How ethics, the civil society, and PR are inseparable

Ethics, the disintegration of civility and PR are connected, says Shannon Bowen, professor of PR ethics at the University of South Carolina.

Many people believe that ethics exist outside of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But, in modern society, ethics can be the difference between life and death: of ideas, people, governments, nations, even civilization itself. Ethical guidelines give us a way to analyze situations rationally, and offer guidelines for the moral behavior that’s expected in a civil society.

Today’s world is beginning to show the symptoms of a breakdown of ethics. In the past, ethical transgressions were isolated and newsworthy. Today, ethical breakdowns seem commonplace.

From shootings in places of worship, to people mailing poison and pipe bombs, to people shouting down their political opponents, civility and tolerance is rapidly disintegrating.

This breakdown of civility is troubling for a number of reasons. As history demonstrates, a society that can’t agree on a common history and a common set of values is doomed to failure. Without a collective gestalt, the most bizarre of opinions can become accepted based on the vehemence of the statements rather than the merit behind them.

In the world of ethics, basing decisions on opinion and passion rather than on merit and fact is unacceptable thinking. Universities teach entire courses in logic to help students become critical thinkers and avoid this catastrophic failure of thought. But today sadly, it appears that is not enough.

The trend of valuing opinion over rational thought is a direct challenge to the PR profession. PR pros must be leaders when it comes to research and analysis for our organization or client. We must be a voice for external and underrepresented stakeholders and we must be ethical counsellors.

Our voice must be respected not for how strongly we state our opinions but for the soundness of our analysis and the thoroughness of our research.

Advanced decision-making requires that we think critically about all aspects of a problem. Rather than upping the rhetoric, shouting down opponents, or walking out of meetings, savvy PR pro use conflict as an opportunity to learn more about the situation.

We should talk to those who disagree with our organization or our client. We should try to understand their thinking. When we seek genuine understanding it inspires respect and civility on both sides of an issue. Understanding how others view issues, even when you personally disagree, offers valuable data for strategic decision making.

And when people assume our organization, CEO, or client is correct, we should look for contrary evidence or data. We should ask questions like: Could we be wrong? Where can reasonable people differ on this issue? Can our actions be seen differently? Asking these questions introduces ethics into decision making without necessarily using the term.

Approaching issues ethically addresses the issues of civility and tolerance while also helping PR become more meaningful to the organizations we serve. By engaging in ethical decision making, we often create more inclusive strategies and then in turn, society can become more civil.

Including the ideas of others is a hallmark of great thinking and leads to enduring relationships.

Professor Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She’s 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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