Let's Act Responsibly to Avoid Ruining the Marketplace of Ideas

Regulating Creativity Isn't the Answer

By Published on .

The discussion about regulating the public-relations profession is back in the news. We've been down this road before, seemingly every time a string of ethical transgressions crops up.

The reasons for regulation vary but encompass one overarching concern: Too many PR professionals have a loose interpretation of ethical standards. The lack of ethical principles -- even the perception of such a lackis detrimental to the industry's reputation and its professionals' credibility.

Purging PR of its bad actors through a licensing or regulatory program may be well-intentioned. But it is a short-sighted response that could have disastrous consequences if not thoroughly considered and implemented.

At the Public Relations Society of America, we appreciate the sentiment but believe that education and personal accountability are a better remedy to the credibility questions plaguing the industry.

Regulating ideas and creativity isn't the answer.

It's time for PR professionals to step up and get earnest about ethics and personal responsibility. We must hold ourselves accountable for our own actions as well as our peers'. Otherwise, we risk regulation and the challenges that come with not being in control of our work.

Regulating the marketplace of ideas and the creative process, under which public relations is practiced, would set a dangerous precedent.

Public relations isn't law or finance -- fields that have well-defined standards and governance. PR is more akin to journalism in that its performance standards have been shaped by decades of practice and bolstered by ideas. Yes, mistakes are made, but free speech is paramount and is what undergirds every part of a public-relations professional's occupation.

Regulation could deliver troubling consequences, including higher costs of doing business, a system to license every professional, an adjudication board, and barriers to new ideas and communications methods. That's not to mention the crippling of innovation that has led to significant growth in the profession over the past decade.

That doesn't mean the Public Relations Society of America isn't open to the discussion if it is engaged in a considered manner reflecting the gravity of the issue. That's rarely the case. Unfortunately, the debate often becomes a panacea for what frustrates some about the actions of others.

The industry already faces a regulatory threat in the U.K. A committee in the House of Lords has called for regulation, and last year's isolated PR firm-lobbying scandal set off a wave of concern about the ethical and regulatory standards that underpin the industry.

In the U.S., a Senate panel has launched an investigation of the federal government's use of public-relations firms.

Clearly, there is increased scrutiny of public relations' influence in society. But not all scrutiny is bad. It may even prove a boon to the profession if it engenders a focus on raising ethical standards and awareness of the industry's benefits to society and business.

Ethics and standards of practice are linked and enhanced by industry self-regulation. The profession needs to do more to communicate to clients and employers that there is a choice to make: Insist on high standards of excellence and self-accountability by all public-relations professionals they employ, or risk burdensome government oversight because of the unethical and irresponsible decisions of a few.

We can't let the poor decisions of a few harm the majority.

Those who wish to practice ethically and responsibly will do so, while those who prefer to take shortcuts or engage in spurious behavior will continue to ply their services, no matter how damaging they are to the industry's reputation.

Licensing won't solve this problem. It will only create unnecessary hardships for those who practice responsibly while providing an excuse for bad actors to circumvent the system. History tells us that they will find a way.

We are at a precipice for the future of the public-relations profession.

We can take the high road and move toward a more prosperous and vibrant industry that operates within society's accepted standards of transparency and ethics. Or we can turn away and plummet into a maze of government oversight that will result in and a likely crushing of innovation.

The choice is before us.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gerard Corbett is chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America.
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