Public Relations Professionals and Educators

As Michael Winkleman described, public relations professionals and educators are currently engaged in a vigorous discussion of the role of ethics within the profession and the means by which ethics can be taught to both public relations students and professionals. According to Winkleman, the rise in concern over ethical issues can be traced to the reaction of the profession to events in the 1980s, which included high-profile instances of insider-trading and covert government foreign policy activities.
In addition, the ethical debate is thriving because corporations have realized that they have to pay more attention to social demands and be more responsive to “stakeholders. ” This realization has paralleled the move from theoretical ethics to applied ethics. Winkleman’s conclusion is that ethics are crucial for public relations because they will benefit the profession and the companies for which the public relations work. Ultimately, ethics are good for business.
In addition, there is empirical evidence suggesting that public relations professionals basing their decision-making and recommendations to management on ethical principles and social responsibility are more likely to have a greater role in management decisions and activities. The result of this concern over ethics in the public relations field has resulted in a vigorous debate over the pros and cons of a universal ethics code.

Many writers agree, despite their differences, that not only does ethical decision-making give public relations professionals more opportunities to participate in the management function, but it also assists the development of public relations as a “profession. ” Ethics and social responsibility are also vital issues in public relations because public relations facilitates communication among the company and its many publics, including society at large.
As Pratt notes, there are three main points that result from all the empirical research conducted on practitioner ethics. First, “they underscore the notion that ethics is an important issue practitioners confront. ” Second, “they suggest that practitioners cannot ignore public (and industry wide) evaluation of their professional ethics and that corporate managements need to continually institute ethics in the workplace. ” Third, “they suggest that older practitioners can help set an organization’s ethical tone.
However, as will be discussed later, Donald K. Wright convincingly argues that ethical behavior is performed by practitioners primarily out of a sense of personal morality and wanting to be respected by his/her various publics, rather than as a result of vague, codified ethical guidelines. Perhaps, what makes the subject of ethics difficult to address from a pragmatic point of view within public relations is the paucity of empirical research and theoretical writing on public relations ethics.
This is surprising given that 75% of the educators at a recent AEJMC conference stated that ethics was an important aspect of their teaching and that PRSA members, in a questionnaire, voted the Code of Professional Standards to be the most important member benefit. Many educators are currently urging public relations practitioners to adopt a universal code of ethics. The interest in this topic is evidenced by the special issue of Public Relations Review from the spring of 1993 entirely devoted to the subject of ethics.
Naturally, the problem will arise in developing a code that can specifically address each specific morally problematic situation. Possibly due to this problem, some of the writers addressing this issue have been somewhat non- specific in delineating the actual components of an ethical code. However, others such as Hunt and Tirpok have suggested the framework for a code and the strategy for its employment. Kruckeberg believes that increased globalized trade has hastened the need for an international (universal) code of ethics for communicators.
In analyzing the functions of transnational corporations, he describes four social benefits these companies provide to Third World countries: “(1) development of human resources through employment, training, and indigenization… ;(2) strengthening the knowledge base through research and development and the transfer of technology; (3) raising standards of living through the creation of wealth, encouraging local industry and providing consumer goods; and (4) enhancing the quality of life by assisting programs that raise standards in health, housing, nutrition, and education.
Given that a transnational corporation is actually able to produce these benefits in Third World nations, they are indeed meeting demands of social responsibility. However, Kruckeberg notes that many corporations have encountered criticism relating to graft and corruption issues, consumer issues, environmental/human safety issues, and political/humanitarian issues. For example, Nestle was embroiled in a controversy surrounding their marketing practices in the Third World of breast milk substitutes.
Nestle responded effectively and in a socially responsible manner in 1981 by endorsing the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes the day the measure was enacted and assembled experts to monitor the company’s compliance with the Code. Kruckeberg suggests that a code of ethics could be developed that would be “capable of guiding behavior which attempts to resolve the inherent moral dilemmas [of the four types of criticism previous described] as well as other dilemmas that have occurred or potentially could occur.
Many of the codes currently in existence do not take into account the particular responsibilities of transnational corporations. However, despite weaknesses in ethical codes they serve four valuable functions: (1) providing guidelines for practitioner activities, (2) demonstrating what clients and supervisors should expect from practitioners, (3) providing basis for charges of wrongdoing, and (4) providing defense against charges of wrongdoing.
The new code of ethics should be developed under the leadership of professional communicators from multinational companies, but there should be input from all members of the professional public relations associations. Hunt and Tirpok extend Kruckeberg’s argument and suggest that the public relations profession needs to establish a universal ethics code. In addition, they suggest an actual framework for the code and provide a strategy for its adoption.
Hunt and Tirpok believe that a universal code of ethics ought to apply to all communications professions, uniting public relations and journalism in this sense, but that the code must be adaptable to the needs of the individual professions. While journalism’s purpose is most often objectivity, public relations’ purpose is often advocacy. In this manner, public relations practitioners share the general nature of their purpose with lawyers.
