From the Journals–Latest Research on Investor Relations, PR Ethics, PR Law, Communication Management

From time to time I catch up on reading a batch of academic journals and like to share a quick overview of some of the articles I find most interesting. Many PR practitioners can benefit from being aware of this research but lots of academic publications are hard to access other than through a university library. Here then are some interesting points from recent research. (Citations provided in case you want to seek out the full article for yourself).

Investor Relations:
Matthew W. Ragas, Alexander V. Laskin, (2014) “Mixed-methods: measurement and evaluation among investor relations officers”, Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 19 (2), pp.166 – 181
The results indicate that IROs strongly (80 percent) believe that mixed-methods (i.e. both quantitative and qualitative methods) should be used to measure the success of investor relations. Mixed-methods advocates place significantly more importance on measurement than IROs that prefer quantitative- or qualitative-only approaches.
Matthew W. Ragas, Alexander V. Laskin, Matthew Brusch, (2014) “Investor relations measurement: an industry survey”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol. 18 (2), pp.176 – 192
Respondents strongly rebuked using share price as a valid measure of investor relations performance. A factor analysis revealed that IROs use four factors to measure program success (listed in order of stated importance): first, international C-suite assessment; second, relationship assessment; third, outreach assessment; and fourth, external assessment. IROs at large-cap companies place significantly more importance on both C-suite assessment and relationship assessment than their peers at small-caps.
Ethics:
Patrick Lee Plaisance (2014) “Virtue in Media: The Moral Psychology of US Exemplars in News and Public Relations,” Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Vol 91 (2), pp. 308-325.
This study looks at journalists and public relations professionals who exemplify good moral character and virtue to construct a profile of ethical professionals in these fields. Findings show that they scored higher than peer professionals on the personality traits of extroversion, agreeableness, openness, and conscientiousness. As a group they rejected situational or utilitarian ethical reasoning in favor of a moral absolute approach. Overall, an ethical professional can be described as one who places value on concern for others,  professional duty, and proactive social engagement, all of which demonstrate higher order ethical reasoning.
Steve Mackey (2014) “Virtue Ethics, CSR, and ‘Corporate Citizenship’”, Journal of Communication Management, Vol 18(2), 131-145.
Mackey critiques the PR concept of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and corporate citizenship through the ethical theory of Alasdair MacIntyre, who favors the ancient Greek or Aristotelian notion of character as the only foundation for ethics. He criticizes CSR as being done for strategic reasons and personal corporate benefit rather than as an extension of character. He suggests that PR professionals need to respect and respond to existing social norms and democratic discourse rather than trying to influence them. His points are well laid out, however he tends to have a shallow anti-corporate bias and an assumption of the actual intentions of PR practitioners and collective corporate attitudes and reasons for conducting CSR programs. He cites several PR scholars but does not acknowledge that the notions of two-way symmetrical communication or mutual adjustment based on research in fact are the form of practice he encourages. He also rather naively puts forth government and nonprofit institutions as exemplary of the type of social engagement that would be favored from an ethical standpoint, even though human actors in both of those sectors can lead to greed, selfishness, corruption and unethical behavior as well.
Law:

Cayce Myers and Ruthann Lariscy (2014), “Corporate PR in a post-Citizens United World,” Journal of Communication Management, Vol 18 (2), pp. 146-157.
This is a very interesting and helpful historical review of case law that led up to the Citizens United case, which is in the long line of debate about corporate vs. commercial speech and the recognition of corporations as “persons” in terms of speech rights. In addition to the back and forth arguments and decisions of precedent cases at both lower courts and the Supreme Court, the paper identifies the practical impact of Citizens United on PR practice: 1) corporate PR can now legally include political relations; 2) corporate political issues may take on a more nuanced structure; 3) key publics and tactics will change to include voting blocks, special interest groups and others in the political arena; 4) a changing relationship of public relations departments with the press, particularly an added strain because of the increase in opinion journalism or punditry in political issue coverage.
Communication Management:

Catrin Johnson, Vernon D. Miller, and Colange Hamrin (2014) “Conceptualizing Communicative Leadership: A Framework for Analyzing and Developing Leaders’ Communication Competence,” Corporate Communication: An International Journal, Vol 19 (2), pp. 147-165
Since PR is supposed to be a “management” function, this paper is interesting for identifying four essential communication behaviors of leaders as well as eight principles of “communicative leadership,” a Swedish concept. This is a form of leadership that may or may not be evident in CEOs and other managers, thus making the case that part of a PR professionals role is to counsel management on their communicative leadership, not just their communication. A communicative leader is defined in the paper as: “one who engages employees in dialogue, actively shapes and seeks feedback, practices participative decision making, and is perceived as open and involved.”
Andreas Schwarz and Alexander Fritsch (2014), Communicating on Behalf of Global Civil Society: Management and Coordination of Public Relations In International Nongovernmental Organization, Journal of Public Relations Research, Vol. 26 (2), pp. 161-183.

