PR Ethics and Parenting Teenagers

by Dawn Eischen, APR

My teenage son and I were debating about something he wanted to do that I felt was wrong and could potentially cause harm to him and others. He declared, “If all my friends are doing it and it isn’t illegal, then I’m going to do it.” But there’s more to it than that, I thought. What about doing what’s right?

Anyone who has ever parented a teenager knows it’s your job to advise your teen of the potential pitfalls even if your child is in the “I-know-more-than-my-parents” phase. As part of the transition to adulthood, children need to decide which path to choose. If they make the wrong choice, you still support them, but hope they learned a valuable lesson and never do it again.

This exchange with my teenager reminded me about situations we have seen play out in the news where high-profile leaders have chosen their needs or that of the organization over the greater good. These executives may have received expert legal guidance to justify their actions, or perhaps believe that because other companies are committing the same error in judgement and nobody is holding them accountable, that it’s OK.

PR professionals who follow PRSA’s Code of Ethics know they have a duty to advise leadership to do what is right, even if the decision will result in embarrassment, public scrutiny, profit losses or higher costs. Ethical public relations professionals have the courage to challenge leadership to be transparent, even when others in the organization would prefer to lie, point fingers, make excuses or hide.

There was an interesting exchange in the PRSA Forum recently where someone asked if the PR/communications office should act as the “conscience” of the organization. Some replied that the CEO or person in the highest position of the organization should naturally act in an ethical manner; others thought ethics should be the responsibility of everyone and it should not rest on the shoulders of one function; but the majority of respondents felt the public relations director is ultimately responsible for building trust, putting the conscience of the organization squarely on them.

Unfortunately, not all decisions a leader can make would fall neatly into the category of right or wrong. The difficulty in serving as the organization’s “conscience” occurs in the grey area of decision-making. Sometimes, despite your organization’s best effort to be transparent and do the right thing, circumstances change suddenly and your stakeholders suffer. When this happens, it’s best to lead with empathy, apologize and move quickly to resolve the situation. You can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you react.

It’s the PR professional’s job to influence leadership to do the right thing, like a parent who counsels their teen before he or she makes an important decision. Although, unlike parenting teenagers, I have yet to see leadership smack their lips, roll their eyes and stomp out of the room when I offer guidance.

Dawn Eischen, APR, is PRSA Richmond’s Ethics Officer. She has been a public relations professional for nearly 20 years and recently joined the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Authority as a PR Manager.