Ethically Speaking, Are You a Child Or an Adult?

September is PRSA Ethics Month again and it brought to mind a memory.

Years ago, long before I was a professor, I was speaking about public relations at an event and brought up the subject of ethics. An audience member sneered: “you can’t teach ethics.”

Well,  now I actually do teach ethics. So I could say that gentlemen was wrong. But his implied point is worth considering. What he really meant to say. is that you can teach ethics classes but that doesn’t mean people will behave ethically.

To that I say, of course. You can preach the gospel, but not all will believe. You can teach the importance of research, but not all will do it. You can conduct a fundraising campaign, but not all. will give.

In any of the above examples, of course the individual has their own will and responses will vary. That does not mean NONE will respond favorably, and therefore does not mean the activity is pointless or without merit.

So, in teaching ethics, the goal is inspiration, to make conscious the ethical implications of what we do in the profession, and then to instill a curiosity about the right thing to do and a motivation to be ethical in all professional practice.

There are two things that help my students internalize a lot of the ethical theories, concept and issues we discuss in class: the four motivations for being an ethical professional, and the three levels of ethical character.  I would encourage any PR professional to consider these in their daily practice::

Four motivations for being an ethical professional:

  • Personal = characterized by self-regulation, driven by personal conscience
  • Organizational = a concern for the corporate or organizational reputation, could be driven by policy or internal ethics code
  • Professional = to enhance the profession of public relations, in keeping with the 6th provision of the PRSA Code of Ethics
  • Societal = characterized by a big-picture concern for others, driven by a desire to contribute to the well-being of society (also called the professional role morality)

Three levels of ethical character:

  • “Child” – Acting ethically because of a fear of  punishment. (No developed internal ethical character)
  • “Adolescent” – Acting ethically to confirm to perceived group norm. (Which means can be easily persuaded by colleagues, boss,  or clients to engage in unethical practice).
  • “Adult” – Individual grasp of moral issue, personal principle. (Has internalized ethical principles and acts on basis of integrity and character more than external influence).

I’ll let people consider these for themselves. But I would say that some degree of all four motivations should be a basis for ethical behavior. And as for the levels of ethical character, I encourage all who practice PR to act like adults, and against the pressure from peers and others, be the ethical adult in the room.

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