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.

Should Your Company ‘Brag’ About Its Good Deeds?

A news release about local hospital caught my eye as I was trolling news apps and social media. “Metro Health Named One of the Greenest Hospitals in America” was the proud headline.

There is no doubt that organizations of every stripe issue news releases to tout their success. There are even special newsfeed like CSRWire dedicated to being a clearing house for news about various forms of Corporate Social Responsibility, a hot topic in public relations for years now.

But I got to thinking about this one given some recent research I read about what consumers want to know about companies’ CSR. Yes, it would seem to be good for consumers to know that companies are doing “good” in addition to just making and offering good products and services. But is it seedy for companies to toot their own horn?

CSR was the topic of a 2014 special issue of PR Journal, published and available for free online at PRSA.org. One of the articles asked my question exactly: “Public Expectations of CSR Communication: What and How to Communicate CSR.”

The results are interesting and helpful to PR academics who want to further research this area, as well as to PR practitioners who can use the study to be more nuanced and strategic in the ways they share their company’s and clients’ CSR activities.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • consumers want mostly to know “who is benefiting” from the CSR activity. So PR pros should not write to make corporations central to the story, but to tell stories of improved lives or environments;
  • as far as sources of information, consumers preferred most to hear directly from beneficiaries, with the CEO or PR spokesperson the least preferred. In general, non-corporate sources were preferred over corporate representatives. So PR pros should quote or otherwise give voice to the publics their CSR efforts helped, and let the CEO and themselves be silent or a minimal part of the story;
  • in somewhat of a surprise, consumers liked to hear about CSR more from company controlled media like annual reports, social media, web sites, newsletters and so on as opposed to news media or expert blogs. My guess is this is as much about accountability and detailed information than it is about a particular source preference. But it is worth noting.
So the bottom line is that the news release I saw may be ok, since it was directly from the company and in fact quoted a third-party ranking of the hospital’s green efforts, and it stressed the community benefit. 
For everyone else, don’t play faux humility about CSR efforts, but also don’t be too self-righteous. Strive for that middle ground where the company is in the background and the beneficiary is the star. Also, don’t think media relations is the best when consumers are looking to your “owned” media for CSR information.
When it comes to doing good, it really is nice to share.

Why Do PR Pros Seek Accreditation (APR)? Latest Research

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) established the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) program more than 50 years ago, in 1964. Since then, thousands of PR professionals have worked to earn the designation as a mark of superior PR skills, knowledge and ethical practice.

However, not all practitioners seek the APR credential. In fact, PRSA noticed the percentage of practitioners who are accredited has gone down in recent years. So the Universal Accreditation Board (UAB) has encouraged academics to look into the reasons why professionals do and do not make the effort to earn the APR mark of distinction.

Hence, my latest research research with my co-author Dr. Kaye Sweetser of San Diego State University. “Role Enactment, Employer Type, and Pursuit of APR” was just published in the journal Public Relations Review. The journal article is available here. Or, since the journal article is an abbreviated version, you can email me for a full copy.

Or you can just read on here for a summary!

First, a quick explanation of the key terms and variables in the study. “Role enactment” is an academic term that describes the specific role that PR practitioners enact in their jobs. Prior research has boiled these roles down to two: a “technician” is more of an entry-level role focused on tactics; a “manager” may still work on tactics but is more focused on strategy and advising organizational management and making communication decisions vs merely implementing them.

“Employer type” has to do with the fact that PR professionals may work for a corporation, but they could also work in many other contexts. Vast numbers of PR professionals work in non-profits, government agencies, educational institutions, the military, or public relations firms.

We were curious to see if the context in which a practitioner works, or their years of experience or level of authority/status in the organization, were factors in whether or not and why they sought the APR credential.

Results showed that employer type and practitioner role did make a difference. The practical take-aways:

  • Respondents pursued APR mostly for personal satisfaction or to be a better practitioner.
  • Seeking the APR to get a promotion was correlated with younger practitioners.
  • Those in PR for many years were more likely to pursue APR for higher salary than those who transfer in from other fields (who may seek APR for knowledge and legitimacy in their new field).
  • Pursuing APR to gain respect from clients/employer was more common for those in agency, nonprofit, or government/military.
  • Those in a manager role were more likely to pursue APR for higher salary, while those in a technician role were more likely to pursue APR for a job promotion or when seeking a new job.
  • A somewhat counter-intuitive result was that men are significantly more likely than women to be motivated by respect from an employer or client.
This research extended previous studies about the differences between those PR practitioners with and without APR. The UAB may use the results to tailor their promotion of the APR program differently to practitioners, based on their gender, specific role, years of experience, and the type of organization in which they work.