A June 4 article in The Washington Post titled ‘The new journalism — and the PR firms behind it’ revealed a disturbing case in which an online news site was acting as a front for a special interest group. On June 8 the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Chair Michelle Olson wrote an excellent response, ‘PRSA Responds to Washington Post Story on the Blurred Line Between PR and Journalism’, which addresses the issues highlighted in the article, and provides some important insights that were missing from the piece.

It’s always a good reminder for those of us practicing and teaching public relations that there is a critical and constant need to disclose our sources of information, be transparent in our storytelling and adhere to the highest standards of professional practice that keep trust intact with our key stakeholders.

One of the ethical codes of conduct as outlined by PRSA is to disclose information and be transparent in all matters. Olson’s article provides an excellent reminder of the need to do this, and the consequences when our judgement slips and mistakes are made. As she points out, unethical practices risk violating the public’s trust and can result in damage to reputations, organizations and careers.

It benefits us and our clients when we abide by our code of conduct to disclose information, including funding sources that might stir controversy. Our reputation is only as good as the work that we do, and to state that ‘a successful PR campaign is one no one knows took place,’ as quoted by media scholar Robert McChesney in the Post article, is problematic because so much of the work we do, although often behind the scenes, shares powerful stories about the work of our clients and organizations and the impact being made as a result.

The article also points out that although our nation’s newspapers have reduced the numbers of employees and many newsrooms have closed, the public relations industry has exploded. There are a myriad number of reasons for this, and yet even at the University of Arizona, the journalism department, of which I am a proud alumnus, has recently added more degrees, including a new bilingual master’s program in journalism that starts this Fall. At the same time, our public relations minor is growing in popularity, and new public relations classes are added each semester to meet the demand of students interested in pursuing public relations as an area of study. In my Public Relations Ethics course, students examine current case studies that highlight the devastating impact of unethical business practices and study the changing landscape of business culture and an increased focus on ethics and trust as valuable commodities. In businesses across every sector, more attention has been raised on the growing need to train executives and workplaces to proactively respond to social justice issues, as evidenced in a recent New York Times brief about powerhouse PricewaterhouseCoopers revamping its executive training to focus on trust in leadership as a core value.

There should be no confusion between the stories we pitch as public relations professionals, and the symbiotic relationship we have with journalists, who are allies in discovering and disseminating news. We do not exist as rivals, and by and large we all operate within a code of ethical conduct and a desire to share the truth. While isolated incidents of unethical practice within both the public relations industry and journalism exist, it unnecessarily casts a wide shadow of negativity to suggest the ‘new journalism’ is one rife with dishonesty.

Carolyn Smith Casertano, MA, APR, is assistant professor of practice and PRSSA faculty adviser in the department of Communications at the University of Arizona. carolynsmith@arizona.edu

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