Art or dark art? Moral failure and ethical obligation in South African public relations practice
Keywords:Public relations, Ethics, Moral framework, Communality, Ethical PR practice, Ubuntu, Communitarian ethics, Moral accountability, Bell Pottinger, Cambridge Analytica
Ethical failures are not just philosophical problems, but also economic problems that hold significant social and political consequences for the social and communal contexts in which these are enacted. Recent ethical scandals such as Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica have reawakened public debate on ethical standards in professional practice. While some research on PR roles has been conducted in the South African context since 2002, there are no formally documented studies regarding the moral philosophy and ethics of PR practice in South Africa. This article seeks to determine how South African PR practitioners respond to their ethical obligations. Research findings confirm that partisan values still dominate and that contexts of practice do not facilitate ethical practice by meeting ethical obligations through ethics of care and communality. The findings seem to indicate that the roots of ethical failures in the industry run deep. South African PR practice will continue to be regarded as a “dark art” unless it can free itself of moral constraints inherent to the reflexive modernist PR practices and assumptions that prevail. To facilitate a transition away from compliance to codes of conduct towards greater moral accountability, moral character in role enactment must be engaged with on a more profound level.