Why does ethics in public relations education matter? Scholars from across the country address research in PR ethics, best practices in teaching PR ethics, ethical dilemmas they’ve faced, how students view their ethics training, and why it all matters.
Dr. Bruce Berger, Professor Emeritus in the Advertising & Public Relations Department at The University of Alabama, moderates this session on ethics in PR education that includes presentations by Dr. Shannon Bowen, Syracuse University; Prof. Kathy Fitzpatrick, Quinnipiac University; Kevin Saghy, formerly with Chicago Cubs; and Tom Martin, former SVP, The Arthur W. Page Society and College of Charleston.
KEITH BURTON: All right. Why don’t we get started? This is Keith Burton, I’m a trustee to the board of advisors for the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. I want to welcome all of our [INAUDIBLE]– we’ll have some joining us as we get underway here– in progress.
This webinar, Ethics in PR Education– [INAUDIBLE] –listen in on right now– in the works now for a number of months under the leadership of Dr. Bruce Berger, who I’ll introduce in just a minute.
We created the webinar series as a part of our work under the Plank Center a few years ago, because we understand and know that those who are in PR education, those who are public relations professionals, as well as students, value both the learning and development opportunities. And we have found that there are specific topics that we’ve covered in the past– for example, social and digital media, corporate social responsibility, and others that really served to be the benefit to the college classroom, to the professional setting, and certainly for young professionals who are emerging in our field.
So, we’re very happy to present Ethics and PR education today. In starting, let me just set the stage for this presentation by letting all who are in attendance who will join us that this is both a webinar with online materials, as well as the voice communication which we’ll have over this line. We will ask you, again, to mute your telephone line as we conduct this call.
We will invite you, as we go along, to submit questions online through the webinar. I’ll ask Dharma Subramanian in a moment just to make sure you’re clear on the details for that. As we go along and you have questions, submit them. We’ll make sure that our presenters are aware of these questions as we close this one-hour presentation.
The details of the PowerPoint deck that you’re going to hear will not take us into the full hour. So, we should have some time toward the end for a dialogue or for responses to the questions that you may have. Again, we’re recording this session. It will be available on The Plank Center website at a later date, along with the PowerPoint deck that you’ll hear us discussing and you’ll see online.
Dharma, any other details regarding the staging of the event before we move on and I introduce our panelists?
DHARMA SUBRAMANIAN: Yep, thanks for the introduction, Keith. As Keith mentioned earlier, just a quick reminder– if we could all put our conference lines on mute during the presentation, it will help eliminate interference as we conduct the recording. Also, please wait until the presentation is over to ask your questions during the Q&A session.
But during the presentation,really you may submit questions using the Q&A tab on the top toolbar of Live Meeting. And I’ll read out the questions to the panelists the end of the session. And during that time, you may also unmute your line and follow-up the question over the conference line. And lastly, as Keith mentioned, once again, the audio portion and the deck will be available on The Plank Center website over the next couple of weeks should you wish to reference them.
But that’s it, Keith. I’ll let you take over.
KEITH BURTON: Thanks very much. I’m very pleased to just quickly introduce our panelists. And I’ll ask Dr. Bruce Berger to tell you a little more about them. But Bruce Berger is our colleague on the board of The Plank Center. He served as our past– both founding member and director of The Plank Center. He’s a Reece Phifer professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Alabama where the Plank Center is housed.
He’ll also be joined by Shannon Bowen, who’s associate professor at Syracuse University; Kathy Fitzpatrick, who’s professor of public relations at Quinnipiac University; Kevin Saghy, who is the public relations and marketing specialist for the Chicago Cubs; and last but not least, Tom Martin, a longtime leader in the public relations profession in major corporations, as well as his current role as executive in residence at the Department of Communications at the College of Charleston.
This is Keith Burton. And I’m president of Insidedge, as well as a member of GolinHarris (now known as Golin). And I’m joined by my colleagues at Insidedge in helping to sponsor and lead this effort, along with our Plank Center participants. Bruce, with that, I’ll turn it over to you so that you can lead us forward on our topic.
BRUCE BERGER: Thank you very much, Keith. And let me add my welcome to all. Thank you for joining us today to discuss what we think has been a critical topic in the field. Keith has briefly introduced our four outstanding presenters. And I want to say a little bit more about them and really the topics that we’ll address today. And then [INAUDIBLE] for the session.
