When Passion Meets Ethics

“Passion is when you’re willing to quit your job over something in which you believe.”

I’m not sure who to originally said this, but, regardless, these words have long resonated with me, and it’s something I once remembered at a very specific crossroads in my life. It was a weekend morning and I was hastily dressing for an impromptu business meeting. My wife asked me what was happening and where I was going, and all I could say was, “I think I’m going to have to quit my job today.” And then I left for that meeting.

How do you think she reacted? Let’s just say she was nervous for the both of us and for our two kids.

Without going into detail, here’s what I can say about that situation: Someone was insisting that we communicate something in a way that did not comply with my core values. I knew if I went along, a wide range of problems could happen for the organization — or on the other hand, nothing could happen. This pretty much frames most ethical dilemmas, doesn’t it?

But deep down I knew that if my worst fears were even partially true, I could not go along, and the time to act would not be later when things started to unfold.

Even in non-crisis PR situations, “now” reflects a time well before something reaches the public eye. What we choose to do or don’t do today usually involves an irreversible course tomorrow. That’s probably one of the biggest challenges for ethical decision making — knowing that we sometimes have to make firm decisions as though dark clouds are above us during times when, figuratively speaking, we look out our windows and the sun is still shining and no one around us seems concerned.

On that weekend morning, I went to the meeting and I made my case. In the process, I knew that I may have put my family’s financial security and my career in the balance.

That adage about passion I cited at the start of this post was as key as ever. And it revolved around what I saw as a commitment to doing the right thing. This is hardly an original idea. Doing the right thing gets at the very essence of good public relations.

It was Benjamin Franklin who coined the term, “Do well by doing good.” Perhaps for those five words alone we should draw a dotted line to him as one of the founders of modern PR thinking.

When we decide to put our jobs on the line to do the right thing in a PR context, the glue that binds the decision is passion. True passion means possessing a clear head and a willingness to take risks, experience setbacks, suffer losses and live with the consequences, all in the name of doing what you think you must do.

So how did my moment turn out?

Fortunately I was able to convince the powers that be that the course I recommended was the best option. Keep in mind, these are not often template situations. It’s not the we-did-something-wrong-so-we-guess-we-need-to-be-transparent-and-apologize stuff. Real ethical dilemmas are more nuanced, with deep roots, long histories, serious ramifications and lots of gray areas.

As events unfolded, the worst-case scenario did start to develop. But by taking a more difficult path, the organization had earned the goodwill it needed to get through it and come out positioned for future success.

In PRSA we have a Code of Ethics, and for some there is the assumption that it exists to tell us how to be ethical. That’s not how I see it.

By now, each of us should know right from wrong, and we should have found a way to incorporate that understanding into our own professional and personal value systems. Our own values should drive all of our work, decision-making and communications.

For me, the role of the Code is for all of us to find common ground. It’s a meeting place for everyone’s core values, which in turn informs the core values of our profession.

In 2018, I was fortunate to have been tapped to join PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). It’s been a chance for me to get to know a group of some of the most impressive people you’ll meet in this profession. In this group, you will find the passion I described earlier. These individuals know firsthand what it means to put your core values first.

As we head into Ethics Month at PRSA, try this little exercise: Take a few quiet minutes to contemplate scenarios where you would willingly and knowingly walk away from a job or an assignment on the basis that it conflicts with some uncompromising value that you hold. Don’t share it with anyone; just think about it. At some point you will discover your passion.

Tim O’Brien, APR, owns O’Brien Communications, an independent corporate communications practice in Pittsburgh. Email: Twitter: @OBrienPR.

About the author

Tim O'Brien, APR


  • Tim, this is a very thoughtful and insightful piece. On behalf of PRSA’s Board of Directors, thank you very much for your important contributions to BEPS and its mission. Nothing PRSA does is more significant.

  • Tim, wonderful story! BEPS gives us the guidance and support for those difficult situations. And, they happen to all of us. As we all say in crisis management: It’s not if, but when. We’ve fired a client because of ethical issues they would have forced us to participate, and we had a situation with our largest client at the time that put us on the edge- like your issue. They came around and I started breathing again.

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