A guiding light

In a crisis, an ethical perspective can help public relations professionals guide their organisations – and their profession – to safety



There is little doubt that, when it comes to public relations, the vast majority of the public receives the message that the field is about managing crisis. It’s right there in the term often used by journalists, Hollywood screenwriters and (unfortunately) some in the field: spin. Journalists criticise spin whenever they point out how organisations attempt to downplay the negative and emphasise any possible positives of a crisis situation (for example, FIFA’s internal corruption or GM’s defective automobiles).

Pop culture – Wag the Dog, Scandal and The Spin Crowd – all show public relations people making unsavoury choices in an attempt to manage crisis. Even some books on public relations – PR! A Social History of Spin, The Father of Spin, Spin: How to Turn the Power of the Press to Your Advantage – emphasise a manipulative damage control aspect of the practice. Not surprisingly, a 2014 PR Week survey found that, in the UK alone, 78 per cent of respondents thought that most public relations campaigns were simply spin.

Of course, crisis management is not the central aspect of public relations, but this public overemphasis of public relations as manipulative crisis spin points to something that does need better consideration: how ethics should be understood as baked into public relations, whether dealing with a crisis, planning a special event or strategising a social media initiative. That is, in all public relations efforts, practitioners should be thinking of how to help a client ethically balance its needs versus the often disparate needs of various stakeholder groups and the wider needs and expectations of society. This calls for much more than understanding codes of ethics. Instead, public relations practitioners put ethics into daily practice when they

1) understand the motives and goals of a client

2) know the values and aspirations of key client stakeholders and,

3) account for how the client’s power in this relationship presents opportunities for, and challenges to, working toward consensus.

That broader picture established, one can look at crisis management as a key (but not central) area where public relations can show its ability to help the client ethically work toward a more mutually beneficial end with stakeholders who may become, or are, adversely affected. Note that this description is quite different from the tone offered when one describes public relations as manipulative “spin” – that characterisation of public relations suggests that practice only comes into play once damage is already happening. However, one of the leading scholars in public relations and crisis management, Timothy Coombs, has said that crisis management is about planning actions that are focused on forestalling a crisis, or, failing that, minimising the harm from the crisis.

Other scholars similarly offer that public relations within crisis management is a process of constantly surveying for potential problems in the organisation’s internal and external environments, assisting in formulating the organisation’s plans for avoiding crisis and, if the crisis occurs, leading the organisation successfully through the crisis and into learning and renewal.

That’s quite a different understanding of public relations than, for example, revealed in US television show Scandal’s multiple manipulations in reacting to crisis, or how journalists talk about personalities like Chris Brown or Donald Trump using public relations to attempt to rehabilitate their damaged images. Instead, we need to understand that public relations’ more vital role in crisis management is helping to prevent injury to both the client and its publics, or failing that, helping both to successfully emerge from the crisis with their needs met.

Building relationships

With this understanding comes the following: ethics is not an add-on to help the client manage the crisis situation. As a crisis unfolds, it is not something that can be readily looked up in a code of ethics or readily found in a set of policies or procedures such as business manuals or a crisis management plan. While both codes and policies/procedures can be informative, in a burgeoning crisis situation they almost certainly will prove to be insufficient. Instead, the public relations person will need to focus on the needs, values and considerations of both the management group and the stakeholders affected. This does not come from memorising code prohibitions or fingering through crisis planning charts. It comes from building relationships with key representatives inside and outside the organisation before an untoward event happens and, when a crisis emerges, engaging in further discussion with them about ways to ethically resolve the crisis.

Ethics is not an add-on to help the client manage the crisis situation.”

From an ethical perspective, the public relations person, at a minimum, should be surfacing in these discussions matters of fairness, respect for individual autonomy, steps to minimise further harms and making decisions based on recognition of power imbalances (e.g. who has more resources to act in handling the crisis, and who is relatively powerless?). Rather than pure self-interest (e.g., “how will this crisis affect us on the stock market”) the public relations person in a crisis scenario, as he/she would in multiple other situations, serves best by arguing that all decision makers in the organisation have a role to play in discerning constructive, ethical measures. Along the way, the public relations person stresses ethical management of the crisis by advocating that management make decisions on next steps to take based on solid evidence about how the crisis is affecting stakeholders.

These approaches display that the public relations person assisting in crisis management knows something that spin doesn’t acknowledge: that, more often than not, stakeholders define the extent and complexity of a crisis, not the organisational actor that must manage the crisis. When the public relations professional helps the client manage the situation from this ethically sound perspective, the client is better equipped to move past self-interest toward a sound resolution for the multiple parties caught up in the intricate dynamics of crisis in today’s world.

Burton St. John

Burton St. John III, APR, is associate professor of communications and associate chair of the Communication and Theatre Arts Department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, USA. He is co-author with Yvette Pearson of the book Crisis Communication and Crisis Management: Principles of Ethical Practice, slated for release by SAGE in 2016.