One of our goals in putting this webinar together is really to provide the first perspectives on this topic. And in fact, I think our lineup of speakers really accomplishes that. We also hope to generate a working list of ideas, cases, approaches that we all might use in the classroom.
So, here’s the lineup and the topics. Shannon Bowen will first provide a researcher perspective– a look at ethics research and what that research suggests about teaching approaches or best practices. Shannon’s an outstanding scholar who’s contributed a great deal, in fact, to the literature of ethics in public relations.
Kathy will then focus on teaching ethics in the classroom and highlight some teaching techniques, best practices and real keys to success. She’s helped really lead the way in teaching practices and played a key role development of PRSA’s code of ethics.
Kevin with the Chicago Cubs, he’s going to examine ethics education and several ethical dilemmas through his experience as a young professional. Kevin’s former national president of the Public Relations Student Society of America. And he serves on The Plank Center board of advisors, as well.
Tom will conclude the formal presentation– brings a perspective, as Keith suggested, of a senior executive really regarding real practice cases, examples, and issues– former senior vice president of corporate relations [INAUDIBLE]. He was the former president of the Page Society and now executive-in-residence at the College of Charleston.
Each of our presenters today is going to speak for about seven or eight minutes, which we think will leave us with 15 or 20 minutes of questions and discussion. We already have a number of questions in about this topic. So, we want to leave time to talk about those. So, I think with that, welcome again. Let’s get started then. Shannon, please.
SHANNON BOWEN: Well, welcome everyone. Thank you for your time. This is Shannon Bowen from Syracuse University. And I’m excited that so many people dialed in. I’m sure that’s on behalf of all the speakers because I think ethics education is so crucially important for our field, and to have this many attendees and this level of excitement shows there’s a lot of interest in creating ethics courses, in adding ethics to the courses that you already [INAUDIBLE].
So, thank you for being here. And I’m sure myself and all of the other speakers are happy to help you as you develop your own ethics course or an ethics module within a course that you already teach. Ethics is important in public relations for numerous reasons. But from a research and theory perspective is what I’m supposed to address.
So, I have three things on the slide that you can see here that give us an idea of why public relations is so important in both practice and theory, issues management, crisis management, and of course, for corporate reputation or organizational reputation. Corporates use in the sense there that it could be applied to nonprofit foundations, as well. Issues management essentially is defining situations that could potentially impact the organization and developing a range of responses for the organization to address that problem before it becomes a crisis, a class action lawsuit, and so on.
Oftentimes, of course, that does involve ethical considerations in addition to the financial considerations, community relations, and so on that have to go into issues management. As far as public relations, conducting issues management theoretically, we’re in the best place in an organization to speak to ethics, because we understand the values of all the publics around an organization. And none of the other organizational functions can claim to have that knowledge. So, I think that gives us a wonderful role to be able to incorporate those values when we advise on ethics.
Additionally, with crisis management, very similar to issues management, but in that situation, you have a very quickly unfolding situation that usually demands some form of accountability. Of course, that accountability will have an ethical component and it will need an ethical analysis for you to understand how to respond to the crisis in a normative way, in a positive way so that you can do a crisis response that’s not only quick and effective, but ethical.
And then of course, in the area of reputation building, we’re always trying to build a long-term reputation with our public for being consistent, for being credible, for being a trustworthy organization with whom they want to do business. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere to our competitors. Ethics is an enormous part of corporate reputation. I think it’s the most important of the reputation variables that as researchers, we study.
Because without trust, the rest of the variables can’t even exist. So that’s the foundation that we need to work from. And as far as my research on the role of reputation, I wanted to share a little bit of original data that you may or may not know. But this is just to give you an idea of why it is important. 61% of respondents in a recent survey conducted by PRWeek said more attention is being paid to reputation management by their C-suite in the last year.
There are numerous reasons for this. Of course, the media attention to corporate scandal always gives us a little bit more entree to the C-suite where we can advise our CEO and the other chief executives of functional areas, such as finance, marketing, legal, and so on. We can advise those folks on how to protect that reputation. Because they understand that the reputation is important, but it’s a very nebulous concept that’s hard to measure.
Reputation and relationships are intertwined. And of course, those things go together, but they also have to center on ethics. Because you can’t really have a good reputation without doing things in an ethically consistent way as an organization. You can’t have a ,long-term trusting relationship with those publics that you want to maintain without also having some form of ethical analysis, whether that’s a code of ethics, an ethical standard, a credo, or something along those lines to guide the organization’s decision making.
