Public Interest

In public relations, the alignment of corporate objectives with the “public interest” is central to the concept of ethical practice, but the concept is amorphous and definitions ambiguous.

The codes of ethics of PR associations refer to the public interest in demanding the ethical performance of duties by their members. The code of professional standards of the
Canadian Public Relations Society directs members to conduct their activities “in a manner that does not conflict with the public interest”. The International Association of Business Communicators in its Code of Ethics states that professional communicators must practice their trade “in accord with the public interest.” The Public Relations Society of America declares as a core principle that the advancement by PR professionals of “the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest”. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations accepts that “honest and responsible regard for the public interest” is a fundamental principle of “good” PR.

In a 2009 initiative, a CPRS committee reviewed several existing definitions of PR before asserting that PR was a function of “strategic management of relationships”, using communication “to achieve mutual understanding, realize organizational goals, and serve the public interest.” The earlier CPRS definition declared that PR allowed the alignment of institutional policies and processes “with the public interest”.

While codes and definitions stress the importance of aligning private interests with the public interest, it is less clear that PR professionals regularly achieve this principle in practice. There is no doubt that any effort to do so may be hampered by a lack of a clear definition of public interest or any real understanding of how it can be identified.


Defining the public interest


American philosopher and journalist
Walter Lippman, writing in 1955, posited that living adults share the same public interest. However it is the conflict between public interest and the private and special interests of the individual that make public interest so difficult to discern. In Lippmann’s view, public interest is what individuals would choose if they “saw clearly, thought rationally, acted disinterestedly and benevolently.”1 It is problematic for the PR practitioner that individuals very rarely are capable of assessing public interest without the filters of self-interest.

Political scientists Edward Banfield and Martin Myersonasserted that a decision could be said to be in the public interest “if it serves the ends of the whole public rather than those of some sector of the public.”2 However they proposed that at least five different conceptions could be employed to identify what those “ends” could be, each potentially providing a different result. They concluded that the mechanism used to make this determination depend on local context.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas agreed that what constitutes the public interest is “contestable and context dependent”, based on current social norms.3 Habermas argued that it was through communicative action that one might reconcile competing “validity claims” to arrive at a determination of what is in the public interest.4


Identifying the public interest


Given that scholarly definitions of public interest are highly subjective and contextualized, can any practitioner reasonably draw conclusions about what acts are, or are not, in the public interest?

Australian scholar Alex Messina argues that the only legitimate arbiter of the public interest is the democratic political process. Since that determination can only be made ex post facto, the practitioner can be guided only by assumptions. Messina concludes that professional ethics codes misconstrue how the public interest is actually decided.
5 One might argue that the application of public opinion research would serve the same purpose for the practitioner. Lippmann argues against this, suggesting these snapshots of opinion are too limited to truly assess the public interest.6

American PR ethicist Thomas Bivins agrees that ethics codes like that of the PRSA are insufficient, suggesting that the “ambiguity of wording alone obfuscates any inherent meaning”.7
Bivins explores a quartet of paradigms designed to reflect how professional PR practice can serve the interests of both clients and the public interest and concludes by suggesting that PR serves the public interest best by doing what it was designed for: By informing and clarifying, by acting as an advocate and as a facilitator of democratic debate, the practitioner does, in Bivins’ view, serve the public interest.

David Martinson, the American communication scholar, directs the practitioner to traditional ethical constructs to assess whether an action is aligned with the public interest. The professional must ask, says Bivins, how he would consider the action were he a member of the public and on the receiving end of the action. This, he concludes, is a question of the “moral development” of the practitioner; a recognition that, as a professional, the practitioner has a commitment to serve society at large.8


Conclusion


Codes of ethics may serve to validate that PR as a profession has legitimacy. However many scholars have suggested that they are, at best, a starting point for further discourse and the development of appropriate guidelines and frameworks to enable practitioners to better define and identify the public interest and how it aligns with the ethical practice of their profession.


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References

[1] Lippmann, W. (2009). The Public Philosophy. Piscataway NJ: Transaction Publishers. p. 42.
[2] Myerson, M. & Banfield, E.C. (1955). Politics, planning and the public interest: The case of public housing in Chicago. New York: The Free Press. p. 322.
[3] Weaver, C.K., Motion, J., & Roper, J. (2006). From propaganda to discourse (and back again): Truth, power, the public interest and public relations. In L’Etang, J. & Piecka, M. (Eds.), Public relations: critical debates and contemporary practice (pp. 7-22). Mahwah NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p. 15
[4] Leeper, R.V. (1996). Moral objectivity, Jurgen Habermas’s discourse ethics, and public relations. Public Relations Review, 22(2), 133-150
[5] Messina, A. (2007). Public relations, the public interest and persuasion: An ethical approach. Journal of Communication Management 11(1), 29-52.
[6] Lippmann, op. cit.
[7] Bivins, T.H. (1993). Public relations, professionalism and the public interest. Journal of Business Ethics, 12(2), 117-126. p. 119.
[8] Martinson, D.L. (1995). Ethical public relations practitioners must not ignore “public interest”. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 10(4), 210-222.