Sometimes students think ethics is all about offering personal opinions. That could not be further from the truth. Whether the ethics course is for PR, journalism, or mass communications majors, we begin by learning about the philosophies of the ancients – starting with Socrates.
Reminiscent of the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (a comparison that would be lost on most of these young students), I invariably get the question: "What does Socrates have to do with PR?" My answer begins with one word: Everything.
Socrates lived in an age filled with myth and superstition, at the nascent beginning of democracy and our understanding of the physical world of scientific fact. Loyalty, myth, self-interest, superstition, tradition, opinion, and power were the prevailing wisdom.
Socrates changed that, though most of that change did not occur during his lifetime. He dared to question the prevailing conventional wisdom by using rationality. He asked for logical reasons – rather than personal opinion – behind why something was true, believed, or accepted. Personal opinion was for the unskilled mind. Logic and rationality were superior.
It was Socrates’ approach to question; today we call his approach "the Socratic method." PR pros would do well to take a cue from Socrates in asking questions of clients, research vendors, team members, and the many others with whom they interact.
Asking questions in that manner – looking for rational reasons to do something – can strengthen not only the PR campaign, but also the role of PR overall. In the past, I’ve called for PR pros to become provocateurs. Similarly, Socrates called for the Athenians to question the logic of a war with Sparta. Logic should be the reason for acting – not belief alone – as the crushing defeat of Athens showed thousands of years ago. What recently took place with GM's PR department - including the company's perceived preference to heed legal counsel over that of its communications heads, as well as the recent departure of VP of global comms Selim Bingol – provides a similar example.
We must question the prevailing wisdom of management, clients, CEOs, and even our own PR teams by playing devil’s advocate. Challenge your next team meeting with questions such as "What is the worst case scenario that could happen if we do X?" or "Is there any way that an enterprising reporter or competitor could get X to blow up on us?" Being like Socrates and questioning everything, logically, can lead to more sound decisions and PR initiatives. It can help us prepare for the unexpected and insulate hard-earned reputations from ill-considered actions.
Make no mistake: asking for logical reasons can be hard. It’s not easy to look a client in the face and ask, "Do we have any evidence to back up that claim?" However, it is worth it. Numerous companies can look back and see that had anyone near the top of those organizations asked such questions, they could have saved million in fines, avoided lawsuits, or protected their reputations, not to mention the more human aspects of good business decisions.
Socrates paid with his life for questioning the logic of a war with Sparta. The Athenians did not want to rationally analyze the superior land-fighting ability of Sparta and put the faith and hope of Athens in tradition, honor, and a spectacular naval victory. The logic of being surrounded on land and the resulting starvation and disease epidemic, while a patient Spartan army waited, was lost on the Athenians.
Socrates was condemned to death for "predicting" the Athenian defeat. Athenians voted for his death, in their superstitious yet democratic way, with black or white stones. In an ironic act of defiance, Socrates embraced his execution as a way to show that logic is always supreme. Socrates earned a prominent place in history for that reason.
PR pros can learn much from Socrates’ sacrifice. Don’t be afraid to question. Have the courage to base decisions on reason, evidence, and facts, rather than desires or tradition. Conduct research, think analytically, and get others involved in questioning what to do. Make a name for yourself as someone who is Socratic or reason-driven. After all, who recalls any names of the superstitious Athenians who voted against Socrates?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.