Tempted to Look the Other Way?

Each September, PRSA recognizes Ethics Month as a way to bring increased attention to the core foundation of the communications profession. Programming this month includes “Bots, Misrepresentation and More: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas in Digital Communication” on Sept. 27 from 3-4 p.m. Please visit prsa.org/ethics for updates on programming.

It was a party atmosphere one afternoon as bank employees drilled open safe deposit boxes that their owners had abandoned. They took inventory of the contents, which were to be sold with proceeds going to the state. One box contained a Rolex watch that an employee slipped on her wrist, trading it for her inexpensive watch.

“A watch is a watch,” she said. No one challenged her. She went home with a stolen watch.

Eventually, the theft was reported. The thief lost her job and faced criminal charges. The other employees — the ones who looked away when they should have spoken up — damaged their careers and reputations.

If one of those bankers had said something as simple as, “Remember to put the Rolex back” or “I’m listing a Rolex watch on the inventory,” it might have spared everyone a good deal of pain.

As PR professionals, we may never need to prevent a crime, but we should be prepared to prevent a self-inflicted wound that can instantly tarnish a corporate or professional reputation that took years to build. For our own protection, and for our clients, we can’t look away when we are aware of questionable behavior.

When we become PRSA members, we agree to follow the association’s Code of Ethics, which includes the values of advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. Turning a blind eye to a questionable situation contradicts those values.

  • If we ignore an issue, we cannot share our specialized expertise and provide the objective, independent counsel our clients and employers have a right to expect from us.
  • When we are silent, we are not responsible advocates for those we represent. That is unfair to them and perhaps to others, such as employees, investors and the general public.
  • When we look the other way, we do not follow the highest standards of accuracy and truth that reflect our value of honesty.

Our colleagues or clients rely on us to provide ethical communications guardrails, just as they rely on attorneys to stay on the right side of the law. Without our specialized training, they may not be aware there is an ethical issue to consider. A good starting point for a conversation is the question many of us were trained to ask in difficult situations, “How would we feel if we saw this in the media?”

PRSA Ethical Standards Advisory 15, available to PRSA members, includes many more questions to consider, including:

  • Are our actions open, honest and truthful?
  • Is the action or situation truly reflective of a responsive community citizen?
  • Who does our behavior bother?
  • Who does our behavior affect?
  • What ethical principles or standards of conduct are involved or at issue?

As PR professionals, we have an obligation to speak up when we know something is illegal, unethical, inappropriate or just plain stupid. It may be awkward to sound the alarm, especially if we are the only one. But using our expertise and values to prevent problems and protect reputations is precisely what we are paid for.

Meredith Libbey, APR, MBA, is a member of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and the Accreditation Marketing Committee and is past president of the Nashville Chapter.

[Illustration credit: Stickerside]

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