Ethics: it can get you past that career plateau

Ethics challenges complacency, is a natural disruptor, and can expand your career options.

My last column focused on how using ethics authentically and strategically can help PR pros bust through career plateaus.

Ethics is a powerful transformational agent that helps us push past norms driven only by our conviction and moral analyses. Because ethics challenges complacency and is a natural disruptor, it’s the perfect tool to help expand your responsibilities, roles, and career options.

But in addition to the tactics I discussed, consider using ethics to increase your engagement in the area of issues management. It's a valuable strategy, because scanning for new issues and trends can and is a part of most PR positions across many levels.

In the book, "An Overview of the Public Relations Function," which I coauthored with Thomas R. Martin and Brad Rawlins, we added ethics as an additional consideration to the standard issues management process of listening and problem solving.

Typically, issues management has not specifically been viewed via ethical considerations, and we see this as a new frontier of responsibility when engaging with strategic management in comms.

New issues should be analyzed with your organization's ethical values in mind. Doing so provides outstanding insights and can offer foresight about potential pitfalls or secondary problems.

If you are not on the issues management team, it is usually fine to identify potential and emerging issues and then forward your notes and examples to those people.

Issues management is broad and diverse – and the most complete listening comes from multiple levels and functions across an organization. The goal of everyone in strategic comms should be resolving issues ethically and with as little disruption to normal operations as possible.

You should become a tester of ideas if you want to shake things up and propel your career past a plateau. And obviously, you do not want your client or employer to make costly and damaging missteps.

So test strategies rigorously in the arena of your meetings. Ethics means critiquing from all angles and perspectives, not just those of management or the client.

Ask questions like, "what if the worst happens?" "What if there is an accident, protest, natural disaster, new regulation, lawsuit, or similar?"

Pushing the boundaries in ethics means not offering platitudes for popular ideas or initiatives, but ripping them apart, analyzing them, incorporating new perspectives, and then rebuilding solutions in a stronger, more thorough — and often more creative — manner.

Avoid groupthink and offer novel perspectives, uncommon insights, and creative problem solving solutions. Consider your larger responsibilities to other stakeholders, the industry and society as well as your organization’s reputation. Then offer ethical counsel along those lines.

Great leaders often show a propensity for creativity under stress. Creativity is becoming a more studied component of leadership and is also related to moral imagination, or the ability to empathize with another’s values and beliefs.

By using this approach you’ll create legitimate, credible value as an ethics counselor who contributes to success by insulating the organization from problems, crises, and reputational loss. You’ll be able to fuel and guide effective communication teams, and help your organization achieve its goals.

Plus, as an innovative thinker you will stand out from the group, and in doing so, help advance your own career.

Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., researches and teaches PR ethics at the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at sbowen@sc.edu.

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