Public Relations Case Study

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Answer the following:

In the film Thank You For Smoking, Nick Naylor tells his son that his job ‘requires a moral flexibility that goes beyond most people’. In a 2007 PR Week debate, Max Clifford suggested that lying on behalf of a client was acceptable PR practice. Can someone with a high regard for the truth work in PR?

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Examining an ethical dilemma that might face a PR practitioner


Introduction. 1

Overview of ethical dilemma in PR. 1

The need for “moral flexibility” among PR practitioners. 4

Controversy regarding truth and honesty in PR. 7

Conclusion. 8

Works Cited. 10


Public relations practitioners ordinarily work in an environment of ethical dilemma. They encounter situations in which they are compelled by circumstances to engage in practices that may be regarded as unethical. This ethical dilemma is reflected in the film “Thank You For Smoking”, in which Nick Naylor, a PR practitioner, informs his son that his job “requires a lot of moral flexibility that goes beyond most people”. It is also reflected in a PR Week debate in 2007 when Max Clifford suggests that the tendency by PR practitioners to lie on behalf of their clients had become an acceptable practice. The aim of this paper is to address the issue of ethical dilemma among PR practitioners. Specifically, the essay sets out to answer the question: can a person with a high regard for truth work in PR?


Overview of ethical dilemma in PR

A core objective of PR is to influence perceptions and the behavior of the public. This objective has made PR to be viewed by many people with suspicion since its establishment. Those people who feel the need to subject PR to scrutiny argue that PR practitioners work in environments where they are tempted to tell lies to different publics. To shape perceptions and actions, they are tempted to go against socially acceptable ethical standards. In this regards, ethical standards entail the concepts of what is right and fair in the eyes of the individual person, society, profession, or organization. When a PR practitioner is said to have acted unethically, he is said to have failed to reach the generally accepted norms of performance at the personal, professional, societal, or organizational levels.

One of the ways through which a PR practitioner can be said to have failed to attain the acceptable norm of ethical behavior is by telling lies. According to Smudde and Courtright, media publicists are routinely under criticism for manufacturing news, blocking access to genuine newsmakers, and cluttering media outlets with trivial information (181). They are also being accused of trouncing ethical standards to fulfill the needs of their clients at the expense of those of the public (Smudde and Courtright 182).


Publicists adopt several strategies to overcome the ethical dilemma in which they find themselves. One of these strategies is lying. Others include selective disclosure, sandbagging, failure to look for information that might be of interest to the public, leaking company information, rumor mongering, puffery, promoting gossip, favoritism, and blackmailing. In some situations, PR practitioners may engage in outright bribery to obtain crucial information. Over time, the tendency to pay journalists or bribe government officials to get media coverage has become an established practice in many countries. Even in countries where this practice has not been institutionalized, bribes are being given in subtle ways through free tickets, product samples, paid trips, and gifts.

Bowen observes that many organizations have in the past attempted to establish ethical standards that every PR practitioner should adhere to (577). These standards address issues relating to disclosure, honesty, fairness, loyalty, and independence. In most cases, these ethical standards are being put in place in a bid by the PR industry to engage in self-regulation. For example, the Public Relations Society of America introduced a Code of Ethics in 2000 (Bowen 578). This code of ethic was based on a prescriptive approach, such that PR practitioners were informed about the do’s and don’ts of their profession (Bowen 578).

Critics of self-regulation in the PR industry argue that by virtue of being informal and involuntary, such efforts are merely attempts to prevent government agencies from enforcing highly restrictive powers. It is wrong for a code of ethics to lack restrictive powers or to contain provisions that enable rogue PR practitioners get away with very lenient penalties. The aspect of dilemma sets in because many organizations are afraid of libel suits. Therefore, they refrain from using their PR platforms to expose offenders.

To appreciate the ethical dilemma in which PR practitioners operate, one also needs to understand that the very nature of their professions gives them the rhetorical dimension of power. In this dimension, these professionals use and misuse language and communicative symbols in the context of the motive to manipulate public perception. They are responsible for lying and giving a spin to news items and press releases whenever necessary to preserve the positive image of the organizations that they work for.

