Ethical PR – your business depends on it

There is a runaway trolley hurtling down a railway track. On the track ahead, five people are tied up and another is tied up on the side track. You have two options:
1. Pull a lever, diverting the trolley to the side track, where it will kill one person
2. Do nothing, meaning the trolley will continue down the track and kill five people

The trolley problem is a highly debated ethical dilemma that, although hypothetical, signifies the seriousness with which real world ethical decisions must be made. However, ethics in PR was not always taken as seriously as it should have been.

Ethical PR through the years
The period of 1850 to 1905 was named “the public be damned era” due to efforts among PR professionals to achieve coverage at any cost. This unsurprisingly led to unethical practices.

Following the dawn of the 20th century, key players in the industry strove to direct PR professionals to more open, ethical and socially responsible forms of communication.

Nowadays, the major PR associations refer members to ethical Codes of Conduct. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Code of Conduct states that members must deal with other professionals and the public honestly, fairly and with respect, while adhering to the legal and regulatory frameworks of all countries where they practice. The CIPR has also developed an interactive Ethics CPD module that all members should complete.

Why ethical PR is important for you
Failure to conduct PR activity ethically can severely damage your company’s reputation. At Stone Junction, we consistently comply with the CIPR Code of Conduct, which allows us to carry out campaigns in an ethical and effective way.

PR is about building relationships and this relies on trust. To gain and maintain the trust of the media, the public and the client’s stakeholders, we only release content to the media that is truthful, transparent and in line with the client’s corporate values.

How to act ethically
The concept of the trolley problem was recently tested on 200 volunteers. Each volunteer was shown two cages, one with five mice in and one containing a single mouse. The volunteers were given 20 seconds to decide whether to do nothing, meaning a non-lethal electric shock would be applied to the cage containing five mice, or to press a button that would send a shock to the cage containing the single mouse instead. (Please note, no electric shocks were actually administered, though the volunteers did not know this would be the case at the time).

84 per cent of the volunteers pressed the button that they believed would shock the single mouse. This suggests that, when faced with an ethical dilemma, most people make their decision based on the predicted outcome.

In PR practice, before everything you do, consider the predicted outcome to help you determine whether the action is ethical.

If you’re faced with a challenge and you’re not sure how best to act, give us a call on 01785 225 416 or e-mail

Ellie Clifford

Stone Junction is a cool technical PR agency based in Stafford. We work for all sorts of businesses, with a particular focus on technology, technical and engineering companies. We like being sent cake and biscuits by clients, journalists and prospects.

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