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Code of PR Ethics? The Gray Area of Communicating a Point of View

Do PR professionals present accurate and truthful information? A survey of 300 PR pros found 95% say “often” or “sometimes.” 

“We’re excited to announce that SlideShare is joining Scribd.”

That’s how LinkedIn, which owns SlideShare for the moment, set it up in an email to users on a Saturday night.

The message continued, “Scribd will begin operating the SlideShare business on September 24, 2020.”

It’s not a factually incorrect email, but it also isn’t entirely forthcoming. Why was this going to happen?

As an avid user of SlideShare, I found the message confusing and evasive. When I started searching around for what this message was really about: SlideShare was being sold.

SlideShare boasts 80 million users sharing, as the name suggests slides, especially from presentations or research. LinkedIn acquired SlideShare in 2012. Four years later, LinkedIn was in turn, acquired by Microsoft. According to TechCrunch, Microsoft approached Scribd to divest the SlideShare business.

So, the message “SlideShare is joining Scribd” isn’t wrong but it is omitting relevant and important information for users to know. An omission is an attribute of the classic schema for identifying propaganda developed by Hugh Rank.

Here’s another question: is that message unethical?

Accurate and Truthful?

I think I could make a case arguing the ethics either way. Professional communicators that have worked on similar messages know these things go through all sorts of review. Often the final result reflects an executive preference, but the communicator becomes the conduit.

We dug into this in the 2020 JOTW Communications Survey this year. Alongside a question about PR’s view of media bias, we asked the following:

Do communications professionals – including PR, public affairs and spokespeople – present accurate and truthful information?

Here is how the answers stacked up:

  • 2% said always
  • 51% said often
  • 44% said sometimes
  • 3% said rarely
  • 0% said never

Here is a look at those number graphically (click image for higher resolution):

PR Ethics The Gray Area of Communicating a Point of View

Like the question on media bias, few respondents said the answer was absolute. Most were in the middle: often but not always or sometimes but not often.

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PR Ethics of Communicating a Point of View

As with many of the questions on this survey, we offered an optional open-ended comment field asking “why?” for this question. Seventy-one respondents wrote in answers.

Interestingly, even those that cited codes of conduct and ethical standards from PR associations left the window cracked for being less than 100% truthful all the time.

Below is a representative sampling of those answers.

Communicators are “always” accurate and truthful:

  • Business ethics. “If they are professionals then that is what they do. The bigger question would be how many people in our business are professionals.”
  • Like mama always said. “Lying makes everything worse.”

Communicators are “often” accurate and truthful:

  • Ethical standards. “Depends on their training. As an APR and Fellow PRSA, I subscribe to the highest ethical standards.”
  • Corporate constraints. “Ethical PR folks try to present the truth but sometimes are constrained by corporate edicts.”
  • Through a lens. “I hope so. That’s the goal. Again, the truth will be through a lens.”
  • Rare in real life. “I think it’s rare that PR people lie. Maybe in politics but not in real life.”
  • Stuck in a place. “I think we’re still stuck in a place where too many corporations stick to their Talking Points, even when the facts contradict them.”
  • Wish it weren’t so. “Wish I could choose ‘Always.’ Too many comms professionals are too willing to bend to a marketing-driven version of events.”

Communicators are “sometimes” accurate and truthful:

  • Truthful but slanted. “As a former journalist, sometimes we would receive information that was untrue; there is a difference between being untruthful and presenting spin. Spin can be truthful and still slanted.”
  • Cherry-picking. “I don’t want to believe that comms people blatantly lie, but I think they may sometimes cherry-pick statistics that are more beneficial or be selective in their storytelling.”
  • Every industry has some. “I think most of us are pretty honest, but there are those who give us all a bad name. But every industry can be guilty of it. Honestly, this is why I got out of politics and into educational non-profit work.”
  • A version of the truth. “Rarely is the full truth included in a professional message. Instead, typically, some version of the truth is threaded into the message that is carefully crafted to present the point of view most favorable to the communications objective for that message.”
  • Context matters. “Sometimes, ‘accurate’ is very different from ‘accurate in the moment’.”
  • Stakeholder demands. “There are many who present information and insist on newsworthiness because that is what their stakeholders demand. Communicators have an obligation to also tell the truth internally and manage expectations. Unfortunately, that is often lacking.”
  • Profit-driven. “Too much bad behavior driven by profit motives.”

Communicators are “rarely” accurate and truthful:

  • Angles. “It’s all about pushing the angle, the spin, less and less regard about truth or accuracy.”
  • Positive light. “There is a bias towards painting a brand in a positive light.”

The Conscience of an Organization

One of the enduring and perhaps underrecognized duties of PR is to be the conscience of the organization. It’s not an easy or enjoyable job sometimes, but in the long run the organization is better off for it. People want to do business they know, like and trust. You can’t get to that place if you’re business speaks in half-truths.

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Photo by Paul R. Gómez Torres on Unsplash

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