Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Ethics: your career is more important than your job


In the PR Major this week, Laina Hughes gave a thought-provoking presentation on Lance Armstrong's recent announcement that he would give up the fight against doping charges (without admitting to the charges).

It was natural, given the topic, that our discussion should turn to ethics -- and in particular, the ethics of communicating for a client who isn't telling the truth.

To be clear: I am not suggesting (nor was anyone in the class suggesting) Mr. Armstrong has been lying about his innocence on the doping charges. If he is innocent, he is likely the only person on the planet who can say he knows this for certain -- and he's in the impossible position of trying to prove something didn't happen.

The topic, however, raised the question: would you work to help a client deceive its publics, no matter how admirable the end goal (e.g. raising millions to cure a terrible disease)?

Tough questions

Our personal values inform our sense of what's "right" -- objectively, what's "right" isn't always obvious.

Most of us wouldn't consider accepting a job to help Charles Manson clear his name... even if he still claimed innocence.

But it's not always that black-and-white: some of us are perfectly comfortable working to further the business objectives of a tobacco company, or a cattle producer, or a casino, or a logging company... others not.

A PR professional has every right to draw her/his own line, and decide which clients (s)he is willing to take on. Your job is just your job; your beliefs and morals are part of who you are. You shouldn't feel you have to contradict them in the interests of a paycheque (there's always another opportunity for a paycheque).

Easier questions

The question of whether we should be willing to lie on behalf of a client because we believe some greater good would be served by doing so isn't quite so tough.

The Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS)'s Code of Ethics spells it out clearly:

A member shall practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth, and shall not knowingly disseminate false or misleading information

If I know my client is lying, I shouldn't help him/her/it do so.

If the client is unwilling to be honest about the issue and insists that dishonesty is the only option, decline the role. If that means quitting, quit -- but don't let a client's ethics supplant your own.

Our profession has come a long way in the last century or so... 

Public relations has become a management function in large organizations; our access to our publics has improved dramatically; the ways we work with influencers, journalists (in mainstream media and on blogs) and other stakeholder groups are evolving quickly with advances in technology and business practices.

... but there's still a long way to go.

Despite PR's continuing evolution, there are still journalists who refer to our profession as "the dark side," and people who think PR is about fooling the public into thinking certain things and in certain ways. And every time someone using the tools of PR helps a client to deceive its publics, they're proven right.

Reputation is everything in PR

Professional PR associations like the CPRS, Public Relations Society of America, International Association of Business Communicators, International Public Relations Association and others around the world work to combat this by developing and promoting professional codes of ethics for PR practitioners. Each of these organizations' ethics codes requires members to promise to communicate honestly and with integrity in all their dealings.

It's the only way our profession will survive.

If journalists and our stakeholders at large can't expect us to tell the truth, there's no reason for them to believe anything we say. And if they don't believe what we say, frankly, we can't add much value.

Your career is more important than your job

If a client wants you to disseminate information you know to be false, decline.

If it means you have to leave the job and find another one, so be it. It'll be uncomfortable in the short term... but you'll be happier working for someone different, who doesn't put you in that position.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Blogging: who decides what's interesting?

This week, 78 new Creative Communications students at Red River College will launch blogs -- many of them for the first time. (They'll be posted on the CreComm Blog Network by the end of the week.)

Blogs, blogs everywhere

NM Incite, a McKinsey/Nielsen company, tracked more than 181 million blogs by the end of 2011.  There is a blog on just about any topic you can imagine -- from the view from the White House to cooking in a kitchen the size of a closet to unnecessary (and inappropriate) quotation marks in signage.

What makes a blog successful?

For a budding professional communicator, a successful blog attracts readers beyond your circle of friends and family, and specifically, within the public you're hoping to reach. If your blog attracts readers for reasons other than that they like you personally, you've likely hit on something: your blog provides content that is interesting.

Of course, determining what's "interesting" is never really objective -- what's interesting to me might not be interesting to you. But in professional communications, employers look for people who understand how to create communications that appeal to the specific publics they want to reach.

How do you do that? Logically, to be able to appeal to a certain group, you need to:
  • recognize the make-up of the group;
  • understand what interests that group;
  • be able to create communications that attract and retain their interest, and motivate them to share them with others with common interests.
This calls for more than simply creating an online diary in which you report on your own observations of the world around you, unless your observations of the world around you are very compelling to your intended public. For example, are they entertaining? Are they unusual? Do you see the world from an uncommon perspective, which could be interesting to your readers?

Choosing the right topic

The best blog topic is targeted to a particular interest group, and serves up regular helpings of information that group is interested in. 

That group doesn't have to be huge, and it doesn't have to include a single person you already know (nor do its members need to know each other). But if you can write a blog these people with a common interest come to find interesting -- and they begin to return regularly and bring others along with them -- your blog can build a loyal following. 

If you can achieve that, you have a measurable (and therefore provable) accomplishment you can take to a communications job interview for a step ahead of your competition.

It's not rocket science... but it's not easy.

To attract people to something, you have to give it characteristics they find attractive. To motivate people to do something (e.g. read your blog), you have to give them a reason to do it.

Writing a successful blog takes a great deal of careful thought -- both about your publics' needs/desires and about your ability to generate a regular stream of content that'll keep them coming back. It has to be informative, or entertaining, or both.

So, who decides whether your blog is interesting?

Whomever you write it for, of course. If it interests them, they'll read and they may return; if it's not, they won't.

Happy blogging!