I spoke earlier today on an ethics panel at the monthly meeting of the West Michigan Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (WMPRSA). I was joined by Jim Wojcik of Central Michigan University (and my college media advisor more years ago than I care to count).
Jim went over some specific PR ethics cases and issues. I gave the broad strokes, focused on what motivates PR professionals to be ethical, or what influences them into unethical actions.
I started by sharing information from a couple of studies on the subject. A study of PR students (McKinnon, L.M. & Fullerton, J.A. (2014). Public Relations Students’ Ethics: An Examination of Attitude and Intended Behavior. Teaching Public Relations. (90)) showed that students identify certain behaviors as unethical (eg. lying, overbilling, copying work of others, posing as someone you are not etc.) when discussing it in class. However, they also said they would be likely to do these same unethical deeds on the job some day, in a statistically significant difference. This can be explained by social norms theory and social judgment theory in the sense that a personal ethic in the abstract is less motivating than the organizational or social environment in concrete practice.
Another study about whether PR pros embrace the role of “ethical conscience” of their organization (Marlene S. Neill & Minette E. Drumwright (2012): PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience, Journal of Mass Media Ethics: Exploring Questions of Media Morality, 27:4, 220-234) showed that increasingly PR pros accept this role, but barriers still exist:
- Competence in ethics
- Position in org structure/dominant coalition
- Management view of PR and ethics
- Organizational culture
The study concludes with some prescriptions to improve organizational ethics, dependent on the public relations professional: PR must influence the culture, PR must be management function, PR must speak truth to power (no yes men), PR pros must enact a management (not mere tactical) role,
and the PR professional must make the ethical case strategically and creatively to management.
The question often comes up about how to convince a bottom-line focused management to be value ethics. Some recommendations include:
- Tie to business goals, reputation, crisis and risk management, brand
- Ask the “what if this headline” question
- Stress long-term, multiple publics/objectives over short term financial metrics
I also told the professionals assembled about the PR Council (formerly Council of PR Firms) “Ethics as Culture” initiative. It’s worth a look by PR pros who want to influence their organization to be more organically ethical and not treat ethics as an afterthought.
I also addressed the four types of motivations motivations to be ethical.
- Personal. This motivation reminds me of Socrates, who cautioned to not do not damage to your soul. In other words, if you do things because you can get away with it or others don’t object, you still may be violating ethics. It also relates to personal branding–your personal reputation could be harmed if you do something unethical even though a boss or client pressured you.
- Organizational. This relates to culture as mentioned above, or a policy or specific organizational code of ethics.
- Professional. Another motivation is to be proud of and not wish to damage our profession of public relations. This is why the PRSA Code of Ethics has as one of its provisions the notion of Enhance the Profession in anything a practitioner does.
- Societal. This is the most altruistic and shows a higher order of ethical thinking, in which PR professionals balance organizational with public or societal interest. It’s about the ‘R’ in CSR—responsibility.
Finally, I encouraged PR professionals to consider what ethicists call the “role morality” of public relations. In other words, what good does the ethical practice of our profession contribute to society? Essentially, it boils down to enabling all publics to make informed decisions. If we do this, if we span the boundaries of the organization to reach all publics and listen to them, if we respond to public interest and don’t merely try to influence them, we are practicing what is called the “two-way symmetrical” form of public relations. If we do that, the profession of public relations–criticized by many–is actually inherently ethical.
I would hope that would be a motivational thought.