National PRSA offers a series of advisories on how we, as members and public relations professionals, can better respond to ethically challenging situations in the workplace. As counselors and in-house managers, we are often put in situations that demand we do the right thing. Along with helpful tips and resources to help you stay the course, I’m also sharing four real-world scenarios and specific ways on how PRSA recommends you respond as the highly ethical public relations professionals that you are.

First, let’s look at why misinformation, disinformation and malinformation are growing problems in our world and our society. We know these issues undermine trust, erode communication channels and significantly disrupt our democracy, economy, workplaces and communities. Research shows a wide majority of Americans view disinformation as a serious threat to democracy, as well as the economy. Information that misinforms or deliberately misleads the public pollutes the information highway and undermines informed decision-making. Managing false information isn’t new, but with digital media, misinformation can spread faster than ever, and the effects can be far-reaching with devastating impact.

As strategy-focused public relations professionals committed to building trusted relationships, we must slow down and ultimately eliminate the exchange of misinformation.

Public relations professionals are uniquely qualified to address disinformation.

We must:
1. Shift from defense to offense
2. Fulfill our ethical obligations
3. Help consumers of news and information make better decisions both online and off.

Dealing with misinformation ethically relates to at least 3 of our Code Provisions and 5 of our Professional Values.

Ethical Code Provisions

1. Disclosure of Information. Be honest and accurate in all communications. Avoid deceptive practices.
2. Conflicts of Interests. Avoid actions that may appear to compromise good business judgment or create a conflict between personal and professional interests.
3. Enhancing the Profession. Build respect and credibility with the public for the profession of public relations.

Professional Values

1. Advocacy. We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.
2. Honesty. We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interest of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
3. Independence. We provide objective counsel to those we represent. We are accountable for our actions.
4. Loyalty. We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.
5. Fairness. We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media and the general public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.

Here are four different scenarios that might put you in the middle of a misinformation situation. Let’s see what PRSA recommends you do based on our Code of Ethics and Professional Values:

1. Misinformation with unintentional misinterpretation of research by client
What if you wrote a speech for a client based on an interview with them about research findings on a specific issue. You then realize the client misinterpreted a research study to include only findings that support a specific position.

Your Ethically Based Responses and Action Strategies:
A. Share the full study with the client and correct the speech as needed
B. As PR counsel for the client, explain that using only accurate information will help preserve the client’s credibility.

2. Disinformation – false information deliberately used to confuse or harm
Let’s say a grassroots nonprofit group eager to promote alternative treatments for COVID-19 interviews hospital CEOs who speak in favor of following science for treating any disease. The business development team at the nonprofit edits the videos to develop one-minute sound bites in which the hospital executives appear to endorse alternative treatments with no mention of science-based guidance. As the PR leader for the nonprofit, you must deal with the backlash form the media, plus the hospital CEOs interviewed who demand the removal of the sound bites and release of accurate information from their interviews.

Your Ethically Based Responses and Action Strategies:
A. Using the PRSA Code of Ethics as your guide, share best practices in ethical communications.
B. Explain the legal and reputational danger in editing content to create inaccurate messages that damage credibility, tarnish the organization’s reputation and fracture its relationships with the media and public.
C. Take down the sound bites from wherever they were posted; contact members of the media who requested an interview with your CEO and explain the situation.
D. Consider whether it is appropriate to post either a written or video apology from your CEO.
E. Advocate for a seat on the content development and approval team for future statements released publicly.
F. Ask for and confirm the commitment from leadership to ethical communications and agreement on what the organization releases publicly in the future.

3. Malinformation for financial gain

Here’s another scenario. A potential new client approaches your PR agency and asks for representation. The company sells a supplement claiming to reduce cholesterol by 25 percent in six months. Thy are ready to establish a content development and promotional campaign. When you ask for peer-reviewed research and other data to support the claims, the client tells you the information doesn’t exist. They rely on outcomes from the people who use the product. The product website presents sales information and a few testimonials from consumers who say the product works. Scientists make the same claim.

Your Ethically Based Responses and Action Strategies:

A. With the PRSA Code of Ethics as your guide, explain to the potential client that you follow best practices in ethical communications.
B. The current information on the website lacks credibility without the requested peer-reviewed research and verified outcomes from users of the product.
C. Turn down the new business due to lack of credible information and research on the product.

4. Reputation and disinformation management

Let’s say you are a PR practitioner who just joined a company. You discover it’s common practice that employees share disinformation about the organization with the media and also post it on the corporate website. The information could harm customers or investors relied on it as factual. Focused on reputation management, you address the situation by conducting an environmental scan to gather everything that has been said about the organization. Now, you must address the disinformation and the company’s dismantled reputation.

Your Ethically Based Response and Action Strategies:

A. Using the PRSA Code of Ethics as your guide, share best practices in ethical communications with the CEO and the company’s marketing team.
B. Review and summarize the disinformation that was shared about the company and the overall danger it represented. Use it as a learning tool to show the right and wrong way to improve an ethical culture.
C. Share your findings with the executive management team; gather their input and suggest a plan of action to rebuild the company’s reputation.

As PR pros, we must always strive for balance and fairness to unify, rather than divide people, as noted in these best practices.

Here are some additional tips to follow:
1. Always read and verify the validity of sources for information before sharing it.
2. Educate all employees, including senior leadership about media literacy and how to follow media relations and social media policies to minimize risks of spreading false information.
3. Identify sponsored or paid content as such. This is an important ethical practice and disclosure that accurately presents published information about your company.
4. Use neutral and factual language; avoid using language adopted for division or as intentionally inflammatory, such as “anti-vaxxer.”
5. Use appropriate language to accurately communicate, rather than soft pedal the seriousness of a situation, such as “police-involved shooting.”
6. Invest time and resources in social listening to proactively identify and address the spread of false information by presenting credible sources that share factual information.
7. Recognize that you may have to turn down a job opportunity or client if they do not follow best practices.

Today, our work as trusted public relations professionals is more important than ever. We have a moral and professional obligation to educate and inform our publics with truthful and accurate information at all times and to stop misinformation whenever possible.

To read more about these issues and to access links and resources to help you fact check, identify media literacy programs, and fantastic articles written about social media policies, misinformation, work the FTC is doing to halt misinformation and more, please visit PRSA National online here: Ethical Standards Advisory #21. There is so much great information out there to help us all be the best PR pros possible.

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Good luck! Please reach out to me should you be facing an ethical dilemma or have any questions that I might answer or at least put you in touch with someone who can help. If you would like to reach me, have questions or ideas of topics I should cover in this blog, email me at: juliesmithtaylor@gmail.com or call 760-213-5686 cell.

About the Author

Julie Smith-Taylor, APR is the owner and founder of Taylor PR Strategies. She earned her accreditation in public relations in 1993. This early career achievement opened the door to serving our PRSA chapter in a wide variety of board positions and committees through the years. Smith-Taylor was also the 2013 Chair of PRSA’s Western District and the 2019 Chair for the Opening Night Reception Committee for PRSA’s ICON held in San Diego.

 

 

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Written by: Julie Smith-Taylor, APR

Posted on: May 27, 2022

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