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Ethics, PR and the Coronavirus

By Andrea Simrell, SCPRSA Ethics Chair

The current COVID-19 pandemic has led PR practitioners to focus on a variety of topics — connecting with teams remotely, opportunities to learn a new skill, and the need for increased communication and possibly action, depending on your industry.

But has it made you think more about ethics?

The PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values covers the core values of PRSA members and the PR profession. These values also provide the foundation for the Member Code of Ethics.

Two of these values — expertise and honesty — should be at the forefront as PR practitioners communicate with publics, take action to address immediate needs and position organizations for an unknown future.

Expertise reinforces PR’s role in acquiring and responsibly using specialized knowledge and experience. Our unique position allows us to build relationships by establishing credibility and mutual understanding. In times of crisis, especially when the situation is constantly in flux, it is imperative that PR practitioners rely on reputable resources for information and communicate clearly. 

T. Garland Stansell, APR, PRSA’s 2020 chair, recently commented: A lack of details and the dread of the unknown can be concerning and upsetting for your audience during a virus-related crisis such as this. It’s important to help them feel less anxious and more informed. Don’t employ any tactics that fuel hysteria, and be mindful in all communications, avoiding subjective adjectives and alarming language. Stick to the facts and consult only trusted sources such as the CDC, the National Institutes of Health or the World Health Organization.

Honesty is also a key ethical consideration. In order to advance the profession, PR practitioners need to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth. This is important both as we advance the interests of those we represent and when communicating with publics. Honesty builds trust, and trust builds loyalty, which is critical when navigating a crisis. Being proactive and sincere will go a long way.

Consumers are paying attention to how organizations handle this crisis. The findings from the Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 Special Report on Brand Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic show the importance of brands doing the “right thing,” because survey participants are already judging brand reactions.

A key takeaway from the survey is that brands should ensure their coronavirus-related messaging is “factual and compassionate.”

Communicating your organization’s efforts to serve your employees, customers, constituents and communities is welcomed.

The survey responses show that nearly nine in 10 respondents feel that brands should not only tackle social struggles in light of the coronavirus outbreak, but also act accordingly to safeguard the financial security of their employees and suppliers.

On the flip side, taking advantage of the situation, looking opportunistic or ignoring the needs of your publics will negatively impact your brand’s perception.

According to the survey, 69% of U.S. respondents said that, in the future, they will absolutely not choose brands they see placing profits before people during the pandemic.

No matter how this crisis impacts your organization, PR practitioners can step up to ensure ethical practices are being followed. Providing honest communication rooted in research and insights from subject matter experts will demonstrate your desire to serve your publics ethically and help you come out of this crisis with relationships intact.

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