The evolution of ethics, revisited

The USC Center for Public Relations issues two reports: this Relevance Report that predicts trends, and our Global Communications Report each spring that analyzes them. Since we live and work in a time when truth is questioned daily, it seems timely for the industry to weigh in on ethical issues facing the public relations profession.

In this year’s Global Communications Report, we discovered that more than 90% of PR executives believe that the distribution of fake news and the purposeful distortion of truth are the biggest ethical threats we face in the future. Defense of malicious behavior and lack of corporate transparency were cited by over 80% of the respondents.

The evolving media landscape is the major driver of change in the PR industry, according to our respondents. Today, earned media – pitching and placing stories through work with journalists and influencers — remains the dominant source (50%) of revenue for PR agencies. It’s predicted to drop to 37% over the next 5 years, with shared (23%), owned (23%) and paid media (17%) picking up the difference.

Further complicating the issue, nearly two-thirds (64%) of PR professionals think that in five years the average person won’t be able to distinguish whether the information they consume comes from paid, earned, shared or owned sources. On one hand, removing editors and news gatherers from the process gives companies tremendous opportunity to tell their own story. But it also places a tremendous responsibility on PR professionals to be honest in presenting that story.

In the USC survey, we also found that over 80% of the professionals agree that everyone has a right to public relations counsel. This is despite the fact that 95% say there are organizations, individuals or governments they personally wouldn’t work for due to ethical concerns (tobacco, political candidates and firearms were the three most cited).

PR students also had significant ethical concerns about representing the same industries, with four out of five saying there are industries or clients they would not represent due to ethical reasons. Students are slightly higher about working for the cannabis industry (about half say they would not) than for pharmaceuticals (59% would not). It also appears that the alcohol, oil and gas, and defense industries may have a challenge recruiting future talent, because more than half of the students surveyed believe these fields have significant ethical issues.

Fortunately, respondents overall predicted business will become more ethical over the next 5 years. When asked specifically about the PR industry, 9 of 10 predict the profession will be the same or more ethical. This is important because three out of four students tell us that ethics play a very or extremely important role in their choice of PR as a career.

Three-fourths of professionals told us their agency or department has a code of ethics. While 92% also think the PR industry needs its own generally accepted code of ethics, only 59% believe that a dedicated organization should play the role of ethics enforcer.

From gun control to immigration, dealing with the complex issues of the future requires a new playbook, with new strategies and skills. It also demands an ethical decision-making process that is sometimes based on research, but often based on personal conscience and corporate values. Faced with an increasingly dynamic communications environment, where traditional rules no longer apply, only the truth will set us free.

To download a full copy of the 2019 Relevance Report, click here.