Public Relations Tactics

Counseling Ethics in Business and Society

September 5, 2017

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By Ann Barks, APR, and Pam Golden


Professional ethics are more relevant today than ever before. In the “post-truth era,” we have a unique opportunity to show character by openly championing ethics in business and society.

In the closing session of this year’s Counselors Academy Conference in Seattle in May, Hill+Knowlton Strategies Vice Chairman Tom Hoog, Fellow PRSA, urged his audience to practice “conscious leadership” by being true to the values that define our character in this profession: ethics, trust and truth. 

One thought from Hoog resonates most strongly with us: “Public relations professionals must be the last bastion of truth-tellers.” To that end, it is our responsibility and our mission to teach, demonstrate and guide our clients, staff and communities on ethics.

Choosing the right path

As PR professionals, we have all encountered clients who push ethical boundaries. When unsure of an appropriate course of action, Hoog suggests asking yourself: “Am I being moral? Am I being ethical? Am I being truthful?”

Clients are best served when we challenge them to answer these questions whenever they’re tempted to take the easy way rather than the right way.

Divergent approaches recently taken by Uber and Lyft, the competing ride-sharing companies, make a strong business case for how ethics differentiate and strengthen a brand’s reputation. Uber, whose founder and CEO Travis Kalanick resigned in July after a series of high-profile scandals, is an example of what happens when a company loses its way.

By comparison, Lyft — whose CEO Logan Green responded that he was not happy about the chaos enveloping Uber — exemplifies the importance of staying true to your values and being genuine.
When a client we represent doesn’t do the right thing, our own reputations and values are also hurt — another reason we should stand up for what we believe is right.

Preparing staff

We have to counsel our employees as well as our clients. Is your staff prepared and empowered to be an “ethical conscience” when working with clients, media and other influencers? Do you make it clear to employees that your agency must, as Hoog has said, “have a total commitment to the truth?”

A recent study found that millennial PR practitioners are ill-prepared to offer ethics counseling to clients. Called “Silent & Unprepared: Most Millennial Practitioners Have Not Embraced Role as Ethical Conscience,” by authors Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., APR, and Nancy Weaver, the study concluded that experienced practitioners must guide their teams.

In training young PR pros as ethics counselors, leaders are advised to use real-world teachable moments to demonstrate the ethics of their businesses. When an “ethical failure” is reported in the news, talk with young staffers about how the situation could have been handled better.

Creating stronger communities

It’s not genuine to be one type of person in your business life and someone else in your personal life. Our communities and families are stronger when we demonstrate ethical values wherever people encounter us.

Remember what Hoog asked us to consider: “What are my values? Am I living them every day?” This challenge should hit you right where you live.

But your community extends beyond your city or town. It also includes your social media community. Show strong character by stepping in when something happens in one of your communities that crosses your ethical standards.

Always stand up for the difference between right and wrong. Which brings us to our final Hoog quote: “Your legacy will be determined by what you gave more than [by] what you gained.” 


Ann Barks, APR, is owner of Ann Barks Public Relations, based in a suburb of New Orleans, and specializing in crisis and health care communications. She serves on the Counselors Academy Executive Committee.

Pam Golden is founder and president of GLA Communications, based in central New Jersey.  She also serves on the Counselors Academy Executive Committee and recently received a Leading Women Entrepreneurs award.

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