Assumptions of Obligations in the Public Relations Profession

In the quest to define the nature of public relations, people have developed various perspectives on what the role of public relations is within society. Comparing the asymmetrical and symmetrical perspectives of public relations, the two most prominent views in today’s scholarship and practice today, Grunig says this of the asymmetrical perspective:

Public relations is a way of getting what an organization wants without changing its behavior or without compromising. It is an alluring mind-set for most organizations. All one has to do to get what one wants is to hire a public relations person who will make you look “competent, effective, worthy or respect-powerful,” even if you are not.

He goes on to champion the symmetrical perspective, suggesting that “we believe that excellent public relations departments adopt the more realistic view that public relations is a symmetrical process of compromise and negotiation and not a way for power.” He argues that those who do hold to the asymmetrical perspective define “public relations as the use of communication to manipulate publics for the benefit of the organization.” This belief may lead some practitioners to “convince themselves that they are manipulating publics for the benefit of those publics.”

Obligations to the Organization

This contention over the fundamental nature and purpose of public relations may be what has led to a confusion of obligations for professionals in public relations. If the fundamental purpose of public relations is, for example, to coerce publics into specific behaviors for the good of the company, ethical decision making will be drastically skewed to the benefit, perhaps at all costs, of the organization who retains a public relations professional. If, however, as Grunig and many others suggest, public relations is fundamentally about serving both the organization and the public, pursuing mutual understanding and adjustment for the benefit of all parties, ethical reasoning takes on a very different shape. This is the point Fitzpatrick & Gauthier make when they claim:

Public relations professionals—as professionals—have obligations that extend beyond the profitability (however defined) of the organization represented. Responsibility to the public—or in the case of public relations, to multiple publics—must be balanced with responsibility to the client or employer.

Obligations to the Public

It is clear that public relations professionals need to have a perspective of the industry that accounts for ethical obligations both to the client as well as the public. Perspectives that limit public relations to solely serving an organization result in hindering ethical reasoning among professionals. In order to address this concern, some suggest that the primary duty a public relations professional has is to the organization but publics are still served through developing social responsibility initiatives within an organization. However, even if a practitioner is seeking to define their ethical responsibility as being a voice for social responsibility within the organization, it is still “limiting in the effort to develop standards of practice in public relations because the primary focus is on the obligations of institutions rather than on the ethical obligations of public relations professionals.” In light of this, while some debate still remains within public relations about the nature of public relations, many people suggest that the industry is one of mixed-motives, with a commitment to the client as well as the public.

Obligations to the Practice

Finally, a third duty beyond the public and company the professionals in public relations must consider when making ethical decisions relates to the profession itself. A commitment to the wellbeing of the profession among those who practice public relations is what has led to the suggestion that it would be possible, though challenging, to create a universal code of ethics. If it is possible to identify unifying duties or professional values based on the nature of public relations, then it may be possible to develop a code of conduct. Moyer suggests that ethical lapses impact not only the individual professional but also the entire field of public relations. If this is the case, it would seem reasonable that those who choose to enter the profession bear some responsibility to the profession as a whole to uphold its standards and values.

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