I was not able to attend Cohn & Wolfe’s recent round table, which asked whether “PR is now the moral compass of a business?” But it’s an interesting topic, one that might draw guffaws from the journalistic community and NGOs—many of whom see PR as self-serving, mendacious and manipulative—while playing to the vanity of public relations professionals, many of whom have long considered their role to involve serving as “the conscience of the corporation.” That’s not a framing with which I am particularly comfortable. I’m not entirely convinced that most companies want a conscience and I suspect that formulation will have the undesired effect of marginalizing PR—since consciences tend to nag, and if PR people are perceived as the in-house nags, they are unlikely to be invited to participate in the decision-making process. But I do think there’s another way of looking at this issue, which is that if you are doing PR right, you don’t need a “moral compass.” To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that companies can get away with unethical behavior by using PR to obfuscate unacceptable activity, or to “spin” the truth in a way that makes the unpalatable palatable. Rather, I would argue that if companies are using public relations properly, considering the PR implications of their decisions during the policy-making process, they will necessarily make more ethical decisions. In this context, good PR involves asking the most elementary questions:
  • How will this decision be perceived by our key stakeholders?
  • How will this decision impact our stakeholder relationships?
  • How will this decision effect our trust and credibility?
  • How will we feel if this decision is the subject of story on network news or by a national newspaper?
These are public relations questions. They are questions that go to the heart of the relationship between an organization and the public. And I would suggest that if you can answer those questions in a positive way—the decision will be embraced by our stakeholders, will strengthen relationships, will enhance trust and credibility—then the chances are extremely high that you have made a morally-sound, ethically-correct decision. And you have done so while framing the decision in a pragmatic way, focusing in the tangible and measurable benefit of mutually-beneficial relationships rather than the abstract idea of “morality.” You have done so by arguing for the smart thing, not the right thing. In most companies, that's a much more compelling way to frame the discussion. ADD: A short video of the original Cohn & Wolfe debate can be viewed here.