Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the second post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.
The PR profession suffers from schizophrenia. On the one hand, PR people want to be at the table making decisions and guiding strategy with the boss in good times and bad. On the other hand, many want to serve as the guiding conscience of their organizations.
So far, the record for the profession in either arena is mixed. There have been some successes, some strikeouts, some absolute no-hitters and some MIAs. That’s because business and other leaders have lost or ignored their responsibility to build and rebuild integrity as a workplace principle — a workplace guiding force.
Legislators continue to pass laws imposing extensive compliance requirements and an ever-increasing stack of regulations, restrictions and oversight requirements, in addition to internal and self-imposed monitoring. Virtually none of these can restore public, investor, employee, customer or individual trust. Restoration of trust begins by focusing and rebuilding the most essential element of an ethical reputation: integrity.
The foundation for integrity is organizational trust.
Need to Restore Trust
The PR profession — if it chooses to — can play a vital role in restoring and enhancing trust. Lawyers aggressively oversee the areas of compliance and codes of conduct. That’s where the monitoring is; that’s where the police are; and that’s where the detection, deterrence and disclosure of infractions occurs.
Restoring trust and maintaining an environment of integrity occurs in an organization along two powerful tracks: the principles that guide daily processes and decisions, and uncompromising vigilance.
Here are some examples of trust-building organizational principles:
- Our goal is integrity.
- We have constructive aspirations.
- We live a philosophy of integrity.
- We have a commitment to compliance and good conduct.
- We recognize those who achieve the best work in the best way.
- Our vigilance is driven by our principles, priorities, and our conscience.
- Everyone is committed to integrity.
- Everyone is a corporate conscience.
Uncompromising vigilance means to clearly define, dramatically emphasize and relentlessly enforce organizational values and beliefs. It is the organization’s unconditional commitment to prevent, detect, deter, or ultimately, expose and learn from those activities that run counter to the ethics of the organization.
Integrity is barely taught in business schools. It is something the boss is rarely compensated for. This is a perfect place for the PR practitioner to provide extraordinary counsel. Constructive leadership depends upon integrity. If there’s one thing public relations strives to provide, it is constructive counsel to leaders.
One problem is that many bosses think integrity is “sissy stuff.” They have a hard time seeing themselves at their country club having their buddies in the locker room kid them about how they caved in to those who would rather sell out than sell up.
Standing for integrity means standing up. Standing for integrity means helping an organization unlearn inappropriate behaviors. It means helping others learn how to handle ethical dilemmas and difficult issues. Integrity also teaches how to bring out the best in an organization — the best people, the best products, the best relationships, the best work and the best practices.
If there ever was a growth area for PR — one in which most of us absolutely, positively fit — it is guiding and inspiring the relentless quest for integrity: behaving with honor; expecting everyone else to do the same; and helping everyone become a corporate conscience.
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and is president of the Lukaszewski Group, a division of Risdall McKinney Public Relations.