Fake news and the deliberate distortion of the truth have been cited as the biggest ethical threats to the public relations (PR) industry. This is according to the 2018 Global Communications Report, a comprehensive survey of public relations leaders and students worldwide, released recently by the Centre for Public Relations at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.

According to the report, 42% of PR professionals believe the trend towards “branded content” is a potential ethical issue. An even greater number (52%) are concerned about the related, fast-growing practice of paying celebrities, YouTubers or Instagrammers to create content that promotes various products and brands. Not surprisingly, PR executives predict a decline of resources devoted to earned media over the next five years, as owned and paid media budgets continue to grow.

The majority of global communications executives (92%) cited fake news as the most challenging ethical threat to their profession, followed by the purposeful distortion of the truth (91%). Defence of malicious behaviour (88%) and lack of corporate transparency (81%) are also high on the list of potential ethical issues confronting communicators.

“The issue of ethical conduct in communication came under the spotlight last year globally, and especially in SA in light of the Bell Pottinger scandal,” says Daniel Munslow, director of MCC Consulting. “It is our responsibility as communicators to take a stand for ethical, transparent, and professional communication. As the 2018 research shows, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ still pose a significant challenge; when communicators have to defend perceived malicious or unjustifiable corporate behaviour.”

The big take-out

Fake news and the deliberate distortion of the truth are the biggest ethical threats to the PR industry.

Despite these alarming trends, according to the report, 46% believe that businesses in their countries have become more ethical over the past five years and 62% predict that business will behave even more ethically over the next five years. The same development applies to their own industry, which 61% of respondents say will operate more ethically in the future.

“The King 4 Report on Corporate Governance for SA sets a strong tone for the role of ‘leadership, ethics and corporate citizenship’, and ‘stakeholder relationship’,” says Munslow. “Encouragingly, this means an aspect of corporate reputation building is mandated at board level, not only in the communications department.”

Even though 55% of public relations executives cite working for controversial clients as a potential ethical issue, 82% believe that all individuals, organisations and governments have the right to PR counsel, says the report. However, 95% of those same communicators say they personally would not represent or work for certain organisations, individuals or governments due to ethical concerns. Tobacco (79%) and firearms (74%) top the list of industries they believe represent potential ethical issues. Representing political candidates is not far behind at 60%.