An Ethics Month discussion: Can civil discourse succeed during an American presidential election campaign season?

September 2, 2008

Copyright © 2008 PRSA. All rights reserved.

The following article appears in the September 2008  issue of PR Tactics. Editor’s Note: September is PRSA’s annual Ethics Month. This article is an edited version of a longer conversation held on June 26 among BEPS members. For more on the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, please visit the BEPS page at

The panel

Robert Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA, CEO and founder, Frause, BEPS Chair
Tom Duke, APR, Fellow PRSA, PR consultant
Tom Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, senior partner, Eric Mower and Associates
Patricia A. Grey, APR, public liaison, Ohio Department of Education
Dean A. Kruckeberg, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA, professor, communication studies, and director, Center for the Study of Global Public Relations, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, chairman and president, The Lukaszewski Group Inc., Associate BEPS Chair
Keith V. Mabee, APR, vice chairman, Dix & Eaton
Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR, assistant professor, The Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, Hampton University
Patrick McLaughlin, APR, Caldo Communications
Emmanuel Tchividjian, senior vice president, Ruder Finn, Inc.
Patricia T. Whalen, Ph.D., APR, assistant professor and director, Master of Arts degree in PR and advertising, College of Communication, DePaul University

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA: How can our leaders maintain the principles of communication ethics — such as those from the PRSA Member Code of Ethics — and those of new media technologies as the emerging channels lure them to new opportunities, strategies, techniques and risks?

Dean A. Kruckeberg, Ph.D., APR, Fellow PRSA: We can only maintain them for ourselves as PR professionals and as members of PRSA. We need to develop a very strong professional identity as PRSA members to distinguish and differentiate ourselves from all the other types of communicators and communications available in the social media.

Tom Duke,  APR, Fellow PRSA: Organizations such as PRSA should attempt to put pressure on candidates who make unethical statements.

Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR: I would extend Dean’s answer and Tom’s comment to the individuals or organizations that we represent or consult with, because they need to understand how to interpret the impact of social media technologies especially within today’s political environment.

Kruckeberg: Good point. These can be extremely important roles for us.

Patricia T. Whalen, Ph.D., APR: Ethics stay the same even when technology changes. There’s more temptation to be less ethical, less transparent, with some new technologies because you can do things more anonymously online and get away with doing things that perhaps you couldn’t using more traditional technology.

Emmanuel Tchividjian: There are more temptations, but there are also more risks. People have to be even more careful because anything they say can be videotaped and on YouTube very quickly.

McDonald: One of the key risks is that issues can be taken out of context. It may not necessarily seem, because of social media technologies, that some of these opportunities can be perceived as unethical.

Lukaszewski: Is taking something out of context unethical?

Duke: If the original meaning is bent or broken, yes, it is unethical.

Patricia A. Grey,  APR: I believe the tenet “do no harm” comes into play here. If something’s being taken out of context to do harm, that is also unethical.

Whalen: Within our own PRSA Code we certainly have honesty and fairness as values. If by taking it out of context you are somehow misleading the person reading or hearing it, you are obviously acting unethically.

Tchividjian: Taking something out of context would be unethical if we are being deceptive. That is a good criterion.

Tom Eppes,  APR, Fellow PRSA: The new technologies put an extra burden on candidates in particular to make sure that an ethical environment exists. Therefore each candidate needs to take responsibility for condemning untruthful, misleading or out-of-context comments, and giving the other candidate an opportunity to respond to them, perhaps even on their Web site. Barack Obama set up a special Web site where he responds to rumors very directly. But if both candidates offered an opportunity for the other candidate to go on that Web site and respond to anything that the other one is saying, even if something is taken out of context, it opens both of them to fairness and perhaps even some political objectivity that might tamp some of this stuff down.

McDonald: Consider, for example, when Michelle Obama stated that for “the first time [she] was really proud to be an American.” The TV commentator focused on the word “really.” Just focusing on that one word “really” seemed to change the whole interpretation of her statement.

Lukaszewski: You can even take an expression out of context. Remember the big issue over Mrs. Clinton’s cackle for three days?

Whalen: Or the scream by Howard Dean that cost him his place four years ago in the Democratic race, but made him the current chair of the Democratic National Committee.

Eppes: It all goes back to each candidate allowing the other candidate an opportunity to respond to some of these extreme statements. For example, McCain continues to get hit with the idea that he intends for American troops to be in Iraq for 100 years. That was — if you go back and listen to it — taken out of context.

Lukaszewski: I always warn my clients that it’s rarely the out-of-context quote that’s the frightening one or that gets them. It’s the quote in context that really gets you. McCain is an example. He did say the words about being in Iraq for 100 years.
Whalen: That’s the one thing that new technology does allow you to do. Just a few years ago, it was almost impossible to correct something once it took off. Now candidates can directly post their interpretations and responses on their sites so readers can make up their own minds. They can even take clips of what someone said and put it on their Web sites and start their own viral campaign.

McDonald: Our challenge is to do a better job of understanding those messages and getting to the truth rather than just taking what we see coming out of the social media domain, for example. Because messages are transmitted so quickly, we still have to take the time to verify the quality and accuracy of that information.

