Personal and professional ethics

Richard Evans’s post yesterday on Influence got me thinking; a similar question was posed to the President-Elect candidates during the election (and I can’t for the life of me find my reply).

Ethical practice is the hallmark of any profession, and public relations is no exception. But I think it’s important not to conflate ethical practice with personal ethics.

The tobacco industry is, in a way, an easy target. Smoking has been proven to be bad for your health and the health of non-smokers, it puts a strain on health services greater than the tax revenues it generates (I assume…), manufacturers have known about the risks for decades and it is all-round considered to be a Bad Thing by everyone who isn’t turning a profit from the tobacco industry.

But choosing to work in the tobacco industry is a matter of conscience, not professional ethics – until your employer asks you to do something contrary to the Code of Conduct of your professional body. Public relations isn’t yet a profession in the sense that lawyers are – no-one has to work in an industry they detest in the way that lawyers have to represent obviously guilty mass murderers.

For the record, no – I don’t want to work in the tobacco industry.

I’d disagree with Richard though where he says that it’s the only cut & dried industry we can make this argument for (or against). Even if we do need and manufacture weaponry, do we need to sell it to others? And isn’t choosing to drink the same as choosing to smoke – a lifestyle choice that can affect others as much as yourself?

Public relations should create a common understanding between communicating parties. And in that sense I do agree with Richard that public relations can be a force for public good, by making us think more about our actions and how open, honest and transparent they are; what we say, who we say it do and what we want them to do as a result.

But ethical public relations practice shouldn’t be used as a catch-all to make up for our own inability to take responsibility for our actions. I choose not to work in the tobacco industry, for an arms manufacturer, for Stringfellows, Trump or McDonalds. That’s got nothing to do with ethical practice and nor should it, ever.

Better doctrine than dogma.

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