Despite many negative stereotypes, the public relations industry maintains high standards for conducting professional work ethically and legally that must be understood and heeded. Missteps in these areas will undermine credibility and can have wide-ranging repercussions for the organization and profession.
Being a socially responsible PR practitioner requires attention to both ethical standards and legal requirements, so readers must understand the distinction between ethics and law.
7.1. Distinction Between Ethics and Law
Ethics stem from the field of philosophy, where much attention is given to the “rightness” and “wrongness” of human actions, as they are linked to particular high-level values and codes of conduct. Ethics are self-legislated and self-enforced and can be difficult to parse because an ethical dilemma can have multiple competing interpretations, possibly with multiple equally valid choices (or no compelling ethical choice at all).
On the other hand, while laws are ostensibly drawn from ethics, they are formally and institutionally determined and enforced through policing and courts. Laws are more easily interpreted because they are spelled out as a matter of statute; jurisprudence in court speaks to how these laws have been interpreted in various cases over decades or even centuries.
In each of the communication professions, there are key legal considerations that must be understood that will either help or hinder the seeking of information to meet those goals.
In news, for example, if some of the information needed requires the use of public records, then an understanding of public records and privacy laws will indicate what records are available and how to access them.
In advertising, companies want to promote the attributes of their products, but they need to abide truth-in-advertising laws.
For public relations professionals, when responding to a crisis, everybody involved needs to understand the requirements and restrictions for disclosing information and to which stakeholders.
Socially responsible PR practitioners are not content with just staying on the right side of the law. While the law embodies a significant portion of a society’s values, individuals and organizations want to be considered socially responsible and must go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and adopt higher and more thoughtful standards.
In some cases, these standards may have a legal basis as well as an ethical one. Following these standards requires the PR practitioner to consider both “positive obligations” (what one should strive to do) or “negative obligations” (what one should not do).
The Public Relations Society of America Member Code of Ethics provides useful guidance for PR practitioners that connect to both ethical and legal responsibilities.
7.2. Positive Obligations
1) Serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those the PR firm or professional represents.
2) Adhere to the highest standards of truth and accuracy while advancing the interests of those the PR firm or professional represents.
3) Acquire and responsibly use specialized knowledge and experience in preparing public relations messages to build mutual understanding, credibility, and relationships among a wide array of institutions and audiences.
4) Provide objective counsel to those the PR firm or professional represents. For example, the best advice for a client may be to admit wrongdoing and apologize. The PR practitioner must objectively weigh this advice and offer it if it is the best option.
5) Deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public.
6) Act promptly to correct erroneous communication for which the PR firm or professional is responsible. Again, failure to do this could invoke both ethical and legal sanctions.
7.3. Negative Obligations
1) Do not plagiarize. Never, ever, ever represent someone else’s work as your own.
2) Do not give or receive gifts of any type from clients or sources that might influence the information in a message beyond the legal limits and/or in violation of government reporting requirements.
3) Do not violate intellectual property rights in the marketplace. Sharing competitive information, leaking proprietary information, taking confidential information from one employer to another, and other such practices are both illegal and ethically unacceptable.
4) Do not employ deceptive practices. Paying someone to pose as a “volunteer” to speak at public hearings or participate in a “grassroots” campaign is deceptive, for instance.
5) Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. PR professionals and firms must encourage clients and customers, as well as colleagues in the profession, to notify all affected parties when a conflict of interest arises.
You can see from the sampling of positive and negative obligations that communications professionals must weigh a wide variety of considerations when gathering and using the information to create a message. The intended audience, the purpose of the message, the intent of the communicator, the ethical considerations, the legal constraints, and many other variables help determine how to act (or not).
7.4. Ethical Responsibility
Communications professionals must also conduct their work in the context of a commitment to social responsibility. Because mass communication messages are pervasive and influential, media organizations and professionals are held to high standards for their actions.
There are three levels of responsibility that affect PR practitioners:
- Societal: the relationships between media systems and other major institutions in society
- Professional/Organizational: a profession’s own self-regulation and standards for conduct
- Individual: the responsibility an individual has to society, their profession, their audience, and themselves
Communications professionals must understand the societal implications of their work and the rules (which are sometimes unwritten) under which they operate.
