The first amendment of the United States constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” In the eyes of a journalist, PR professional or advertising professional what we get from this amendment is simple, we can say or publish whatever we please as long as it is truthful and not intentionally trying to demean someone.
The line gets blurry however between what we are granted the ability to do from the constitution and what is considered ethical by our field of strategic communications. Take for example the case of “Wal-Marting Across America” where two journalists who were hired by Edelman Public Relations to pretend as if they were normal people starting a blog about their experiences with Walmart guests and employees in different parts of the US. Under the law this is perfectly legal, the two journalists were blogging about experiences they had but under PRSA ethics codes this situation was not ethical. Edelman, one of the nation’s most powerful public relation firms, broke the code of ethics by not disclosing necessary information. Under this code, members should reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented. As for the journalists, under the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics they were not acting independently. The two journalists had a conflict of interest in this subject and did not remain free of association or activity that could damage their credibility. They did not disclose they were hired to do the “Wal-Marting across America” blog until a news article exposed them, damaging the credibility of everyone involved.
This case has sparked many outbreaks of “anonymous” postings about restaurants, hotels, bars, amusement parks and other attractions with negative or positive reviews. The fake reviews are usually posted by either a competitor of the company or by a public relation agency posting on behalf of their client without their knowledge to gain free publicity. This epidemic has been offensive to many different people in various industries, especially bloggers. Bloggers spend their time establishing this honest and credible online presence with their followers while others see it as a big joke and that they can persuade anyone about anything they post.
One of the biggest issues that I think PR has with the blurred line of acting ethically while being protected by your rights in the constitution is the disclosure of information. This code gets infringed upon every day by different professionals being swayed or “woo-ed” to say, write or publish things that they wouldn’t have normally done if they hadn’t received some sort of compensation. While what they say, publish and write is all protected by the law, this practice is not accepted through codes of ethics from PRSA, AAF, SPJ or any other form of strategic communication.
The first amendment is one of the most important concepts that everyone working in the strategic communications industry should have intensive knowledge on. You have to know when you are protected by the law and what you are allowed to do with regards to speaking and living your life. Ethics codes should also be studied by professionals in this industry as well because of how much they directly correlate to our credibility as professionals. You should always act ethically in everything that you do especially when you are practicing your protected right of free speech and your freedoms with being about to report on any news subject you so choose.