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.

PR Ethics Month…An Example and Some Resources

September is PR Ethics Month, organized by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) with events planned at the national and chapter level. Here’s a list of ethics activities from Debra Petersen of the Dayton Area Chapter. 

At the beginning of this month, I want to point out the fact that ethical situations happen every day, all year long. By ethical situations, I mean daily activities in which one must consider the consequences of personal and professional actions. The fact that PRSA designates a month to it simply means ethics is that important to concentrate on for a full month every year.

For example, let me share a phone inquiry I just had about ethics.

A former colleague who practiced and taught journalism for years finds himself doing what is essentially public relations. He was recently asked by a client to gather information from various sources on key topics, and write blog posts under the name of this client as a means of developing “thought leadership.”

My friend smelled something and said he thought to call me right away to get some insight and advice. We had a good talk about the issue, and I confirmed his fears. Research is ok, but not sourcing information and then even going beyond to present it as original insight for the purpose of self promotion is clearly a violation of several ethical values and principles, including honesty, fair competition, and disclosure of information. My colleague, who used to deride public relations with the smugness typical of journalists, realized that legitimate PR professionals have a solid grasp of ethics and are often the ones providing that insight, even though the profession too often unfairly gets blamed for “PR problems.”

At the beginning of this year’s month-long emphasis on PR ethics, I would encourage students of PR, current professionals, and even and especially non-PR professionals to learn more about public relations ethics with the following:

 

4 Shocking Facts About PR Ethics

September is Ethics Month for the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). So before the month runs out, I wanted to chime in on the subject.

If the headline got you to come here, well good. I used the ethically questionable “click bait” tactics of using a number and offering a list, and the word “shocking” probably had you expecting something negative and therefore compelling.

But what actually will shock you is the four things I will impact here about PR and ethics are largely positive. Read on:

1. PR is inherently ethical.  Many people associate PR as “spin” or deception or mere image gloss. And, to be sure, there are some practicing PR that do that. But when their bad deeds come to light the media and others call it a “PR” scandal. This itself is untrue, unfair, uninformed and unethical to paint an entire profession with a broad brush to imply that PR is by definition unethical. That’s the shocker: PR, if properly understood and practiced the way it is taught, is ethical by definition. It is impossible to be unethical if PR is done as,what academics call the “two-way symmetrical” model of PR practice. That means that the essence of the field is to build and maintain relationships of mutual benefit, to balance an organization’s interest with the interests of society. Some might say that’s easy to say but it doesn’t happen that way all the time. No, it is aspirational or normative theory. But it also is empirical–it has been observed that PR professionals DO counsel management and co-workers and clients according to this view of the field. Every profession has bad examples; but bad examples are violating professional standards, not defining them.

2. PR is the ethical conscience of the whole organization. Because the public relations function is the only one that considers all publics and works to build positive relationships with all of them, it is best suited to ensure an ethical conscience and culture not just in the PR department or function but throughout the whole organization. An educated PR professional is well trained to listen to all publics, see the big picture, and advise management of all functional areas in ways that ensure ethical considerations are put in practice. If so, crises are prevented, operations are productive, employee retention is enhanced, and profit is achieved.

3. PR problems are most often caused by other people. When an organization is caught in activity that is seen as unethical by a reasonable public, it is called a ‘PR scandal,’ as mentioned previously. But closer examination of situations reveals that often and even most of the time the deed was done by a CEO, someone in marketing, someone in law, or any other functional area. They may not have sought or did not listen to advice from a “real” PR person. If they had, the ethical lapse is less likely to have happened because, as noted in number 1, the public interest would have been considered.

4. PR as a profession contributes as much positive to society as medicine, law and technology. Ethicists talk about a profession’s “role morality,” or what is it that the profession contributes to society. Some think that an occupation does not deserve to be called a “profession” unless it has a positive and vital benefit to society. Public health and civil management of disputes are why medicine and law are considered as obvious professions. As for PR, it is all about enabling informed decision making in a democratic society. Whether promoting a product or advocating a point of view on a cause, the public is well served if they have information representing all views. If PR people practice ethically according to a code of ethics and do not manipulate or hide information, they are fulling not just their occupational role but a necessary social one as well.

Some Thoughts on Being an Ethical PR Professional

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. 
  1. 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.
  2. Organizational. This relates to culture as mentioned above, or a policy or specific organizational code of ethics. 
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Brian Williams, Journalists Lying, and The Moral Superiority of Public Relations

OK. The headline of this blog was a bit sensational and an obvious attempt at click bait. But a poor blogger has to do something to keep up with the big boys at Rock Center to grab some eyeballs. Do me a solid and read on.

Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News has taken himself off the air voluntarily for a few days because of his unfortunate episode of, to quote him directly, “misremembering” some facts related to report he did on the Iraq War.

Apparently he said he was in a helicopter in Iraq that was hit by enemy fire, and military veterans called him out on that. His statements when covering Hurricane Katrina are now also called into question, according to an article in USA Today, one of many national media stories on the subject.

Leave aside the fact that reporting should not be done from memory. Does not a journalist take notes or record when “reporting”? One wonders what else Mr. Williams may have fabricated in his recently celebrated 10 years in the anchor chair at NBC. Were he not an employee of this fabled (pun most definitely intended) network, Dateline NBC would be putting the finishing touches on a graphic for an expose called “Brian Williams: Decade of Deception.”

But let’s ease up on Brian Williams a little. After all, he’s not the only national journalist to lie. Dan Rather over at CBS has his own wikipedia entry for his famous fabrication about George Bush’s military background. Stephen Glass at the New Republic, Jayson Blair at the New York Times, and others are recounted in this Yahoo new media round up of old media journalism liars.

I have practiced both journalism and public relations. Now I teach public relations. And what I hear a lot is how public relations lacks ethics, and implied is how righteous journalists are by comparison.

So let’s pause and reflect on this “teachable moment,” shall we?

Any profession has good and bad practitioners. In PR, there are some who are intentionally deceptive or do other unethical deeds. But it would be unethical and intellectually dishonest to indict the entire profession. That is especially the case when a lot of research shows that unethical PR deeds are usually committed by non-PR professionals–lawyers, marketers, CEOs–or by people with no bonafide training or degree in PR. In fact, some of the largest whoppers of unethical PR are committed by former journalists (eg. Burson-Marsteller’s smear campaign of Google for client Facebook). 

A lot of the criticism of PR is co-mingled with a phobic anti-corporate sentiment. But, we must keep in mind that NBC, CBS and other major national journalistic enterprises are also corporations. Big corporations. They shamelessly promote their various interests on their own programs. And they compete with each other relentlessly. They need attention, to have an audience to sell to advertisers, whom they want to charge ever more money.

There are a variety of reasons journalists may lie. Business competitive pressure. An ideological worldview contrary to the person or party they cover. Or simple ego to succeed.

The point is, they lie. We don’t even know about all the times they lie. To insinuate that the institution of journalism has any moral high ground over the profession of public relations is just another lie.

Professions are neutral. It’s the professionals who vary in their ethics. Brian Williams is the latest evidence of this. It’s probably only a matter of time before we have more.

In the meantime, we all get to watch NBC and Mr. Williams engage in some public relations, as they seek to manage this crisis, work on image restoration and re-build the NBC brand. Now THAT should be good television.