In India, the profession of Public Relations is still perceived by many, as something that deals with wheeling and juggling with rules, hence, unethical. Some people have even been called propagandists. But there’s a big ethical difference between real public relations and simple propaganda, and here it is: (a) Public Relations is always solidly rooted in fact. It fails when there is no integrity. (b) Public Relations means telling the truth and working ethically – even when all the media want is headlines and all the public wants is scapegoats.

Ironically considering how much of our work involves maintaining and improving reputations – Public Relations doesn’t always have the best representative when it comes to ethics. Some people, because of bad things that they’ve done in the past, have even been called propagandists.

The word ethics means a system of moral principles governing the appropriate conduct of a person or a group and includes behavior – personal or organizational, which must comply with certain standards.

Different people set different standards and these standards depend on the values and norms held by the people concerned. Since they differ from one person to the next, standards of behaviour also differ.

All over the world most of the ethical standards are not mandatory in nature and are expected to be accepted on a voluntary basis by members of a society. Certain laws have the sanction of the government and made mandatory to be obeyed by all citizens and flouting of which warrants certain punishments. In the corporate and industrial world, it is generally agreed that the laws of the country or state should be observed. Laws, however, are a reflection of the norms, values, beliefs, as well as the political system of a country and these vary from country to country. Among such values, truth and justice are of prime importance.

It is not only important but also required that PR professionals have a thorough understanding of the country’s laws, especially those laws which apply to the information area. The laws that govern the information dissemination, which is the prime responsibility of PR practitioners are; defamation, libel, slander, copyright act, intellectual property rights, and privacy rights. Let us discuss each one in detail.

First, we will take libel because it is not defined in clear terms yet it is the mother of all suits filed in courts regarding ethical issues. In fact, it tantamounts to libel when an untruthful and false statement about a person, published in writing (in newspaper or magazine) or through broadcast media (TV channels or any social media platform), injures the person’s reputation or standing in the community. The injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made the false statement. Libel is a form of defamation. The remedy is available to the aggrieved person in a civil action under the criminal proceedings for defamation.

On the other hand slander is a type of defamation. It is an untruthful oral statement about a person that harms the person’s reputation or standing in the community. The injured person can bring a lawsuit against the person who made such a false statement. If the statement is made via broadcast media, for example, over the radio or on TV, it is considered libel rather than slander, because the statement has the potential to reach a very wide audience.

So if the false statement is published in print or through broadcast media, such as radio or TV, it is called libel. If it is only spoken, it is called slander. The Indian Penal Code defines defamation as, whoever by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations makes or publishes any imputations concerning any person, intending to harm or knowing or having reason to believe that such imputation will harm the reputation of such person is said to defame that person.

Ethical Codes for PR Professionals

So it is only desirable that PR practitioners should take due care while reproducing any matter that is fair and for a legitimate purpose. Copyright may be infringed by using the whole or substantial part of the work in which the copyright exists, if the consent of the owner of the copyright has not been obtained. But there are exceptions also when the information is publicized in good faith.

A voluntary discipline called a code of conduct has been devised by Public Relations practitioners and other professionals for themselves. Such codes, because they are based on actual practice and are devised by people professionally operating in that area, become relevant and acceptable. If the self-imposed code is respected and adhered to by all then no other mechanism of enforcement may be necessary.

I feel our value system works better unlike other countries. The only other ingredient required is transparency in all dealings because transparency is said to be the bottom line of professional ethics.

It is advisable not to knowingly or recklessly disseminate false or misleading information. Information should not be used or divulged without express consent of the client or employer. Any form of action, which would tend to corrupt the integrity of the media communication, must be avoided. The observance of ethics goes to enhance the professional reputation.

The Institute of Public Relations and International Public Relations Associations have prepared codes of conduct concerning the public relations professional in a standard form.

The main points are below:

  1. A member shall have a positive duty to uphold the highest standards in the practice of public relations and to deal fairly and honestly with employers and clients, fellow members and professionals, other professions, suppliers, intermediaries, other employees and the public.
  2. A member should be aware of, understand and agree to abide by this code, any amendments to it, and any other codes, which shall be incorporated into it, remain up to date with the content and recommendations of any guidance or practice papers issued by the IPR, and have a duty to conform to good practice as expressed in such guidance or practice papers.
  3. A member shall not professionally engage in any practice, or be seen to conduct him or herself in any manner detrimental to the reputation of the institute or the reputation and interests of the public relations profession.

The next generation of public relations professionals should see themselves as custodians for their company’s values and aim high. We need to teach the next generation of Public Relations professionals the skills of being persuasive without being offensive. As we go forward, we need to teach our next generation of practitioners that there is a non-confrontational way to convey a point of view, which resonates with others. They should be taught to take seriously their role as the conscience of organization because it is their job to bring the voices of all stakeholders to the table and ensure their perspectives are understood.

My suggestion for the next generation of practitioners is to learn how business runs; this will make their contributions to the more valuable. We need to stay true to what specifically differentiates public relations professionals from other disciplines and that means developing well-honed expertise and skills. This is the most exciting time to be in our industry because it’s essential for us to be the kind of partner that companies need. Our understanding of what it takes to build, protect and evolve reputations and relationships, give us the license to deliver effective solutions.

About the author: Dr. Ajai Kumar Agarwal
Dr. Ajai Kumar Agarwal
Dr. Ajai Kumar Agarwal is a veteran Public Relations person. Public Relations Council of India in its global conclave held in Bangalore has conferred on him prestigious Dr. KR Singh Memorial Life Time Achievement Award in the field of PR at the national level. It speaks a lot about his achievements. Presently he is VP Corporate Relations of the CBSL group of companies and former national president of the Public Relations Council of India (PRCI). He was heading Corporate Communications of Central Bank of India before retirement. He is also an advisor to the SME Chamber of India and has been a very prominent speaker at various gatherings, including a keynote speaker at an international conference on Media held in Rome.

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