Those who stand for truth often stand alone

A guide for navigating conflicts of interest and competing obligations.

We face ethical challenges every day, yet some are difficult to resolve because they involve competing interests or loyalties. Ethicists have wondered if public relations can be conducted ethically when professionals are facing divided loyalties or competing obligations, such as truth versus the wishes of a client or boss.

Many competing duties and ethical problems are not identified up-front as such. For example, a client asking for a more favorable publicity package for a new product expansion seems like a straightforward request. However, what if it comes to your attention that new product in the line is subpar, or even has dangerous outcomes, side-effects, or failures? Are you obligated to write a glowing pitch because the client foots the bill? No.

Even the most routine business opportunities might have ethical implications that are hidden under the requests of a client or manager. Don’t be involved in a "Who knew there was a problem? And when did they know it?" scenario. Crises at Volkswagen, Cambridge Analytica, and Toyota illustrate this lack of thought. Loyalty to a client should not be blind, but based on professional discretion. As a public relations professional, you have the ability to determine what is communicated and how; you are the expert. You would, of course, not reveal trade secrets, but you do not have to champion whatever the organization or client desires. Instead, act with ethical discernment and discretion. Here are a few tests based on ethics when multiple obligations intersect. 

Examine your primary moral responsibility. What is it that a good person of high moral character and virtue, using discernment, would do when faced with this situation? What decision could you be proud of in five years? What would a person of good moral character consider their primary responsibility, regardless of impending outcomes?

Examine your professional responsibility in your position. What is under your realm of control? By examining your job responsibilities and role, you can remind yourself that you are in a distinct position to communicate, and you must maintain your professional credibility.

Explain the conflict to those involved. Rather than engage in debate or escalate entrenchment, ask involved parties for creative suggestions on how to resolve the problematic issue. Use an analytical approach, based on critical thinking, to examine the problem rather than one based on history, loyalty, or wishful thinking.

Invent options for mutual gain. Collaborative problem solving, creative thinking, and new strategic directions or partnerships offer fertile ground for taking problem into opportunity. Ask others to help problem-solve based on what outcomes would be good from their perspective. Look to create common ground of some type, for both sides to get something. This approach can be used to encourage out-of-the-box thinking and collaboration rather than a competitive "either/or" approach.

Most importantly, think about the most important or overriding moral responsibility underlying your decision. All conflicts of loyalty are not created equal, and normally you will be able to determine the most important factor in the decision. Those factors are usually the ones that maintain honesty, freedom of choice, self-reliance, safety, dignity, and so on. The more important moral duty will be that which you should act on; in our field, that duty is often telling the truth.

In this manner, you are adding professional insight and critique to any communications. You are also protecting your professional credibility and acting as a counselor rather than a publicist. You may be the lone voice of reason in a sea of chaos. That is admirable; most professions (and managers) champion an ethical stand.

Exercise your professional discretion using the above tests and keep expanding your ethical repertoire. Check back on September 21, when I will offer more advanced decision tests in my next column.

Shannon Bowen teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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