Ethical Decision-Making: The ‘Necessary Skill’

Dick Martin book cover

By Dick Martin

Back in 1970, the guy who interviewed me for my first job in public relations was the former city editor of the Newark, NJ, Evening News. I didn’t know it at the time, but he only hired ex-journalists like himself. My undergraduate degree was in philosophy; I had a masters in broadcasting; and my journalism career consisted of one summer writing features for a small weekly paper outside Boston. So my chances of landing the job were pretty slim.

But as luck would have it, I was an experiment foisted on him by someone higher up the food chain who was convinced most people were getting their news from television. For the next couple of decades, nearly all new hires had some broadcasting background.

Something of the same happened in the 1990s when the Internet began to “change everything.” Suddenly, in most PR departments, people who knew HTML and Java had an edge. By then, I was the guy doing the hiring and – while I realized digital media would profoundly change the practice of public relations – I became less dazzled by people with slick communications skills and sought out those few who demonstrated mature judgment, which is much harder to find.

Good communication skills, including digital fluency, are the entry ticket to a career in public relations. But to progress in your career, you need to develop a reputation for rock-solid judgment – not some kind of knee-jerk political correctness, but deep business knowledge combined with high integrity.

While public relations used to be all about publicity and advocacy, its highest role today is helping companies make business decisions in a sound context. In philosophical terms, public relations at the highest levels is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves.

Unfortunately, in public relations, ethical decision-making is usually the product of on-the-job-training. Not that there aren’t plenty of standards available. The PRSA and the IABC, to mention just two associations of practitioners, have developed thoughtful guidelines on the ethical practice of public relations. But no guideline can anticipate every situation. Few do a very good job defining such critical terms as “the public interest,” “responsible advocacy,” or “truth.” And when values conflict with each other or with local custom, as they often do, guidelines are mostly silent or at best equivocal.

Recognizing this dilemma, a 1999 commission on public relations education identified ethical decision-making as a “necessary skill” practitioners should acquire at the undergraduate level.[i]  A 2006 commission took that recommendation a step further and declared “ethics must not only be integrated into all coursework in public relations, but must also be given priority as a discrete component of the public relations curriculum.”[ii]

Yet a 2009 study of 266 college and universities with public relations programs identified only 13% that offered courses in public relations ethics. Most of the others either included it in more general courses on communications ethics (47%) or integrated ethical discussions into the broader curriculum (31%).  A few (8%) respondents claimed either there wasn’t room in the curriculum, the subject can’t be taught, or there isn’t anyone available capable of teaching it.[iii]

That leaves the typical graduate of most public relations programs trying to piece together a framework for ethical reasoning from the odd bits of information and rules of thumb they gather along the way. It ignores more than 2,500 years of thought on what makes behavior good or bad, right or wrong.

Ironically, public relations – which nearly always entails an exchange between two parties – raises ethical questions by its very nature. And every public relations crisis I can think of began as an ethical failure.

No one needs a catechism of right and wrong in the practice of public relations. But both students and practitioners need a framework for figuring it out in the heat of battle: a model of ethical decision making.

So gather your communications skills and your digital capabilities. But in all your gathering, remember – to counsel clients, you have to know more than what to say, you have to know what to do. Spend some time with men and women who majored in questions of right and wrong, especially those who were so good at it, their theories have survived for centuries.

 Dick Martin photo Dick Martin co-wrote Public Relations Ethics: How To Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul with Donald K. Wright of Boston University. He was chief communications officer of AT&T from 1997 to 2003 and is the author of four other books for the American Management Association.

[i] Commission on Public Relations Education, “The Professional Bond,” October 1999. [ii] Commission on Public Relations Education, “Public Relations Education for the 21st Century, July 22, 2006. [iii] Elina Erzikova, “University Teachers’ Perceptions and Evaluations of Ethics Instruction in Public Relations Curriculum,” PhD Dissertation, 2009.

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