And then finally, we study relationship factors that show us the components of a relationship. And I believe [INAUDIBLE] there [INAUDIBLE] control mutuality, commitment satisfaction. Essentially, those are the things that lead to building the long-term relationship with publics that we seek and with stakeholders. But trust, again, is central. Because without trust, the others can’t flourish.
So, we need ethics to advise on trust. Here’s a quote from someone at CBS. And he said that in order for PR to be the most effective, it simply has to report up to the CEO. So, this is incredibly important for us, as public relations educators. Because we want to be able to understand not only do public relations professionals report to the CE but, how can they? In the ideal world, our students will all go out and advise their CEOs to be more ethical and responsible decision makers. So how do we foster that as educators?
We are in the best position to know the values, the stakeholders, and publics around the organization. Of course, we need more research in that area. I’ve published a few things in that area that I think we need to have comprehensive understanding and recognition of advising the CEO on ethics being a critical function in public relations.
If you remember the 2002 Excellent Study book by L. Grunig, J. Grunig, and Dozier. That book reported that the most crucial factor for public relations efficacy in an organization is not anything the public relations department does. It’s actually how the CEO views the public relations function. And if the CEO views the public relations function as one that can contribute to strategic management and effective long-term relationship building that enhances an organization’s bottom line, then public relations can be effective. At that point, you would be able to advise the C-suite and to discuss ethics and any number of other concerns that affect an organization.
And then finally, the last point on this slide– researchers have found that most public relations practitioners in the United States use a deontological approach to ethics. And simply what that means is that they look at principles behind their decisions. They don’t look at the situation perspective, they don’t look at the perspective of consequence. Normally they look to codes of ethics, they look to professional standards, or they look to the moral principle behind the decision that really does require a more in-depth ethical analysis than simply trying to understand the consequences of their decisions.
So that is a great finding from research because it tells us that they want to know more about ethics, they desire to counsel on ethics, and they just need the opportunity to do that. Moving to the next slide– these are just some quotes that I wanted to give you from my own research. And these folks we’re talking about, do they advise on ethics? Do they actually get that one-on-one time with the CEO or at least in a group setting, advising the CEO on ethics?
A lot of people don’t call it ethical advisement. For instance, the first professionals that I advised on ethics all the time, they just don’t call it that. They may call it corporate responsibility. They may call it something as simple as what we should or should not do. But essentially, they think about ethics and the next point explains why. This person said we’re the keepers of the corporate reputation and naturally that involves ethics.
And then the last point really gets to that relational understanding where this professional said, we can’t assume that what benefits us, benefits others. Ethics has something to do with mutual responsibility and it’s a part of everything we do. So, looking to find that area of mutual responsibility is really what we can serve our students best by teaching.
So how do folks learn this? I teach ethics from a business ethics perspective because it helps public relations students understand the world of business. Most of them will end up working in that context. And I think if they speak the language of business and they understand that taxonomy, it does help them become ethical advisors who are credible and who have access.
Understanding modes of ethical application, of course, is very important. We can’t just make ethical decisions and advise organizations, especially multinational and global organizations, from a gut instinct, seat-of-the-pants perspective. We really need a way that we can analyze decisions and do that rigorously. I’ve included one text that I use here that I think is outstanding in explaining the practical application of moral philosophy to business contacts by Richard De George, who’s a philosophy professor.
But he takes this to a very, very practical business sense, gives case studies, and so on. And I’ve listed some of the things that the text studies there. In case you are considering an entire course on ethics, there are many ways that you can teach that. This just gives you an idea of some of the things that text covers. And I think it’s very important to teach from a business perspective so that students can learn the context of ethics that they will be using later in their careers.
So how do we apply that? Ethical knowledge improves the chance of the public relations practitioner joining the dominant coalition. And I’ve conducted some research on that, as have others on this call. I’ve put a couple examples there of articles that are in the public domain, published in journals that you can access through any research-type library, university library, and so on. For the practitioners who don’t have that access, I’d be happy to email you copies of those publications.
But these things give us a way to understand how we get into the dominant coalition. And not just accessing the dominant coalition, but what are some of the techniques successful practitioners have used to maintain their membership once they are in the dominant coalition? How do they stay there? How do they keep advising the CEO on ethics? How did they enhance their credibility on ethics? And so on. So that’s the first journal article there.