Most studies of excellent PR management are about corporations, especially in the international context. This paper takes an interesting look at non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and determines that “excellent” NGOs assign more resources to PR and more frequently consider the cultural context in their communication. More specific characteristics of well-managed PR in NGOs include: communications department contributes to strategic planning and decision making, the head of the communications department is part of the senior management team, the communications department reports directly to the most senior manager, and employees from different gender or race have equal opportunities.

Global Call for Ethical PR Professionals Grows

My major summer project has been the development of a new course to be offered this fall called Advertising and PR Ethics and Law. We have long required our Advertising and Public Relations majors to take an Ethics in the Professions course in our Philosophy Department, but increasingly I felt a course tailored to the advertising and public relations professions was needed. Offered as a special topics course this fall, I hope to make it a permanent required course in a curriculum update over the next year.

The call for more education in PR ethics, as well as more action on the part of PR practitioners serving as ethical counsel to management in their organizations, has existed for years. I have had students in my PR Cases and Management course read Shanon Bowen’s “A State of Neglect: Public Relations as ‘Corporate Conscience’ or Ethical Counsel” since it was first published in the Journal of Public Relations Research in 2008. Sadly, the article points out that many PR professionals do not seek or adopt the role of ethical advisor, even though public relations–as a profession that should seek mutual relationships between organizations and their varied publics–would be well-suited for this role. 
However, some recent articles have shown that practitioners are more often seeking to offer ethical counsel as part of their role. Reams of other research get into that variables that explain why or why not a PR professional wears the mantel of organizational conscience.
But, coincidental to my class development of an ethics course this summer there has been movement among professionals–not just academics–to stress the inherent ethical role of PR professionals. This is not just that PR professionals should practice PR ethically, but as PR professionals they should step up and guide the ethics of the WHOLE organization they serve, whether in-house or on behalf of clients.
One major global effort is the Melbourne Mandate, an effort of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. Based on meetings held in Melbourne, Australia, this group of representatives of various public relations associations jointly assert that PR professionals can’t simply “watch events occur and then convey messages to stakeholders.” I heard a presentation about the development of the Global Alliance and this ethical push at a conference this summer in England and was impressed by the scale of the effort.
Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Council of Public Relations Firms launched a new initiative this summer called “Ethics as Culture.”  Similar to the Melbourne Mandate, the Council’s efforts seeks to get professionals to move beyond a “reflex of compliance” to a more intentional effort to build a culture of integrity in organizations they represent. A new section of their website offers training guides and workbooks for individuals or entire PR firms to use.
I am happy to see these developments. Public relations as a profession gets painted with a broad brush for the ethical misdeeds often committed by those who are not PR professionals. Rather than taking blame–either deserved or not–for ethical misdeeds, it is high time that PR professionals take the initiative to ensure ethical behavior among all professions represented in the organizations we serve.

Real PR is Inherently Ethical

It’s sometimes hard to believe that people still refer to public relations as nothing more than publicity or a marketing tactic. A worse characterization is the public relations is intentional deception, spin and communications associated with this are called “just PR.”

Part of that is because there are bad practitioners who perpetuate this negative conception. But such practitioners often don’t have a full grasp of PR and should not be the sum total definition of the field. Also, much deceptive communication comes from CEOs, lawyers and other professionals in organizations and it should not be labeled PR if such bad practice is carried out by others.

But there’s good news. A recent study involving interviews with 30 seasoned public relations professionals shows that having a complete and accurate understanding of public relations not only leads to ethical PR, it shows how the PR function serves as the ethical conscience for the entire organization.

Read more in my latest blog post for GRBJ.com.

PR Ethics Month Matters

September is the annual PRSA “Ethics Awareness Month.”  I have two anecdotes that illustrate why singling out a month to emphasize ethics matters.

This ethics emphasis has been going on for quite a few years. I recall nearly 10 years ago when a faculty colleague of mine was up for review and she mentioned some of the activities she had done with PR students related to this emphasis on ethics in their chosen profession. A colleague from photography scoffed: “you mean you PR people are only ethical for one month?”

I get this a lot even today from colleagues in other communications fields. In one breath they refer to something as “just PR” and then turn to me and ask for help promoting their next play or exhibit.

But back to the tenure review meeting and the haughty and ignorant photography professor. I pointed out that ethics month is when the PR profession places special emphasis on ethics; they don’t abandon ethical considerations the rest of the year. In the same way that believers go to church on Sunday (or Saturday) to worship together but don’t abandon their faith the rest of the year. And by the way, I noted, shouldn’t my PR colleague be lauded for stressing ethics outside the classroom? Which of our other communications major programs or their related professional associations have an annual special emphasis on ethics, which includes components for students and aspiring professionals?

The tenure review meeting momentarily become a demonstration of nonverbal communication.

(Years later that same photography professor was delighted to bring a guest to campus to speak about photography. The title of his remarks: “The pleasures of deception?” Irony anyone?).

