Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Looking for the ethical intersections

I've had some time to ponder some things from the presentation that PR professor extraordinaire Doug Newsom, Ph.D., APR, recently made to the Fort Worth and Dallas Chapters of PRSA on ethical issues.

Ethics are the values that we acquire from faith, family, experience, and relationships that are our guidelines for what we consider right and wrong. They can be placed into two main categories: normative and situational.

Normative ethics can best be described as including religion and philosophy. In contrast, she said that PR professionals tend to operate in situational ethics since we function within social-science which provides a whole different (and even new) sets of ethical challenges. Comparative ethics is quite fascinating and daunting since we deal with some many different publics with differen
t values. Take a moment to consider some different publics: organizations, clients, news media, government agencies, educational institutions, consumers, stakeholders, analysts, investors, community, competitors, critics, and even other practitioners.
(photo credit: enggul)

Ethics and you

Newsom covered extensive ground and gave three key points for PR practitioners when confronted with ethics challenges:
  1. Stand your ground. You have expertise in your field - expertise that organizational leadership should be hearing.
  2. Understand the culture of the corporation. When it comes to communication, companies range from closed to open. Know where the company/client falls on that continuum, and decide if your personal values fit that culture. If not, you'll likely encounter some conflicts when sensitive issues arise.
  3. Adhere to an ethics model. She specifically discussed a utilitarian model, which supports decision-making of doing the greatest good for the greatest number, or a communitarian ethics model, which stresses morality in the community and being a good "corporate citizen." She further stated that these two approaches to ethics can never intersect because that are too divergent.
This last point has been bothering me for nearly a week. While I found much of her insight from over 40 years of experience to be remarkable, she did touch on something that I have not been able to shake since I respectfully disagree.

Roads that do not intersect?
The two different approaches for discussions on ethics:
  1. Utilitarian - Do the greatest good for the largest number
  2. Communitarian - Seek the vision of the organization to try to get agreement based on the values and mission
I think these two approaches can come together if organizations have the buy-in from their communities to the vision and if that organization has the credibility and trust of stakeholders. If our communities believe that we operate with their best interests in mind, then we know we've accomplished something. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive if we are remarkable at what we do. Is this easy? Not at all. Unfortunately, we operate and are viewed through the senses of doubt, mistrust, and other things that cloud vision. However, I think these things should give us motivation to never let down.

Tracks to transparency
Professor Newsom went on to explain (and to these points I go back to agreeing) that "PR people are not in business to be order-takers. We have a responsibility to challenge decisions. We have to do, not just talk." We need to be the strategic thinkers. We need to travel down those tracks to transparency. We must collaborate to set ethics and measurement guidelines when it comes to social media, search and PR. (For some of us, it might even be a good idea to every once in a while review the PRSA Code of Ethics.) Whatever the motivation, we should always strive to take our organizations to better places.