The second one talks about the autonomy necessary for ethical advising. Autonomy simply is a way to say the decisional freedom, the moral judgment that one can exercise by being rational. And research finds that that is absolutely essential for public relations to be able to advise the dominant coalition and the CEO.
Developing that autonomy among our students is a little bit tougher than you might think. But we have some strategies to get them exploring case studies, arguing opposite sides from their opinion, and so on, so that they learn to develop that objective moral autonomy where they can critically evaluate the ethics of a situation rather than going based on gut instincts. Because you can imagine that would not work very well in advising a CEO. You really need a rigorous paradigm.
So those publications are a good place to start. And I think it gives our students an entree to thinking ethically when we begin to discuss these concepts in our courses. So, thanks for listening to my portion.
BRUCE BERGER: Thank you so much, Shannon. Kathy Fitzpatrick, please.
KATHY FITZPATRICK: Thank you, Bruce. Thank you, Keith. Thank you, Carla. Thanks to all of you at The Plank Center for putting the program together. And to everyone who’s joining us this afternoon, it’s really great to be with all of you. I have taught the public relations ethics course at the undergraduate level and the graduate level for a number of years. And I approach the course from a professional perspective.
And the key question, I think, that we need to answer in developing our courses is, what do public relations professionals need to know and understand about ethics? And over time, these are the five areas that I have focused on. Professional standards– which I’ll talk about more in a moment– the professional obligations of the public relations professional to society, our professional role as organizational advisors and representative. And we need to get down to the practical matters of how we evaluate and resolve ethical dilemmas and justify ethical decisions.
And then finally, I believe that it’s important to discuss the implications of ethical and more importantly, unethical behavior for public relations as a field. In looking at the next slide, what I have done here is on the next two slides I have outlined the topics that I cover in a 14-week course. So, if you’re dealing with just a section of the course, certainly, you could incorporate these just on a briefer level.
I begin the course with my students by talking about why public relations ethics and the teaching of ethics matters. And I try to engage them in a conversation that will help them take some ownership of the course and to understand what the ethics course in public relations is all about– that it’s not about teaching them my values, for example, but about exploring the ethical aspects of becoming and being a public relations professional.
And I have found that first section really sets the stage for the rest of the course and we continue to come back to that throughout. And then we get into the fundamentals. As Shannon was talking about, understanding ethics, what is ethics, the definitions, the theories, the principles here, looking at the philosophical underpinnings of ethics and decision-making processes, and understanding the different approaches and perspective that folks bring to issues of ethics.
And then I move on to talk about the roles and responsibilities of public relations advocates, of advisors. And looking at the different positions we find ourselves in, talking about whether, indeed, public relations professionals should and do serve as ethics advisors. And I always pose that as a question to the students and we talk about why public relations might be best suited for that position, or why public relations professionals might not be in looking at some of the research in that area.
And then moving on to the professional standards of practice and the codes of conduct. And of course, in this section,truth telling PRSA is emphasized. I think there’s a lot of history there that helps our students understand the development of the field and the importance of ethics within the field. But I also look at other codes– the International Public Relations Association, the Global PR– excuse me, the Council PR firm, the Arthur Page principles, and the advisory opinions that go along with the PRSA code.
And also, I have found it very useful to look at firm codes of conduct. If you haven’t looked at Edelman and [INAUDIBLE]– some of the larger firms out there have some outstanding codes of conduct and even situation guides. And the students really begin to understand when they see that how important ethics is in practice. A responsible advocacy is the next topic– looking at balancing public and private interests.
David Martinson, I think, has done some really good work in this area, talking about issues of representation– whether we should represent bad clients, looking at issues related to what it means to be an advocate. Barney and Black– I think it’s 1994. It’s an old article, but it’s still a good one talking about a public relations professional’s role in selective truth-telling, and so forth.
And then if we could move to the next slide. I look very closely at issues of truth, trust, and transparency, of what is truttruth-telling, selective . We read articles on all of these issues. I really involve the scholarly literature more than I do– I don’t think there’s a great textbook out there, frankly. So, hint, hint– perhaps someone’s interested in writing one.
Issues here with truth and trust, issues of full disclosure. And I find that that’s a pretty interesting discussion that we always have. And then moving– the next one is making ethical decisions here, looking at the various processes. One of the areas I emphasize is marketplace theory. And that has worked very well with my students in helping them understand how to address ethical issues in the workplace. And some of the questions they might ask, such as, what does it mean to provide information needed to make informed decisions.
