Public relations, ethics, and social media: A cross-national study of PR practitioners

Written by Dr. Margalit Toledano, APR, Fellow PRSA, FPRINZ, University of Waikato

You might remember that over a year ago I asked PRINZ members to respond to a questionnaire about ethics via a link that was posted on PRINZ Facebook page. Today I’m happy to keep my promise to share the published research findings with you. I actually conducted this research with a colleague in Israel as a comparative study on PR practitioners’ perceptions around ethics. More specifically, this study had two goals: first to identify PR practitioners’ attitudes to ethical and unethical practices on social media and second, to compare practitioners’ attitudes to specific social media ethical issues in two different socio-cultural environments - New Zealand and Israel - two societies that are ranked differently on international lists that compare levels of democracy in different countries. Based on the findings from online surveys conducted in both countries, the paper argues that PR ethics is linked to the culture and social environment in which practitioners function.

Would an environment that demonstrates more respect to human freedoms and transparency inspire more ethical attitudes towards PR professional challenges? The findings indicated a relatively high level of knowledge and strong support for ethical conduct among NZ practitioners compared to the Israelis. Though the sample was small and not fully representative, the consistency of the gap between practitioners in both countries is indicative of their different attitudes towards ethics: Israelis answered most questions with somewhat less ethical knowledge or care compare to the NZers.

The research also identified areas of confusion around what is considered acceptable practice in the use of social media as a professional public relations tool (i.e. issues of transparency, authentic identity, and blogger payments).

The NZ PR industry is supported by a liberal and free environment that should not be taken for granted. It is in the best interests of practitioners to protect NZ democratic values and deal with the new ethical challenges presented by social media.

Read Margalit’s full research here.