18 March 2010

Does ethical PR exists only in NGOs?

Since we started our Contemporary Theory in PR class I often catch myself thinking about ethics in public relations profession. The more I read about PR work for corporations and governments the more I thought that probably only NGOs and public relations for charities can be ethical.

But recently my thinking diverted from that preliminary thought. I still don’t actually have a simple yes or no answer to the question whether only NGOs or voluntary sector can practice ethical PR (answers to questions about ethics and morality are hardly ever black or white), but I have a broader idea of what methods NGOs use to influence people. And they not always are fair play.

Campaigning by Non Governmental Organisations is not actually much different than any other PR practice. NGOs use similar tools, they aim at changing peoples’ behaviors and attitudes, they lobby to influence governments’ decisions, they use advertising and ‘sell’ their releases to journalists. What they claim is different about their work is the fact that their actions are non-profit driven, and that they act to change something for the wider society. It can be a change for the environment, for human or animal rights, to protect peoples’ health, etc.

Their acting for a change, however, although might seem to be ethical (because for a good cause) often uses different forms of unethical tactics to reach their goals. One of them is giving inaccurate figures to the media (what Greenpeace itself admitted while Shell Brent Spar incident in 1995). They also reach out to our emotions, and as Denise Deegan author of “Managing Activism” explained it – they do it ‘in forms of influencing feelings by using emotional arguments that appear to be supported by scientific facts’. This does not sound ethical. 

Deegan also observed that ‘when activists launch a campaign, the media tend to take them at face value, reporting their arguments first, immediately placing those targeted in defensive position. The organization is assumed guilty until it proves otherwise…” This gives NGOs’ certain advantage over corporations.

I’m not trying to defend any industry or attack activists. I still didn’t find the answer to the above question. I can only argue that perhaps ethical practice takes its roots from personal integration. Whether the cause of a certain campaign is good or bad often also depends on the place from which we sit.

What do you think?


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