THURSDAY 9 JUN 2022 3:00 PM


In the first of a monthly series on ethics, the PRCA Ethics Council’s Co-Chair, Mary Beth West, explains why ethics should be the alpha and omega not only of public relations but of business itself, with PR practitioners acting as the voice of conscience for their organisations.

The public relations industry stock-in-trade of cultivating brand reputation and trust has continued to weather changing expectations, demands and transformation. For any public relations leader with the benefit of perspective from at least a decade or more in the business, there can be no arguing this point.

But what element hasn’t changed since Day 1 of the dawn of this industry?… 

…The role of Ethics — and stakeholder perceptions of well-guided, authentic ethical conduct by CEOs, boards and management teams — as the universal lynchpin of brands enjoying the full fruits of what PR can deliver in competitive reputational value. 

It’s from the bedrock of this foundation that PR practitioners and consultancies need to advocate for their own roles as the “voices of conscience” for their organisations. 

But they sure as hell shouldn’t exercise this voice simply from within the comfortable confines of their own little team silos — which arguably is one of our industry’s worst faults (preaching to our own choirs and crying into the wilderness of our own industry echo-chambers). 

To that point, as an industry, we’ve long lamented that our own megaphones for “doing the right thing” and shepherding management decisions that are fully defensible in courts of public opinion are stymied by lack of access to management leaders themselves, to invoke common-sense, requisite influence from the stakeholder perspective — upon which PR rests its finger firmly on the pulse. 

In short: we in PR all too often criticise from the comfort of our armchairs the messes management makes, due to our not having adequate voice in the first place to divert errant or unethical decision-making before it can render harmful or even catastrophic PR damage to a brand. 

For decades, we’ve wrung our hands at our own lack of power and influence.

We’ve commiserated ad nauseam with our fellow PR colleagues about the should’a-could’a-would’a of our clients’ or management teams’ bogus judgment calls that may have been prevented, if only we had known there was a judgment-call-in-the-making, in the first place.

We’ve collectively scratched our noggins about how to change PR’s status-quo — and to be viewed, at long-last, as a most indispensable voice in the management huddle.

These self-pity gyrations really need to cease. 

Speaking for myself as one with about three decades of industry experience, this whole scene is rather a bore. We should be better than this. If we’re not, then we simply get what we deserve, in the form of more-of-the-same (undervalued voice, under-compensated work, tail-wagging-the-dog management expectations).

The solution — in my view — is quite simple. 

If PR practitioners can assume a mantle of authority underpinned by a robust command of business and operational ethics — and not simply of communications ethics — then our ability to elbow our way into decision-making circles and have our counsel not only heard but valued will cash in a fundamental shift in how PR is perceived, as possessing and delivering quantifiable benefit. 

“Purpose,” ESG, Diversity, WFH / Workforce Development… these issues are but some of the hot buzzwords of the industry right now, not to mention within boardrooms. 

But if these conversations don’t begin and end with ethics as the drivers of why they matter and how they’re addressed as well as communicated, then we (and our management teams) are all just riding a great, big merry-go-round of lip-service and likely undelivered promises. 

The Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Ethics Council is working with industry partners such as the London-based Institute of Business Ethics and the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics & Compliance Initiative to generate new, relevant, and original research insights to help carry the ball downfield in how PR commands a presence with management leaders. 

The work we’re undertaking and seeking to share globally holds promise to elevate our industry’s command of Ethics issues and to forge a universal reputation for PR’s senior-level subject-matter expertise, across the full complement of diverse challenges confronting all sectors and industries. 

Stay tuned this year for these insights — including forthcoming columns in Communicate Magazine. 

And in the meantime, consider how you and your PR colleagues integrate Ethics into your value proposition for clients and management teams. 


Have ideas or experiences you wish to share? Then please contact me, at 
Mary Beth West, MPRCA, is the co-chair of the PRCA Ethics Council and serves as a senior strategist for Fletcher Marketing PR in the United States and can be followed on Twitter at @marybethwest.