An Ethical, Decision-Making Model to Consider

How do we ethically communicate and make decisions in a manner that considers the best interests for all — including employers, clients, members of key publics and stakeholders?

In reality, PR professionals can’t make everyone happy. What matters is the ability to treat key members of the public with fairness, dignity and respect that is afforded to them as rational and reasoning individuals as prescribed by Immanuel Kant’s deontological philosophy, or “duty ethics.”

The use of moral theory in PR decision-making and counseling is a well-established tradition. Some professionals use approaches grounded in utilitarianism, or “the greatest good for the greatest number,” while others employ a deontological approach, as Shannon A. Bowen, now an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, found in 2002.

Deontology, or duty ethics, helps eliminate bias in decision-making by holding decisions to standards, or principles, that have universal acceptance of as right and good.

In an effort to incorporate a deontological approach to decision-making, Bowen created a practical model for PR professionals (Journal of Public Relations Research, 2005).

Bowen’s model asks PR professionals a series of questions:

  1. Am I acting on reason without the influence of politics, money or self-interest?
  2. If someone were in a similar situation, then would I be OK with being on the receiving end of the decision I’m making?
  3. Am I doing what’s right with a morally good will while maintaining dignity and respect?

This model forces PR professionals to put themselves on the receiving end of their decisions, as well as evaluate personal motivations and consider the receiver of the decision. In employing this model, PR professionals can approach decision-making regarding communication and relationship management efforts in an ethical manner.

Diana C. Sisson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public relations at Auburn University. Sisson is also a Research Fellow at the Arthur W. Page Center at The Pennsylvania State University. Sisson’s research focuses on authenticity, relationship management, and social media in the nonprofit sector.

About the author

Diana C. Sisson, Ph.D.


  • Dr. Sisson, I find the three-question model you’ve shared to be practical, succinct and useful. Much appreciated!

  • Ethical decision-making can be a tricky process. With this simple model, PR professionals can reach an ethical solution through a series of 3 simple questions. This is a very helpful model!

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