Ethical (or unethical) problems in government public relations

More than any other organization, governments use public relations as a way to reach out and share information with their citizens. “The central value of public relations for the government is its ability to generate a more informed society through ethical, transparent and honest communications between the government and its citizens” (Corbett). Although the United States government uses public relations methods to inform citizens about valuable services such as Food Stamps, WIC, and services that protect victims of abuse, much of the tax funds that the government used for public relations purposes is used unethically. As early as 1913, special interest groups have raised concerns about the appropriateness of the government’s use of public relations. Political activists have promoted “vague and general fears that a government relations activity could be perverted into a propaganda machine that would manipulate public opinion” (Turney).

In November 2008, the Albany Times Union reported that certain local government and law enforcement officials were using coded stickers on the windshield to avoid parking tickets. These stickers were also widely distributed among the personal relations of the officials. When the media approached Albany Police Chief James Tuffey to respond to the allegations, he made a false statement and said: “There is no policy here on this, I can tell you, that I know of. If there is anything who has been abused, I’m going to take care of that. ” (Walters). It was later revealed that Tuffey started the practice years earlier, while he was the head of the city’s police union.

This is an excellent example of how even small departments within the government abuse power and mistreat public relations. Had Tuffey admitted his wrongdoing when the story was first published, the scandal would likely have died down much quicker and he might have earned some respect from the community for being honest and straightforward. He should also have taken the initiative to respond to the allegations as soon as the news broke, rather than waiting for reporters to approach him for comment.

When a laptop disappeared from a secure room inside a Veterans Affairs facility in Birmingham, Alabama, officials acted quickly. Rather than wait for reporters to discover the problem and break the news, the VA immediately distributed a press release informing the public of the actions and steps the VA was taking to protect people whose personal information was compromised. . His prompt and comprehensive response gained the media attention of the Veterans Affairs office.

A similar situation occurred in Virginia, when a government warehouse was robbed with the help of an employee “who basically looked the other way” (Walters). The governor’s office sent out a press release reporting that a variety of items, including weapons, had been stolen from a state warehouse. This was a smart public relations move, as it allowed the governor’s office to control the story from the start while being honest with the public. “If the press feels they are being duped, it only makes them more interested. So it’s a piranha feeding frenzy, and everyone is trying to get into the story” (Walters).

Public relations professionals are often called in by the government to create propaganda and sell the idea of ​​war. Some techniques used by government-employed public relations professionals include paying journalists, deliberately distorting or misrepresenting information, and providing information to the media that is reported as news without providing legitimate sources.

The United States government used a lot of public relations work to promote the Gulf War in Iraq. John Rendon, the founder of the Washington-based public relations firm, the Rendon Group, proclaimed himself a “perception manager.” Pentagon planners define “perception management” as “actions that convey and (or) deny selected information and indicators to foreign audiences to influence their emotions, motives, and objective reasoning.” (Rampton & Stauber) Visiting the United States Air Force Academy in 1996, Rendon reminded cadets of the hundreds of Kuwaitis who were broadcast on television waving small American flags as American troops traveled through the city of Kuwait. He then admitted to the cadets that the United States government had hired him to host that event in a plan to encourage American citizens to support the war.

The 2003 war against Iraq produced similar forms of media manipulation. When it comes to propaganda for war purposes when the reasons behind the war are unclear or questionable, the PR firms that help sell the idea are indirectly contributing to the casualties.


Corbett, Gerard F. (March 15, 2012). “PRSA to Congress: Don’t Kill the Public Relations Messenger”, PRSA Roll Call.

Turney, Michael (2009). Online Readings in Public Relations: Government Public Relations.

Walters, Jonathan (2010) Preventing Government PR Disasters: Agencies caught in the eye of a scandal need a prior plan to defuse the storm of media attention.

Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John (2003-8-4). How to sell a war. In these times

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