The Ethical Dilemma of Public Relations

Last week I was asked how I remain ethical within the scope of public relations.

“Isn’t public relations and advertising essentially the manipulation of public perception?” This individual asked.

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 “Yes,” I nodded my head, “it generally is.” There is no denying that public relations and advertising is part psychological. You have to enter into the minds of your audience, and understand what they want. These wants may be subconscious, or they be hidden from others, not completely obvious. It is our job as communication professionals to mine these wants and to use them to our advantage — I can see how this can come across slightly villainous.

 I have been in quite a few lectures with guest speakers when they get asked a similar question. Generally this question comes out as, “Have you ever been faced with an ethical dilemma, and how did you deal with it?”

 Some speakers admit follies, moments where they caved to the pressures of the industry and continued with a campaign or a client that went against their morals; but most give examples of moments that they stood their ground, and refused to give up on their values. They decided to do what they knew was right. Not all advertising and public relations has to been seen as unethical and/or morally corrupt. Not all advertising and public relations is. In fact, much of it is done with good intentions.

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This past summer I worked on an account at the agency I interned at in which we coordinated the public affairs for a case that fought for former athlete’s rights to have compensation for their injuries. The defendants in the case agreed to settle on compensating the players — there was no getting around that their neglect resulted in the long-term injuries of the plaintiffs. Where my agency came in was to get more and more of these athletes to sign up to be a part of the class action so that they could eventually be compensated for their injuries. I would argue that this form of public relations was for the better, for a good cause. I felt good working on this account. I knew that this was for the betterment of others, not for the betterment of a large corporation, or wealthy politician who was waiting Scrooge-like in the corner for his pay-off.

 I gave this example to the individual who asked me the same question. I then went on to explain how one day I wanted to fight for environmental protection and/or human rights with the skills I have gained as a communicator. While public relations may have to seem to fallen from its grace in light of recent events, there are always those out there who strive to make a difference in the world through PR and advertising. It just takes one person to bring this to light. Let your choices be a representation of that.


 This blog was brought to you by Sara Defibaugh, our VP of Finance. Sara is a senior double major in strategic communication and creative writing. Give her a follow on Twitter @saradefibaugh.

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