By Anne Marie Scanlon | Edited by Thi Tran 

Ethics in public relations is critically important, an absolute must in today’s professional media landscape, and at the crux of our practice — public relations is, after all, built on reputation and earning trust. Yet few realize that public relations remain largely an unregulated industry. In episode 3 of Deep Dive, host Tamara Stanners and Cam McAlpine, Past President of the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS) and Principal at Earnscliffe Strategies, guide us through the vast and murky waters of ethics in PR. As a seasoned PR professional recognized for his integrity and ethical approach to communicating, McAlpine champions fact-based information sharing, and transparent PR practices, and examines the intersection between personal and professional decision-making. 

PR professionals work to build their client’s profiles and safeguard their reputations in the event of a crisis. But we also have a duty to share fact-based information with the wider community; it is a delicate balance between serving a client’s interests and being transparent with the public. McAlpine reminds us of the definition of public relations, as defined by the CPRS: “Public relations is the strategic management of relationships between an organization and its diverse publics, through the use of communication, to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals and serve the public interest.

So what can a PR professional do when confronted with a conflict of interest? McAlpine shares his ethical path forward and says that ethical decision-making is achieved using both your personal values as well as a professional lens. He sees ethics as the professional standard: the external framework provided by industry associations such as CPRS, for example, which have their own Code of Professional Standards

Using your own internal compass — is another important tool in the decision-making process. When faced with an ethical dilemma, ask yourself: does this client or message align with my personal values and beliefs? Can I stand behind this product or person at home? What are my gut instincts telling me? The intersection between ethics and morals, McAlpine says, is where your ethical decisions in public relations are made and it’s critically important to address both if you ever find yourself in a situation where ethics can be buried underneath client demands and expectations. 

How often are PR practitioners faced with ethical dilemmas? Not as often as you may think, says McAlpine. However, he notes that the vast majority of PR firms are highly reputable with high standards of ethics and codes of conduct. What is the best way to find out if a PR practitioner is ethical? Just ask. Does the firm have a code of ethics they abide by? Are they members of CPRS? Can they provide you with a list of past clients who can speak to your integrity? These are all insightful questions that McAlpine encourages clients to ask any PR firm or consultant they’re considering working with. 

Today, it’s hard to think of something more urgent and more necessary than working towards creating a world that is fair, just, and inclusive. As PR professionals, we are at the forefront of messaging, and we have the opportunity — and a great privilege — to create what is reflected online and in the media. But as McAlpine reminds us, “opinion does not stand in for truth.” It is our responsibility to fight against misinformation and to facilitate meaningful conversations by shepherding fair, honest, and fact-based information. This is how we move conversations forward and create lasting impact in our communities. 

Listen to the full episode to learn more about ethics in our profession and what we can do to keep truth-telling at the core of public relations.