Explaining PR's 'newfound' interest in ethics

The communications industry is undergoing a vigorous, surprising, and across-the-board renewed interest in ethics. What is motivating this?

As a researcher and educator who specializes in PR ethics, August and September have been particularly interesting months. It seems the communications industry is undergoing a vigorous, surprising, and across-the-board renewed interest in ethics. However, as a researcher who has studied PR ethics for almost two decades, I wonder what is motivating this?

As recently as spring 2008, my department chair at the University of Maryland permanently canceled my ethics class. “No one wants to study ethics in PR,” she surmised. Has that perspective truly changed? Or are we now offering ethics as “window dressing?”

The Arthur Page Society, of which I am a trustee, recently completed a white paper on corporate character that is soon to be released. That initiative is based on the organization's new communications model that has the stated purpose of “activating corporate character.” Page, composed primarily of CCOs, is arguably the most influential professional group for PR executives. It is unclear if other organizations are following suit or if the interest level in PR ethics is simply coalescing for some other reason.

At the PRSA, September is “Ethics Month,” in which it encourages members to think about ethics as defined through the lens of its Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). Ethics Month includes a number of activities, such as blog posts, a Google+ hangout, hashtagged Tweet chats, and an ethics webinar.

What is the PRSA's motivation? Industry observers have roundly criticized BEPS as lacking both a philosophical basis in ethics and enforcement standards. Others say the PRSA code of ethics was simply put in place for the benefit of industry critics. It is notable that Ethics Month activities are based on the PRSA's own code of ethics rather than current scholarly research in the field.

The Council of Public Relations Firms also unveiled a new initiative, “Introducing Ethics as Culture.” Dozens or even hundreds of researchers have published studies connecting ethics to organizational culture, including myself when I directly addressed the topic in the Journal of Business Ethics. Entire books have been written on the topic.

Does the Council's “introduction” of ethics as a central part of organizational culture indicate that PR pros have ignored this vast body of knowledge until this point? That certainly seems to be the inference, but it also seems impossible that the link between organizational culture and ethics could have been ignored until now. So, again, why the renewed interest?

Then there's the International Association of Business Communicators. I recently conducted an ethics webinar for the IABC that was well attended and focused on advising management on ethical dilemmas.

Based on all the above examples, it seems that, at least in the US, a renewed interest in ethics is happening across the industry – and it is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, as an ethicist, I am delighted, excited, and encouraged for the future of the field any time discussions on ethics take place. On the other hand, why was ethics not seemingly important enough until now to be included as a primary factor of the PR practice? Why was my former PR ethics class canceled while other universities made them compulsory for PR majors or regularly offered as a PR elective?

The general trend is toward adding PR ethics courses – and that is encouraging. Our new practitioners will be prepared to meet the ethical challenges they will surely face. As far as the academic side of this question, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) has a media ethics division that regularly addresses questions of PR, advertising, journalism, and marketing ethics. Two years ago, that group voted to adopt the policy that a standalone ethics course should be offered in AEJMC degree-granting programs. 

Is this renewed interest in ethics being prompted by corporate scandals? Perhaps it is because of politicians who we now expect to break their campaign promises? Is it due to an unstable sociopolitical climate in which protests, wars, coups, embassy attacks, and massive financial fluctuations have become the norm? I can only raise these questions and hope that both time and study allow insight. In the meantime, I suggest we embrace the double-edged sword with cautious optimism.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She is a member of the board of trustees of the Arthur W. Page Society and the board of directors at the International Public Relations Research Conference. Her column will focus on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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