When you face a decision with ethical implications, how do you view conflicts of interest, loyalty, or confidence? Unpacking these conflicts step by step can often add a great deal of ethical insight.
My August column began a discussion and offered recommendations on ethically resolving conflicts of interest. In today’s column I talk about the advanced or more theoretically strident steps.
You may face conflicting obligations between clients and your professional conscience, truths, and responsibilities. Often, PR pros will decide if something is the right course of action by looking to past experience, examining their gut feelings, referring to professional codes, or weighing the costs and benefits.
But there is a way to augment these methods with rationality: deontological concepts can often help you discover your true underlying responsibility — the moral principle that is the most important variable at stake.
Deontology is based on duty or the study of obligation to moral law. It’s not about legal standards, mind you, but rather the principles that guide right action no matter the time, place, legal statutes, or ramifications.
Warning: deontology is not for the faint of heart. A CCO one told me he stopped the assembly line of a new product in the middle of its first production run over an ethical concern. Deontology led him to say "Damn the consequences!"
So, gird yourself and jump into the fray. Here’s how you do it:
Be as objective as possible
Forget concepts such as loyalty to a client or a boss and consider your highest duty as loyalty to what is ethical, right, or honest. Seeking support from and acting on moral principles alone protects you from bias and accusations of favoritism. It makes your decision defensible.
Give yourself time
Consider the situation in all its complexity. Don’t be pressured into making snap decisions. Instead, reflect over the competing issues for several days whenever possible. Giving yourself time for reflection, research, and empathy often results in stronger decisions.
What would your mentor do?
Deontology doesn’t require that you to ask for opinions. But you can envision the questions your mentor would pose and how she or he would resolve the dilemma. This works even with mentors you don’t know but admire, such as Gandhi. It could even be as simple as what decision would your child or grandmother support?
Get outside of your own perspective
How would the issue be viewed by the communicators at your next PR conference, journalists, investors, and competitors? Stretching your view allows you to see the issue with a less biased lens and distance yourself from potential conflicts. It also offers unique perspectives on the conflict that can be helpful in resolving the dilemma.
Be flexible and adaptive but resolute
Being a critical thinker requires examining new and varying types of evidence all the time. Don’t hold so firmly to your assessments that you ignore new information; instead, work to be flexible making sure you account for new evidence. Adapt when it does not, taking into account all the information you can get.
Once you make a decision, hold to the correctness of your analysis and resolve to act ethically. You can adapt to changing data and still have the conviction to do what is right.
Do your research
A client or two competing parties may not disclose the full story to you but offer one-sided version more favorable to them. Ask difficult questions and "what ifs" of both sides. What does the research on all sides of the problem say? Be sure you have a full understanding of the facts. If someone is withholding information, you have every right to request full disclosure. Doing so may prevent a costly mistake or crisis.
By adding ethical insight in the face of conflict, you are adding value to the organizations you serve. Raising ethical issues is stressful and the stakes can be high. It could lead you to walk away from a lucrative account.
However, a debate over ethical issues could help the organization avoid a crisis and save millions of dollars. In some cases, it could even save lives.
There’s an old adage that those who stand for truth often stand alone. Acting to maintain truth and to communicate with honesty requires moral courage and is sometimes difficult. Yet few thing are more important or worthwhile.
Shannon Bowen teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at email@example.com.