Looking at the next one– a public relations role in institutional ethics and corporate social responsibility. Looking at it then from an institutional perspective and matters involving issues related to the actions of the decisions of an institution, rather than the professional, him or herself. And then looking at public relations ethics in global society, crossing borders, the cultural issues, and so forth.
And finally, ethics in legal regulation and talking about the fragile line between ethical and legal behavior, and how unethical behavior invites legal regulation. Now moving to the next slide– teaching techniques. I have found that this needs to be a very active and interactive course. I try on day one to create an environment where students are comfortable participating, always inviting their comments and their opinions.
I let them know that it’s OK to have a wrong answer, but it’s not OK to not have an opinion or want to play, as I say. I use Socratic dialogue a lot. And I think that in the context of ethics, that works well in terms of challenging the student’s decisions. Why did you make that decision? How did you reach that decision? What process did you use in getting there?
I use a lot of case analyzes, whether it’s the Walmart blogging incident, the Bush administration’s VNRs, the Williams conflict of interest issues, and so forth. And current events– most of you are probably familiar with the Scott McClellan controversy, with the CBS legal analyst calling all of us liars and the PRSA response. That’s a very good case to review in class.
And then finally, of course, some lecturing is involved there along the way. And finally, on the last slide– I would say that my keys to success– if I’ve had success in this area– would be to really try hard to create that protected environment that I was talking about to let students know that their voices count, that they have they have a role. But this is theirs. I want them to own it. I always say it’s all about you and the future that you will have in this field. And so, I do require participation.
I encourage debate and I find that there’s a lot of that. And I find students are sometimes unhappy with their colleagues because of the positions that they might take. And try to stimulate discussion with current events and case simulations– I use a lot of case simulations, group team work, as well as individual responses to cases using various decision-making processes, and so forth. And I think it’s very important to raise more questions than you provide answers.
I really believe this class is more about them really learning more about themselves and how they approach issues of ethics, and to provide them the tools they need to help resolve them. And then finally, one of the most interesting assignments I’ve done in this class is to invite the reflection at the end and ask them to talk about their view of public relations ethics and how it might have evolved over the course of a semester.
And I’ve gotten some very fascinating responses and very thoughtful responses from students who have talked about the fact that they didn’t realize how important ethics was in this field, and they have a better understanding now of not why they took the course necessarily, but to how ethics would be a part of everything they do in public relations.
So, I will leave it there and pass it on.
BRUCE BERGER: Kathy, thank you so much for sharing those insights. Kevin Saghy please.
KEVIN SAGHY: All right. Thanks, Bruce. And thanks, Kathy. I’ve found when speaking to students about ethics and PR that it’s generally a pretty vague topic. So, they’ve found it helpful to hear about a few examples that a young professional might face regarding ethics. So, I’ll give a few of those. And then we also polled– with the help of Nick Lucido, the current PRSSA president, we polled about a dozen students about how they like to learn about ethics and PR.
So, we’ll go into those topics. And fortunately for Kathy, many of those responses lined up for what she just talked about. A couple of quick examples of situations I’ve faced as a young professional– as I mentioned, I’m at the Cubs as a PR marketing specialist. Last year we partnered with the White Sox– the other baseball team in Chicago here.
Similar to college rivalries, we play an inner-league series every year and we decided to create a trophy for the winning team of that series each year. And like many partnerships, we’ve found a sponsor for that. We set up a press conference in Millennium Park with our managers and players. That was set for Monday. Thursday before that press conference, the oil rig went down in the Gulf and our sponsor was BP. So, what do you do?
We knew it was serious. We didn’t know quite how serious and how long of a story that would be. So, the immediate action there was BP removed its stuff from the actual press conference and we focused more on the teams for that announcement for the BP Crosstown Cup, is what it was called.
From there, the teams are in a little bit of a tough spot because it’s a multi-year deal. BP’s a valued partner of ours, but at the same time, they became public enemy number one during that news cycle. So, they’d did get negative references by media, by fans for that partnership for a little while.
Our stance was we scale back promotions of the trophy. We had a lot planned last year and we didn’t do all of it. And publicly, in response to media, we said we’re trying to stand behind our sponsor while remaining respectful of what’s happening off the field. So ultimately, BP appreciated that. Our sponsors appreciated seeing us stand by our partner.
