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The ethical endeavor of a public relations strategist

When I first started working as a Social Studies teacher, the head of the department insisted I should teach the lyrics of the Colombian National Anthem to a group of toddlers. Written in 1850, this anthem describes how our country’s heroes gave their lives for the sake of a new, independent nation. The hymn includes graphic descriptions of how these men’s blood covered our landscape while the Virgin Mary ripped her hair out in despair. Its language is antiquated and difficult to read, especially if you are only six years old. I decided to skip that lesson and move on to something more engaging and relevant to my young audience. Teaching something my students were not going to be able to understand seemed unethical and, as a committed professional, I refused to teach lessons I did not believe in.

After reading the first chapters of Page and Parnell’s Introduction to Strategic Public Relations (2019), analyzing Lukaszewski’s article “How to Develop the Mind of a Strategist” (1998), and watching BBC’s documentary The Century of the Self: Happiness Machines (2002), I started to question the relationship between ethics and the field of public relations. Would a PR professional refuse to teach a lesson he/she did not believe in? In more general terms, should PR agencies comply with their clients’ requests, even if this means violating their own ethical rules?

Ivy Lee (1877-1934) and Harold Burson (1921-2020) are two examples of the above-mentioned conflict. Even though they are known as pioneers of the public relations industry in the United States, their work for controversial companies seems to be more pragmatic than ethical. Lee, for instance, worked for organizations linked to two of the most powerful political regimes of the twentieth century [1]. Harold Burson, co-founder of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, worked for governments involved in abductions, massacres, and genocides [2]. His firm was also involved in a more recent debate when two of its executives were accused of spreading negative stories about Google while working for Facebook (Page and Parnell, 2019, p. 40). Both Lee and Burson developed successful strategic plans that influenced people’s opinion on controversial matters. However, the moral consequences of these strategies remain to be questionable.

Like Lee and Burson, Edward Bernays (1891-1995) was an efficient strategist who understood the mechanisms by which the popular mind works. By targeting the “irrational” emotions of the popular class, Bernays carried out campaigns that benefited the interests of private corporations. He demonstrated that certain societal values could be easily deconstructed and changed on behalf of his clients’ financial goals. An example of this is his “Torches of Freedom” campaign for American Tobacco, in which he encouraged women to smoke in public as a way to protest against gender oppression. From a rational perspective, there is little relation between cigarettes and gender discrimination. However, Bernay’s strategy linked cigarettes to women’s desire for freedom, which developed into a successful marketing campaign. Even though Bernays is a pivotal figure in the history of public relations, his strategies mostly served the welfares of the private industry. This lack of interest in people’s well-being could be questioned from an ethical perspective.

The field of public relations has evolved into a more ethical and responsible discipline. We live in a world where the public is constantly scrutinizing the behavior of other individuals and companies. Digital media platforms have given people the power to disclose and punish any corporate malfeasance. Consequently, PR professionals are developing ethics codes to handle sensitive issues in a more responsible way[3]. Agencies that refuse to operate under the world’s societal expectations are going bankrupt or being closed. This is the case of the British PR firm Bell Pottinger, which was accused of stirring up racial tensions in South Africa on behalf of one of its more powerful clients.

Nowadays, the practice of strategic communications does not only rely on the power of persuasion promoted by important characters like Ivy Lee, Harold Burson, and Edward Bernays. The field of public relations also depends on moral principles like honesty, integrity, and credibility. In this sense, PR approaches must be linked to ethical decision-making. This is, in my perspective, the ethical endeavor of the public relations strategist.


[1] According to Page and Parnell (2019), “He was heavily criticized for his work for the American Russian Chamber of Commerce during the Stalin era and for promoting the German Dye Organization, which was later discovered to be a Nazi party-owned organization” (p. 36).

[2] In his article about Harold Burson (2014), Alex Benady affirms: “Critics point out that it was employed by the Nigerian government to discredit reports of genocide during the Biafran war, by the Argentinian junta after the disappearance of 35,000 civilians, and the Indonesian government after massacres in East Timor. It was also employed to buff up the image of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the Saudi royal family” (“Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed dial” section, para. 2).

[3] According to USC Center for Public Relations’ survey (2018), “Eighty-one percent of the PR professionals state that their agency or their department has a code of ethics (…). A huge majority (92%) feel the PR industry needs a generally accepted code of ethics and 59% believe a dedicated organization should enforce that code” (2018 Global Communications Report, p. 24).

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©2020 by Manuelita Maldonado

Los Angeles, CA 90036