“Truth is the foundation of all effective communications.” That’s the opening sentence of PRSA’s excellent rebuke of the term “alternative facts.” As professional communicators, none of us would question that. In these challenging times, it’s worth reviewing a few other basic premises in the PRSA Code of Ethics that guides our profession.
LOYALTY: We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.
The independence statement harkens back to speaking truth to power. We are obligated to provide objective, honest facts and truth to those who employ us. We are not “yes” people. I used to explain this to my clients within the scope of our first one or two meetings, and everybody would say yes, they understood. Well – they didn’t always. When a company hires and employee or an outside contractor, the assumption is that the person hired will do as told. We are in the position of being sure we do what’s right first. I overheard a hilarious conversation between a nurse and a doctor this weekend, who had just met at a gathering, and were laughing when the doctor said “Nurses are critical – they save your butt!” The nurse told the story of overriding a physician’s orders at one point, because those orders would have killed the patient. She wrote up her own orders, which could have gotten her fired, but the physician later thanked her for her foresight.
We’re not quite in that position, thankfully. But any amount of time we spend training the management team about what’s ethical and legal, and explaining the possible ramifications of any given situation is time well spent.
This of course feeds into the loyalty statement: we are faithful to those we represent, but at the same time we have an obligation to serve the public interest. If a chemical has leached into the ground from a company’s operations, it’s in the public interest to be informed of any danger that chemical poses to the public. Whether or not the company wants to release the information is not the point. This kind of situation plays out across the country nearly every day. However, if the public interest is endangered, it’s my belief that the public interest takes first priority and the public relations counsel must work to ensure the company understands and takes the appropriate action.
To echo an excellent speech by NBC news anchor Lester Holt, the best thing we can do in these challenging times is continue to do our jobs. Do your homework. Be honest. Be accurate. Build good mutual relationships. Build trust. Tell your story. Be fair. Be loyal. Advocate for our profession. And serve the public interest as well as those we represent.
Kathy Hubbell, APR, M.S., Fellow in PRSA, is the 2014 William W. Marsh Lifetime Achievement Award winner. She founded the Montana Chapter of PRSA, has served as the Pacific Northwest District Chair and has served on PRSA’s national board of directors. She is a co-author of the 2016 PRSA Career Guide with Aaron Sewell, and serves the Oregon Chapter by working on the mentorship program and providing guidance on ethical matters. Kathy has a 35-year career in public relations, and enjoys teaching PR whenever possible and working with private clients.