Is Integrity A Lost Currency in Public Relations?


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Everyone says a publicist is only as good as their contacts. However, I think the true measure of a great publicist is their integrity. The trust of clients, the public, colleagues and the press is fundamental to maintaining a positive reputation in an industry that can easily become rife with deceit (we all have clients with the horror stories to prove it). Our initial determination, ambition and drive to contribute and do great work can lead to an intense pressure to be successful, increase profits, land new business, and impress our clients, which can cause us to drift away from simply doing the right thing and into shades of gray.

Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. Dr. Barbara Killinger, clinical psychologist and author of Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason, offers a traditional definition of this important concept:

Integrity is a personal choice, an uncompromising and predictably consistent commitment to honour moral, ethical, spiritual and artistic values and principles.

The significance of integrity among publicists is crucial because we are the gatekeepers of countless amounts of confidential and sensitive client materials. How we handle the sensitive nature of both client and media information is one important measure of the success of our work. I’ve been in PR for seven years now, and have witnessed (and even participated in) lapses in honor and integrity along the way. Like any growing professional, those experiences have made me wiser, and absolutely affect how I now conduct business as a freelance fashion publicist. It’s not easy to turn down lucrative, seemingly sweet opportunities, even when they come with a questionable, gooey center, but the choices I make in my work, and the quality of my commitment to my clients, comes directly from my own personal code of ethics.

While PR doesn’t require taking any vows, swearing allegiance, or ascribing to a standardized code of ethics, The Public Relations Society of America echoes just how crucial professional integrity is to our profession as a whole, stating, “Bottom line, successful public relations hinges on the ethics of its practitioners.”

While experiences in this industry has made me wary, on the upside, these experience reinforce my commitment to honesty, transparency and trust, not only with my clients but with editors and fellow publicists. I’ve come to realize that, while everybody loves to cover and debate a major PR crisis, it isn’t the major indiscretions that cause the most damage. The bigger issues are the small, day-t0-day actions that may seem inconsequential – gossip about coworkers, badmouthing clients, releasing an employee without following HR practices to the letter, retainer increases in the middle of a contract to pad year over year growth. All of these are red flags that integrity has taken a back seat – often done to compensate for feelings of scarcity, insecurity, or worse, entitlement and ego. In an industry where it can feel like everyone is out for themselves, perhaps what is worse is how willing we are to cosign such behavior by simply not holding one another accountable.

Credibility (or lack there of) follows us throughout our career and a few left of center choices can quickly mark you are someone who cannot be trusted. In his article about business integrity for, Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals Martin Zwilling says:

Trust is a reliance relationship built on character, strength, and ability. It usually takes several good acts to build, and one bad act to lose.

Some argue that the short-cut, shark mentality is just part of the game, the cost of doing business. I argue that we’ve become accustomed to certain business practices and brush off bad behavior, accepting questionable actions as the norm, as just what happens in PR. If more people, at every level of the business food chain committed to a higher standard of business ethics, rather than trying to find ways to cut corners or make an extra buck, our entire profession would be lifted up and set up to experience even more growth and success (without the underlying and inevitable guilt that creeps into the psyche when integrity is out of balance). Will you join me in adopting an uncompromising commitment to remaining above reproach, to accept nothing less than honesty and credibility from ourselves, our partners and our clients?

How can we maintain a high level of integrity?  While APR certification affords potential solution, I keep going back to Zwilling’s focus on the idea of truth. We can meet commitments, be dependable, honest and transparent. We can treat everyone with respect, hold boundaries and know our own worth. I’d love to know, are there particular rules or guidelines you employ to remain a PR professional with integrity? What has your experience been like?

Photo Credit: Gabriela Camerotti

Melissa Duren

Melissa Duren

Melissa Duren is a public relations professional with proven success in luxury, contemporary and mass market fashion, retail and lifestyle businesses. Developing and executing press strategies for emerging brands as well as established global brands, Ms. Duren has played an important role in the growth and success of brands including Joe Fresh, TOMS, Zimmermann, ROXY, INTERMIX, Jack Spade, David Yurman, amongst others. Melissa's career has taken her from top PR agencies in New York City including HL Group and Starworks, to exciting in-house roles at Theory and Joe Fresh. In May 2013, Melissa took the plunge and transitioned to a full-time freelance career handling public relations for various new and established brands. She now represents Costello Tagliapietra, KARA, Hello Alyss, George + Laurel, and consults with Elisabeth Weinstock and Keaton Row in partnership with Jennifer Bett Communications.