Thank goodness for Volkswagen. It reminded us of why ethics matter

VW case provides an example of not only why ethics matters, but also why we must look closely at the ethics of all our decisions

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, teaching ethics in PR was a different ball game. I continually had to begin all discussions with arguments about why ethics in PR should matter. Once I was able to get these main points across, I could finally get to the task of teaching ethics or conducting research on ethics in the PR practice.

Then, major scandals erupted, Enron being the most notable and notorious of the bunch, hot on the heels of the MCI Worldcom accounting fraud debacle. These huge corporate collapses, both resulting from unethical practices, led to a crisis of public trust in business, and new demands for accountability and transparency. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act was created in 2002 to require corporations to have a publicly available code of ethics, and attempted to create the transparency that the public and stakeholders demanded.

Enron created a level of outrage I had not seen before, as many stakeholders lost their retirement funds, homes, and futures.But this time, the cost was too high. Ethics had been completed ignored, and that was a game changer.

Now, years after these notorious scandals, I no longer have to make the argument of why ethics is and should be central to all the work communication professionals do. PR pros understand and agree that ethics and reputation are intimately connected, or two sides of the same coin.

It was a mixed blessing. As much legitimacy as Sarbanes-Oxley conveyed on ethics, it also created a new problem: A culture of compliance. Legal compliance can, of course, be legislated and required. What cannot be required is the intention to do what is right: This concept is what ethicists call the good will, or doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Legal compliance can, unfortunately, encourage a minimum standard. Worse, it can actually work against ethics because the view that, "We don’t need to look into the ethics of the situation because we have already done what is required" often emerges. A culture of compliance is antithetical to ethics because it can stifle individual examination. Yet, examining intention is required in ethics, and only a good will meets the standard.

Enter Volkswagen.

Whatever decisions made were inside Volkswagen, whoever made them, and who knew what and when, one thing is clear: There was intentional deception involved. Perhaps a culture of compliance took over at VW. It is easy to imagine an executive thinking: "We have disclosed what we are required to: No more, no less. That is the end of our obligation." A culture of legalistic compliance alone can mean that ethical questions are never asked.

In an ethical organization, the question should be, "What else should we do to be an ethical competitor?" with PR serving to help the organization to be its best self. Clearly, that step never occurred at VW. Individual examination was, no doubt, stifled or even actively discouraged in favor of short-term gains based on deceptive practices. Good intentions were never present.

Today, we find that trust in business and CEOs (and, as a side note, in government) is at an all-time low. With brands such as VW, which did not seriously consider the ethics of its actions, it is easy to see why. I am happy that the VW case provides an example of not only why ethics matters, but also why we must look closely at the ethics of all our decisions, including good will or intention.

Our reputations and continued existence depend on the honesty supporting those decisions, the good will used to make them, and the thoughtful implementation of those efforts through PR. Legal compliance cannot substitute for ethical analyses because they look at entirely different concepts – the "should" versus the "required." Examining management activities for good intention was the central missing component at VW.

Helping an organization to be its best self means comm pros need to go beyond the required to asking how we should act, questioning good will, obligations to stakeholders, and our intention. VW shows that ethics has never been more central to what we do.

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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