Nonetheless, “all systems and codes of ethics seem to be rooted in the same fundamental principles and similar values. Their suggestion for an actual code is that it deal with first order concerns, such as “keeping faith with the public” and “achieving consensus,” not specific communications situations, since no code could possibly address all these situations. The timetable for developing and adopting the code would take six years. The first stage would be organizing and conducting a conference of academics and representatives of professional organizations with the purpose of drafting the code.
In the second phase encompassing two years, a task force would visit the professional organizations with the aim of obtaining suggestions for modification, implementation, and dissemination of the code. The third phase would involve the ratification and implementation of the code. In the final stage, the code would be published and publicized “to inform target publics about the code and its importance to global communication. ”
There have been objections to the implementation of a universal ethics code on the grounds that public relations cannot be defined, that anyone can practice public relations due to First Amendment-type rights, and that there are differences within the global community as to what constitutes ethical behavior. Kruckeberg dismisses the criticism of cultural relativists who argue against a universal ethics code citing Asuncion-Lande’s recommendation that in distinguishing “between what is universal and what is distinctive in the ethics of different cultures, ethicists should develop an inventory.
This inventory of universal ethics would include “culturally sanctioned rules of ‘proper’ interpersonal conduct, i. e. rules which serve to preserve order and to promote social harmony and unity and which provide stability of human relationships in a rapidly changing world. ” Complications in Establishing Effective Ethics Programs A significant problem in the functioning of many corporate ethics programs that undermines its success is that fact that many of these programs are so general and short on specifics, as well as not being equipped to address complex problems.
An ideal example is Dow Corning. For years Dow was recognized by business educators as leaders in the area of corporate ethics programs. In 1976, Dow’s chairman John S. Ludington established a Business Conduct Committee and Dow also set up ethics training sessions for employees and audits every three years to monitor compliance with the company’s ethical guidelines. Nonetheless, there were indications as early as 1977 that the breast implants manufactured by Dow were unsafe. The question raised by Eric Schine was why did the audits monitoring ethical compliance not discover this information.
His answer is that “for the most part, ethics programs aren’t designed to deal directly with complex problems. Instead, they are there only to help cultivate an overall environment of proper conduct. ” Similar problems occurred at McDonnell Douglas despite their extensive ethics program. In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, defense contractors were accused of severe overcharging of the government and some of these contractors were required to compensate the government for the overcharging. In addition, the Iran-contra scandal further tainted the image of defense contractors.
In 1980, Sanford McDonnell became Chairman and CEO of McDonnell Douglas and established the company’s ethics program because of his conviction that ethics must be woven into the decision process at all steps through all levels of authority. In 1983, McDonnell instigated a study to determine the best course of ethics training for MDC employees. The MDC training program developed a conceptual model for defining ethical decision making. More than 75,000 employees took part in the training seminars.
Subsequent to the implementation of the program, the company discovered the following: ethics became an acceptable topic for discussion, Sanford McDonnell’s personal participation in the videotape sent a strong message, the case study approach highlighted ethical issues with practical benefits, employees found they did not have to face ethical issues alone, an increased sense of pride developed among the employees, and MDC issued a new policy and procedures manual relative to pricing and contracting with the government.
Some of the lessons learned by MDC that could be transferable to other entities include: ethics training should be pragmatic and managerial in nature, strong leadership is needed from the top and implementation must be from the top down, managers must serve as role models, there must be a standardized training procedure and workshops should utilize a participative process. Center and Jackson’s main point about the MDC case is that “a track record of exemplary conduct builds slowly. It requires constant tending. An honorable reputation is both precious and fragile.
Opponents or competitors are rearmed by infractions. ” In 1988, investigations by the Justice Department, FBI and the Navy, showed evidence of bribery, fraud, and kickbacks in defense contracting. MDC was among the 75 companies named in the investigation. According to Donald K. Wright, voluntary ethics codes are largely ineffective because there is no enforcement mechanism and the codes are only as good as the people who subscribe to them. Much of this criticism is directed at codes of the professional associations.
He feels that many codes are just filled with “meaningless rhetoric. Ultimately, public relations practitioners conduct themselves according to ethical principles because “they believe in themselves and want others to respect them. ” Ethical behavior is not the result of adherence to codes, but rather to the individual practitioner’s sense of personal morality. Wright conducted a study to examine the ethical and moral values of practitioners with the major premise of the study being that “public relations never will be any more ethical than the level of basic ethical morality of the people who are in public relations.
He found that the structure of moral values of American practitioners is based on socio-economic morality, religious morality, basic morality, puritanical morality, basic social responsibility morality, and financial morality. Some corporations have addressed the problem cited by Wright, namely that ethics codes are often ineffective when they are not accompanied by enforcement mechanisms. For instance, General Dynamics instituted a comprehensive ethics program aimed at situations involving anti-trust, political contributions, international business, inside information, and corporate resources.
