I don’t mean "let’s agree to disagree" and walk away. I mean let’s consider the value of disagreement itself.
In ethics, conformity raises suspicion. Conformity (or groupthink) often sets in when decisions are not rigorously analyzed or when power relationships make it difficult to disagree with someone, such as a CEO or client, who wants a certain outcome. Today’s world is one in which people fear offending one another and often keep quiet. In the workplace, many people would rather keep their opinions to themselves than raise a kerfuffle. So groupthink sets in, and decisions become unanalyzed, uncritical, routine, habitual, and, even worse, capricious.
As you likely know from your own experience as a PR pro, you must have a pretty strong spine to work in public relations. Thick skin may be optional, but backbone is not. We must stick to our convictions, often in the line of fire, sometimes defending very sticky situations. Even in an industry not for the faint of heart, however, we often find it easier not to stand up to our CEOs or clients when they want to conceal certain information or are excited about a certain path. Why quash our leader’s aegis? We would not do it unnecessarily, but if there’s a good reason to be cautious: quash away!
Most ethical problems do not appear upfront. A warning sign indicating "ethical minefield ahead" rarely comes with the territory of what we are asked to do -- just ask any former White House press secretary. However, knowing when to speak truth to those in power adds exceptional value to an organization, to your own career, and to the PR profession.
How do we go about engaging in conscientious and professional disagreement? Once we disagree, how do we go about helping to formulate a plan of action in case any of the negative outcomes become reality? To encourage your ability to disagree with those in power, try these questions and perspectives:
- It could work, but what if it doesn’t? Ask: "What could go wrong?" Sometimes it helps to think about what an enterprising investigative reporter might find out with enough digging.
- Always expect a boom: "How could this backfire?" Even actions undertaken with the most ethical intent and purest of goals can backfire, get off track, be taken out of context, or used as evidence by activists. For example, a large donation of drugs to an African country by Merck was criticized as self-serving and trying to buy favor. Everything can backfire: Anticipate it.
- Be the doomsayer: "What’s the worst that can happen?" Even in a worst-case scenario, public relations still must create a plan of action and how to communicate about it. Had anyone at the nuclear plant in Fukushima ever considered a reactor meltdown due to earthquakes and tsunamis? Doubtful. Should they have? Absolutely.
- Check for leaky faucets: "What information could leak?" You’re probably surprised to find this in an ethics column, but there are legitimate things that public relations should keep inside the organization for resolution quietly. They are not just trade secrets but internal concerns, such as issues management problems, that can be resolved more effectively without the notoriety that comes with media attention. Not every problem has to be resolved in public for an organization to be ethical. Using ethical discretion is key.
- Use critical thinking. "Will our competitors find a way to use this against us?" Critical thinking is objective, rational, open, and based on intellectual integrity and rigor rather than any one perspective or favored outcome. Viewing the decision from outside perspectives can reveal numerous flaws or how it could be used against you.
- Be the 10th person. "I am obligated to disagree." The very nature of too much agreement around the room should raise your suspicion level in wondering why there’s so much conformity. Find a reason to disagree with the group using any logical and rational argument that you can make against the group consensus. Rather than being rancorous, you are testing the validity of the decision to move forward. Flaws in any course of action can be revealed through rigorous and concerted scrutiny. At least you will be aware of the potential flaws.
The obligation of one person to disagree with a group comes from Hebrew tradition. One prominent business ethicist, Barry Leff, explained, "The "tenth man rule" actually has its roots in the Talmud and Jewish Law. Two thousand years ago, there was no such thing a unanimous verdict to convict someone charged with a capital crime: if there wasn’t at least one dissenting vote, one person arguing for the person’s innocence, it was declared a mistrial."
You may have to explain to your team leader, CEO, or client that the nature of your job is to be a critical adviser rather than a loyal backer. Always disagree with a professional demeanor, remaining cordial yet candid. Even if they don’t always listen to you, your opinion will become the expected "hoops to jump through" and your value within the organization will skyrocket. One day when you’re out of town and the CEO says, "Where’s that woman who’s always questioning everything?" you’ll know you’ve earned your seat.
Through offering disagreement questions and challenges, you are not only acting as an ethical counselor; you are encouraging your organization to be more critical, analytical, and ethically responsible. Our best role is often questioning what others believe to be true, guarding against unintended outcomes, and being a sounding board for management so that it ultimately becomes more ethical.
Shannon Bowen researchers 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 Conference. Her column focuses on PR education, ethics, and the C-suite. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.