Integrity

Integrity

pr-buttonI love my job — both of them. By day, I am a publicist for an airline, and by night, I am an adjunct professor in a university’s mass communications department. I fell in love with public relations my sophomore year in college. I had no idea people made a “career” out of being puppet masters; but it was much more than that, as I would come to learn throughout my undergraduate years.

One of the things I learned during my studies and early career days was the need for honesty and integrity in public relations. That’s a given, I used to think, but I am learning more and more that nothing — especially morally sound professionals — is a given.

Last night, the topic of discussion in my introductory public relations class was ethics. I spend an entire class period (three hours and 10 minutes) on the importance of ethical behavior in business and public relations. Ethics is defined as moral principles that govern a person’s or group’s behavior. More importantly, ethics is:

that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions. 

So why is it that so many practitioners are willing to turn a blind eye to doing the right thing just to achieve 15 minutes of fame for their clients? Is the need for publicity that important? Do the ends really justify the means?

One of my past clients asked me to intentionally lie to a reporter, and when I refused, he lied to his business partner and blamed the resulting bad publicity on me. Naturally, the business partner was furious and I took a little flack for it, but I still had my integrity and good name. In the end, I explained everything to the business partner without throwing my client under the bus. The business partner was able to piece things together on his own and quickly realized what transpired, but I felt awful. I was angry that I was put into that position; angry that I had to defend myself and my position; and angry that the business partner ended up being portrayed negatively. I ultimately stopped working for the client because I could not continue working for someone with less than ethical business practices. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time I walked away from a client, and it wouldn’t be the last. 

Recently, I found myself in a similar situation, and I had to ask myself, ‘are you being sanctimonious, or is this really a situation where you need to stand on the side of truth?’ Truth be told: I’ve been in this business for 17 years and I plan to be around for at least another 17. As more and more practitioners enter the public relations field and business are started and evolve, there will likely be additional opportunities for your principles to be tested. Personally, I refuse to bend my principles or sacrifice my integrity just to pacify a client or make nice with my boss. My reputation is important to me. While most people can justify their professional decisions by claiming a separation of church and state, my name is my personal brand and my word is my bond.

My mom used to tell me that honesty is the best policy, and that is what I teach my daughter and students. The truth may be less than ideal or sting for a moment, but in the long run, you and those whom you represent will be better for it. My advice to anyone who is ever in this position, “always speak the truth — even if your voice shakes.” 

For more information on how to navigate ethical dilemmas, visit the Public Relations Society of America’s ethical guidance resources page or seek the counsel of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

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