The rhetoric dimension of PR person’s power revolves around persuasion. A successful public relations officer must give a spin to results to ensure that the public perceives the organization positively. In this regard, the professional has to assume that the appropriate message is being communicated on ethical grounds. To make this assumption, one must first appreciate the rhetorical dimension of the job. Failure to do this may leave the professional in an ethical dilemma. Meanwhile, PR practitioners must acknowledge that the rhetoric dimension may be used to either do harm or to do good to society. Every public relations practitioner must weigh the benefits of lying for the organization against the potential harm to society of which he is a part.

Like diplomacy, PR uses rhetorical strategies to influence the public to endorse a given point of view. In PR, focus is on the use of various techniques to promote a specific point view rather than to unearth the truth. To PR, knowledge is not a worthwhile pursuit if it does not result in a positive perception of the organization. Theoretically, two strands of thought have emerged; namely relativist and universalist positions. Relativists hold the view that knowledge is a social and cultural construct while universalists hold the view that truth exists independent of social and cultural contexts. PR practitioners are more likely to adopt the relativist position since it justifies their tendency to lie and spin information to achieve the desired effect.

The need for “moral flexibility” among PR practitioners

In discourse on public relations, the term “truth” is often used to differentiate PR from propaganda. For critics, this is simply a way of legitimizing PR. Most PR practitioners are well aware that they are vulnerable to criticism for telling lies to the public. As a defense mechanism, these professionals tend to encourage debate on how to differentiate between PR and propaganda. However, they fail to mention that a thin line exists between PR and propaganda. One of the defining features of both PR and propaganda is the use of rhetoric. Whenever a PR officer is making a statement, he must adopt a perspective that impacts positively on the mission and function of the organization. However, truth can sometimes work to the detriment of the mission of the organization. Consequently, an organization may discipline a PR officer who gives out truthful information that leads to a slump in sales or a drop in the company’s share price. A PR professional who is aware of these consequences is likely to tell lies or give a spin to any information that may impact negatively on the organization’s performance.

Nevertheless, issues of truth and rhetoric in the context of public relations require an in-depth understanding of social conventions and cultural norms. The question of whether one tells the truth or is lying should not be interpreted merely on the basis of organizational practice. In many cases, the extent to which the truth is disclosed depends on a number of factors, including the prevailing political debate, intellectual tradition, and the problems that the organization hopes to solve by withholding crucial information from the public.

For decades, PR experts working with tobacco companies have continued to deny that tobacco smoking has a negative impact on the health of the individual (Sriramesh 703). This continued denial of the negative effects of smoking was interpreted by critics and civil society groups as propaganda (Sriramesh 703). PR professionals would be deemed to have been negligent in their work if they owned up to the negative effects of smoking. Very few professionals are willing to put their careers on the line by simply telling the truth. Consequently, the tobacco industry continues to make huge profits from unethical practices of selling hazardous products and the lying about their harmful effects on the health of users.

Although the need for moral flexibility is a reality in the job of a PR practitioner, it is not true that most people would ordinarily be unwilling to sacrifice the truth in just the same way if they were operating in similar circumstances. This means that the fact that PR has acquired a tarnished name over the decades is somewhat an indication of the hypocritical society in which we live. In essence, the PR professionals are made to look like the sacrificial lambs that have to face the wrath of the public for telling lies in order for business organizations to continue raking in profits. Even if most people would be unwilling to bow to this “moral flexibility” it would not be because they conventionally uphold higher ethical standards; rather, it would be because they are too scared of the tarnished public reputation that is often associated with the job.

According to Taylor, lying among PR experts has become so common that it has reached epidemic proportions (7). This is perhaps because these publicity professionals are increasingly aware that their loyalty is first and foremost to the organizations that they work for. As they pursue the goal of loyalty, they neglect the all-important ethical question of whether their actions will cause harm to others. The reality is that some lies can cause a lot of harm to society. Therefore, someone who does not want to harm individuals in society by lying may not be able to excel as a PR practitioner. Some public relations officers argue that lying enables them to survive another day in their jobs, thereby giving them an opportunity to do something good for society in the long run.

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In many cases, people who work in the PR department often go out of their way to look for ways in which they can undertake actions that have a positive impact on society. For PR practitioners who lie while at the same time looking for opportunities to engage in positive social actions, the challenge is on how to balance between the two sets of actions. This approach also contributes significantly to the debate on the relative morality of PR activities. In this case, lying is often viewed as a necessary evil. For example, when a PR professional is faced with two alternative courses of actions that are relatively “good”, he must make a choice on which one will do the most good to society.