Patrick McLaughlin, APR: Regarding the rebuttals that would be appropriate for politicians to make, the ideal situation would be to find some honest broker that both parties could agree upon to provide a neutral virtual area that posts those kinds of things and the clarifications on behalf of each major candidate.

Lukaszewski: Let’s now move to the next question: Does the viral nature of communications and new technologies allow or embolden candidates to see messages become public without their signature, creating a buffer for unethical communication tactics and/or mudslinging or other disrespectful public discourse?

Duke: Yes, it certainly does. We’ve seen it vividly in this current campaign with front groups and other people making statements and the candidates disclaiming those statements. Whether the statements were true, we don’t know, of course.

Keith V. Mabee, APR: There’s still a higher burden on the candidates and their campaign staff to make sure that in the public domain we’re holding everybody accountable to a reasonable standard of transparency and disclosure. And that’s where advocacy plays a stronger role. You can call the issue out, but then you’ve got to make sure that people get it and get it in the right context.

Robert D. Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA: Any candidate, or any person speaking to the media for that matter, has a responsibility to act promptly to correct erroneous communication. That is stated clearly in our Free Flow of Information ethics code provision. We need to teach our professionals that it’s mandatory to correct erroneous information and communications once they discover the truth. Firing somebody who makes a mistake or a misstatement is an easy way out, quite honestly.

Lukaszewski: Is it ethical to hold a person accountable for their statements or behavior from many years ago?

Whalen: The public has little stomach for unethical behavior regardless of how far back it goes. There’s zero tolerance for that. You’ve seen it even with some of the news reporters who occasionally let some stupid comment slip.

Lukaszewski: Is it a public clamor or is it media clamor for these behaviors?

Frause: It’s both. The media fuel the public and vice versa. But, quite honestly, the media are out to sell stories. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, crime, and improprieties make money. That is what today’s journalism is all about.

Eppes: The media are always going to have very finely tuned antenna to what the public is interested in hearing about and that’s going to change over time.
Community standards are going to evolve. So, to the issue of how do we regulate or create guidelines for ethical behavior, you have to be very careful to focus more on honesty and fairness in communication over other areas.

Kruckeberg: This discussion really points to the tremendous confusion that is occurring in the mainstream media. They just don’t know what to do, and at some level they are beginning to question their traditional role in society.  [I]f the mass media become economically forced to withdraw from their traditional role in society, we’re going to have this giant social media consumer content-driven discussion that, at a smaller scale, is good, but, in a global society, lacks order and limits and can be detrimental to the well-being of society. Citizens in a democracy must be more sensitive to the credibility and veracity of the messages that they receive.

Grey: In this discussion, we do not have representatives of the generation who gather information in very large quantities using technology. They make up their minds alone or in virtual conversations with others. They are getting all of their information via technology. They’ve stopped reading newspapers, if they ever started. We must include them in the discussion of ethics. If something bad or wrong starts, it’s almost impossible to stop it. The generation in college or newly graduated is having a hard time deciphering and critically thinking about the sources of the information that they’re getting. That is really potentially devastating for our future.

Kruckeberg: We need to brand ourselves better. I wish that we would say “APR” or “PRSA” after our names, because all we can do in this communication technology jungle is to identify who we are and to restate our ethical values. Hopefully, our values as PRSA members can become better known.

Frause: I’ve been saying this for a long time that we should from time to time place an ad in The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal featuring our Code principles and what we as PRSA professionals stand for.

Lukaszewski: We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the concept of respectful discourse. Is respectful discourse an ethical issue?

Frause: It’s manners, Jim. People in America have forgotten their manners, especially business manners. It’s respect for people when dealing with each other. People may disagree, but there should be communication protocol that PR people and journalists can live by.

Tchividjian: It’s a general sense of loss of civility.

Whalen: When you see the people who are in control of the medium not allow the other person’s point of view, there is an ethical element to that. Whether it’s an interview on television, a talk radio program or bloggers online, it is unethical if they control one side of the message, making it look like it’s a two-way conversation when in fact it’s very slanted and very biased.

Lukaszewski: What role can PR pros play in promoting healthy civil discourse? Do we have a role in this?

McDonald: Yes, I believe we have a role once we understand that public relations professionals can also be guilty of creating that kind of environment, especially the attack environment. Sometimes if campaigns become boring, the attack environment is created to get people interested and excited about something. Unfortunately, it sometimes triggers attack journalism.

Whalen: A political reporter on NPR a couple of weeks ago was saying just that. Oftentimes the culprits were the press secretaries and the campaign managers. It’s these behind-the-scenes folks, especially PR, media relations and press secretary types who will call reporters and just state all this unsubstantiated rumor. They do not want to be quoted. They do not want it associated directly to their campaign because they don’t want to be called dirty tricksters.

Lukaszewski: Do we have an obligation as ethical practitioners to publicly challenge or expose fellow practitioners when we know this is going on?

