Tip Sheet: Ethics & PR: Communications With a Conscience

By Frank Ovaitt

Is there such a thing as public relations ethics? Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., of Syracuse University, poses that question in the Institute for Public Relations Essential Knowledge Project's "Ethics and Public Relations" section, which she edits. [The project is an online guide to PR-related research.]

This question opens the door to a significant conversation: If ethics is defined as a systematic approach to deciding the right thing to do, it could indeed be argued that most PR practitioners don't have such a system. The I-know-it-when-I-see-it philosophy rules, but Bowen makes a compelling case for a more disciplined approach to how PR people learn and think about ethics.

Codes Vs. Education

PR associations rely heavily on codes of ethics. Most of these provide little or no effective enforcement. Certainly, they don't go very deep in teaching approaches to ethics.

Bowen cites research funded by the International Association of Business Communicators Research Foundation, which drew responses from 1,827 professional communicators worldwide.

"Half of the sample maintained that they regularly counsel management on ethical decisions, indicating that managements are realizing the value of incorporating a strategic communication perspective in their decisions, potentially incorporating the views, ideas or values of publics into organizational policy," says Bowen. Yet two-thirds or more reported no formal study of ethics and no on-the-job ethics training.

What would we learn by studying systems of ethics? Bowen describes several major schools of thought and their public relations adaptations.

Different Paths To Consider

Dialogic ethics, for example, began with ancient Greek philosophers. Some scholars argue that dialogue is inherently ethical because all parties can be heard and participate in decisions. This, they say, reinforces the relationship building and maintenance roles of PR execs.

Advocacy ethics, on the other hand, begin with the client's or employer's point of view. These players have the right to participate in public debates, and they are in a strong position to define facts and persuade publics. In this sense, the PR professional is similar to an attorney who has ethical obligations to the law and society, of course, but those are accomplished by vigorously representing the client.

Another path described by public relations scholars depicts a strategic management approach to ethics, with the PR counselor representing an objective voice in organizational decisions. "[PR theorist] Dr. James E.Grunig's idea of symmetry is that organizations accomplish more of their long-term goals when they integrate some of what the public wants, meaning that management engages in an ongoing relationship of give-and-take with publics," Bowen says. This is consistent with the moral philosophy known as utilitarianism, which emphasizes consequences. The right decision is the one that maximizes positive outcomes and minimizes negative ones.

Bowen herself has sought to carry this a step further by incorporating deontology--the study of duty--into the mix for ethical analysis. She believes this helps public relations professionals reach more defensible and enduring decisions. Research does show that professionals employ this type of analysis more frequently as they move up in their careers.

Putting Knowledge Of Ethics To Work

What should practitioners take from all this? First, the understanding that organizational culture does matter in terms of ethics. Research has shown this time and again. A close look at an organization's mission statement, code of ethics and other policy statements will often reveal the core ethical philosophy. That is critically important to the counselor who needs to connect with the rest of the senior team and lead relationship building and communications efforts.

Effective participation in such decisions will often require moral courage. Even if your position doesn't carry the day, you will gain respect. Unpopular solutions often prove their wisdom over the course of time.

Bowen concludes that while no single person or function can be the entire ethical conscience of an organization, the public relations function is ideally suited to counsel top management on such issues: "Careful and consistent ethical analyses facilitate trust, which enhances the building and maintenance of relationships--after all, that is the ultimate purpose of the public relations function." PRN


Frank Ovaitt, CEO of the Institute for Public Relations, can be reached at [email protected]. Dr. Shannon Bowen can be reached at [email protected].