One such phenomenon in which the need to choose between two relatively good courses of action entails the establishment of a community relations initiative. In this initiative, the greatest good may be achieved by looking for a sponsor who becomes a long-term financier of the charitable event. However, the practitioner may also have the option of providing some little material assistance simply to improve the image of the company. The latter option is less ethical because it does not provide the greatest good for the society. In this scenario, it is evident that PR professionals must maintain a delicate balance between the need to promote a positive corporate image and the ethical goal of doing what is best for society.

Heath and Ni argue that a major problem is that in many situations, PR professionals are too willing to sacrifice the ethical component of their job to maximize the benefits that accrue to the organization that he works for (563). This practice has become so prevalent that the concept of “truth” seems to have acquired a new meaning in the world of business. The need to tell the truth under all circumstances is no longer a categorical duty. In the world of business, it is very common for the truth to be overshadowed by other considerations. In some cases, the need to withhold information or even to lie comes as a responsibility for the publicity officer. This normally happens in situations where certain interests and people must be given the necessary protection. Failure to provide this protection may create mistrust between organizations and publics.

Controversy regarding truth and honesty in PR

The issue of whether the field of PR should be defined on the basis of the capacity for truth and honesty remains controversial. Not everyone believes that the motivation and ability to always tell the truth are essential ingredients of success in public relations. In many cases, individual employees are quick to lament that the world of business is facing a crisis of dishonesty among PR professionals. However, when the same employees are asked to turn the limelight on themselves, they start singing a completely different tune. This is a demonstration of dishonesty among the employees themselves. It is also a demonstration of the hypocrisy that characterizes the corporate world and wider society. Whenever those who work in PR portray traits of untruthfulness, they are simply projecting of the true nature of human behavior. It is hypocritical of critics to point fingers at the professionals who are simply acting as sources of evidence regarding the level of dishonesty that prevails in the corporate world.

Unfortunately, there is no justification for a PR professional to publicize something that he knows to be untrue. This explains why most publicity managers get crucified in the court of public opinion because of the positions that they take on most issues. However, some reprieve may sometimes be provided if partial disclosure is provided, misleading information is clarified, and that the public does not suffer any harm.

Theaker argues that telling the truth is not a cornerstone of PR as a communication industry (19). According to Theaker, PR is one of the few professions truth does not quite fit into the requirements of ethical behavior (19). The issue of truth is often accorded emphasis primarily because it is a universal ethical principle. It is one of the fundamental assumptions made whenever the ethics of one’s actions are being evaluated. An individual who is afraid of being harshly judged for not being keen on telling truth may feel uncomfortable working in the PR industry.


In conclusion, this essay has provided useful information that demonstrates the ethical dilemma in which public relations practitioners operate. A further investigation of the literature examined in the course of writing this paper shows that the job of a PR indeed requires some moral flexibility that may go beyond most people. By alluding to the notion of “moral flexibility”, Nick Naylor must have observed that PR practitioners are routinely compelled to lie in order to demonstrate their loyalty to their organizations.

Lying becomes a serious ethical issue when the PR practitioners’ actions cause harm to the public. For example, publicity managers of tobacco companies have for many decades failed to tell the truth regarding the negative effects of smoking. Such an action benefits the companies through increased profits while at the same time causing harm to the public. Nevertheless, someone with a high regard for truth can still work in PR. He only needs to maintain a balance between the need to promote a positive corporate image and the ethical goal of doing what is best for society.

Works Cited

Bowen, Shannon. The Nature of Good in Public Relations: What should be its normative ethic?, London: Sage, 2011.

Heath, Robert and Ni, Lan. Community Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility, London: Sage, 2011.

Smudde, Peter and Courtright, Jeffrey. Public Relations and Power, London: Sage, 2011.

Sriramesh, Krishnamurthy. Globalization and Public Relations, London: Sage, 2011

Taylor, Maureen. “Public Relations in the Enactment of Civic Society”, in Heath, Robert (Ed) (2011) The Sage Handbook of Public Relations, London: Sage, 2011.

Theaker, Alison. The Public Relations Handbook (4th Ed), London: Routledge, 2011.

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