Putting Ethics into Action – Part I

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Drs. Mary Gentile and Minette Drumwright have both led students and business professionals through training called “Giving Voice to Values,” an innovative pedagogy and curriculum which Gentile created and directs.  The curriculum has been featured in Financial Times, Harvard Business Review, Stanford Social Innovation Review, McKinsey Quarterly and piloted in hundreds of business schools and organizations globally. They provided insights into how the principles can be applied to public relations.

1) What do you see as the greatest needs in ethics education?

Dr. Gentile: Traditional ethics education, especially in business and other professional domains, tends to focus upon 1) building awareness, such as exposing students or professionals to the sorts of ethical challenges they may face so they will recognize them, and 2) teaching analysis, meaning introducing students to the models of ethical reasoning, drawn from philosophy so that they can practice reasoning through ethical dilemmas. However, very often individuals actually do know what they believe the “right thing” to do is in a particular situation but they feel pressured to do otherwise or cannot figure out how to act ethically and still be effective. I believe there is a crying need for preparation for action: that is, exposing students and professionals with examples of ways that others have effectively found ways to voice and enact their values in the workplace, and providing the tools, the arguments, the “scripts” and action plans, and the opportunity for actual “rehearsal” for effective values-driven action.

Dr. Drumwright:  I would add that students need to view making ethical judgments as central to their roles as a business professional in general and a public relations professional in particular.  They need to understand that dealing with ethical issues effectively is integral to serving as a trusted business adviser.  Furthermore, the skills needed to analyze, communicate, and act on ethical issues are similar to other problem-solving and communication skills.  Students who are prepared to analyze and act on ethical issues are likely to be better equipped to succeed in public relations.

2) What are the biggest misconceptions about ethics?

Dr. Drumwright:  Perhaps the most common response that I hear when I tell someone that I teach ethics in public relations and advertising is, “Ethics in public relations and advertising—Isn’t that an oxymoron.”  Ethics should be central to the way all professionals perceive their roles. Another common misperception is that one must either be ethical and unsuccessful or successful and unethical.  Relatedly, some people mistakenly think that they have no choice but to do whatever it takes to enhance the bottom line.  The Giving Voice to Values curriculum poses the question, “Assume that you want to do something; what would you do?”  As such, it helps students see that they do have a choice in the way that they live their professional lives, and it enables them to develop moral imagination, which is the ability to think outside the box and envision ethical alternatives that others do not see.

3) Do you have any particular ethics models that you like to apply to decision making?  If so, please describe.

Dr. Drumwright:  The Giving Voice to Values model is a straightforward and helpful model for analysis and action.  It begins with the question, “If I wanted to do something, what could I do?” The “if” is important because it circumvents the question of whether one is going to act temporarily and frees the decision maker to move forward to think resourcefully about issues and alternatives.  This also allows one to identify and understand the rationalizations that could prevent one from responding to an ethical issue responsibly and ethically.  The approach then involves identifying the stakeholders who are affected by an ethical issue or decision and understanding what is at stake for each.  The next step is to identify the levers that one could use to persuade others and the best arguments that one could make.  The final step is to develop a plan for putting one’s values into action.

About the Experts

Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D. (link:, is creator and director of “Giving Voice to Values” and senior research scholar at Babson College; Senior Advisor, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program; and independent consultant. Previously Gentile was faculty and administrator at Harvard Business School.

Minette Drumwright, Ph.D. (link:, is an associate professor at The University of Texas Austin’s Advertising & Public Relations department.  She previously was an assistant professor of Marketing at the Harvard Business School. She has written articles and cases for various books and journals about ethics in advertising and public relations. She also she worked in advertising and public relations for seven years.

Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR, Baylor University, Member of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards

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Marlene Neill

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