The benefits of making a mistake

Defending the freedom to err is an exceptionally difficult position to hold, but it raises interesting questions for PR managers.

When you see someone about to make a large mistake, is it more ethical to try to point out the mistake so as to potentially prevent or correct it or is it more ethical to respect his or her freedom of choice to make the mistake in the first place?

The type of ethics I study – deontology – would hold that one must respect the person's freedom of choice to make a mistake and allow them to do so even when we know it is clearly an error. Deontology is arguably the most rigorous school of ethics that exists in moral philosophy and it sets an admittedly high bar. Defending the freedom to err is an exceptionally difficult position to hold, but it raises interesting questions for PR managers.

This question is an ethical one juxtaposing freedom and responsibility. At any university, we routinely encounter that question in various formats. You may face this position in your PR role when commenting upon the work of subordinates. For example, what if you know someone on your team has over-promised to a client? If they promised the relatively unlikely cover of Fortune, do you believe it is best to wait for them to try – and ultimately fail? Or is it best to caution them – and perhaps the client – that shooting for a lesser goal first could be more realistic and achievable? 

I asked for some feedback about pointing out potential mistakes or respecting the freedom to fail. Doing a convenience interview of a few PR professor colleagues, I found the overwhelming majority of people believe you should point out the mistake to provide guidance, using it as a learning opportunity. But is it really a learning opportunity if the person simply has to take you at your word that the potential mistake would have been disastrous? What if they do not understand your analysis, simply do not believe your advice, or think you are being overly cautious? Is it, perhaps, more ethical to let the person fail – and learn firsthand the error of their reasoning?

One professor I surveyed commented that it depends on the severity of the risks incurred and the potential consequences of the decision. He explained that selecting an item to purchase that is not flattering is of little consequence, but choosing the wrong solution to a product crisis requires intervention. That perspective is exactly correct from a consequentialist perspective, such as utilitarianism.

In utilitarianism, the ethical decision is that which maximizes the good outcomes and minimizes the bad ones. It seems like a logical choice. However, utilitarianism has the problem of not actually weighing moral issues, but of counting outcomes. The majority always rules, and we have seen through various examples, such as the Civil Rights movement, that the minority can have a valid moral point. Utilitarianism, as a consequentialist approach, is also always at the mercy of accurately predicting future outcomes.

Deontology asks us to put maintaining the dignity and respect of others as a test in ethical decisions. To maintain the dignity and respect of our colleagues in PR, we must give them the freedom to fail when the risks of the action are not severe. Will the person learn from the mistake? It is not assured, but it does seem more likely that real learning takes place through personal experience than from being told. And the remorse that comes along with failure often provides adequate motivation to ensure more complete analyses in the future, making a more reliable employee.

The severity of the stakes should help determine one's moral duty in a given situation. Risky stakes often require the moral courage to speak up and challenge. Perhaps the answer to that question is to ask what kind of team leader are you? Leaders have the moral courage to employ ethical analyses when confronting dilemmas, rather than rushing to snap judgments. If the stakes or duties are large enough, the PR pro is duty bound to speak up, advising those involved about the ethical course of action. If the opportunity to learn from the mistake is greater, we can ethically respect the right of others to fail and, hopefully, become better PR practitioners for it.

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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