How do you do the right thing?

By Chet Wade
Ethics Chair

The PRSA theme for the 2020 Ethics Month is, “Doing The Right Thing.” Google that phrase and you get about 54 million hits. Narrow the search by adding “Public Relations” and it drops to “only” 1.2 million results. Obviously, a hot topic with no clear consensus.

How do you decide what is the right thing when it comes to public relations?

A good place to start, obviously, is the PRSA Code of Ethics. It has been developed with care, diligence, and robust debate.

But, even at about 1,400 words, it doesn’t cover every situation. It also can seem to be contradictory.  The values include advocacy and loyalty at the same time the code calls for objective counsel and independence. PR practitioners should reveal “all information needed for responsible decision making” while protecting “the privacy rights of clients, organizations, and individuals by safeguarding confidential information.”

There are a number of ethics decision models and frameworks that can be implemented in parallel with the PRSA Code of Ethics to help you get to right.

A four-step approach is part of “Public Relations Ethics: How to Practice PR Without Losing Your Soul,” a textbook written by Dick Martin and Donald K. Wright. Martin is a recipient of the Arthur W. Page Center’s Award for Integrity in Public Communication and Wright is chair of Boston University’s Departments of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations.

Their steps are similar to the four steps of PRSA’s RPIE communications planning model. The Martin/Wright process is:

  • Issue definition
  • Stakeholder identification
  • Evaluation of options
  • Making and justifying a decision

“The real value of any framework is in identifying the questions you should ask before you need to ask them,” Martin and Wright wrote.

They suggest starting by defining the ethical issue in two or three sentences and then listing all the relevant facts. With that in hand, identify the stakeholders and how they think and feel about the issue. In developing options, come up with at least three to show you have explored all the alternatives. Evaluate the options with each set of stakeholders in mind. Then decide, making sure to give it one last steely eyed look before you implement.

“Ethical decision making calls for great humility,” they wrote.

Martin and Wright quote Dan Ariely, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, who said the best way to avoid being trapped in your own perspective is to “think not of making a decision for yourself but recommending a decision for somebody you like.”

Three other models are offered in the online ethics training modules at the Arthur C. Page Center:

  • Potter’s Box for Decision Making: This model was developed in the 1960s by social ethics professor Ralph Potter of the Harvard Divinity School. Similar to the Martin/Wright model, you start with research to lay out all the relevant facts. Next, you identify the values in line with the perspectives of the various stakeholders. Then settle on the appropriate moral principles to guide your decision. Finally, you work to understand your personal loyalties and how they impact your decision.
  • Bowen’s Model for Strategic Decision Making: This model is designed to help make the right decisions from a business perspective to avoid ethical problems and crises in the first place. The key here is for the public relations professional to avoid outside influences that could impact your decisions. In a sort of “Golden Rule” sense, the model asks you to consider how you would respond if you were on the other end of the action.
  • TARES Ethical Persuasion: This model is designed to guide you to manage the ethical obligations related to using persuasive messages designed to influence values, opinions, beliefs, and behaviors. TARES stands for: “Truthfulness (of the message) Authenticity (of the persuader), Respect (for the person to be persuaded), Equity (of the persuasive appeal) and Social Responsibility (for the common good).” Practitioners of this model check their messages to see if they match up with each of the values.

Whatever process you use to get to the right thing, a quote from Gary McCormick, former director of corporate communications at Scripps Network Interactive, should help you understand why it is important: “Adhering to the highest ethical standards will have better returns on your career than any educational degree or client campaign.”