Putting Ethics into Action – Part II

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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.

4) What’s different about your Giving Voice to Values curriculum?

Dr. Gentile: The training/approach is about having the opportunity to literally develop “scripts” and action plans, based on working through the scenario analysis, so that we can rehearse and engage in peer coaching around what to do and say when encountering a values conflict. In this way, we are building a sort of “moral muscle memory”, having rehearsed these things so that we are more likely to be comfortable and skillful and confident enough to act when we actually encounter challenges.

Dr. Drumwright:  One of the advantages of the advantages of the Giving Voice to Values approach is that cases can be easily tailored to a given profession to raise ethical issues that people in that profession are likely to face.  As a part of class projects, my students have written short cases that present ethical issues that they have encountered as public relations and advertising interns and in part-time jobs.  I then use these cases in subsequent semesters to help other students build scripts that will enable them to respond responsibility when they face similar situations.  Frankly, I’ve been astounded by some of the ethical issues that our students have faced in internships.

The Giving Voice to Values curriculum includes scenarios similar to those used in crisis communication drills.  Business professionals are encouraged to identify any biases that may be preventing them or others from choosing the right action such as obedience to authority, over optimism, loss aversion or self-serving bias.  They then identify levers or approaches that can help them convince others of the right action such as real world events (news headlines), research, and representational redescriptions (case studies or analogies).  And then they actually rehearse their scripts and action plans and engage in peer coaching to enhance their likely effectiveness.

5) What have your experiences been like leading ethics education/training for students?

Dr. Drumwright:  The biggest challenge that I face when I teach an undergraduate course on ethics in public relations and advertising is convincing students that ethics is highly relevant to their careers and their future success and wellbeing as professionals.  The Giving Voice to Values curriculum is helpful in demonstrating the relevance of ethics to students because it focuses on real-world problems and is action-oriented.

6) What are some of the key insights from your research on ethics?

Dr. Drumwright:  The findings of two of the studies that I have done are particularly relevant to the Giving Voice to Values approach, so I’ll tell a little about them.

Often business professionals have what my co-author Patrick Murphy and I have termed “moral myopia,” which is a distortion of moral vision that keeps ethical issues from coming clearly into focus, and “moral muteness,” meaning that they rarely talk about ethical issues.  Moral myopia and moral muteness are supported by a variety of rationalizations that can be categorized—for example, “If it is legal, it’s moral, or if it is not illegal, it is ethical,” and “The client is always right.”  Being forewarned of these rationalizations can help one identify them and raise a red flag when they enter into thinking and decision making.  We did, however, find morally sensitive business professionals who exhibited moral imagination and found ways to be both ethical and successful.  The organizational context in which these professionals worked mattered, and their organizations encouraged ethical sensitivity in a variety of ways that were integrated into their cultures and practices.

The research that Marlene Neill and I have done has demonstrated that public relations professionals can play the role of organizational conscience or ethics counselor effectively and provides insights into how to serve in this manner.  People who played this role effectively typically were experienced public relations professionals who expressed a dual loyalty–to their employers and to the public interest.  What was surprising was the fervor with which these people viewed their responsibility to serve the public interest.  They were as fervent about it as they were about their obligations to their organizations. They viewed themselves as an independent voice in senior management, and they were often in the position of providing criticism to powerful organizational players who outranked them.  Rather than raising their concerns as persuasive orators, they typically used subtle, experiential approaches to persuasion (e.g., the headline test or staging a mock press conference).  We found that it was easier to play the role of organizational conscience in organizations with participative cultures because of easier access to forums for discussion and because this type of culture encourages questioning and providing feedback.

The findings of both of these studies are in sync with the Giving Voice to Values approach in that they emphasize the importance of recognizing ethical issues, understanding the rationalizations that would prevent one from dealing with them effectively, and 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.

Helpful resources:

Drumwright, Minette E. and Patrick E. Murphy (2004), “How Advertising Practitioners View Ethics:  Moral Muteness, Moral Myopia, and Moral Imagination” Journal of Advertising, 33 (Summer) 7-24.

Drumwright, Minette E. (2012), “Ethics and Advertising Theory,” in Advertising Theory, eds., Shelly Rogers and Esther Thorson, New York:  Routledge, 463-479.

Jones, T.M. (1991), “Ethical Decision Making by Individuals in Organizations:  An Issue-contingent Model,” Academy of Management Review, 16 (2) 143-153.

Neill, Marlene S. and Minette E. Drumwright (2012), “PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 27 (December) 220-234.


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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