Can Public Relations be practiced ethically?

Knowledge about ethics is a skill that is essential in the Public Relations industry. Especially due to the stigma attached to the PR profession, that suggests most PR practitioners are spin doctors who are only skilled in bending the truth to manipulate the minds of society for their own advantage. So it is important that when practicing PR to always be truthful, knowledgeable and respectful in order to work ethically. In light of Mental Health awareness day which took place this 10th of October, many campaigns have been launched in attempt to raise awareness and inform people on the reality of living with mental health. In the past mental health has been considered a fairly taboo subject and something that people did not know how to talk about due to the lack of knowledge on the subject. It is important when speaking on topics such as mental health and attaching them to a brand in order to positively highlight the brands values, that we are aware of the ethical concerns that come along with this.

Burger King recently experienced some negative feedback on their new campaign that attempted to raise awareness for mental health. The idea was addressing ‘real moods’ and making them into ‘real meals’ with the launch of the new Blue Meal, Yaaas Meal and DGAF (Don’t Give a F—) Meal. The campaign was led by an advert illustrating people feeling different real emotions in their day to day lives and was supported by the hash tag #Feelyourway. The campaign was highly criticized over social media for suggesting mental health issues could be fixed by buying a burger with a specific emotion illustrated on the packaging. The brand was also criticized for the lack of relation between the cause and product, suggesting that the brand was utilizing mental health to make profit. The Burger King campaign illustrates how import it is to consider the ethical complications when practicing PR. The Public Relations Society of America has a code of conduct that set out ethical guide lines that as PR practitioners we are to abide by. A important value to consider when practicing PR is the necessity to be an expert on the subject, person, or field you are representing. Lack of knowledge and understanding can lead to miscommunication, which could be detrimental to the message you are trying to convey and the credibility of the brand. Burger King was criticized for its lack of knowledge and understanding on the topic of mental health due to the new launch of their ‘real meals’ that were packaged with mood related slogans. Burger King as a brand were then accused over social media of suggesting they had the ability to fix the way people with mental health issues think, with the products they were launching as if it was that easy. With adequate research and understanding of the subject of mental health this could have been avoided by taking a different approach to trying to trying to raise awareness for the cause. Rather than suggesting the illness is as fixable as buying a burger with a happy face on it. The lack of understanding and research on the topic caused offence to a lot of people struggling with mental health. Instead of showing support for mental health awareness the lack of understanding created the opposite effect for the brand, creating feelings on insincerity among its audiences. Strong moral judgement and integrity is important to maintain while driving conversations about mental health.

Its vital that when creating content exposed to mass media, that we set good examples of how to approach and talk about the topic as well as informing people of the realities of living with mental health issues. Instead of Burger King coming up with what may be perceived as their own solutions to fixing peoples mental health, perhaps they should focus their attention more on understanding it first, so that their efforts can go into helping other people understand it as well. This would in turn would enhance their reputation much more as a brand who understands the issue, rather than a brand who is using the issue to sell a product. Honesty is a huge part of ethical practice in PR. Due to the persuasive nature of the PR industry, the profession is often scrutinized. Anouska Leon writes for PRCA, describing how honesty in public relations is not just important when communicating on the brands behalf, but for the relationship between agency and client. When being transparent in what we can offer a client with the connections and resources we have, it saves a lot of time and money promising results what we can produce. Doing this would not only look bad for the agency, but bad for the client. Producing the complete opposite of the desired result. Therefore, it is important to be honest and transparent from start to finish so that no one is disappointed.

To conclude, it is vital that as PR practitioners we act ethically so as to protect the reputation of the clients we have and to protect ourselves from getting a reputation in the field as untrustworthy and unreliable. Public relations, despite its reputation, can be performed ethically if the practitioner’s intentions are good and they remain knowledgeable, trust worthy and respectful in all aspects of work.

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