«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
According to Smeltzer and Jennings, the corruption of the Brazilian government has tainted the country’s reputation and stunted its economic development (1999). In a culture benefiting the self-interests of those in control, ethics is shadowed by undercover bribes, poverty and crime.
Smeltzer and Jennings explained, “Many foreign firms elect not to do business in Brazil because of so much governmental uncertainty and risk...Why send an executive to a country where officials may use force when soliciting huge bribes from foreign executives? (p. 61).” The licensing of the government does not create more trust and support of the practice of public relations. In fact, it hinders growth and international expansion.
In a survey of registered public relations practitioners in Brazil, Molleda and Athaydes found that professionals support the licensing of the practice, but would like to see better management of federal and regional councils to enforce legislation (2003). Although licensing may increase bureaucracy through regulation and enforcement, practitioners indicated that licensing would better define public relations and protect practitioners with an educational background and training in the field.
effects on the profession, we can learn if a code or rules could be universally enforced to create understanding with global communication among various cultures.
This study is the first glimpse of a different system and view of a field that is becoming more global and requiring more international recognition. Through personal interviews with professionals in the field of public relations in Brazil, this study provides insights of the reality of the field of public relations. An understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the field allows for future changes that will create a more credible global profession.
Methodology After reviewing scholarly literature about codes of ethics and the practice of public relations in Brazil, I decided to hit the ground in the city of Sao Paulo and explore the profession through indepth interviews with professionals working in public relations from a variety of organizations. From the information gleaned through interviews, I will prepare a quantitative survey for future exploration of the role of public relations in Brazil. Through 11 qualitative interviews about public relations, licensing and ethics with professionals from hotels, public relations firms, event companies and communication organizations, I gained an inside understanding of the field. The interviews included 16 questions about public relations, the licensing procedure, codes of ethics and the management role of the professional. The interviews were conducted in Portuguese, recorded, transcribed and translated. Allowing the professionals to comfortably express their views in their own language provided rich discussion and straightforward insights. The responses included opinions and insights on the role of public relations, licensing and perceptions in Brazil.
The interviews provided more insight and direction for further research in the area of public relations in Brazil. A survey will confirm or disprove the conclusions of the qualitative in-country research. The interviews were thematically analyzed based on six themes to show general patterns and consensus among the varying professionals.
1. Fear of the Undefined Term, “Public Relations” The interviews shed light on the concept and implications of licensing public relations in Brazil. Although a license from the government is required to practice public relations, the majority of professionals who work in the area of public relations do not have a license. Therefore, the term “public relations” is avoided and most people interviewed showed adherence and insecurity with the term “public relations,” preferring to use organizational communication. In order to receive a government license, a professional must have completed four years of undergraduate coursework. A professional who graduated in journalism, followed by a master’s degree and doctorate degree in public relations cannot receive the license. About half of students who do graduate in public relations do not receive the government license because it requires a yearly fee without any benefits to the professional. Although licensing is required by law and using the title public relations without a license could result in fines, the government has little control over unifying, defining and establishing a standard of ethics for the profession. In fact, the licensing limits those working in the field and is leading to the extinction of the field of public relations by narrowing it by definition and practice.
The interviewed public relations professionals gave varied, vague definitions of public relations, including “It is a way to show your company. It is usually a human resource function,” “PR is any form of relationships with society, clients, the community—any external or internal relation.
Everything I do represents the company and is public relations” and “I don’t think those who work in the area even know what it is.” About half of respondents mentioned concepts of publicity, image, media relations and mediation. Most subjects did not have titles of “public relations.” The fear of the public relations title is attributed to the law.
327 “People don’t even enter public relations anymore, because of the preconception—the area is losing,” said Paulo Nassar, Aberje president. “For example, a journalist can work in communication without an education in public relations. New terms are simply invented for the functions of public relations and the field is not identified anymore.” Licensing does the opposite of defining public relations; it is abolishing the profession by forcing professionals to find new titles that require less work to use. Interview participants labeled themselves as journalists, marketing managers, public affairs directors, event planners, media relations specialists and communications directors—but not public relations practitioners.
2. Government Influence with Licensing The initial hypothesis of this study included the idea that government licensing would increase the ethicality of public relations practitioners, because certification is accompanied by a code of ethics and a clear definition of the practice. However, the majority of interview participants were not aware of the licensing procedures. They agreed the government does not have much influence, nor does it make the profession more ethical. Those familiar with the license claimed it had no effect in their profession. As only those with a bachelor’s degree in public relations qualify for the license, the majority of professionals working in the area of communication come from other areas.
