Professionals in conversation in board room

By Dionne Clemons, PhD, Mission Partners Expert in Residence, Strategic Communications

For more than 15 years, I taught undergraduate and graduate public relations students the theoretical and practical foundations of strategic communications management. One of my favorite lessons to teach was on ethics and the importance of being an ethical advocate for the organizations my students would serve. I would explain what being an ethical advocate meant by reminiscing about the good old days of working in public relations and having to tell my boss that no, they can’t deny families with school-aged children access to the housing development being built; or yes, we’d have to get trademark approval from a brand to use its likeness in our promotional materials.

Having toggled between academia and practicing strategic communications, I understand the role that communicators play as ethical advocate.

Case in point, while serving in a senior level communications role for a social service nonprofit, our executive director directed my staff to secure our customers’ job offer letters with their salaries so that we could promote the success of our job core program. Our customers were more than willing to share their offer letters to us. But since offer letters include personal information such as salary and benefit information, it was my difficult job to inform the executive director that we would not be asking our customers to give us this private information; explain the privacy concerns around this ask; and present an alternative promotion of job core program’s success.

Every day it seems, as public relations practitioners, we are the ones who are our organizations’ dream killers. Often, our leadership thinks our only job is to convince donors, volunteers, constituents, or other stakeholders to donate, to volunteer, or to follow – through the messages and images we conjure up. But in real life, we walk a fine line between advocating for our organizations, their missions, visions, and values; and protecting and giving voice to our organizations’ audiences.

Our job is also to take professional responsibility to understand the opinions and interests of our organizations’ stakeholders—employees, volunteers, board members, policy advocates, and most importantly, the people in our communities—and to take them into consideration when decisions are being made on their behalf by our organizational leaders. Although public relations practitioners work to serve the client, excellent practitioners recognize that when stakeholders’ opinions and interests are considered in the decision-making process, the outcome is mutually beneficial for the organization and its audiences. Ethical persuasion is defined as the ability to, “treat others with respect, understanding, caring, and fairness; to explore the other person’s viewpoint, explain your viewpoint, and create resolutions.”

Public Relations or Propaganda?

Well, it depends. I often say that the difference between public relations and propaganda is where one’s values lie. As a public relations practitioner, I am highly skilled at using timing, research, statistics, stories, framing imagery and language to persuade a person to believe what is being presented. Our moral principles—what we believe to be rules of right conduct—guide our decisions when we apply all that we know to create content designed to persuade our audiences’ attitudes, values or behaviors. Having the skills to persuade is such a powerful tool that we must act in accordance with a personal code of principles, as integrity is one of the cornerstones of ethical behavior.

We can refer to many examples in media where organizations make poor communications decisions for the sake of profit only to be publicly shamed and forced to apologize as a result of the backlash. Changing how content is created starts with our understanding of the powerful role we play in shaping messages and what we are accountable for within these roles.

Responsible Advocacy Theory

Since 2000 Edelman global public relations has released its Trust Barometer. In 2020 its findings reveal that an organization’s ethical behavior determines whether or not their audiences trust them. Every day we have the great privilege and responsibility to create media that will be consumed, believed, shared and possibly acted upon. The Responsible Advocacy Theory explains that within public relations, practitioners must compare the harm and benefits, respect others, guarantee the public interest, safeguard human dignity and maintain justice in communication. When we as public relations practitioners frame our work through the lens of responsible advocacy we become better servants to our clients, their stakeholders and ourselves.

The T.A.R.E.S. Test

The T.A.R.E.S. Test is a five-part test that came out of a body of research that studied public relations ethics. These guiding principles can help us when we are making decisions on when and how to persuade:

  • Truthfulness of the message;
  • Authenticity of the persuader;
  • Respect for the persuadee;
  • Equity of the persuasive appeal; and
  • Social Responsibility for the common good.

With each strategy developed, every image selected, and any message crafted, we as ethical advocates must put our work through the TARES test to ensure ethical efficacy.

Ethics in Action

Nearly 30 years ago Dr. James Grunig, University of Maryland Professor Emeritus and public relations theorist, and a team from the International Association of Business Communicators, began to develop what is now known as, “Excellent Public Relations.” These researchers wanted to know the value of public relations and communication to an organization.

The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics and the International Association of Business Communicator’s Code of Ethics echo the principles of Responsible Advocacy Theory and of the TARES Test, serving as additional resources to reinforce the importance of ethical advocacy within the communications practice.

The Mission Partners’ team is committed to adhering to ethical public relations decisions and working with integrity. Our company values lie at the core of all of what we do.

As communicators if we want to make a difference and affect change for our clients, that work begins with our deliberate effort to guide ethical decision making and to produce work that is for the common good and has societal value.

Continue the Discussion with Dionne

We invite you to formally meet Dionne on August 27 at 5 p.m. ET for our Community Conversation with her, where we will dig deeper into what it means to be an ethical advocate—for both our organizations and our audiences. Register here.