PR decisions require more than gut instincts

When you face a decision with ethical implications, do you go with your gut? If so, there's a more reliable alternative.

PR pros often test a decision to see if it is a wise course of action by gauging their gut feeling before making the call. This kind of physical response can be a helpful indicator of a problematic issue or decision, acting as a sort of biological "early warning system." However, gut instinct can’t always be trusted to identify and prevent ethical problems. Here’s why, and a more reliable alternative.

Many ethically laden problems are not identified up-front as such. For example, a product line expansion, a merger, or entering a market can all seem like straightforward business situations requiring PR counsel and action. However, even the best business opportunities might have ethical implications that are hidden under the positive wishful thinking of management.

Counting on a gut reaction to identify an ethical issue that is an offshoot of a positive situation is spurious, as it may never trigger those butterflies warning of potential problems ahead. This type of thinking is called "egocentric thinking" and is an erroneous form of reasoning. It says, "this is true because I want to believe it" or "this is true because it is in my best interest to believe it." What may actually be in the best interest of the PR counsel is to scrupulously question every management move – even the seemingly positive ones.

Managers innately believe in the standards of our thinking, not recognizing biased or egocentric assumptions. Egocentric thinking biases our decisions from the start, usually winding up in nonsensical thinking from managers such as, "It is true because we believe it to be true." Huh? What kind of rationale is that, really?

Egocentric thinking can cause you to miss even the most obvious of ethical consequences, resulting in mistakes, boycotts, and expensive oversights when you don’t recognize an ethical issue for what it is: a moral choice. For example, take Starbucks' expansion in Beijing with a store in the Forbidden City. It seems to be an obvious ethical choice now that protests resulted in the closing of that location, but why didn’t Starbucks see that problem coming all along? Egocentric thinking. The ethical problem and associated costs could have been completely avoided with some savvy ethical analysis by the comms team.

The next step up on the developmental ladder of reasoning is sociocentric thinking. Sociocentric thinking occurs when PR pros have uncritically internalized the preferences and biases of their societies, cultures, and organizations, and rely on them without further questioning. Unfortunately, sociocentric thinking has many pitfalls: the tendency to conform to the group, to act unquestioningly in the face of cultural norms or traditions, and to believe, "it is true because we have always done it that way," or, "everyone else also believes it so it is true." That erroneous thinking often results in the oversight of other groups’ values and the assumption that relativistic ethics (cultural norms, often biased) are sufficient, rather than using universal ethics that offer stronger and more inclusive analyses and solutions.

A critical thinking approach is needed to get to those universal ethical standards, that value the rights and dignity of others equally with one’s own, thereby avoiding egocentrism or sociocentrism. Critical thinking is rational and fair-minded, open, and based on intellectual integrity and rigor. In other words, it leaves no situation unquestioned and offers a multi-perspective view of a situation, rather than a one-sided one. Such a rational approach can eliminate bias, selfishness, and prejudice based on social norms. Critical thinking asks you to be analytical, to gauge logical action without using preference to make decisions.

Accompanying most decisions in PR are some forms of ethical judgments and critical, or reasoned, thinking can help to identify those issues before they become problems. You can often trust your gut to throw up a red flag, but you need a more reliable means to think about ethics in PR. The power that comes along with being a management function holds an undeniable ethical responsibility.

So, use your critical skills with management: be the "what if" person. Ask, "what unintended consequences might arise if we take this action?" Challenge, "what is the worst case scenario?" And, use these skills in media relations and in evaluating reporting: "Is this news story credible or fake?"

By offering critical thinking challenges, you are not only acting as an ethical guardian, you are helping your organization to be more responsible. Ethics in PR is not only guarding against unintended unethical consequences but is also creating an advising role to help management become more ethical.

Acknowledgment: Dr. Bowen thanks the Foundation for Critical Thinking for elucidating these analytical concepts in their publication.

Shannon Bowen, Ph.D., is a Professor who 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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