Fast forward to this past spring when I was at my local PRSA chapter’s annual awards program. I was having a delightful conversation at my table with a man from a local media outlet. He was there to see a colleague collect an award for an effort  to promote the outlet. He had a mixed drink in front of him. I think it was a cocktail of ignorance and anger, because the conversation turned sour and his thinking was slurred.

We had been talking about all things media, and that led to my bringing up branded journalism, in which PR people increasingly are  creating their own content on web sites, mobile platforms, social media and other channels to get relevant information directly to their key publics. As part of this, I noted, PR people don’t rely as much on conventional news media to share information, and they may provide content that is not always just about their own organizations but related industry information.

This was when he talk a long swallow of his fear on the rocks and belched out an expletive and a proclamation that such a model will never work because people will never trust such information. I mentioned that people long have and still do trust organizations with a record of providing honest information, and that sometimes getting it directly from an organization as  opposed to via a media filter is even more complete, relevant and timely to people. I also mentioned that his concerns are real for some practitioners, but most PR people I know provide truthful and relevant information that serves and does not deceive people.

I also mentioned the PRSA Code of Ethics, and how we stress it in every class in our PR program where I teach. I told him that, contrary to the stereotype and mind-numbing nonsense he was imbibing about PR people, most practitioners realize that in this era of transparency consistent ethics is sound strategy.

“Well,” he sputtered (and I use the word “well” in place of his chosen utterance, which was a concise way of describing that which male cattle deposit on pastures) “you can teach ethics  all you want but if you get PAID to provide information….” He trailed off. Maybe because his thinking was slurred even more. Or maybe because someone was at the podium starting the program.

I later tried to turn to him to respond to his folly. First of all, his assertion that being paid leads to unethical behavior begs the question of media credibility for journalists like himself who are paid. You will search in vain for a statement in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics for a prohibition of receiving pay to report the news. Secondly. the evidence to debunk him is overwhelming. My own research and that of other academics shows the public trusts information from PR sources, depending on reputation and other variables. Also, we could have looked around the room that night at all the PR professionals from our local chapter collecting awards for tactics and campaigns that were brilliant and successful….and ethical.

But when I turned in my chair to say all this, he was gone. His colleague had collected his own PR award and he took off. Maybe he needed to go cash his check. I wish he would have stayed. He could have learned what PR is, and practiced the first  statement of the SPJ Code of Ethics: “seek the truth and report it.” Unfortunately he, like many, will persist in ignorant and hypocritical perpetuation of the myth that PR is unethical by definition.

So, yes, “Ethics Awareness Month” matters for the PR profession. But we shouldn’t keep it to ourselves. There’s a world of professors, journalists, and others out there who need to know that public relations is an inherently ethical profession. It often depends on PR professionals having knowledge of the Code of Ethics, which often is more likely when they have a degree in PR, membership in PRSA or the APR accreditation. If people practice PR as a profession stressing “mutually beneficial relationships” as our modern definition does, it’s hard not to be ethical. If they practice it as something else, it just really isn’t PR.

TIME Review of ‘Deadly Spin’ is … Spin

As a PR professor and practitioner, books about PR always jump out at me. But after reading a recent TIME Magazine “The Skimmer” review (subscription required) of Wendell Potter’s “Deadly Spin,” I nearly jumped out of my chair.

Wendell Potter used to work in public relations for insurance giant Cigna. His book is a whistleblower’s account of how companies in that industry tout misleading studies, form front groups and engage in other misdeeds to deny coverage to premium-paying customers.
All of which sounds like the examples of improper practice in the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Which is why I find TIME’s review so troubling for its pedestrian writing and lazy, gleeful perpetuation of bad stereotypes about the public relations professions. It leads with “Great P.R. flacks are as talented with misdirection as they are with the truth.” At the end, after Potter points out that his conscience led him to testify to Congress about insurers favoring profits over patients, the review writes “there’s not a p.r. person alive who can put a positive spin on that.”
Again with the “spin.” If the columnist, who is mercifully not given a byline for this formulaic drivel, favors truth over misdirection, he/she might have tried some actual reporting. The review then might have pointed out that the principles Potter obtained better late than never are in fact taught in most all public relations courses, based on my meeting with other educators and reviewing preferred curriculum for PR courses. More importantly, my own research shows that if an organization has a PR officer with a degree in the field and the respect of top management, ethical practice is more likely to prevail. The misdeeds of corporations are often labeled “PR” even if management ignored the counsel of a PR person, or if no one on staff had an actual degree in the field.
Rather than lean on the synecdoche of using “PR” as a blanket reference for all dishonest communication, the reviewer could have provided a great service to readers by pointing out that the PR community has praised Potter and his book more than anyone else. Potter was a keynote speaker at the PRSA annual conference last year in San Diego, which I attended with 10 students. He was also featured in an article in PRSA Tactics, the organization’s monthly newspaper.
In short, rather than seeking occasion to misdirect readers that PR by definition is deceptive, the reviewer could have explained that the majority of the PR industry advocates ethical practice characterized by dialogic communication and mutual benefit. Instead, the reviewer chose to spin.