Gustave Flaubert – “There is no truth. There is only perception.”
Public relations consultants often walk a fine line with regard to what might be regarded objectively as ‘the truth’. Preventing damage to client reputations, or putting a positive spin on a product or service, can often test ethical boundaries. Some consultants adopt Flaubert’s view that it is perception that matters, that it is important to create great stories even if it is at the expense of the facts.
It is an ethical dilemma that will always exist within the PR industry: how far is it acceptable to stretch credibility when promoting a client? Some would argue that small manipulations of ‘the facts’ are acceptable to build the story, taking the view it doesn’t hurt anyone and ultimately the PR professional, client, journalist and even reader are all complicit in enjoying the charade of truth for the sake of a great story.
The question then becomes where are the limits? Would disrupting London’s rush hour causing inconvenience to thousands for the sake of a PR stunt be acceptable if it were to generate a great story and huge publicity for a client? If one causes traffic chaos in the centre of the London metropolis all for the sake of coverage, who is to stop the PR tentacles pushing the boundaries even further? At what point does the public relations industry have a moral or civic duty to the truth we put out to the world?
How can a communications industry build integrity and trust if it is willing to set aside ethics at the expense of the story? The low market barriers to entry and lack of market regulator or censure means some firms can behave with very few scruples.
Responsible agencies whether large multi-nationals or freelance professionals will always seek to act with integrity. However, as securing cut through becomes ever harder and the pressure even greater to secure a ‘big bang’ of coverage the temptation for those agencies with lower moral standards grows ever greater.
In pitch after pitch, across the marketing mix, agencies and clients are clamouring for ‘disruptive’ new initiatives. It appears some agencies have taken this adage a little too literally! The public relations industry should be mindful that if it pushes the envelope too hard the government might start placing far greater scrutiny on the behaviour and ethics of public relations agencies. While it might be welcomed in some quarters, regulation also brings with it risks of stifled creativity and expensive compliance controls.
Some in the industry may start calling for self-censorship through an appropriate trade body, or risk greater formalised interventions.