Professional education and licensing have been traditional means by which society has sought to ensure legal and ethical behaviour from those who bear important social responsibilities. For law, medicine, accounting, teaching, architecture, engineering, and other fields of expertise, specific training is followed by examinations, licensing, and administration of oaths that include promises to live up to the standards established for the profession.
However, there is no law that requires PR practitioners to be licensed. Without the power to control entry into the field and withdraw the license to operate as in these other professions, PR practitioners have an even higher need to police themselves. Especially in light of the huge explosion of “fake news” being generated by individuals with political, cultural, or financial motives, legitimate communicators must defend their crucial role in society.
Strategic communications professionals face questions about their interactions with other major social institutions. There is more and more agitation for government regulation of advertising because people perceive that advertisers do not police themselves enough.
As strategic communicators have adopted social media platforms to distribute their messages, scrutiny by other societal institutions has increased. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission was so concerned about claims being made by advertisers and PR practitioners via social media that they updated their social media guidelines.
The new FTC guidelines require social media marketers to do as follows:
- Fully disclose their sponsorship of the information. If an advertiser has hired a blogger to endorse a product or service, the blogger MUST disclose that they are working for that advertiser; if a PR firm posts positive comments about its clients on social media, the firm MUST disclose that they are working on behalf of the client. Further, the disclosure must be clear and conspicuous; it cannot be buried in the fine print.
- Monitor the social media conversation and correct misstatements or problematic claims by commenters.
- Create social media policies to instruct employees about the expectations and practices that will be enforced.
The mention of company-specific social media policies leads to the next category of responsibility: the professional or organizational perspective.
In addition to the societal level of interactions, communication organizations and professionals engage in self-criticism and set standards for their own conduct and performance as information gatherers. One of the most conspicuous examples of this lies in the proliferation of codes of conduct for mass communication activities at all levels.
Public relations practitioners work closely with clients. Through these associations, legal and ethical decisions often arise as clients and publicists discuss information-gathering strategies. For example, the American Securities and Exchange Commission monitors the way corporations report their financial affairs, scrutinizing information about stock offerings and financial balance sheets for accuracy and omission of important facts. Their objective is to ensure that investors and stock analysts can get accurate information about the companies that are offering securities.
Increasingly, legal and ethical standards are holding public relations practitioners, along with stockbrokers, lawyers, and accountants responsible for the accuracy of the information they communicate to the public. When public relations professionals find themselves on the losing side of an important ethical question with a client, they may wish to resign their positions as a matter of principle.
The Canadian Public Relations Society emphasizes honesty and accountability, in addition to expertise, advocacy, fairness, independence, and loyalty. Their code of professional standards reflects the concerns of society, as well as the practitioners who adopt the code. Provisions of all ethical codes are designed, at least in part, to provide the public with reasons to have confidence in the integrity and reliability of the people who follow them. Of course, the codes are also there to help keep PR practitioners out of court.
For example, a large multinational PR firm resigned its account with a major tire manufacturer just months after landing the account. The reason was that the tire manufacturer failed to disclose to the PR firm that it knew about defects in its tires that had caused a number of fatal accidents. The PR professionals decided they could not ethically represent the tire manufacturer to the public under such circumstances and ended their relationship with the company. The PR firm’s adherence to professional and organizational standards was more important than the income that would have been generated from the account with the tire manufacturer (Miller, 2000).
There is an individual level of responsibility for behaviour. Communications professionals may find themselves confronting conflicting obligations in their work. PR work can sometimes have a decidedly ambivalent atmosphere. Public relations, as a field, is criticized for creating and manipulating images on behalf of those with narrow interests, failing to give public interest information a priority.
In confronting social responsibility, practitioners must always abide their own moral standards, but also those of their employer and clients. When any two of those are incompatible, a reassignment may be necessary or the time working together may have come to an end.
