Has PR been unethical?

Public relations came to be what it is today by going through phases of growth.  Sometimes in order to understand where we are going we need to look back to see where we have been and so gaining a better understanding of the profession and its history should help us make ethical choices that will help us sustain relationships already formed or that will be formed in the future.

Public Relations aren’t new practices in the United States.  Our founding fathers used a similar relationship building process to draft the Declaration of Independence and eventually was able to move masses of people to one area to deliver messages to create the saying “we the people” that led to the separation from the ‘crown’ and the creation of the constitution.

What should we say?

First recognized phase is the Publicity phase.  This particular form of public relations involves manipulating the news media to acquire positive coverage of an organization or company. In the early 1900s women were not permitted to smoke in public.  Though they were making headway in other areas involving equal treatment women smoking was not considered acceptable by the general public.  Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations, coined the term “public relations” and used it to generate publicity for the “Torches of Freedom,” a women’s movement with an ulterior motive.  Bernays, famous psychologist Sigmund Freud’s nephew, used his uncle’s terms to encourage women who otherwise wouldn’t violate society’s norms to light up in public.  He used this publicity stunt to help tobacco companies boost their sales.  It worked.  This is an example of a one-way communication model.

How should we say it?

The second phase of public relations is the explanatory phase.  This took place during the early-mid 20th Century when two-way communication was the motivating factor behind public relations.  During this phase public relations practitioners paid attention to what people thought and even sought feedback to try to help the public understand what is taking place and why.  Ivy lee played a huge part in American history when he quit his job to work as a public relations person for the New York Subway campaign The World’s Safest  Railroad” when Ivy Lee used public relations to promote the New York Subway system.

What should we do?

Finally, mutual satisfaction came when public relations realized there needed to be a shift in the cultural view of public relations.  There was a need for ethical organization public relations and these organizations need to acquire and maintain long term relationships.  The new concept of public relations changed in the late 20th century when– Scott Cutlip –a pioneer in public relations education redefined public relations as a profession as a  “management function which establishes and maintains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its publics”.

I know the top two descriptions sound ideal but each had ethical problems.  We know now that cigarette smoking causes cancer and that the “Torches of Freedom” were nothing more than propaganda for the tobacco company so they could boost their sales. We also know that Ivy Lee is famously known as “Poison Ivy” a Nazi sympathizer because of his interests in German business.  While both men play significant roles in the history of public relations they also represent the skeletons in the public relations closet.

The reputation of public relations continues to undergo damages time and time again because there always seems to be someone out there who will exploit the profession for their own selfish needs.  Instilling values and integrity through education is imperative so that the public relations practitioner will be mindful to reassess their work and ensure their publics that they are working in their best interests.


About Ajai Dittmar

There is nothing 'radical' about wanting to save your historical neighborhood! There is nothing 'negative' for wanting an 'outside investigation' done a public service that has had a lot of embarrassing news, especially when they don't do their jobs! There is nothing 'odd' about wanting politicians to uphold the Constitution they swear to uphold when they are sworn into office! Follow @sibzianna View all posts by Ajai Dittmar

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