Advocacy Ethics

Making Ethical Decisions Under Pressure

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People are more than five times more likely to do the right thing when they have some time to think about the matter than when they have to make a snap decision, according to a recent study from the Academy of Management.

Unfortunately, as PR professionals, too often we don’t have the luxury of time when it comes to making a decision. Like many of you, I rarely encounter a situation where clients say “take the time you need.”

I strongly encourage a methodical, data-based approach to decision-making; whenever possible professionals should look at all sides of a knotty problem. This is particularly important when it comes to an ethical issue, as there are often varying shades of grey in the question.

But PR people often face their ethical dilemmas when a reporter is calling and asking a question, or the client presents an idea, asks “Any objections?” or simply tells them what is happening. It that case, the luxury of time doesn’t exist, so we don’t have the time benefit the study recommends.

Does that mean we throw up our hands, trust our gut and settle for less ethical decision making? No.

Think More Like a Pro Golfer

The Academy of Management study is great as far as it goes. But it doesn’t examine the role of training and continual self-improvement. When it comes to ethical decision making, I personally see ethics as similar to muscle memory in sports.

Professional golfers and baseball players analyze their swings endlessly. They debate it with others, and make adjustments over and over until they perform flawlessly. When they’re in the heat of the moment, they don’t need to consciously analyze the hundreds of elements involved in the swing.

The same can be said for ethical decision making.

Ethical Decisions Aren’t Made in a Vacuum

Put another way, sound ethical decisions are not reached in a vacuum. If the first time you ask yourself “Is this ethical?” is in the middle of a dicey situation, you will really feel the time constraints; any PR professional may flounder in that situation. The solution to this is simple, but requires commitment. Act more like a pro golfer: Practice, practice, Practice and analyze, analyze, analyze.

To be a consistently ethical practitioner requires constant examination and learning. Following are six suggestions for “training your ethical mind” that might be helpful.

  1. Have regular ethics discussion with your staff. As an agency executive, don’t just have these discussions internally; involve your clients. Highlight a situation you have seen of a recent ethical misstep. Ask everyone if they saw it and what they thought. Don’t give your opinion until the end; let the discussion flow freely. This ongoing exercise will train employees to think ethically, understand the importance you put on it and might uncover issues you haven’t considered. It will reinforce, at least indirectly, with the client that you are thinking about ethics and their brand, and helps you enter a better rapprochement. The same applies on the corporate side a well — get your agency involved in these discussions
  2. Use the PRSA Code of Ethics as your guide. The Code helps codify how PRSA defines ethical behavior and provides guidelines for a lot of common scenarios we face in our daily lives.
  3. Look beyond PRSA. The PRSA is not the only resource for public-relations ethics. Look at the WOMMA Code of Ethics and the Arthur Page Society’s Principles as well. Industry associations frequently have codes of ethics that apply to situations unique to the industry. Take the time to review them.
  4. Educate yourself about new developments. While some may argue ethics are core, unchanging values, the ethical considerations of a situation may change with technology and the times. That is why PRSA regularly offers “Professional Standards Advisories” on new challenges that PR pros may encounter.
  5. 5. Use PRSA Chapter Ethics Officers as a resource. Most PRSA Chapters have trained ethics officers who are available to serve as a guide for outside perspective.
  6. Finally, if you think you are perfect — take this quiz. If you don’t score a 100, then spend some time discussing it with your staff.

Ethics is an essential business and communications function. Public relations executives make the time to train their junior staff of pitching and writing. Ethical decision-making is another area for training. If you think you don’t have the time to either practice with your staff, agency colleagues or other professionals, you are making a strategic mistake. One wrong decision in this area, will add 100 times to the work you would have had if you had stepped back and discussed the alternatives.

Ethics is not cut and dry, which is why it has been a fascinating area of discussion for thousands of years. Please join me in making ethics a part of your regular routine. Our organizations will thank us.

Mark McClennan, APR, is a member of the PRSA Board of Directors and senior vice president at Schwartz MSL. He can be reached at

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Mark McClennan, APR


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