The ethical conundrums faced by public relations pros are only getting more complicated.
We’ve developed far beyond the "don’t use deception" standard. Examples abound of scandal and unethical behavior, but the lines have blurred on what constitutes ethics in the face of changing technology, changing communication channels, or social media, and a swirling nexus of mixed responsibilities to organizations, clients, stakeholders, and publics.
These are untested waters. For example, what is the moral responsibility of Facebook in the Cambridge Analytica use of seemingly private data? The fake news environment, secretive nature of leaks, and media manipulation have only complicated the ethical choices that must be made in our field. It is no surprise that ethics courses are becoming compulsory for public relations pros.
The 45-year-old Commission on Public Relations Education recently offered the first study of public relations education in more than a decade. The group of public relations scholars is comprised of seasoned representatives from practically every organization in communication. The CPRE conducted a massive study: Data collection and analyses were conducted by multiple teams examining both quantitative and qualitative data. I was a part of the ethics team in the CPRE, but no one was more pleasantly surprised than I when the data spoke for itself. The primary finding of the report was that ethics has taken center stage in public relations. Other areas of importance also emerged: globalism, analytics, gender equity, and business acumen, for example, yet ethics surpassed all of them in the strength of the data to the point where an analyst would say it was demanded.
Practitioners rated ethics as the most pressing knowledge public relations students should have (4.51 on a five-point scale). The CPRE sets accreditation standards for university programs in public relations and has recommended a sixth required course for public relations majors in ethics in addition to the standard theory and tactics courses. The recommended course is not a typical journalism "law and ethics" class as so many of us took but a course specific to public relations ethics, dealing with moral reasoning and the common types of problems in our field. Many such courses already exist but are often electives rather than a required course. The report added, "Ethics lessons and courses should incorporate moral philosophy, case studies, and simulations to be the most effective."
This change will eventually affect you. If you are in a position to hire recent graduates in entry-level PR jobs, it is hoped that new graduates will develop more critical thinking skills to recognize, confront, and resolve ethical dilemmas. This recognition is vital because untold numbers of problems arising from unforeseen implications. Many ethically-laden problems are not identified up front as such, yet future graduates will be alert and actively seeking them.
Without a public relations ethics class, it often takes years of training and experience to learn to identify ethical issues. Even the best business opportunities might have ethical implications that are hidden under the positive thinking of management or clients. Pepsi, anyone? Identifying potential ethical problems takes analytical thinking and critical assessment. Moral philosophers offer rigorous ways to approach these dilemmas, but they are not innate: they require study, intense reading, understanding of complex constructs such as moral autonomy, and training in the use of analytical frameworks.
Hiring a future graduate with training in public relations ethics can also help you to see issues and problems in a new light. Accompanying most activities in PR are some forms of ethical assessments, and critical or reasoned thinking can help to identify and resolve those issue before they become problems: brainstorming together is a great thing. Experience and analytical rigor can combine to create a powerful ethical analysis and can uncover numerous conflicts and problems.
Professions have agreed-upon ethical standards, as opposed to trades that rely on law or common practice. Our function is evolving into a true profession with robust ethical standards. The growing professionalization of our field brings with it the power that comes from being a management function: a weighty ethical responsibility to examine issues in their ever-evolving detail. Advising management on ethical issues is an ever-present role. All levels of comms, from the CCO to the front desk, must work toward consistently maintaining credibility.
In 2007, my Public Relations Ethics course at University of Maryland was canceled by a department chair who said, "No one wants to study ethics in public relations." Things have certainly changed in the last decade! This change is in no small part to the numerous challenges we face, as well as the notable ethical failures of organizations of all types. By offering more ethics courses around the U.S. and the world for our students, we are not only acting as an ethical guardian of credibility and reputation but also are helping organizations to be more responsible. As we grow into the future, we can all work to embrace ethical standards. That is the essence of true progress and the mark of a critically-thinking society.
Shannon Bowen researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.