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Senior PR Pros Discuss Lessons From Ethical Crises

Holmes Report  20 Jan 2013

Public relations professionals who have provided ethics counsel to senior management are at least as fervent about serving the public interest as they are about their duty to their organizations—and sometimes even more so—according to a Baylor University researcher.

A new study of 30 senior public relations professionals found that the individuals viewed themselves as an “independent voice” in the organization and not “mired by its perspective or politics,” says study author Marlene Neill, a lecturer in the department of journalism, public relations and new media in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences.

The study, published in Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, was co-authored by Minette Drumwright, an associate professor of advertising at the University of Texas at Austin. The researchers conducted in-depth interviews with senior public relations professionals in the United States and Australia, with an average of 27 years of experience. All but three had served as the chief public relations officers in their organizations, and two of those also provided counsel in their roles in PR agencies for their clients as external counselors.

Study participants said they often were in the “kill the messenger” predicament, making it tricky to give criticism to people who outranked them and to persuade those people to agree with them, Neill said.

Speaking up on sensitive ethical issues required courage, study participants said. A few were fired or demoted for refusing to do something that was blatantly unethical;  two resigned when their advice was rejected, including one who refused to include false information in a press release. 

One individual said that the “’yes man’ has no value, no value whatsoever” in PR. Another said one reason for her good relationship with her company CEO is that “he can count on me to not always agree with him.”

Another major barrier was a common misperception among senior executives that public relations is nothing more than a tool of marketing, which limits PR professionals’ roles as problem solvers.
Crucial to their jobs is a sound relationship with their organizations’ legal counsels, informants said. So is access to key decision makers, the better to ensure “fire prevention” instead of “firefighting”—damage control in a crisis.

Neill said that participants were resourceful about how to communicate to management without seeming judgmental, using such approaches as mock news conferences and the “headline test,” in which managers were asked to imagine a good headline and a bad headline that might result from an approach they advocated.


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