Public relations ethics - what ethics?

1 JANUARY 2003

Two recently published papers by a Charles Sturt University (CSU) public relations academic suggest the discipline and practice of public relations is an ethical minefield with little to guide those who work in the field.

CSU's Dr Johanna FawkesTwo recently published papers by a Charles Sturt University (CSU) public relations academic suggest the discipline and practice of public relations is an ethical minefield with little to guide those who work in the field.
 
Dr Johanna Fawkes, senior lecturer in public relations at the CSU School of Communication and Creative Industries in Bathurst, said while there is abundant theory, it is often vague and idealistic, offering little help to baffled practitioners.
 
“One could argue that public relations as a discipline and occupation has a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality which has contributed to the loss of public trust,” Dr Fawkes said. “PR plays a significant part in the work of businesses, government and voluntary organisations; poor, misleading and unethical communications are widespread in all sectors, yet ethics often receives scant attention.”
 
The two papers are titled, Interpreting ethics: Public relations and strong hermeneutics, and Saints or sinners? Competing identities in public relations ethics. (See publication details at end.)
 
“My examination finds that public relations ethics is confused and often superficial in its approach. It relies heavily on traditional theory, with only occasional reference to more recent developments in professional ethics, particularly feminist and global ethical perspectives,” Dr Fawkes said.
 
“I argue that the central ethical tension facing public relations as a field lies in its divided ethical identity. The particular contrast is between the idealized codes of conduct which conjure images of wise counsel balancing duties to client and society, and practitioner-led expectations that they are advocates and should privilege clients over society.
 
“Both papers suggest it’s time for an urgent rethink of PR ethics and one way forward is to understand that while both positions tell part of the story, neither is the whole truth. So a new approach to ethics means recognising that the aspects that individual members of the profession choose to accept or reject - as in, ‘I provide information, you do propaganda’ – need to be taken on board before meaningful ethics can be constructed.”
 
Dr Fawkes uses the ideas of Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, to bring new insights to the field of professional ethics. She has presented these arguments to international conferences in recent years, including a meeting of oil industry PR people in Aberdeen, UK. Dr Fawkes notes there is increasing interest in this issue as more professional communicators realise the importance of ethics in theory and practice. She is currently writing a book on the topic for Routledge publishers.
 
Find out more about the CSU Bachelor of Communication (Public Relations) here.

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