Writing for a Lesser Evil?

Posted on January 19, 2011

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In this week’s discussions, my Journalism Professor asked if a Public Relations writer’s values needed to align with the organizational values.  It’s an interesting question because it’s complicated.  What if you are an independent practitioner?  Your clients may vary greatly especially in the beginning until you decide what niche fits your skills.  You could be working for a pharmaceutical company that you believe in and find out later that they fudged some research to push a dangerous drug on the market.  I think PR pros face similar dilemmas all the time.  Whether it’s standing in front of a camera on the evening news or on a beach in Louisiana.  Ethics are foundational to figuring out your next move.  Luckily Public Relations has organizations like PRSA with formal guides and resources to shine some light on it.

Our professor asked us to compare two company websites and look at the press releases.  It’s funny how I can now look at soft drink company press release and see what is being emphasized from a PR perspective.  But here’s my two cents on  the question of a writer’s values measured against the organizational values:

 I feel a public relations writer does not have to believe in all the values of the organization.  Any organization, especially larger corporations, will have some conflict with the community it operates in.  Whether it is health related, economic or sustainability, someone or some group will have issue with its values.  But does a public relations writer need to be ethical?  ALWAYS.

The professions of public relations and journalism have codes of ethics.  Public relation writers have a tough job.  The promotion of a company who manufactures tobacco products seems to contradict, but the writer should think in terms of a code of ethics. 

The Public Relations Society of America, PRSA, teaches PR pros to follow the code and to follow an ethical decision-making process by asking certain questions.  The association offers programs and education about ethics.  Ethical issues can often times lead to legal issues of libel and defamation.  For public relations writers, it is essential to protect their own reputation as well as the organization in an ethical manner.  This is not about spin, but about communicating the good story.  Even in a negative situation, the company can bring about good.  The information can be brought to light early to the public and done openly with a genuine desire to correct the situation. 

The writers who create public relations materials have to weigh the ethics of a situation regardless of their personal values.  If the situation is unethical; then it isn’t right to try to fool the public.  But telling a good story about a corporation giving back to the community it operates in, is still worth telling regardless of whether personal values 100% align or not.  Is it a matter of choosing a lesser evil?  I think it’s really a matter of bring the positive aspects into focus while being honest and genuine.

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