While the underlying tenets of ethics are consistent, regardless of the type of work we do, there are different aspects of the code that we prioritize, based on our specialties and subject-matter areas.
Some professions are highly regulated in terms of legal requirements and processes — health care, financial services, and gaming and lottery are just a few. The role of ethics, which is clearly defined by actions and accountability, impacts these PR departments on a daily basis. In other PR roles, ethics are less circumscribed but still essential to performance and outcomes. Both have their advantages and challenges.
Here, we explore those perspectives with insights from a cross section of PRSA Georgia Chapter members, who have diverse roles in the profession.
We asked them: “What is the leading ethical challenge in your industry and how do you address it?”
While there are threads of consistency throughout all these contributions, what stands out are the distinct ways that these organizations are responsible to their stakeholders and how they view that through the lens of ethics.
PRSA Georgia president-elect, Elyse Hammett, APR, is vice president of marketing and communications for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and leads the nonprofit foundation’s marketing PR team. “We match the passions of philanthropists with the 4,000-plus nonprofits across the region,” she says. “The free flow of information between the donor and nonprofit is seminal to our success, but is textured by the fact that more than 90 percent of our donors come to us because we safeguard their name. Anonymity is pre-eminent. The PRSA Code of Ethics sits on my desk as a constant reminder to uphold our industry’s provisions of conduct and keep my team focused on the pursuit of excellence.”
Tyler Pearson, director of public relations for WellStar Health System, shares a similar perspective on anonymity, but for a different reason: “In health care public relations, patient privacy is the most important aspect of our job,” he says. “We have an ethical and legal obligation to protect our patients and their health care information. WellStar is a not-for-profit health system, which means that we have a responsibility as a community asset to share information with the public. Transparency is an important part of who we are as an organization and a communications team, but it cannot come at the expense of the patient. To be successful, we always put the patient first.”
Transparency and accuracy are foundational to financial services technology companies such as Fiserv. Ann Cave, Fiserv’s director of public relations and a board member of PRSA Georgia, says that accurate representation is a key component of ethical PR practices. “In the technology industry, we’re continually seeing new innovations — new services, new products and new ways for people to use them,” she says. “It is incumbent on PR professionals who work with technology companies to familiarize themselves with how the technologies they represent work, in order to make sure they are accurately representing new functionality and capabilities. An understanding of the principles and concepts of how things work will make you more confident in your execution.”
Therese Minella, APR, is the communications director for lottery with Scientific Games. She shares the sentiment of transparency and accuracy within the highly regulated $276-billion global lottery industry, whose net proceeds fund programs for education, senior citizens, transportation, the environment, health and welfare. “Our 40-year company is grounded in ethics, integrity and security,” she says. “As part of the global communications team, I have the responsibility to ensure that all statements and materials are 100-percent accurate — if we don’t have supporting data or documents, we don’t publish a statement. We work closely with our legal team to make sure that everything we communicate is transparent and, above all, accurate. Consumers — those who play lottery games — must trust in the integrity of the games or our lottery customers will not be successful in their financial missions. Players must trust that everyone has a fair and equal chance to win our lottery games, so we manage our business with the highest standards of ethics and security to make sure this happens.”
The agency challenge
By learning the ethical considerations that different industries face and how PR teams address these issues, we see how our practices align and diverge. As an independent counselor, I work with clients in several industries including health care, technology, automotive and consumer products, and need to keep up with ethical issues in each of these areas. Small and large agencies have the same challenge of monitoring multiple industries:
“Ethics don’t change. But the situations we find ourselves in do — particularly as media evolve and the world gets smaller,” says past president of PRSA Georgia, Mark Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, executive director of Golin. “Agency practitioners face the dual challenge of staying ahead of what’s going on in our business and in all our clients’ businesses. That means that culture and training are essential. At our firm, we ask ourselves ‘what would Al do,’ because Al Golin has always put trust first. Second, we train our employees constantly and make time to talk about issues that happen elsewhere so everyone can learn from them.”
Alexis Davis Smith is the CEO of PRecise Communications and president of the Black Public Relations Society of Atlanta. She shares insight on partnering clients with social media influencers (SMIs) as a growing part of her practice. “With the popularity of SMIs comes challenges with pay-for-play issues,” she says. “We originally worked with bloggers and SMIs who had an authentic tie-in to a product or would review a product objectively. Now, so many brands come to them for endorsements that SMIs are more likely to ‘give love’ to whomever pays them. Ethically, I believe that SMIs should challenge themselves to associate with brands that truly align with their interests and likes, and strive to be more authentic.”
Page 100 of the APR Study Guide states: “Ethics connotes the process you follow to decide what is right or wrong.” It seems so cut and dry, but it often isn’t. Annette Filliat, APR, recalls her study of ethics while gaining her PR Accreditation and applying that to higher education, as the communications manager for Institute Diversity at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a board member of PRSA Georgia. “During the APR process, we learn about general ethics principles of public relations, which include acting in the public interest and dealing fairly with all publics,” she says. “In the U.S., there is an opportunity gap in STEM education, particularly among women and underrepresented minorities. Georgia Tech is committed to advancing a culture of inclusive excellence that is open to all perspectives and intellectual pursuits and advocates for mutual respect among faculty, staff, and students."
Gary McKillips, APR, Fellow PRSA, is particularly dialed in to this conversation as ethics committee chair for PRSA Georgia. He is also the managing director of The McKillips Group and a sports correspondent for AP Radio. “In sports, as in any other aspect of business, ethics must be constantly on the minds of PR professionals,” he says. “That often means dealing with teams, individuals and products that are extremely visible and possess great brand loyalty. Working with top management to ensure that internal biases and external influences do not interfere with ethical decision-making is one of the key roles of the sports PR executive.”
The success of any insurance company is largely built on trust, says Daniel Groce, senior communications consultant with Allstate Insurance Company and a committee chair for PRSA Georgia. “Trust that the company will pay a claim promptly and fairly, trust that a customer’s personal information is protected, trust that the company is helping the customer select the right coverage,” he says. “Ethical behavior in every facet of the business is key to building and maintaining that trust. Each year, every Allstate employee is required to complete ethics training as a condition of employment. We’re committed to operating with absolute integrity, which helps us make the right choices.”
Ethics is about doing the right thing, but there can be so many layers to that. The PRSA website has many ethics resources, and the pages have guidelines and good language to share with your clients should any issues arise. These sections are worth revisiting and reviewing periodically, but here is where we can all start: “I pledge to conduct myself professionally, with truth, accuracy, fairness and responsibility to the public.”