A Photo Is Worth a Thousand … Ethics Violations?

By Jennifer Guild, APR

Hello, communications colleagues. It’s your friendly PRSA Richmond ethics officer here with an important question: are your photos unethical?

When I ask that, perhaps you think about highly Photoshopped magazine cover models who have had every stray hair, bump, wrinkle and maybe even 10 pounds removed. While, yes, that is unethical in that it’s a false representation, most PR practitioners aren’t involved in that situation regularly. I’m referring to photos that purport to represent diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion (DEAI) at your organization or for your client, but that don’t reflect an accurate picture.

If you haven’t read Seth Arenstein’s recent PR News article “An Ethical Conundrum: Should Companies Post Diverse Imagery if They’re Not Diverse?,” I highly encourage you to take a few minutes to do so. In it, Arenstein explores the use of stock photos and other imagery that showcase an array of diversity such as age, gender, race and mobility.

As communications pros, we all know strong photography can be difficult to get sometimes. Stock image sites offer professional-quality photos in all shapes and sizes. Case in point: my Getty search for “adult in wheelchair” yielded 101,748 results!

Or, maybe you’re one of the lucky practitioners who has a photography budget and can hire a photographer for a staged shoot. I know PR pros work hard to showcase inclusiveness and diversity in photos. If you’re paying for actors to be featured, and have the chance to convene an ideal group, why wouldn’t you?!

Well, using stock photos to illustrate a concept or staging a photo featuring diversity isn’t wrong in and of itself. Where this crosses an ethical line is when what’s featured in the photo doesn’t match the practice.

As an ethical practitioner—and we know all PRSA members are as they are required to adhere to the organization’s code of ethics—it’s your job to ensure what’s represented in photographs is the truth and not just what the company wants people to see.

While the photo of young black professionals sitting in a meeting making important company decisions might look fantastic on a client’s website, do less-experienced employees of various races actually have a spot at the C-suite table? While the social post about hiring summer interns would be perfect if the image featured someone in a wheelchair, has your company hired someone in a wheelchair as an intern before? Would they in the future?

I can hear you now, questioning me about how to find the balance between inclusive or aspirational and downright false. I get it. I never said this was easy. Arenstein’s PR News article has the word conundrum in the title for a reason!

While some situations have a clear line separating right from wrong, there are just as many that live in that gray area. But, taking time to stop and ask if the photos you’re using truly do represent your company or client, that’s already putting you much closer into the ethical communications professional camp.

There aren’t rules in these situations that will always make your photo choices ethical or unethical. It’s up to you to take the first step by exploring intent, honesty, credibility, respect and disclosure—all tenets of the PRSA code of ethics.