone who's willing to do the right thing, even if it's difficult, then you and your career will benefit. 

Highly targeted marketing 

One of the most significant widescale ethical discussions in the world of marketing and public relations today is the topic of data mining and the highly targeted marketing that it enables. 

This is a technique that we're all familiar with by now, and unlike the other ethical topics we've covered in this article, the jury is still out on this one. 

This form of targeted marketing usually entails gathering data based on the internet browsing habits of users and using that data to curate the kinds of ads that that user will see in the future. 

Public Relations

If you've ever searched for camping tents in anticipation of an upcoming trip, then you've no doubt started to see ads for tents spring up on all kinds of other websites, even sites that aren't at all related to outdoor expedition gear. 

From a perspective of strict pragmatism, this represents a net positive change. When all goes well, this method means that the end-user in question will see ads related to their needs and interests. 

But in the early days of personalized advertising, many users expressed anger and even unease at the idea of their data being tracked and used to advertise to them, largely without their knowledge. 

This outcry even led to the first major piece of regulation applied to online data collection. 

Today, if you visit any number of content websites, you're very likely to see a pop-up notification at the bottom of the screen that notifies you that the site records cookies and other information. To make the notification go away, you'll need to acknowledge this statement or hit a button that prevents your data from being collected. 

But even with this measure, meant to increase transparency, many sites and services continue to mine user data in massive quantities, and some even sell that data to other companies. 

This form of data collection and how this data is used is something that PR professionals need top grapple with, especially in an ethical context. 

Is highly targeted online marketing inherently immoral and unethical? Not necessarily, but it's clear now that it needs to be handled with great care and delicacy. 

More importantly, decisions regarding this method need to be made on a case-by-case basis. For example, when it comes to music recommendations on a streaming service, users may appreciate a new album or artist being marketed to them if it coincides with their listening tastes and habits. 

Overall, it's a tricky topic, and in the coming years, we will no doubt see new arguments on both sides of the issue.