In a study conducted by Nassar (2005), only 15.4 percent of communication professionals in Brazil have a degree in public relations. Most professionals do not recognize any benefit from a license number. They view it as a means for the government to take money from the citizens. One participant said, “I don’t know much about the government—not anything formal. They may say that a license is mandatory, but there’s always a way around that—under the table work. The government just wants money from regulation.” Another interviewee agreed that government recognition doesn’t have a significant effect on the profession. “Even though a license is recognized by the government, the area doesn’t yet have the credibility that others have.” While licensing could promote credibility and maintain quality in the profession of public relations, most professionals in the study did not embrace the licensing and viewed it either neutrally or negatively.
3. Management Function: the Ethical Conscience According to the Aberje study (Nassar, 2008) on the role of public relations practitioners as the ethical conscience of an organization, those in the management role have more influence on ethical behavior. Of those interviewed, the majority considered themselves a part of the management function of the organization. This supports the assumption of Brazilians assuming the role of manager as opposed to technician. The majority viewed public relations as both a managerial and technical function in an organization. Although the question asked if they considered public relations a managerial OR technical function, most people responded with both choices. One interviewee said, “Public relations is a technical management function. It is an ability you need to be a manager, but it also involves technical aspects.” Despite the fact that most professionals assumed a management title and viewed themselves as influencers and leaders in their organizations, the majority responded that they spent more time doing technical tasks instead of strategic planning. With an average of 10 years working for an organization, the professionals had enough time to assume a management position. This finding aligns with the idea of communicators as managers in Brazil.
licensing, professionals can practice public relations by simply redefining the term. This is one manifestation of the “jeitinho brasileiro.” The law does not stop them from working in public relations without a license—they just don’t use the title. This same attitude annuls the effectiveness of a strict code of ethics. Having set rules, also allows for set ways to get around them. One interview participant commented, “Our area is trivialized because of an unethical history. We always found a way around rules and limits with our ‘little Brazilian way.’ Now these rules are very welcomed and we’ve been flooded with codes of ethics.” Similar to the derogatory stereotypes such as hacks, flacks and spin-doctors, “the little Brazilian way” alludes to unethical public relations practitioners. However the Brazilian term to characterize slightly unethical action is less harsh and even considered acceptable within the greater culture.
5. A Universal Code of Ethics: the Great Divide In response to the possibility of a universal code of ethics for public relations, the interview participants were equally divided between a strong yes or no—no one remained indifferent. This reflects the general sentiment in the United States. For years, professionals and scholars have been divided on the possibility of such a code. At the dawn of public relations in the United States, Bernays supported a universal code of ethics and even a licensing procedure to protect the profession and ensure quality in the field (Molleda & Athaydes, 2003). Even with a licensing in Brazil, the majority of professionals do not follow a nation-wide code of ethics. When asked the relationship between culture and ethics, one participant responded, “Ethics and Brazilian culture are two things that completely contradict each other. Although a universal code would be perfect, it is complicated.
For me, ethics is doing what you do with love, heart and feeling. If you believe in what you are doing, you will do it well and ethically.” While some respondents supported the idea of a universal code of ethics, while recognizing some complications, other participants saw no possibility or benefit of such a code. Another participant said, “A universal code of ethics would be complicated and would actually harm small companies, especially small family-run businesses. There are some under-the-table deals that aren’t exactly ethical small businesses need to do to survive—it’s not always practiced the cute way it is written in a code.” Some professionals valued a written, clearly defined code of ethics, but Nassar offered a different ethical solution (2010). His ethical outlook does not involve a strict absolute code but a relative understanding. “Businesses that have people in other countries need to understand the local culture and adapt to other countries with language, customs and traditions.” He explained that technically communicating by learning a language and customs of a country is an attitude of manipulation. The ethical judgment is based on the attitude. He suggests an attitude of the heart that respects other cultures and human beings as equal defines ethics. Nassar offered a solution, not in a formal code of ethics, but in a triangle of competent, legal and legitimate actions.
6. The Perception of Public Relations in Brazil The professionals interviewed personally appreciated the role of public relations, but expressed a misunderstanding leading to a negative perception by most people in Brazil. The vague definition of public relations leads to a more negative view. Those interviewed did not really know how to explain public relations. Most agreed that public relations is important but trivialized in a way that harms the profession. Public relations is disappearing under titles of corporate communication and journalism. One professional said, “I work in this area and still don’t understand it.” The lack of knowledge and appreciation for the field creates a negative perception. The licensing has fragmented public relations in a way that it is not only misunderstood, but will soon cease to exist.
329 Discussion The solution to creating a more ethical profession crossing cultural barriers does not have one simple answer. However, it is rooted in two-way communication and should be based on several ethical analyses. According to Coombs and Holladay, there is no magical code of conduct that will solve all ethical concerns faced by public relations professionals. “Anyone who offers the one-sizefits-all ethical solution is viewing the context of public relations too simplistically (p. 48).” Ethics should be rooted in the individual using situational decision-making by a moral individual instead of being guided by normative decision-making imposed by a society or government. Government enforcement is easily bypassed and strict laws could actually lead to more unethical behavior as people work under the table to find a way around government control.