McDonald: That’s maybe where some of the confusion may lie. What does that mean when here I am trying to be civil and ethical but I’m losing because the other side attacks? So what if it’s ethical?

Tchividjian: The problem that we have is that attacks work. We’ve had candidates that in the beginning made a pledge not to attack their opponents. When they’re losing in the polls they start attacking and get back up in the polls.

Lukaszewski: So how can we create a culture or an environment where attacks become detrimental to the attacker?

Eppes: When I see the huge volume of crazy rumors being circulated — and my mother-in-law, who’s approaching 80, seems to accept and forward most of them — I realize something more aggressive has to be done. I think there’s a role for PRSA, working with the Society of Professional Journalists, to attack this problem.

Lukaszewski: Isn’t this really what democracy is all about? It’s not so much putting rules in place, but having this robust environment so people can make up their minds, filter through as much stuff as they care to, on their own.

Mabee: The McCain campaign is attacking it by calling for town-hall meetings where they get the two candidates together. They can rebut each other live, no media participation, maybe not even a moderator.

Grey: It does go back to the earlier discussion about respect. It’s the true intent of what a debate is all about. The town hall goes back to some tried-and-true strategies being introduced to a new generation. The original intent of the democratic process is to allow individuals to hear both sides and come to their own conclusions.

Lukaszewski: In the early part of our country’s history, the presidential candidate didn’t actually campaign. People campaigned for them. Some campaigns, like in 1800, were just devastatingly bad. You can’t believe how bad they were and how they resemble today’s campaigns, 200 years later. Then there was Lincoln/Douglas — two candidates managing their own space during a given period of time in front of a crowd. That’s a 150-year-old idea and it seems sort of novel these days.

Kruckeberg: What Jim is saying is quite profound because the concept of democracy and of democracy’s role in governing society may have to be re-examined or readapted, rather than reinvented, to determine how democracy can best work effectively in a 21st-century, technologically driven society. These are really profound, difficult questions.

Mabee: The telling parts of the campaign are the value statements each presidential candidate makes. How strong do their values come through and how connected are they to their character? People are going to make decisions around that as much as age or race or anything else. The candidates’ abilities to truly project who they are and what they are about, their core value proposition, are what will attract voters.

Lukaszewski: That could lead us to an interesting concept. Do professionals, like ourselves, have a role in the public discourse to state publicly the expectations of the public from this political season? Do we want to propose or make suggestions about civil discourse, about candidate value propositions, about these concepts we’ve been talking about today? Would that be a meaningful contribution?

Whalen: Absolutely. PR folks do this all the time in corporations where they help the CEO articulate the tone for the corporation’s employees. The CEO sets that tone and the PR person helps with the messaging to get that message throughout the organization. The same thing is true with the candidates. The candidate sets the tone for the campaign and makes sure that everyone within that campaign is operating under these civil discourse rules. But it’s going to be the PR folks who are going to get that message throughout the organization.

Lukaszewski: Any concluding comments?

Kruckeberg: What you are saying is that public relations practitioners, because of our knowledge and skills and because of our highly significant role in society as professional communicators who attempt to resolve public relations problems, must be active participants — and, I would submit, leaders — in examining these questions and in offering solutions because this is all very serious business.
McDonald: What Dean just said makes me think about this issue of complexity. It opens a whole new level, especially now that we’re looking at the new viral media, technology, public discourse, etc. Because we have so many channels of information, and depending on the culture of the channel, it can be daunting to understand the ethical implications.

Whalen: For me, the concept of the respectful discourse is the key. The public wants the real issues, and PR pros can help their candidates set that respectful tone and create the respectful discourse.

Eppes: It occurs to me that we’ve got two candidates this time who stake their reputations on truth and honesty in a different kind of way than we’ve been used to in politics. There’s a better opportunity than we may have had in a long time for them to step up and take personal responsibility not only for making sure that their own communications about themselves are accurate and truthful, but also that they make sure that anything that is said by their campaign or others about the opposition is just as truthful.

Duke: All the broadcast media are currently investigating candidates’ personalities instead of issues. If there’s some way we could persuade those media to deal more with the issues, we could solve a lot of these problems.

Tchividjian: I would aspire for a return to civility, and it’s interesting to think that without civility, we wouldn’t have a civilization, and without some respect and tolerance for others, we would be facing violence and chaos. The antonym of civilization is barbarism so a return to civility in our public discourse would be good for society.

Frause: We have an obligation to practice our profession within the context of our Member Code of Ethics, whatever communication channels we use. We also have a responsibility to make sure those communicators outside PRSA — be they PR people or journalists — work with each other in a civil and compassionate matter. Let’s use the professionalism and values that late NBC News journalist Tim Russert brought as a guide for our own day-to-day interactions. Let’s have straightforward conversation, hard-nosed but completely honest and civil.


Joette Storm, APR, Fellow PRSA says:

This discussion indicates some will on the part of PRSA members to have a role in the current election. Perhaps the society should propose a debate between the presidential candidates where we establish rules of civility and demand the candidates address the issues. PRSA would be the neutral time keeper and facilitator. Joette Storm

Sept. 2, 2008

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