Public Relations Tactics

Tough Situations: Making Ethically Sound Decisions in Public Relations

September 1, 2016

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Two things are clear about up-and-coming PR professionals: They are eager to learn more about ethics, and they want to better understand how to make ethically sound decisions.

How do I know this? Over the past two years, I have been working with Michele Ewing, APR, Fellow PRSA, of Kent State University to conduct national research about leadership development in public relations. Michele and I have interviewed senior practitioners, young professionals and current students from across the United States, and from a diverse array of backgrounds, industries, geographies and educational institutions.

We have also interviewed directors of the top PR programs in the country. The topic of ethics keeps bubbling to the surface as a priority, and especially so among current students and young professionals. They crave more guidance on how to handle tough situations — and perhaps some established practitioners do, too.

This article will provide you with step-by-step considerations for ethical decision-making in the PR practice. But first, stop to consider why students and young professionals may be struggling with ethics.

My take? I don’t think the fault lies with educators, or even with parents. Unknown situations and never-before-faced circumstances are simply daunting for young professionals. And I am not convinced that this is any different for millennials or Generation Z than it was for Generation X or prior generations. What you haven’t faced before can be intimidating. So those of us with experience have a responsibility to help students and young professionals better understand ethics and how to handle tough situations.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind, as you strive to make ethically sound decisions:

1. Keep in mind that what’s legal and what’s ethical aren’t always the same.

Usually the two go hand-in-hand. But there may be certain organizational decisions and actions that, while legally sound, are not fully ethical. Consider the handling of customer data, and how actions could fall into one of four categories:

  • Ethical and legal: Keeping customer data confidential
  • Ethical, but not legal: Calling attention to the improper handling of customer data
  • Not ethical, but legal: Sharing disclosures according to legal requirements, but doing so in a way that customers don’t understand what they are agreeing to, as far as sharing data with other companies
  • Not ethical or legal: Providing customers’ information to other companies without their permission

Your responsibility as a PR professional is to learn as much as possible about policies and practices, and to understand the legal guidelines governing those processes. When practices fulfill legal requirements but seem questionable from an ethics standpoint, you should ask questions, foster discussion and help ensure that your employer or client is doing right by the public.

2. Be aware that ethics exist on a spectrum.

There are not “good” ethics or “bad” ethics; rather, the concept of ethics exists along a continuum.

Your values are shaped by a lifetime of influences, including family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and personal and professional circumstances. A colleague may have different values than you, shaped by different influences and experiences. Does that make your ethics good and the other person’s bad? No.

A dangerous trap to fall into when facing tough situations is to believe that your own values are inherently the best. Instead, you need to carefully and objectively consider each situation and the potential impact that particular decisions might have.

In some instances, a certain decision may be the most ethical and, in others, that same decision may not be. The spectrum of ethics ranges from those decisions and actions that serve only you to those decisions and actions that serve everybody equally well. It’s awfully rare when the correct decision only serves yourself, and just as rare to find circumstances where everyone can be served equally well.

There are often compromises to make, and that’s where the concept of a spectrum comes into play. Indeed, there is never one single point on that spectrum that’s “good” for every possible situation. You really have to dig deep into possible implications and weigh the potential impacts — both short- and long-term.

3. Strive to serve the greatest possible good.

In the world of ethics, we usually try to land in the realm of what’s called utilitarianism: the greatest good for the greatest number. How do you arrive at that kind of decision?

You start by looking at moral and situational considerations. Is there a moral code of behavior that, when applied consistently, regardless of situation, would always provide the greatest good for the greatest number? For example, you might believe that it is never right to withhold information from employees. When applied consistently, regardless of situation, would that approach always ensure the greatest good for the greatest number? Most likely not.

You then need to factor in situational considerations. If there’s a chance that the company might go into the red next year, but senior leaders have identified a way to prevent that from happening, would telling employees about all of this provide the greatest good for the greatest number? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not.

Your responsibility as a practitioner is to think through the implications and to help your fellow leaders decide what seems to be the most ethically sound path.

4. Know the code (of ethics).

In public relations, we are fortunate to have the PRSA Code of Ethics. In fact, what defines an occupation as a profession is the very existence of professional standards and an ethical code of behavior. The PRSA Code of Ethics factors in both moral and situational considerations, addressing multiple categories of the tough situations that you may face and providing guidance for each.

Throughout my career, I have found the PRSA Code of Ethics to be a helpful framework for decision-making. Of course, no moral code is inherently perfect. That’s where situational considerations, sound judgment and your own thorough assessment of potential impacts and implications come into play.

Truth be told, the way you get good at making tough decisions is to make tough decisions. If you are a young professional, then I encourage you to ask your supervisor or a mentor to talk you through specific decisions that they are facing, or have recently faced. Better yet, ask if you can help assess a situation and provide input.

If you are a senior practitioner, then I urge you to talk candidly with young professionals about how you navigate the complexities of PR practice. The more we all share and talk, the better we can serve each other, the profession and society.

David L. Remund, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA
Dave Remund, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, is executive director of communications for Drake University. Connect with him via email (dave.remund@drake.edu) or on Twitter (@remund).

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