The Ethical (Or Unethical) Issues in Government PR

More than any other organization, governments use public relations as a way to reach out to and share information with their citizens. “Public relations’ central value to government is its ability to engender a more informed society through ethical, transparent, and honest communications between the government and its citizens” (Corbett). Although the United States government does utilize public relations methods to make citizens aware of valuable services like Food Stamps, WIC, and services that protect victims of abuse, a good portion of tax payer funds that the government uses for public relations purposes is used unethically. As early as 1913, special interest groups have expressed concern over the appropriateness of government 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 of 2008, the Albany Times Union reported that certain local government and law enforcement officials were using coded windshield stickers to avoid parking tickets. These stickers were also widely distributed amongst the officials’ personal relations. When Albany Police Chief James Tuffey was approached by the media to answer to the allegations, he gave a false statement, saying “There’s no policy here on that, I can tell you, that I know about. If there’s something out there that’s been abused, I’m going to deal with it.” (Walters). It was later revealed that Tuffey initiated the practice years before, while he was the head of the city’s police union.

This is a prime example of how even small departments within the government abuse power and mistreat public relations. Had Tuffey admitted to his wrong-doing when the story first broke, the scandal would probably have died down much faster and he might have actually gained some respect from the community for being honest and forthright. He also should have taken initiative to respond to the allegations as soon as the news story was released, rather than waiting for reporters to approach him for comments.

When a laptop went missing from a secured room inside a Veterans Affairs facility, in Birmingham, Alabama, officials acted quickly. Instead of waiting for reporters to discover the issue and break the news, the VA immediately distributed a press release which informed the population of the actions and steps that the VA was taking to protect the individuals whose person information was compromised. Their quick and thorough response earned the Veterans Affairs office positive media attention.

A similar situation happened in Virginia, when a government warehouse was robbed with the help of an employee “who basically looked the other way” (Walters). The governors office sent out a press release reporting that a variety of items, including guns, 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 senses they’re being snookered, it only makes them more interested. Then it’s a piranha feeding frenzy, and everyone is trying to get in on the story” (Walters).

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

The United States government used a lot of PR work to promote the Gulf War in Iraq. John Rendon, the founder of Washington-based PR firm, the Rendon Group, proclaimed himself to be 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) Upon visiting the U.S. Air Force Academy, in 1996, Rendon reminded the cadets about the hundreds of Kuwaitis who were broadcast of television waving small American flags as U.S. Troops traveled through Kuwait City. He then admitted to the cadets that the United States government had hired him to stage that event in a plan to encourage U.S. citizens to support the war.

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


Corbett, Gerard F. (2012-3-15). “PRSA to Congress: Don’t Kill the PR Messenger”, PRSA Roll Call.

Turney, Michael (2009). On-line Readings in Public Relations: Government Public Relations.

Walters, Jonathan (2010) Preventing Government PR Disasters: Agencies caught in the eye of a scandal need a pre-plan for defusing the storm of media attention.

Rampton, Sheldon and Stauber, John (2003-8-4). How to Sell a War. In These Times