ESAs: The Fad-Free Way to Build Your Ethics Muscle

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At the follow-up appointment to back surgery last year, my doctor ran down the list of activities I should and should not do. I think he mentioned “lifting boxes” and “stretching” — though not together. To be honest, the only point I remember clearly was “no squats or deadlifts or other heavy weights in the gym.”

“Oh, rats,” I responded, hoping to hide my glee.

“That does not mean you can skip workouts altogether,” the doctor quickly added. “In fact, if you don’t commit to building and maintaining strength I guarantee you’ll be seeing me again.”

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where the inspiration comes from sometimes. What is important is that you find motivation. Without a doubt, I dread the surgeon’s knife again — just nowhere near as much as I fear facing an ethical challenge professionally and getting it wrong.

For nearly two decades, the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) has offered analysis on current practice issues and challenges through Ethical Standards Advisories (ESAs). PRSA members may access the ESAs in the Ethics in Communication Community Library on MyPRSA. These ESAs bring the values and provisions of the PRSA Code of Ethics come to life through analysis and guidance around real situations facing practitioners.

From Fake News and Misinformation to Looking the Other Way, ESAs are — without a doubt — popular when an ethical challenge smacks us in the face. I argue they are even more valuable as part of a regimen to build your ethics muscle anytime — helping you concentrate your effort, maintain intensity and get real results.

Here is one timely example. One ESA covers Disclosure of Payments or Financial Interests. The concern that led to its development a decade and a half ago was a spike in spokespeople and others of prominence talking up a company or product in the media without revealing they received compensation.

Today, we might consider the right response to that situation to be a no-brainer. Or maybe not. BEPS reviews and updates the ESAs periodically to ensure they remain current and applicable to the practice of our profession.  Today the concern in question may be less about a celebrity hiding payment than it is about growing legions of social media influencers and how best to reveal relationships with sponsors.

In a way, the ESAs are for PR ethics what Silver Anvil case studies are for PR creativity and campaign planning. Take time to review a few ESAs periodically, and what can sometimes feel like process and philosophy will become all the more practical to you.

Just think how much energy you can infuse into your next all-staff meeting or drinks with friends in the profession when you use an ESA as a conversation starter or fodder for a little friendly competition. (Well, not all of us plan to go pro and make a living off our bulging ethics pecs, I guess.)

The point is, we all need to challenge ourselves from time to time if we want to be strong in the face of an ethical challenge. Thanks to countless hours of drafting and debate by BEPS members over the years, the exercise plan already exists in the ESAs. BEPS has made it easy for you to get started. The motivation, of course, is up to you.

Mark Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, divides his time between Golin and his own communications consultancy. A past president of the Georgia Chapter, Dvorak served on the Universal Accreditation Board and co-chaired the 2015 PRSA ICON.  He is in his fourth year as a member of BEPS.

[Illustration credit: oz]

About the author

Mark Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA

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