Siirry sisältöön
Communications & Marketing
When one sells and the other buys

It’s a treat to work for an organization whose message you truly believe in, but that doesn’t make you any better person than the other communications specialists, who sell their services to the highest bidder.

Published : 02.02.2022

The major research areas in communication are usually divided into three different main categories. The most important area is media ethics, which focuses on the ethical issues of professional media and journalism.

Another area is the ethics of community communication, which puts the actions of professional communications and PR specialists under a magnifying glass. The third and newest area of ​​research is social media ethics, which examines ethical issues related to the activities of each social media user.

While media ethics, and especially social media ethics, regularly become hot topics, the role of ethics in community communication research has received relatively little attention (L’Etang 2005).

Despite this, ethical and moral questions and the ever-lasting search for answers are part of the everyday life of every communication expert.

The low research base of community ethics is thought to be at least partly due to the fact, that a communication or PR specialist work for an organization that prevents free discussion on the topic at hand.

Others, on the other hand, consider that community communication cannot be evaluated ethically at all because the purpose of community communication is always to promote and control the interests of the organization, which is why its basic nature is propagandistic and rhetorical (Stauber & Rampton 2004).

Undisciplined Little Brother of Journalism

City University of New York (CUNY) distinguished professor Stuart Ewen presented in his book PR! – A Social History of Spin (1996) that information and public relations activities are designed to circumvent the critical thinking of individuals, and their purpose is usually not to inform people about the complexities of things.

In the same context, he expresses his concerns about the techniques used in information and public relations, which he claims to have become more and more sophisticated and persuasive, and the general public has not been trained to recognize the skillful communicative influence.

I admit that sometimes this has also served as the basis of my thinking. Pointing out somewhere or something to ensure that people would not look in the other direction where all the shadiness is happening.

It’s not unheard of for an organization to try to turn black to white if you allow it, but at the same time, even you must admit that it is part of the game.

For this reason, it is easy to think of communication as an unruly and undisciplined little brother of journalism, which cares very little about the rules set by parents, because achieving goals come first.

While journalists are responsible to their readers, listeners, and viewers (CFMMIF, §1), communication specialists are usually only responsible for the management of the organization they represent.

It is still wrong to interpret the matter so that communication and PR professionals would be somehow unscrupulous or bad people. Communication is work like any other.

People work in communications because it is a financially rewarding business. And above all, it is about providing services to paying customers (Coombs & Holladay 2007).

At some point in their career, every communications and PR specialist still has to think about where their boundaries lie, and how far are they willing to go in order to achieve the organization’s goals.

The question is emphasized especially when personal ethics and moral codes are in conflict with the organization’s policies and its communicational needs.

I believe that using, for example, the theories of consequence ethics as the only reference framework for communication is not fruitful at all. It comes with a lot of problems.

For example, how could we ever communicate about things that might be harmful to the community, but absolutely necessary for the organization as an entity?

And would the purpose sanctify the means in a utilitarian way (lat. exitus acta probat) even when the decision is unfair or harmful to the individual, but beneficial to the community and the public?

Communication supports the strategy

If we play with the idea for a moment longer and go further to the ethics of consequences, isn’t the realization of ethical communication possible only when communication is done for a non-profit organization that strives to do collective good?

Isn’t the situation very different when your employer is the soft drink giant Coca-Cola, struggling with its plastic problems, or the mining company Agnico Eagle Mines, which is accused of spoiling the environment?

Doesn’t forest industry company UPM, struggling in the middle of co-operation negotiations, deserve communication too?

Despite the ethical questions, these organizations also need convincing and effective communication. They too produce added value for society through, for example, raw materials, products, work, and taxes.

That’s why I think it’s wrong to assume that there would be some kind of line or meter, with extreme manipulation and propaganda on one end, and normal communication on the other. And every time you use a new means of influence, you move one scale closer to the dark side.

There is no such thing.

Today, it should be clear to everyone that the organization strives to influence not only its customers, public image, and employees, but also the other stakeholders, and that the primary task of the communication or PR person is to achieve this influence without neglecting the means of communication.

For the reasons mentioned above, I believe that in the end, the only moral measures of communication are local legislation, the framework set by the employer, and the conscience of the person responsible for communication or PR.

Still, as a communications specialist, working in the education field that produces common and social good, I have never imagined, not even for a second, that I would be in any way a better person than, let’s say, a communications specialist working for Agnico Eagle Mines.

Sources: 

  • Council for Mass Media in Finland. 2014. Journalistic guidelines.
  • Coombs W. & and Holladay S. 2007. It’s not just PR – Public relations in society.
  • Ewen S. 1996. PR! – A Social History of Spin.
  • L’Etang J. 2005. Critical public relations: Some reflections. Public Relations Review 31, 521–526.
  • Stauber J. & Rampton S. 2004. Toxic Sludge is Good For You: Lies, Damn Lies and the Public.