It is important to note that ethics and adherence to ethical conduct are cornerstones of public relations (PR). This lesson was learned by all PR organizations by engaging in highly controversial and ethically questionable endeavors. The case is centered around Burson-Marsteller (B-M), which justified its assistance to the cruel Argentine government through a utilitarian perspective of bringing the greatest good for most people. Reflecting on recent activities of B-M, public relations in twenty-first century North America is conducted in a significantly more ethical manner than evidenced in the case of Burson-Marstellar working for the Argentine government.
Firstly, for a company such as B-M, it is the nature of their work and services to be involved in controversies and ethical issues since they are hired to precisely mitigate the reputational damage. Therefore, the PR organization needs to have a rigid and strict ethical framework to operate within the range of what is acceptable. One can see that the recent activities of B-M in North America are significantly more ethical compared to the Argentine government case. The first and most important evolutional change is a greater acknowledgment of ethics and overt expression of concern towards the principles of conduct. For example, in 2011, B-M stated that “this was not at all standard operating procedure and is against our policies” in response to a smear campaign against Google by Facebook (CITE1, para. 21). In other words, the PR giant not promote nor try to justify the behavior, which shows an open opposition to such smear practices.
Such an attitude to controversies cannot be observed with respect to the Argentine government case, where B-M used utilitarianism to justify its association with the dictatorial and cruel regime. This change from overt abandonment of ethics to the covert provision of service makes it more ethically sound to support the claim that B-M behaves better today than decades ago. Observing the change from a relativist perspective is critical to see the improvement because the entire business model of B-M is to be engaged in controversies and PR disasters. By accounting for these factors, Burson-Marstellar made significant progress in avoiding causing harm on a massive nationwide scale.
Secondly, PR ethics has evolved substantially by observing the clients themselves. Since the start of the twenty-first century, B-M’s main clients were scaled down to corporations and the U.S government only, with little cooperation with other governments. For example, since the 2000s, the key clients were U.S. Postal Service, Bush Men, the American Meat Institute, Blackwater USA, Exelon, Foxconn, Facebook, and Pete Peterson (CITE1). Thus, there is no indication of support for dictatorial and hostile regimes, which shows that B-M limited its scope of engagement and customers, reflecting a greater ethicality. This reflects the adherence to the ethical principle of loyalty to the U.S. government and its citizens. According to the Public Relations Society of America (2022), “we are faithful to those we represent while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest” (para. 11). Therefore, it is evident that B-M’s abandonment of public interest through the support of the government violating human rights in Argentina is no longer present today. The PR giant honors the American public’s interests, which is why it provides its services to enterprises.
Thirdly, it should be noted that the PR organizations, such as B-M, no longer act as unethically as they did in the previous century because their impact is become reduced. Since the companies are the main customers of PR service providers, it is apparent that their controversial decisions do not harm or significantly impact the majority of the population. Only a small percentage of the population are active industry consumers, among which the specific company’s customer base can be categorized as being even smaller. The opposite was true during the Argentine government’s case, where the entirety of the Argentinian population was affected by B-M assistance to the government directly. The role and influence of PR firms, such as B-M, have shifted towards more localized endeavors and actions. From the utilitarian perspective, this can be considered more ethical since less harm is being done to a smaller number of people if the clients are inflicting damage in the first place. In other words, this is a part of the evolution of public relations along the path of ethical progress.
In conclusion, public relations in twenty-first-century North America is conducted in a significantly more ethical manner than evidenced in the case of Burson-Marstellar working for the Argentine government due to covertness, clients, and impact. Firstly, the change from overt abandonment of ethics to the covert provision of service makes it more ethical to support the claim that B-M behaves better today than decades ago. Secondly, public relations enterprises honor the American public’s interests, which is why it provides their services to enterprises indicating the shift in clientele. Thirdly, public relations organizations no longer act as unethically as they did in the previous century because their range of influence has become reduced.
Public Relations Society of America. (2022). PRSA Code of Ethics. Web.
Source Watch. (2019). Burson-Marsteller. Web.