8 tips for making moral judgments in public relations

Next time some ethically undereducated soul says, "You're being judgmental," the appropriate response is, "Thanks, I work hard to be!"

Moral judgment means a discernment of ethics based on character and integrity, with analytical and objective perspective, determining ethics by logic and reason. Exercising moral judgment takes rationality, years of practice, cool deliberation, and an ability to weigh moral values from a multiplicity of angles.

Moral judgment is a virtue. It has been admired by countless ancient philosophers, from Greek and Roman antiquity, and still inspires reams of scholarship today. But how does one get there? In a field such as public relations, fraught with conflicting loyalties and problematic issues to solve on a daily basis, it is no small task. Our power is often unseen, based on influence, defining issues, advocacy, molding public policy, and determining relevance for news media. Public relations holds ethical responsibility and power and often operates behind the scenes as an influencer or for influencers. A high level of moral judgment is demanded in public relations from the first day on the job. But how do we go about actually creating moral judgment? Scholars agree that it must be practiced over the years and incorporated into the very personality of an individual. Here are some practice points to enhance the moral judgment of public relations practitioners:

Never rush to a decision
Take time to reflect and analyze options thoroughly, gathering data and augmenting your own perception with opinions and facts from numerous sources.

Be analytical
Use objectivity, detachment, and reason to sort through facts, weighing options on their merit and logic alone. Analytical reason avoids capriciousness and creates consistency.

Eschew selfishness
Never strive for personal preference or outcome alone that create options gain and investment in shared values.

Think through consequences
Consider all options and potential outcomes, not just those for clients or management. What about other stakeholders, media members, competitors, advocates, and so on?

Strive to empower others
Gathering perspectives from multiple stakeholders, including those external to the organization or client, can create a broader perspective on moral dilemmas. Ask others to contribute to the solution, weighing input analytically.

Question your intention
Make sure you are attempting to always act with character and integrity rather than taking the easy way out or doing only what would benefit only a client.

Use servant leadership
Do not seek power or authority for its own sake. Ask yourself how you can model ethical behavior and enhance the autonomy and moral judgment ability of others.

Consciously practice
Moral judgment is not learned overnight. It requires effort, study, reflection, and a critical analysis of one’s decision making. It is not easy but worth the effort. Aristotle argued, "Virtuous actions express correct (right) reason. They are acquired through practice and habituation. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously.

There are numerous benefits to exercising moral judgment, in addition to the numerous ones of avoiding crises and lawsuits. Having a public relations career based on moral judgment builds your professional credibility. After practice, you develop a sense of what is important to you and a solid foundation for facing ethical challenges. It also strengthens the values within you and your ability to apply them to complex situations, developing a moral compass within you.

The ability of moral judgment can be extremely valuable at times of crisis or conflict by offering discernment or wise counsel to management or clients. Experts in moral development also say that living a life using moral judgment yields benefits in terms of trust, advancement, optimism, consistency, self-esteem, and high levels of individual autonomy or self-efficacy.

By using moral judgment, PR pros can help all of public relations gain credibility and respect as a true profession based on ethics. Next time some ethically undereducated soul says, "You’re being judgmental," the appropriate response is, "Thanks, I work hard to be!"

Shannon Bowen, 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. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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