Ethics as Part of the PR Decision-Making Process

Emmanuel Tchividjian
Emmanuel Tchividjian

If you bring the topic of ethics at a PR event or conference you probably won’t be considered the life of the party. People perceive ethics to be a lame, quasi-academic subject about how to behave well. Doing the right thing is equal to “dog bites man” in terms of newsworthiness. The general public is titillated by stories of fraud, conspiracy and deception. Yet most people would be horrified if they were perceived to be unethical. In fact, the majority of people believe that they are ethical and, in most cases, they are.

It is critical that PR professionals talk more about ethics in order to be effective in trying to implement its values and make it a more integral part of communications.

Ethics is about decision-making. Drama is very often involved in the decisions we make. They most often are irreversible regarding the impact they have on the future.

The philosopher and writer Albert Camus said that life is the sum of our choices. Making the right decision becomes, therefore, increasingly important.

What course of actions can PR professionals take to ensure that we make the right decision from an ethical point of view?

Below are five questions that can provide a road map.

1. Do we have as much information as we possibly can before taking a critical decision? “We did the best we could with the information we had” is no longer a legitimate excuse. We should ask ourselves whether we were diligent enough to get the information in the first place.

2. Are we being emotional rather than rational? Emotions are very strong motivators. Negative emotions, such as fear, anger and greed, can cloud our thinking. To avoid that trap we should consult with someone whom we trust and will be able to assess the situation without being saddled with negative emotions.

3. Have we explored options or alternatives? In most cases there are alternatives. The words “I had no choice” are rarely true and often used as an excuse. If, for some reason, the only option you see is unethical, then you should reconsider your goals.

4. Have we considered the consequences on the life and well-being of others? The Golden Rule of don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you can help you answer that question.

5. Can we, ethically, justify our decision? Will our decision jeopardize trust and/or indicate a lack of respect to the company, partners and other stakeholders? If so, you need to seriously consider another option.

In the end, brand and organizational reputation is what matters the most, particularly in a Digital Age. Circumstances changes, situations evolve, but reputation, good or bad, remains. Ethical conduct is a good solid element of a good reputation. PRN

PR Ethics Quiz

1. You’ve provided a C-level exec with six months of media training but he or she still comes off as a stiff. The company is soon having a major press conference in which the executive is scheduled to be the main speaker and take questions from the media. What do you do?

a) You inform the C-level exec that you do not believe he or she is ready yet and suggest postponing the event or selecting another spokesperson.

b) You do not intervene and just let the event follow its course. There is nothing more you can do.

c) You call in sick that day.

2. You find a copy of a very confidential HR document at the photocopier that lists the salaries of every employee, including the CEO. What do you do?

a) You destroy the document without looking at the figures, too closely.

b) You return the document to HR anonymously via inter-office mail.

c) You return the document to HR and explain what happened.

3. Your boss asks you to write a press release about a client’s new product. He edits your draft, adding information about the product that you know to be incorrect. What do you do?

a) You send the report as is. You are just doing what you are told.

b) You express your concern to your boss about the inaccuracy of the press release.

c) You express your concern to your boss about the inaccuracy of the press release and copy his or her superior.

1-a, 2-c, 3-c


Emmanuel Tchividjian is senior VP and ethics officer of Ruder Finn Inc. He can be reached at  You can also read his ethics blog.


This article originally appeared in the June 2, 2014 issue of PR News. Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.