Be Prepared: Why You Should Develop a Career-Crisis Plan Now

April 1, 2019

By Debra Bethard-Caplick, MBA, APR, and Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR

The era of lifetime employment has become a distant memory. Today, it’s considered newsworthy if someone spends an entire career with a single employer.

This shift in the work environment over the past 20 or so years — to where “human capital” is just another number that companies crunch when making financial decisions — means you must manage your career as actively as you would the account of your most important client.

To that end, every PR professional should develop a career-crisis plan that applies the same critical analysis to the ethical implications of their decisions as they apply to their employer’s communications needs.

That plan includes being prepared for financial and professional losses you might suffer should you find yourself forced to resign rather than act unethically. And if you’re terminated in such a situation, you need to know your rights. Otherwise, your career is vulnerable to the crises that wait around the corner. 

Establishing a foundation

As a PR professional, you can avert many ethical problems by incorporating the PRSA Code of Ethics into your career from the beginning. As you research prospective employers, that foundation in ethics will help you consider factors beyond salary and job responsibilities, such as: Does the company have a history of ethical problems? Does its culture fit your own values? If you’re a non-drinker, for example, could you in good conscience work for a major whiskey distillery, promoting its products? Would you feel comfortable being the PR representative for a pet-supply company that also sells puppies and kittens in its stores? The business might be legal, but you could still object to it where professional ethics, values and the law collide.

Ethics and legality are not the same thing, of course. Employers can follow the law but still be unethical.

For example, if a company builds a commercial pork farm close to a state line and obtains all necessary permits, it’s behaving in a perfectly legal manner. But if its executives are unconcerned with how the farm’s odor will affect those living nearby but over the state line — neighbors not protected by zoning regulations — would you be comfortable representing the company?

Practicing ethical public relations from the beginning of your career establishes ground rules that will help you navigate any questionable situation you might encounter, and adhering to the Code of Ethics also helps build your professional reputation. But even these ethical guideposts do not eliminate all risk.

We all need to understand what can go wrong when we face ethical dilemmas in our careers. Sometimes, taking the most ethical path can cost you your job.

It might come down to a question of loyalty. “We are faithful to those we represent,” the PRSA Code of Ethics states, “while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.” But when these values come into conflict with each other, how do you choose between them? Who deserves your loyalty most, your agency or your client? And what if being loyal to your employer means being dishonest to the media or the public? What are the consequences either way?

Developing a career-crisis plan will prompt you to consider these questions now, rather than waiting until you’re forced to make an ethical choice when emotions might cloud your judgment. Before having to choose between your ethics and your job, carefully weigh the consequences of speaking up, for example. 

Consider the case of Paula Pedene, APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA’s 2015 PR Professional of the Year. Pedene was a whistleblower after a 2014 scandal that saw at least 35 U.S. service veterans die while waiting for care at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Phoenix. After she spoke out, Pedene’s employers banished her to a basement where for years she was relegated to making photocopies before finally being vindicated. By making the ethical choice, she had risked her career.

Planning for the possibilities

  • Before a career crisis strikes, prepare yourself with these steps:
  • Think through possible scenarios and what you would do should they occur.
  • Educate your employer and colleagues on the PRSA Code of Ethics.
  • Identify influencers in other areas of your company, in case you need to transfer out of your current division.
  • Pay attention to what’s happening outside your immediate department. See any signs that a crisis is brewing? How would it affect you?
  • Build a network outside of your current employer.
  • Find a mentor you trust regarding ethical issues.
  • Practice ethical problem-solving by asking yourself “What if?” questions.
  • Create an exit strategy from your current job.

Surviving a career crisis

If the worst does happen and you choose to leave your job rather than be forced into committing a potentially career-ending ethical lapse, then what happens next? As part of your career-crisis plan, think about what you would need to do professionally in that scenario, such as:

  • Activate your career network.
  • Decide how to answer the inevitable interview question, “Why did you leave your last job?”
  • Decide how to fill your professional time until you find another position. Could you afford to volunteer somewhere?
  • Learn new skills to make yourself more marketable.

Proactively developing a plan based on the PRSA Code of Ethics will help you prepare for inevitable career crises and save you from making hasty decisions that would harm your career and personal finances in the long term.

Debra Bethard-Caplick, MBA, APR, is a founding partner of Quicksilver Edge Strategic Communications, and an adjunct instructor at DePaul University. Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR, is an assistant professor of Baylor University.


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