Practitioners can be forgiven for assuming “the science behind the art of public relations” is all about measurement, plumbing stakeholder attitudes, or getting a better handle on the latest findings in behavioral science. All worthy undertakings, critical to the practice.
But if you believe public relations is more about what you do than what you say, you have to include one of the oldest sciences of all – ethics.
The idea that ethics is a science may seem foreign to some. It’s more closely associated with philosophy, which to most people has more to do with navel gazing than organizing knowledge in a testable, predictive way. But contemporary ethics includes such “hard science” as game theory, evolutionary biology, and the neurological basis of decision-making.
Ethics has as much to do with the real world as physics, chemistry, sociology, and psychology. Scratch the surface of any public relations crisis and you’re likely to turn up a badly made ethical decision. An engine fire on a cruise ship may seem like an Act of God, but when it happens three times in a row, it’s fair to ask if the operator exercised sufficient care for its passengers.
Making ethical decisions can be just as challenging as factoring second degree polynomials. There can be just as many moving parts and just as much ambiguity. Take the most basic decisions all practitioners face at some point – is everyone entitled to public relations representation? Where, if anywhere, does a practitioner draw the line? When does putting a client’s actions or results in the best possible context turn into lying? What are the limits of responsible advocacy? And when does persuasion become manipulation or emotional coercion?
Unfortunately, despite more than 2,500 years’ of ethical thought and inquiry, few of us have a solid framework on which to answer questions such as these. We prefer to think ethics is more subjective than it is. But there is such a thing as ethical truth, as imperfect as our understanding of it might be.
Many evolutionary psychologists consider ethics an adaptation that enabled our prehistoric ancestors to work together in groups of unrelated people and therefore survive longer than those who couldn’t get along or were free-loaders. A 70 year-long Harvard study of 800 adults concluded their health and longevity depended not on income, status, or even genetics, but on one simple factor: they had good relationships with other people, including their spouses, children, and friends. As the study’s lead author put it, “Happiness equals love — full stop.” Aristotle would have called it “a good life,” and he would have ascribed it to ethical behavior.
If ethical behavior is fundamental to our very survival as individuals and as a species, isn’t it fair to ask what role it should play in the way we make our living? There are as many definitions of public relations as there are practitioners of the art. But however you define it, it is fundamentally an ethical endeavor because it always involves an exchange between human beings. And like any human exchange it should be grounded in good purpose, respect people’s right to reason, and demonstrate care for their well-being and the public interest.
For 60 years, the Institute for Public Relations Research has played an important role in defining the parameters of those exchanges by increasing our understanding not only of the latest communications technologies and social science findings, but also of the enduring ethical principles that should guide our practice. As our communication tools have become more powerful and our understanding of human behavior more acute, the need for continued vigilance on their ethical application has never been greater.
Dick Martin is the former Chief Communications Officer of AT&T and currently a writer specializing in public relations. His fifth and most recent book was co-authored with Donald K. Wright, Harold Burson Professor of Public Relations at Boston University: Public Relations Ethics – How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul.
 See, for example, Steve Stewart Williams, Darwin, God, and the Meaning of Life, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
 Joshua Wolf Shank, “What Makes Us Happy?” The Atlantic, June 2009. See: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/06/what-makes-us-happy/307439/