Calibrating our ethical compasses

Put public relations and ethics in the same conversational sentence and you're bound to spark some snide descriptors.

Put public relations and ethics in the same conversational sentence and you're bound to spark some snide descriptors.

We sometimes endure the expected sarcastic descriptions as “flacks” or “spin doctors.” Are those snide comments on our profession deserved or earned? Perhaps, as front-line industry and government spokespeople, our task as educators and explainers is misinterpreted…even distrusted. Maybe, we are not doing enough within the profession and our agencies to help colleagues sharpen their ethical compasses? 

Through the years, I have developed a relationship with professor, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. These conversations with him have led me to wonder and push myself, my family, and colleagues on strengthening resolve in calibrating an “ethical compass.” Wiesel recently published a book aptly titled:  An Ethical Compass – Coming of Age in the 21st Century. The book comprises essays from young people trying to navigate a world of challenge.

Though noted for his work to speak out for those silenced, Wiesel is surprisingly engaged in medical ethics issues and serves as honorary chair of the Prix Galien Foundation, which acknowledges medical innovation that can change the human. Having witnessed his family murdered, Wiesel retains that hopeful perspective that we must stand against indifference. His life and actions call for creating an ethical compass from within.  

Public relations professionals should inspire people to do better for themselves and their audiences. In fact, ethical conduct is so essential to the quality and impact of our work that the Public Relations Society of America issued recently an “Act Ethically and Carry On,” poster, a creative take off on the popular early World War II British morale-building call-to-action.

Years ago, during my tenure as global practice head at a major PR agency, we were confronted with a business challenge. It required a close look at an attribute of ethical behavior: loyalty to our people and not “throwing folks under the bus” to retain a difficult client. Without hesitation, my mentor and friend, the late Howard Paster, made the decision to separate from the assignment. The immediate economic impact was erased quickly multiple times by motivated staff eager to “carry on.” 

For PR agency colleagues who experienced the recent years of fee-famine, opportunity can stimulate unquenchable thirst for “do whatever it takes” to win and deliver. However, there is a limit – an ethical limit. Navigating the decision-making process requires business and personal courage. We are representatives of companies and firms seeking to influence public opinion and behavior. As a healthcare communications professional, who started my career decades ago as a combat medic confronted by numerous ethical challenges, I believe that communications is part of the care. Like the quality of medicines the pharmaceutical industry develops and doctors prescribe, we must place people's well-being in the forefront of our decision-making process. This holds true for my colleagues regardless of industry served. We are advocates influencing people's decisions – their life's course. 

So take out your compass and calibrate! Have courage and carry on! 

Gil Bashe is EVP at Makovsky + Company, where he leads the Makovsky Health practice.

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