Do you think choosing public relations as a career is related to being inherently—or at least instinctively—more ethical?
Often I see that point of view put forth by PR practitioners, particularly in posts from (wholly owned) media such as an agency blog. It’s interesting how when the post focuses on “outing” or examining perceived transgressions from another company, the implied suggestion is, “We would never do such a harmful thing, attempt to spin things or cover up the facts. That’s because we are more trustworthy and ethical.”
No matter what our eventual profession, none of us are born ethical. And neither is it instinctive in adults. According to an accounting association’s Ethics Readings Handbook or ERH (a textbook from its certification program of professional study), “Ethics equals a moral authority, a systematic study of standards of human conduct and moral judgment.”
Ethics requires ongoing examination and reflection for humans and our definitely fallible tendencies to do right or wrong (particularly if our employers/clients or we ourselves benefit), as well as evolving societal and personal beliefs about what is right and wrong, good and bad.
Ethics requires lifelong career training
If adults decide a child shows promise of being a great athlete, the training begins early and needs to be systematic and sustained, including increasingly more difficult physical challenges to test against and overcome. Failing to maintain training and endurance will result in losses at formal events.
Professional (and personal) ethics should be thought of in the same way: not as a one-time successful sprint win, but more like a marathon, requiring methodical, ongoing training. The Melbourne Mandate’s recommended Professional Development Wheel (from the Global Alliance) for public relations practitioners even includes a section devoted to ethics, suggesting training focused on:
- social responsibility
- sustainable practice
- provision of value
- integrity, honesty and trust
- accountability—parametres and metrics
Character formation is an important part of morality. And, also from the earlier-mentioned ERH, “Moral life is complicated and highly contextual.”
And for the PR practitioner, whether in-house or consultancy, developing the virtues needed to form character requires deliberate thinking and thoughtful decision making. Who will gain and who might be harmed is part of the Justice (virtue) aspect in the “ethical” distribution of benefits and burdens.
I devoted one of my (social public relations) monthly columns to the two-minute “IBM on Brand” video featuring IBM’s greatly respected Jon Iwata, where he distilled Big Blue’s corporate character. These words resonate most, from an organizational (and ethical) character point of view:
“…. So if we are not going to define IBM by what we make, what defines us? And it comes back to this notion of our corporate character, and that’s our beliefs systems and our purpose and our mission and what makes us, us.
We tend to that…the brand takes care of itself.
Once we have a sense of what makes us, us, it actually is quite clarifying. It also compels us to keep changing…while making sure we don’t change things that should never change and that must endure.”
Iwata’s words are believable because venerable IBM is a familiar entity to most, meaning his words speak to an honest understanding of the company and its “licence to operate” is assured, at least for the immediate future.
But most of us are not present, past or future IBM’ers. This means that operational ethical discussions and decision by PR practitioners may involve more complicated and difficult choices.
Counselling for ethics
In your counselling role, in-house or consultancy, be prepared to argue why you are you in favour of a particular option—persuasion, plus sound reasons—in getting others to agree with you. Beyond persuading for anticipated business outcomes, the ERH recommends the following ethical tests:
- Do your arguments stand the light of day?
- Can they be verified against available information?
- Will they prove acceptable to other fair-minded individuals?
Namely: Can your ethics or decisions stand up to critical scrutiny and be supported by moral reasons?
The online dimension to ethical decisions
Formerly, counsel by PR practitioners was done quietly, perhaps hidden underneath push-messaging speeches or documents or non-disclosure agreements. But today companies and individuals voluntarily give themselves online profile by offering opinions on different areas.
Transparency is a good thing—if, indeed, counsel and “thought leadership” come from an ethical place of morality, character and virtues.
And yet…according to a September 2013 article in The Atlantic, How to Catch a Liar on the Internet, most people tell small lies daily and those same untruths or questionable, ick-factor decisions are observed by others, thanks to digital detritus we leave behind in our rush for profile and mindshare.
Remember, in addition to online friends, your actions and opinions—even if the required Disclosure: Client line is included—are being observed and judged by fair-minded individuals who might feel compelled to speak up when they sense questionable organizational decisions and personal lack of forthrightness regarding motivation and benefits.
I don’t believe it was due to timing or chance that my CommPRO.biz Making Honest B2B Endorsements through Social PR, Part II had record-breaking PageViews (five figures and still growing); rather it was probably because public relations practitioners warmed to the words chosen deliberately for the title: “honest” and “endorsements.”
I wrote if from a place of my beliefs and longer-term observations of less-than transparent practices, so its attention was gratifying.
Although the success of my two-part article resulted in increased profile, the primary goal was to help companies and PR practitioners themselves gain the attention they deserved from partner companies in an honest and ethical fashion.
Keep up the ethical good work
I applaud PRSA for devoting one month each year to thoughtful contemplation about the study and implementation of ethics in our professional and personal lives.
I’m not sure if it was inaugurated under the watch of that ethical practitioner, the late Arthur Yann, APR (I continue to think WWAD in my own growth and reflections), but I know he was a huge advocate of ethics and morals, character and virtues…and understood these things take ongoing work.
As do most important things in life.
Judy Gombita is a Toronto-based hybrid public relations, communication management and social media strategist, with more than 20 years of employment and executive-level volunteer board experience, primarily in the financial and lifelong learning nonprofit sectors. She is the co-content editor and Canadian contributor (since 2007) to the global, collaborative blog, PR Conversations and also contributed a monthly column on social PR on the Maximize Social Business site.