7.5. Key Laws in the Canadian Context
There are a wide variety of laws the PR practitioners must familiarize themselves with to work productively, effectively, ethically, and legally in Canada:
- Employment and labour relations legislation
- Freedom of information and protection of privacy legislation
- Human rights laws
- Tort laws
Some of these are primarily defined at the federal level and some are defined at the provincial level. Some are defined at both levels and the legislation that takes effect depends on the industry in question. For example, in employment law, approximately 90% of all Canadians are governed by provincial legislation; however, federally regulated industries, such as aviation and telecommunication, are governed at the federal level.
Depending on the sector in question, other legislation may be especially relevant, such as environmental regulations or industry-specific rules, such as for mining, food production, or transportation.
While one does not need to be a lawyer to be a PR practitioner, every PR firm should have a lawyer in house or on retainer. PR practitioners are wise to study these laws and read about cases that are relevant to their practice so that they know what is expected, what is prohibited, and when to seek legal advice (preferably before taking action, rather than after there’s a problem).
Without getting into details, virtually every organization of any significance has employees. A basic understanding the legal requirements of being an employer (and by extension, the rights of employees) is necessary to advise clients. For example, if a client is irritated that some of their employees are organizing a union, the client cannot simply fire them, nor can they harass or intimidate the employees in question. That would contravene labour laws.
Basic provisions of employment law specify minimum workplace safety and training requirements, minimum wage provisions (including overtime, vacation pay, and now health leave), requirements to allow parental leaves of absence, and basic rights of employees in the workplace. Unionized environments have collective agreements between the employer and the employees; these collective agreements and their unionized workplaces are governed under separate legislation.
Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Laws
Often known as “FOI,” “FOIPPA,” or other similar acronyms, these relatively recent laws limit what information can be collected, stored, shared, and destroyed, by whom, when, and how.
When an organization collects personal information, such as an email address, they must declare how that information will be used. For example, if a religious organization collects the names, home addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses of congregants in order to circulate information about prayer services, holidays, or other religious events, that would all seem appropriate, so long as the information was safeguarded. However, if somebody working for the organization took that list to a publisher and started working to sell religious books and movies to those congregants, a FOIPPA violation would have taken place. This would be both unethical and illegal use of the congregants’ personal information.
Human Rights Laws
A wide variety of human rights laws exist and many organizations have policies about how to apply them internally. In general, human rights laws prohibit discrimination based on a person’s ethnicity, religion, political affiliation, age, gender, sex, sexual identity, sexual orientation, disability, marital status, parental status, or other demographic information, except where it is a bona fide requirement.
As an example of a bona fide requirement, a synagogue looking to hire a new rabbi can legitimately discriminate against people on the basis of religion when hiring a rabbi. As wonderful as a spiritual leader from another faith may be, immersion in the Jewish faith and being ordained as a rabbi (rather than a Christian minister, for example) would be required. Another example would include discrimination based on physical fitness; to be a firefighter, an applicant must be able to lift a certain amount of weight. Without that physical ability, they may not be able to escape a fire or rescue an incapacitated person. However, a company looking to hire telemarketers or an office assistant could not discriminate based on either religion or physical fitness; there is no need to lift substantial weight or teach the scripture of a particular religion involved in that work.
The category of tort law is enormous and encompasses a huge amount of civil law (as opposed to criminal law). Tort law is usually settled between citizens and/or organizations where a wrongdoing has occurred where one party owed a duty to another, either through contract or civil expectation. In some cases, torts are also subject to criminal law, as well (with separate legal proceedings). The list of torts is quite long, but is broken into three groups: intentional torts, negligence torts, and strict liability torts.
Intentional torts occur when a person deliberately causes harm to another, such as through harassment, assault, property damage, or trespassing.
Negligence torts occur when a person accidentally causes harm to another through their actions or even through inaction where they had a duty to act. For example, if a tenant reports a water leak to a landlord, which the landlord ignores, only to have the leak cause a fire that damages the tenant’s belongings, the landlord could be liable for the damage done because they owed a duty of care to the tenant. The landlord should have fixed the leak because that’s their responsibility. Car accidents are perhaps the most common form of such torts.
Strict liability torts usually arise from a business-to-customer relationship, such as when a business sells a faulty product to a customer. If a restaurant serves rotten food to a customer, prompting a health impact to the customer, they could be found liable for the customer’s pain and suffering.
