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.
Over the years, I’ve developed, taught, coached and advocated a powerful and helpful communication philosophy that reinforces the value an independent adviser can bring.
At the same time, this approach defines my ethical approach to life, to work and to trouble. I call these “intentions” because this is how I seek to operate my life every day, and to teach others to do the same. These behaviors build trust, integrity and validity, and support the credibility of my independent opinions and thoughts. This is also the communications strategy I work to teach others because these behaviors and attitudes have enormous power and benefit.
To be valued for your independence, you need to set the example every day.
- Candor — Truth with an attitude, delivered right now (the foundation blocks of trust).
- Disclose, announce early.
- Explain reasoning and reasons.
- Discuss options, alternatives considered.
- Provide unsolicited helpful information.
- Openness, accessibility — Be available, for the disasters as well as the ribbon cuttings.
- Be available.
- Be willing to respond.
- Truthfulness — Truth is 15 percent facts and data, 85 percent emotion and point of
- Point of reference matters more than facts.
- Factual overload victimizes people and makes them feel stupid, therefore angrier.
- Unconditional honesty, from the start.
- Learn to be good at handling emotional situations, subjects and people. (Truth is 85 percent emotion.)
- Empathy — Action always speaks louder than words.
- Action illustrates concern, sensitivity and compassion.
- Act as though it was happening to you or someone you care about.
- It is literally impossible to put yourself in someone else’s shoes in any meaningful way, especially the victims of your client’s actions, decisions and behaviors.
- Sympathy generally is just words of little value to truly be helpful to anyone. Sympathy is generally more about you and the notion that you avoided what’s happening to others.
- Responsiveness — Answering questions relentlessly in every situation validates your integrity.
- Every concern or question, regardless of the source, is legitimate and must be addressed.
- Answer every question; avoid judging the questioner.
- Avoid taking any question personally. Answering questions settles people down.
- Build followers and be nice, even in the face of anger or aggressive negativity. Anger and arrogance create plaintiffs, because these responses create victims.
- Transparency — No secrets (because important things and stupid stuff always come out).
- Our behavior, our attitude, our plans, even our strategic discussions must be unchallengeable, positive and explainable.
- Our families (your mother, children?) would be comfortable reading about our actions, decisions and discussions on the front page of tomorrow’s newspaper, on television or in social media.
- Engagement — Face-to-face is the communications approach desired by just about everyone and every victim.
- Promptly, constructively and helpfully interact with those who challenge, accuse, confuse or even attack.
- Our base and those who give us permission to operate expect us to deal with inconvincibles and victims.
- Prompt direct interactive response, even negotiation, empowers the initiator.
- Destiny Management — It’s your destiny, which only you can manage in your own best interest.
- Manage your own destiny, or you’ll find someone waiting on the sidelines to do it for you.
- Relentlessly correct and clarify the record.
- Prompt, positive, constructive elaboration of the facts pre-empts critics and empowers employees, supporters and those who give us permission to operate to support us, or at least be less likely to oppose
- Apology — The atomic energy of empathy. Apologies can stop just about everything bad, including litigation from starting or continuing.
- Acknowledge personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed or wronged another.
- Explain what happened and the known reasons for the circumstance.
- Talk about what you and your organization have learned that will help prevent it from ever happening again.
- Humbly ask for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and to make amends.
- Make restitution.
There are lots of possible names for this approach: communications policy, guidelines or manifesto. I like the word intentions because it signifies that you are fully engaged in helping your client decide, act and communicate in the most effective, honest, ethical, empathetic and open manner possible, all the time.
By publicly professing these intentions for yourself, and teaching, urging, suggesting and demonstrating their value, you will set a standard of personal objectivity, credibility, honesty and helpfulness for which you and your client can be held accountable. This behavior can lead to an extraordinarily interesting, useful and trustworthy independent life — one with integrity, real power and influence that will help you achieve the access, influence and impact you seek.
Besides, you’ll sleep a lot better every night.
James E. Lukaszewski, APR, Fellow PRSA, served on the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) for 22 years. In 2016, he was the first BEPS member to be given Member Emeritus status by the PRSA Board of Directors. Among other activities, he was co-chair of the PRSA BEPS Code of Ethics redrafting effort led by Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA. The PRSA Assembly unanimously approved the revised code in the fall of 2000.