Ethics Thought Leadership

The Bravery of Silence: Responsible Advocacy Starts With Listening

Each September, PRSA recognizes Public Relations Ethics Month, supported by programs presented by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). This year’s theme, Public Relations Ethics: Strengthening Our Core, guides a special focus on the six core values highlighted in the PRSA Code of Ethics. Please join the discussion through blog posts, webinars and Twitter Chats (#PREthics) scheduled throughout the month of September and consider the content a catalyst for integrating ethics and ethical practice into your daily communication activities.

Entertainment, technology, manufacturing, nonprofit. Independent practitioner, corporate spokesperson, agency account executive. New professional, mid-level manager, senior practitioner. No matter the sector you work in, what type of practitioner you are or how long we’ve been in the practice of public relations, advocacy is at the core of our role. We are hired to represent the interests of our clients, companies and organizations. We help them put their best foot forward and work to develop positive, mutually beneficial relationships with key constituencies along the way.

However, advocacy is not synonymous with blind loyalty, nor is it an excuse to saddle up a high horse. Sometimes the toughest conversations we have with our leaders and clients center on differing opinions as to the right strategies, tactics or messages. Sometimes we must serve as the moral compass, identifying the negative ramifications of unethical choices. Sometimes we’re right, and if not, we grow from the experience.

Only when our efforts center on simultaneously supporting our clients’ or organization’s objectives while respecting the views and voices of others are we truly responsible advocates. We add clarity and volume to the message. Although we are not obligated to tell both sides of the story, in our democratic society we do have a duty to respect the rights of others to contribute to the marketplace of ideas.

What happens when our role in representing our clients or organization puts us in a position where we are called upon to restrict or muffle the opposing side? In these instances, we have a choice. We can opt to drown or strangle the voices of others by flooding the airwaves and data streams with messages, images and statistics. The other side is likely to up the ante, using the same channels to try to out-message our side. While this action increases the demand for our services, what damage can it do to our ability to share ideas, build consensus and develop respectful and meaningful partnerships?

I would propose an alternative: Exercise bravery in silence.

Silence is scary. Our revenue models are driven by the mass and volume of the messages we place and secure in the media or the minds of consumers. The pressure to churn out talking point after talking point is palpable. If we can reach them with our messages, we can shape opinions and get audiences to act. What would happen if we stopped? What could we do?

We could listen.

The best public relations advocacy starts with listening. Listening requires us to put our voices aside and seek solid facts from reliable sources. It requires us to try to understand the viewpoints of others. We must listen with open minds and critically analyze our own cases before refuting alternative views. Use listening as a means of acknowledging the validity of other views (even if you disagree). Use listening to increase knowledge. Ask questions to create clarity.

When we listen, we build understanding. We may never reach unanimous agreement, but as advocates we can fight fairly and work to build positive relationships based on honest, respectful discourse.

While it is doubtful that we’ll ever achieve radio silence, I encourage you to make space in your practice for listening. Not only will it help you be a more strategic advocate, it will help you build your practice around a solid ethical core.

With more than 20 years of professional experience, including five as an educator, Nancy Weaver, M.A., APR, has been an industry leader as PRSA’s Las Vegas Valley Chapter President, Western District Chair and Employee Communications Section Chair.

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