Commentary on Ethics, PR and the Facebook Fiasco

     Over 1000 articles have surfaced about Facebook and their recent smear campaign against search engine giant, Google. With the help of Burson-Martsteller, recently named top agency of the year, Facebook launched its attack on Google’s Social Circle service and alleged privacy issues. Clearly unethical, many PR professionals highlight Burson-Martsteller’s failure to identify Facebook as their client. However, the real problem is the firm’s involvement in a campaign that purposely aimed to taint the reputation of a company in the interest of the client.

     In my ethics class, I learned that professionals have an obligation to serve as objective counsel and act autonomously when faced with ethical dilemmas.  This does not seem to be the common practice throughout the industry. A PR Week article stated “The practice of selling in negative ideas like this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but as long as you are clear who you are working for it is considered acceptable, especially in the political world Burson-Marsteller is particularly familiar with.”   There is no denying that public relations is a business that must work in the best interest of its clients, nevertheless, should public relations as an industry be jeopardized  because of incidents like this?

     Ethics and reputation management should be practiced by PR professionals and organizations for themselves, not only their clients. The scarce resources available on ethics translates into ethic codes that are too broad and do not serve as guidelines to make a decision within organizations.  If companies and firms continue to partake in unethical practices as the one described above, public relations as an industry will suffer. This incident sets PR back to the days of press agentry when the two-way symmetrical model was not even thought of. Public relations professionals and organizations need to be more involved in the management of the industry’s brand and do some PR for itself.  We often tell clients to be transparent in communication; it is time to practice what we preach and become ethical decision makers and communicators. If we fail to do so, PR will forever carry the negative stigma that associates it with “spinning,” lying and deceit.

Resource: Shannon Bowen’s Kantian Theory and Model for Managing Ethical Issues

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