Consequences need not rule every decision

Basing our decisions on something more important and lasting than immediate efficacy would allow good outcomes to flow from our choices, writes Shannon Bowen.

At the recently completed Southern States Communications Association Convention, I was asked to speak about "Communication, Choices, and Consequences: The Powerful Idea." Pondering this topic gave me some new ideas on how the PR function itself can become more powerful both in what it addresses and the consequences of our activities.

Speaking to this group of scholars, I began with a discussion on how neither virtue ethics nor deontology disavow the consequences of decisions. These forms of thought, however, don’t use consequences as the "deciding factor" – the compelling or most important moral principle in a situation. For example, most people agree that maintaining life or liberty would each be more important than many "smaller" factors, such as pursuing entertainment. The deciding factor is that key idea we believe carries the day in a given PR situation.

So what if that deciding factor was something other than what we are used to doing? As you know, we pursue efficacy of our messages and we often seek to measure attitudinal changes as a result of our PR efforts and hope to achieve behavioral outcomes – or actions – with those who have received our messages. We have ways of showing our outcomes in attitude, intention, and behavior, proving our effectiveness and showing an ROI for our PR efforts. Are we pursuing the wrong goals, though?

What if the deciding factor in every situation that drives our PR efforts is pursuing honesty, integrity, and truth? Substituting these ideas for efficacy is a compelling idea that proves noteworthy in a few ways. If we act as independent advisers seeking to create truth and support relationship building, we release the field from the "divided loyalties" conflict between employer (or client) and publics that has plagued it. We are no longer simply beholden to enact the decisions of others, but to interact with those decisions in determining how they can be better. The PR field then reaches the professionalism that many seek with regard to acting as a true counselor in management decisions, rather than as a mouthpiece, press agent, or a more constrained role. We should help organizations in the true issues management sense – managing problem solving before these issues become crises or matters of concern for our publics.

We would enact this approach by using reason, research logic, and truth or veracity to guide our PR activities, believing that the consequences would naturally be good when guided by such strong deciding factors. Using the principle and virtue behind a situation to make the decision is a duty-based approach and in that paradigm the consequences are believed to "take care of themselves." In other words: good decisions naturally lead to good outcomes.

In both the PR and management sense, basing our decisions on something more important and lasting than immediate efficacy would allow good outcomes to flow from our choices. Stronger relationships with publics, based on trust and meeting expectations, would grow over time. We would serve a role in the C-suite equal to or more powerful than other advisory functions, giving us a firmer footing upon which to confront the legal counsel (as we always seem called to do). 

Through seeking the radical notion of being loyal only to the important moral principle, a potential downside is that employers or clients may be a bit frightened of our analyses and newfound sense of objectivity. However, the credibility we gain through correct analyses over time would more than prove our worth.

PR in the counseling role is something that requires us to know our business and industry, keep abreast of emerging trends, track and interact with legislative initiatives, and so on. Perhaps more importantly, acting in such an advisory capacity, loyal to honest communication above all else, requires a PR manager who has keen analytical ability, moral conviction, and a strong sense of professional responsibility. However, if we are going to influence the future focus of the profession and create more responsible organizations, it’s time we start exploring these kinds of powerful ideas.

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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