The emergence of professional ethics in PR can be called a symbolic phenomenon, or rather, a manifestation of the ethical situation of the postmodern era. The postmodern situation, on the one hand, continues the anti-normative line of modernist philosophy, but, on the other hand, as a reaction to the avant-garde of this era, it begins to search for new foundations of human existence in a new sociocultural situation when extremes are no longer needed, but authorities are no longer in demand. The old morality, claiming to affirm certain fundamental and undeniable norms and principles, is a thing of the past, and the new one, trying to adapt to the situation of the time, has not developed its philosophical foundation. This situation is well reflected in modern ethics, which, abandoning claims to metaethics, has concluded that ethics are sometimes situational. This was reflected in the loss of the authority of philosophical ethics, perceived primarily as theoretical, but mainly in the creation of applied ethics that focuses on the needs and situations of the time.
If I were asked to conduct a “smear campaign” by Facebook, and I was one of the key decision-makers in Burson-Marsteller, I would inform the company of the ethical obligations of PR. I would recommend more effective ways of delivering Facebook’s message on data collection without targeting Google because by bringing the topic up, people will understand the basic idea. In addition, “smear campaigns” are not effective in weakening the competition due to the fact that the attacking company can become its victim. By applying the S.A.D. model, which stands for situation, analysis, and decision, it is possible to draw a plausible conclusion. The conflicting values and ideas of the given situation are manifested in the fact that one of the top PR firms dismissed the ethical standards of the industry by conducting a “smear campaign.” By analyzing the actions of both Facebook and Burson-Marsteller, it is clear that the PR firm sought to make profits and powerful allies, whereas the core ethical principles were dismissed.
In addition, Burson-Marsteller put a huge reputation risk on the entire PR industry by allowing itself to get involved in the given campaign. The decision is to hold PR firms strictly responsible for their non-adherence to the core ethical standards. Understandably, any company seeks to make profits and gain powerful clients, such as Facebook, but none of the principles should be dismissed (Fiske, 2011). Therefore, the PR firm should have offered an alternative and ethically plausible way to enlighten the issues related to Google, if they intended to do so. If Facebook’s intentions were simply based on damaging Google’s brand image and competitiveness, then Burson-Marsteller should have declined the offer of cooperation, because the firm’s long-term reputation is far more valuable than short-term gains.
Ethical Obligations in PR
Large national and international organizations bringing together professionals in the field of PR have developed their moral codes. These codes have a very different structure, and in each of them, the emphasis on a particular aspect of PR activity is most often made. This complicates the real impact of morality on the practice of implementing the RR, which necessitates the systematization of various codes and the formulation of proposals for their further development (Tilley, 2015). The focus is on whether codes should be a reflection of the prevailing value orientations of the professional community, and if they are more than a reflection, how ethics can correct ethos and to what extent moral preferences are fixed at the level of the sociology of morality form a real PR practice. Thus, the role of PR in society is immense, and it is the main reason to hold the given industry accountable.
Professional ethics in PR in this aspect of consideration can be assessed as an attempt to adapt philosophical ethics to the needs of the profession, where the old standards do not work, but require concretization and adaptation to the realities of the professional sphere, in which, according to the new economic situation, a person is assessed most of all as a professional, not as a person. The idea of social responsibility has a significant impact on the development of ethics (Jackson & Moloney, 2019). Since the influence of PR extends far beyond the framework of client organizations, so far as professionals working in this field cannot but worry about the deliberate and unintended consequences of performing their functions. This forces PR specialists to take responsibility for the development of standards of competence and behavior, including in the field of ethics. Therefore, the professionals in PR have a strong and strict set of ethical obligations to adhere to.
The adoption of ethical principles is also influenced by such a factor as the need to gain trust from the client, who, by transmitting PR information to the specialist, enters into a special relationship with him. Their specialty requires a professional to act only in the interests of the employer and appropriate guarantees, at least in the initial stages of collaboration. Here, professional ethics is effective, the stronger, the more thoroughly it is reinforced in the field of legal regulation of professional relations in a particular professional sphere (Tilley, 2015). This paradox is by no means the same in practice, although in the field of ethics, it knocks out its main fundamental property from morality – informality and freedom, as a necessary condition for the implementation of a moral act.
The case of Facebook & Burson-Marsteller is a primary example of how leading companies can collaborate to target another large organization by disregarding basic and core ethical principles. The biggest implication is the fact that the reputation and perception of PR can shift from ethically adherent instruments to ungrounded “smear campaign” conductors (Krietsch, 2011). At the same time, the need for ethics in any profession arises far from immediately. As a rule, this need arises when and where people working in this area have problems with each other, the employer, or society. Issues that can cause or cause serious damage to the image of these very specialists and prevent them from doing this business (Jackson & Moloney, 2019). It is to solve these problems that codification and normative regulation of professional activity are initially carried out from an ethical position or a moral assessment point of view because the latter has a universal assessment field for the coverage of situations.
In conclusion, today, it is obvious that the professional community is not capable of observing the ethical principles that they have developed and formally existing. External control mechanisms and measures that are directed not so much against PR specialists as against customers of their services are much more effective. One of the options for an external mechanism could be the adoption of a document having legal force, although, in fairness, it should be said that it is extremely limited in its applicability to issues of a non-legal order. Another way is the creation of public committees capable of evaluating the activities of specialists in the field of public relations from the standpoint of social responsibility, the task of which, in addition to this assessment, would also be to maintain and disseminate the very idea of social responsibility, without which it is impossible to develop ethics in any profession.
- Fiske, R. M. (2011). PRSA chair/CEO weighs in on Burson-Marsteller ethics flap. PR Daily. Web.
- Jackson, D., & Moloney, K. (2019). ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’. A qualitative study of ethical PR practice in the United Kingdom. Public Relations Inquiry, 8(1), 87-101.
- Krietsch, B. (2011). Burson-Marsteller and Facebook part ways. PR Week. Web.
- Tilley, E. (2015). The paradoxes of organizational power and public relations ethics: Insights from a feminist discourse analysis. Public Relations Inquiry, 4(1), 79-98.