In Praise of Secrecy:
The Ethical Foundations
of Public Relations


Peter O'Malley

Copyright O'Malley Communications Inc.

( Originally Published in Vox, The Newsletter of the Ottawa Chapter of the Canadian Public Relations Society. Also published in  Canadian Communications: Issues in Contemporary Media and Culture  published by Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon, Canada )

When pondering ethical matters in the abstract, there is a natural and powerful tendency to want to reach personally comforting, and perhaps truly inspiring, conclusions, even if it requires that we overlook the obvious.

Such appears to be the case with the Code of Professional Conduct of the Canadian Public Relations Society. It preaches that ethical professional conduct for public relations practitioners has something to do with promoting "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth" in public communications. While this notion might be truly inspiring, it nonetheless ignores what public relations actually is all about -- namely, the advocacy and dissemination of the partisan viewpoints  of those who engage our services, for the benefit of those who engage our services.

Contrary to what the CPRS Code says, the real basis for defining how we serve the public good, and for our ethical professional behaviour, is not founded in any set of transcendent values, however inspiring they may be. Rather, our ethics are embedded in the terms of the contracts we freely enter into with the clients we choose to serve. As with lawyers, the deal is not complicated. We agree to use our expertise to promote the interests of our client -- as ultimately defined by the client -- within the parameters of the law, in exchange for which they compensate us, usually in the form of cashable cheques.

In some specific instances, a client's true interest may lie in complete openness, transparency and disclosure in their communications, and even in tub-thumping to draw attention to their story and message. In such situations, we have every reason to be candid, open and forthcoming. We may even get to hire brass bands, barkers and clowns, balloons and airships to get the client's message out, thus fulfilling our sensible ambition to be enlighteners of the public, with a mark-up.

In many instances, however, the client's interest may lie in seeing that particular facts never see the light of day, and if they do burst forth for all to see, to minimize the impact, duration and even the clarity of any resulting reporting and public communications. This is called crisis avoidance, and damage control. As we all know, it constitutes a large part of what we do for a living. It is also what many clients most value of our work as PR practitioners.

In crisis situations where a client's real or perceived culpability in a matter is low, damage control can be, and usually should be, approached in manner that may happily promote "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth". (Example: the Tylenol crisis, where the company was seen to be a victim). In crisis situations where the client's perceived or real culpability is high, however, damage control almost always means being highly selective in what is said publicly, and in being very careful about when and where anything at all is said. (Example: Bhopal, or the Exxon Valdez crisis.)

In all instances, on both practical and legal grounds, effective public relations means not lying or defaming. But when perceived or real culpability is high, damage control inherently requires that engaged PR practitioners not volunteer facts they may know which may be true and may even be important to getting at the "truth" of the matter, but the disclosure of which would be harmful to the client's interest. 

And it frequently requires being steadfast in characterizing a "nearly empty" bottle as being "almost full". We may like to call all this "focused messaging", but in plain language, it means being highly selective in the presentation of information. Ultimately, it may mean being disingenuously mule-headed, and even secretive. In many settings, this may serve the client's interests, but it does not serve to enlighten the public.

If it is true that, as a profession, we are not, fundamentally and at all times, in the "honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth" business, does it then follow that there is therefore no ethical foundation for what we do? I say, not at all, because there are a set of socially-sanctioned and important propositions around which to anchor our professional conduct, once we move beyond the silly idea that we are really journalists, once removed from the news copy.

I offer the following four propositions which give public relations an ethical foundation:

  1. We live in a society which espouses and values "freedom of the press", which in practice means that the only people who can control what is reported are those who own media, and who can therefore assign and pay the reporters, and start and stop the presses.

  2. Reporters in our society operate according to a standardized set of reporting protocols and practises which, in general, shape and determine the reporting outcome, which is the published or broadcast news report.

  3. Through study and experience, a person can develop expert knowledge of the standard reporting formulae. Using this expert knowledge, it is then possible to intervene in the reporting process in a manner that has a reasonable chance of influencing the reporting outcome in predictable ways. This is what public relations professionals do.

  4. Finally, our society affords individuals the right to try to manage their self-defined interest in the reporting process as they see fit, within the parameters of the law. Persons can therefore avail themselves, by financial or other inducements, of the services of those who are expert in doing this.

Thus understood, the very existence of public relations is rooted in our societal commitment to freedom of the press, and to the freedom given to citizens to look after their interests in dealing with media. If you don't have a free press and free citizens, you don't need PR people. This is why totalitarian regimes deploy propagandists, who disseminate information through controlled media, but have no domestic need for PR practioners  who are skilled at influencing reporting outcomes, but who do not control it.

From these propositions it follows that the "public good" served by public relations lies in our ability to promote the lawfully-pursued, self-defined interests of those we serve. This means that the central ethical decision to be made by a public relations professional is not tactical, it is whether or not to undertake a particular assignment, and to cash a particular cheque. Further, it means that unethical professional conduct is any conduct which deliberately undermines the interests of the client, in breach of the contract with them.

It is apparent from this that it is the practitioner's personal view of the ethics of the client's interests that circumscribes their ethical conduct. PR ethics are not defined by the techniques of a public relations intervention, such as deciding what to disclose and not to disclose, to whom, when and how. Nor are PR ethics rooted in the transcendent values of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth in public communications. If we are ethical as PR practitioners, it means we choose to serve clients whose self-defined interests are, in our view, ethical. Or we clear out. Period.

So where does "public enlightenment" come into the picture? In a free society with a free press, PR and public enlightenment meet up like this: the responsibility of the newsmaker, or their PR agent, is to advance those facts and advocate those views that they want the public to receive; reporters, for their part, have a responsibility to report all the facts and viewpoints they can gather which they feel are relevant so as to allow them to present a fair and balanced account of the matter being reported. Public enlightenment should be the goal, and end result, of this dynamic process.

In practice, needless to say, this process seldom works perfectly, but in the long run, it works reasonably well, or at least better than any apparent alternative, provided everyone does their job right. However, confounding the role of the public relations professional in this process with that of the journalist, as happens in the CPRS Code, serves neither the process, the profession, our clients, or the public interest. It is, at best, a muddle-headed self-deception. Ultimately, it makes us look foolish, or dishonest, or both.

Time for a Code rethink, I'd say.

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Peter O'Malley is an Ottawa-based communications consultant who has been a member of CPRS for 15 years, and has served on the Board of Directors of the Ottawa Society.

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email Peter O'Malley