Crucial to this program is the possibility of sanctions for infractions, including penalties ranging from warnings to dismissals and criminal proceedings. In terms of professional associations, PRSA developed its first statement of principles in 1950 and its code of professional standards in 1959. Between 1952 and 1985, 168 cases were investigated, with only 10 cases resulting in sanctions.
However, the chairman of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, Donald McCammond, claims the “enforcement procedure gives the Code its teeth, makes it a deterrent in addition to a set of guidelines. Greater Opportunities for Participation in Management Policy Decisions A distinctive benefit of improving social responsibility and ethical decision- making among public relations practitioners is that it will enhance their credibility and increase their opportunities for participating in management policy decisions. Judd conducted a study to test the hypothesis that there is a “positive relationship between public relations recommending socially responsible actions and public relations participating in policy decisions.
One hundred members listed in the 1986-87 Register of the Public Relations Journal were asked, “Are you aware of situations where public relations has recommended changes in what the organization does or what it produces in order to satisfy the responsibility of the organization to society? ” In addition, respondents were asked whether responsibility to the client/employer or to society is more important and were asked a number of questions addressing public relations’ credibility in relation to other professions and ways in which credibility could be improved.
The study did find a significant relationship at the statistical significance level of . 05 that recommendations of socially responsible actions translated into higher participation in policy decisions. Judd connects these findings to Bernays’ opinion that feeling more responsible to society and less motivated by financial rewards marks the development of a profession. This increase in involvement in policy decisions also illustrates public relations strong credibility with management in these cases.
Hence, the value of Judd’s study is that it shows concern for socially responsible actions among public relations practitioners define public relations as a profession, involve practitioners more intimately in management policy decisions, and improve the credibility of the profession. Judd’s study also found that 65% of the respondents viewed responsibility to society as more important than responsibility to the client/employer; in effect, they view themselves as a corporate conscience.
In this sense then, public relations practitioners, at least those surveyed, view their ultimate purpose as that of a counselor as opposed to the traditionally assigned role of public relations people as advocates. Grunig fundamentally conceives of public relations as a critical element of the management function. Public relations is “an essential management function because of its contribution to the long-term, strategic management of the organization.
In particular, public relations is involved in the planning process in the sense that it enables communication and building of relationships with publics that support or can divert the mission of the organization. As a result of public relations’ capabilities to facilitate communication among publics and its intrinsic role within the management function, it has a unique responsibility to act according to social and ethical considerations. In fact, Grunig asserts that adherence to the requirements of this responsibility is the only way in which public relations can be considered to be an important element of the global communication system.
If public relations is practiced according to the principles of strategic management, public responsibility and the two-way symmetrical model, it is an important element of the global communication system — facilitating symmetrical communication that helps to build relationships among organizations and publics and to develop policies that are responsible to those publics. ” Ethics Code as a Requirement for Professional Status Thomas H. Bivins asserts that professionalism requires autonomy, but that autonomy comes with the expectation of objectivity.
This presents a problem for public relations because not all public relations practitioners serve the role of counselor, many fill the role of advocate. Bivins describes how these two different roles result in the necessity for different ethical guidelines, which involve the degree of responsibility or obligation to the client/employer, degree of objectivity, and degree of autonomy. However, as Judd’s study showed, public relations practitioners increasingly view their role as that of counselor, given that they feel more bound to social responsibilities rather than client/employer obligations.
This will place a more stringent ethical impetus upon public relations practitioners because the responsibilities of counselors are broader in the sense of having to be concerned with both larger and a greater number of publics. “Although both the advocate and the counselor must practice within the bounds of the truth, good taste and the law, the counselor must also practice within the moral boundaries of, and with ethical consideration for, all concerned publics.
Purpose, therefore, becomes a factor which must be decided upon, to a greater degree, by the counselor. ” Bivins stresses that it is the move towards professionalism in the field which has actually led to a concern over ethical principles. Center and Jackson similarly connect ethical concerns with the development of a profession. “The public relations function has sought to fulfill its aspirations by exerting an ethical and moral force as well as technical skill and, by doing so, developing an identity and a professional discipline of its own.
As Winkleman noted, the ethical debate began with Watergate and has gained momentum in the public relations community with the scandals involving Michael Deaver (indicted for perjury) and Anthony Franco (insider trading). Despite the lack of substantial empirical research literature on public relations ethics to date, there appears to be an increased interest in the subject of ethics among educators and researchers. For example, Public Relations Review devoted entire issues to the subject of ethics in 1989 and 1993.
Regardless of whether the public relations profession institutes a universal code as some are advocating, empirical evidence has shown that practitioners who base their decision-making on social responsibility and within ethical guidelines, whether personal or structural, will be more likely to be involved in policy decisions. In turn, practitioners will enhance their credibility with management and the public at large. Furthermore, observance of ethical principles demonstrate the mark of a profession.

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