Six ways to say "no" to an unethical assignment

How do you say "no" to a boss or executive who asks you to do something unethical and still keep your job?

How do you say “no” to a boss or executive who asks you to do something unethical and still keep your job? Kevin Saghy, PR and marketing specialist for the Chicago Cubs, said that's the key concern of PR students and young professionals regarding ethical dilemmas.

Saghy was one of four panelists in a recent Plank Center webinar that focused on teaching ethics in PR education. Others included Dr. Shannon Bowen of Syracuse University, Prof. Kathy Fitzpatrick of Quinnipiac University, and Tom Martin, executive in residence at the College of Charleston and former SVP of corporate relations at ITT. They shared diverse perspectives on teaching, researching, and practicing ethics.

Saghy, national president of the Public Relations Student Society of America in 2006-2007, surveyed students about ethics and found they strongly value honesty and transparency. However, they also worry a great deal about how to say “no” to those in power who might ask them to do something unethical. Saghy said the PRSA code of ethics provides a good framework for response and should be used and cited in such cases.

Following the webinar, other panelists and audience members suggested five additional ways to say “no.

• Use your organization's espoused values to legitimize your point of view, i.e. an organization needs to live its values or they are meaningless.

• Demonstrate the “headline test.” What if the proposed action becomes a headline? Prepare a brief fictional news story with the offending action in a bold, 60-point headline.

• Make a rational or emotional appeal from the point of view of the affected public(s).

• Build a small coalition of like-minded individuals and say “no” collectively.

• Cite other companies and ethical examples in the news and review the unfavorable outcomes they experienced. Building a file of such cases may be quite helpful.  

Of course, you always have the option to walk. But the first obligation is to say “no” and explain why. I'm sure there are more than six ways of doing this, so please suggest some others. 

Bruce Berger, Ph.D. is Reese Phifer Professor of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Alabama and a member of the board of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. Previously he was VP of PR at Whirlpool Corporation. His column focuses on PR students, young professionals and education. He can be reached at

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