Discussions of PR ethics often suffer from conceptual confusion —  about the nature of ethical challenges and the way to deal with them.

Speaking at the annual Public Relations Institute of Australia conference in Darwin last week, I was part of a discussion on the topic “who cares about ethics?” and gave another presentation on saying no to clients, managers and bosses.

The conceptual confusion stems from three things: first, sweating the big issues that rarely arise, or constitute no brainers, while ignoring the day-to-day issues that actually create most problems; second, assuming that ethical problems are unique to the PR industry; and, third confusing PR practitioners’ role with professionals such as lawyers and accountants.

In the first instance, the big issues (do you as Tilda Swinton does in the film, Michael Clayton, employ extreme prejudice against opponents?) are easy. Everyone except a psychopath knows the right ethical answer to those. Instead, it’s the incremental issues where you step across lines bit by bit — commissioning a survey using questions you know have an agreement set response bias; selectively using survey results; hiding something by trying to focus on something else; promising more than you can deliver. These sorts of ethical issues arise because of pressure to perform, worries about the job, the mortgage, the school fees — or the demands of psychopathic managers.

Another danger is instrumentalism — in political terms characterised as whatever it takes — but in more general terms looking solely at the most effective means of achieving an outcome. Instrumentalist perspectives provide, for example, a useful framework for thinking about issues such as the recent David Jones Fraser-Kirk case and the tactics of the respective PR companies. Mel Campbell  at Crikey sees the problem as Fraser-Kirk’s PR people being asleep on the job when compared with the other side, Cato. But it may have been much more complicated than that.

Without being privy to the internal agencies’ discussions it is impossible to know exactly what happened, what strategic decisions were made and why, but you can partly deconstruct the probable processes.

Litigation PR is always problematic but Fraser-Kirk’s PR agency, Anthony McLellan’s AMC, seems to have started off by trying to inflict as much public damage as possible on the other side and then moved to an approach that was a slight amount of the way towards being a model litigant. The Fraser-Kirk team, consistent with this approach, seems to have been less willing to brief heavily after the outcome than the Cato team.

The Cato team seemed to have adopted the tactic of discrediting the victim and building up the credibility of the defendant during the litigation and as a platform of reputation rebuilding post-case. The building credibility tactic was largely pioneered in Australia by PR man, Mike Smith, and the reputation rebuilding stuff is pretty standard across all sorts of crises.

No doubt the Cato team had long discussions about the efficacy and propriety of their approach. Discrediting the victim can range from legitimate questioning of credibility to the sort of tactics that discourage women from reporting r-pe cases, and along the way raises more and more questions about instrumentalism and ethics. Whatever the nature of the discussions, the outcome was to put the victim on public trial — with the assistance of the media. Was this ethical, unethical, effective or ineffective? I don’t know, but it may make an interesting case study one day.

Litigation PR shows us another source of conceptual confusion about PR ethics. There is a view that PR people — like barristers — are cabs for hire. Cato’s former partner, Ian Kortlang, was one of the major industry proponents of this view. The view is, of course, absurd. PR people have none of the customary or ethical obligations of a barrister; don’t face the same sanctions; and, have a choice as to whether they represent someone or not and what tactics they adopt. Recognising it as nonsensical, and reinstating the importance of having a choice, is an important step in thinking about not only PR ethics but ethical problems facing others as well.

Lots of people — journalists, accountants, managers, salespeople, politicians, bookmakers, jockeys (almost everyone) face versions of these incremental and instrumental challenges every day. How they cope with them and how they make their choices are frequently cast in terms contextual to their occupation even though the problems they face are not unique.

Interestingly, most of the problems are capable of being addressed by adopting Simon Longstaff’s (St James Ethics Centre) plain-words guide to making ethical choices. Do you ask the receptionist to tell the client/customer you are out of the office when you haven’t finished what you promised would be delivered yesterday? Do you take a moral and/or feminist view on harassment and shape your strategies and tactics accordingly? Do you think about issues in terms of fairness, civility and decency? Do you practise empathy and try to put yourself in the shoes of the victim/customer/client and then shape your response accordingly?

… and most importantly, do you regularly discuss these sorts of issues as part of your work?

Darwin and the Pope: A couple of weeks ago I promised to offer the PRIA Conference’s Vatican visitor, Monsignor Paul Tighe, a copy of Geoffrey Robertson’s book The Case of the Pope. I didn’t get the chance, although at his session I asked him a question — about Vatican internet filters — which seemed to trouble him a bit; and he asked me a question at my session on ethics, which troubled me a bit by raising more complex philosophical issues than I was able to deal with. After my session, we talked about Robertson’s book and he recommended I read Alan Dershowitz’s defence of the Pope. After a brief discussion about that we discovered we shared a mutual distaste for postmodernism and relativism and then fell to talking about books. All in all, Monsignor Tighe was more Fulbert of Chartres than Bernard of Clairvaux — making confrontation a little difficult.

Peter Fray

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