Most tort cases are settled out of court, but if they do go to court, the matter falls to a civil court and is usually resolved through an award of money to the plaintiff (where the plaintiff wins their case).
Public relations practitioners should have a basic working knowledge of the concepts attached to these laws, especially concerning the rights of employees, human rights, confidentiality and privacy laws, and the duties of care and communication that come into play in tort law. Further, public relations practitioners should be able to read a contract and understand the obligations imparted between the various parties of the contract.
7.6. Politics and Society
The political expectations of a society in a given moment in time is known as its zeitgeist. The passage of time, advancements in technology, influential opinion leaders, and major events shift a society’s zeitgeist.
For example, consider the dominant societal views of social issues over time, such as marriage. Over time, attitudes in North America have shifted dramatically. At one point, a common viewpoint was that divorce was unethical and should be illegal. Over time, attitudes and laws shifted. Equally, interracial marriage was seen as unethical and such marriages were illegal. Again, attitudes and laws have shifted. More recently, social attitudes and laws about same-sex marriage have shifted. The current zeitgeist takes an inclusive, liberal view about how marriage should be defined, who should be able to participate, and how and when a marriage can or should come to an end.
The focal point of electoral politics tends to be those issues where a social or legal consensus has not been reached. Recently emerging issues include sensitivity about a person’s pronouns and acknowledging the rightful claims of Indigenous peoples to their land through territorial acknowledgments. These were done to account for shifting expectations in society and to help account for historical wrongdoings.
Organizations operate within the context of their political environment and must have a clear understanding of the current zeitgeist so that they know what is generally expected of them. This is necessary to reduce the likelihood of offending stakeholders, especially customers.
While no organization can please everybody all of the time, few organizations would receive criticism in this day and age for, as an example, giving equal health and dental benefits to the spouses of their employees, regardless of the sexes of spouses. On the other hand, a company that refused to award equal health and dental benefits to spouses of employees if they were of the same sex would likely quickly find themselves the subject of negative publicity and a law suit.
Public relations practitioners must help organizations navigate such societal issues and understand the broad expectations in their political environment. The changing social, political, religious, sexual, artistic, and economic conditions of our world, country, region, and even organization need to be accounted for.
The term “political correctness” is much maligned and even weaponized, but it really amounts to describing people in the terms by which they reasonably request they be described and being respectful in communication about other people. However one may feel about the term or any of these issues, there are professional expectations that organizations be sensitive and respectful in their communications.
Many professionals find themselves in trouble because, when they communicate, they either do not know about certain sensitivities (especially when there’s an expectation that they should know) or they stubbornly refuse to apologize for errors and to adapt to the shifting realities in which they live.
Professional communicators need to use respectful, appropriate, and non-judgmental language to ensure clear, respectful, and ethical communication. Pay close attention to the issues that arise in politics and society around communication; learning opportunities abound and learning the easy way is much better than learning the hard way, which can involve a lot of unpleasantness for all.
7.7. Corporate Social Responsibility
One strategy for building an ethical organizational brand is through corporate social responsibility, which is a business model or practice that ostensibly seeks to benefit the greater society. More and more consumers support businesses that create initiatives to help communities. Corporate social responsibility can take a variety of forms, from making charitable donations to local causes to underwriting beneficial projects in developing countries.
There are several benefits to demonstrating and promoting corporate social responsibility. Organizations that do so tend to have a better public image. Consumers are willing to spend more on a product if they believe that their purchase benefits a charitable cause or addresses a social or environmental need. Strategic communication professionals play a key role in branding businesses as socially conscious through message design and brand management. Their efforts help to spread awareness of these initiatives and make them a part of the organization’s brand identity and core values.
Miller, K. (2000, September 7). Firestone’s PR firm resigns. Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/aponline/20000907/aponline231008_000.htm
Parts of this chapter were adapted from The Evolving World of Public Relations : Beyond the Press Release by Professor Rosemary Martinelli, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Professional Writing Today: A Functional Approach by Sam Schechter, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Parts of this chapter were adapted from Writing for Strategic Communication Industries by Jasmine Roberts, which is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
No part of this book was written by a lawyer and nothing herein should not be construed as legal advice.