Hillary Clinton has accepted money from lobbyists and has faced scrutiny over past and possible future work of the Clinton Foundation, while Donald Trump has come under fire for allegedly using money from his charity foundation to settle legal disputes and for his financial entanglements that could pose significant conflicts of interest if he were to serve as president of the U.S. Commonly labeled as the “transparency” problem in the current presidential race, these matters shed light on a noticeable focus on ethics that has become pervasive in political and business circles, including the highest level of enterprise in our country.
In the past couple of weeks alone, I have worked with attorneys writing articles on ethics topics for a national business publication and a trade journal for construction industry professionals. One of those lawyers, Robert Zafft of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, a teacher of business ethics at Washington University in St. Louis, also writes the “EthicsTalk” column published by the American City Business Journals. Giving credence to the high alert for ethics issues, Zafft points out that nearly 80 percent of business schools require an ethics-related course and, according to Google Trends, interest in “business ethics” over the last three years has consistently ranged between 50 and 100 percent of peak search.
Professionals and watchdogs from all walks of life are thinking, talking, writing and counseling about ethical practices in diverse industries. As public relations and marketing professionals, we too must always think about ethics in the context of how we advise law firms and attorneys on making sound decisions about the messages and content that we help them disseminate to the public.
There’s a Guide for That
At its core, ethics is about doing the right thing. But how many of us truly take the time to ruminate over and read up on ethics in public relations?
For starters, a code of ethics for PR professionals is a real thing. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) has published and regularly updates its Code of Ethics, which addresses moral and situational challenges by providing actual examples of misconduct. It’s a good guide that, along with our own judgment and experience, can help us serve our clients and ourselves with high regard for ethics.
Taken a step further, organizations such as PRSA and others offer ethics training programs that review various codes of ethics and opportunities to discuss real-world, right-or-wrong dilemmas.
Just Because You Can …
Just because something is legally permissible doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ethical. This especially applies to legal PR pros, whose job is to help guide lawyers and law firms. Attorneys, of course, generally know where the lines are that can’t be crossed. But what about an attorney who wants to refer to herself or himself as an “expert,” for example?
This is a real and regular occurrence, despite the existence of American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Content advising against it. If a marketing or PR advisor sees it happening, it’s certainly an ethics best practice to say something.
Maintain Credibility and Protect Your Client’s Reputation
Let’s assume – and hope – that outright lying is off the table. We all know what it means to “spin” the news, though. Wrapping news in an interesting narrative is prudent and strategic, but too much embellishment or distorting of the facts can cross ethics boundaries and quickly make a good media relationship go sour. If the news is not positive, it’s better not to comment at all. Delivering facts and useful information builds credibility for a publicist and, by association, your client, whose reputation depends on being viewed as a believable and reliable news source.
PR pros, particularly those who work with attorneys, also often work with confidential information. Ensuring one’s credibility involves maintaining confidentially and privacy as it pertains to each applicable law, guideline or, in some cases, just common courtesy.
Think Like a Journalist
It’s an old adage: If you want to pique interest in your story among reporters, think like they do. This can work in writing press releases and pitches, and in strategizing how to pitch a story to the media. Why not take it a step further?
As a former journalist, I may be a little biased on this point, but despite the bad rep that the media may have from unwittingly serving as political pawns during the current election cycle, most legitimate journalists really do try to uphold high ethical standards. On the other hand, a certain amount of bias is part of a publicist’s job. When something crosses the line into half-truth or worse, that’s when to channel your inner Woodward and Bernstein and ask yourself, “Is this really the most ethical way to get my message across?”