And we were appraised by independent sports marketing experts. They said, BP isn’t going anywhere despite its troubles, and eventually they’re going to need partnerships like that to reestablish itself to consumers. So, we weathered through that situation pretty well. It was it wasn’t without some trouble. But we felt comfortable with how we handled that in a pretty tough spot with a controversial partner at the time.
Another example I want to provide is– our PRSA code of ethics is what I personally follow. It doesn’t necessarily have a strong line about events. It’s got a strong line about giving reporters a product if you want them to review it, and not doing that. So, if you had a digital camera, for instance, you don’t give it to a reporter and ask them to review it.
Well, at Wrigley Field here, we have several events that we invite media to. Personally, I don’t think twice about inviting media to a tour of the ballpark. Typically, they cost $25– it goes to charity. I’ll invite media all the time to accompany one of those tours and do a segment on it. It’s good for both their readers and us.
Well, last year we had an event where– it was called the Wrigley Field Fantasy Camp and that price tag was $2,500. And we invited media to participate and document their time in the Fantasy Camp and help promote it in advance. And that’s a pretty expensive experience to give them. So, I was a little caught up because I couldn’t really find anything– any guideline regarding giving experiences like that.
So, what we did was just made sure that our media were invited as guests. We were completely transparent and open about the fact that we did invite them as guests. And it wound up being great content for those stations who filmed it. And it wound up being a great promotional tool for us.
Finally, the last example I wanted to give was, in the agency realm, you’re stuck with time entry and billing. And that can be a small daily ethical battle that you face. Because if at the end of the day you only have five hours of billing and you need to bill eight, a lot of people aren’t sure what to do. And I learned quickly to closely track my times so that I wouldn’t be caught with billing questions and have to have to face that dilemma.
But those are a few of the examples I’ve faced. And I found that those were good discussions starters with students. If you want to move on to the next slide– moving on to the questions we did ask students about how they liked to learn about ethics and PR, here’s the questions that we asked. Are they taking a course? If so, what’s helpful, what’s not? And then what concerns do students have as they enter the field of public relations regarding ethics? And then, what’s the most important lesson they’ve learned?
So, a few of the findings real quick– we can move on to the next slide. Most students have taken, or soon will take, a class on ethics. That wasn’t too surprising to me. I think examples trumps theory. So, students love to hear of real life examples, even hypothetical case studies where professors or speakers put students in the hot seat and make them decide, OK, what would you do here in this situation, is really beneficial to them.
And students overwhelmingly preferred those type of case studies or samples to just a regular lecture. And then those speakers though– this is an interesting point that I found– they have to be willing to dive into real dilemmas. We’ve heard from a few students that said they’ll have speakers come in and talk about supposedly ethical dilemmas, but then they don’t want to reveal too many details or they don’t want to put their company in a tough spot. Which is understandable, but it’s just not very beneficial for either side. So, tiptoeing around the real issue doesn’t necessarily give students a real feel for how to handle those dilemmas.
The main fear that we found from students was how to say no in the professional world to their managers. So, when faced with a moral conflict, what channels or methods are available to say no to your managers? That might be a good talking point for the classroom– for your students. And then we’re in great hands. Almost all the students we talked to overwhelmingly said that honesty and transparency are crucial in any ethical situation.
Finally, one last point. I found it interesting that not one student mentioned a PRSA code of ethics or similar code. And I feel it’s important for both students and young professionals to have an easy to access guide to follow in handling these dilemmas. I’ve turned to that quite a few times. If you ever have to defend yourself, it’s nice to have that guided print to point to why you handled the situation like you did. So, I’m happy to take questions afterward, but thanks for listening to my portion.
BRUCE BERGER: Kevin, thank you so much, especially for sharing some personal experiences. Tom Martin next. Tom.
TOM MARTIN: Thanks, Bruce. And thanks, everyone. I think the panel has been great so far. I’m a little bit different in the sense that I’ve not been an educator for my career. I’ve been a practitioner. I’ve only been in education now for about three years. But I think from the perspective that I bring as a practitioner, I think what companies are certainly recognizing is the unmistakable decline in trust that we’ve seen in corporations, in business executives, in really all kinds of institutions– the church, and government, and any large organization.
People just simply– and this is borne out by lots of different studies– The Edelman Trust Barometer and many others. But clearly, people just don’t have that level of trust that they once did in corporations. And I think that’s causing problems for business in general. And what’s happened really recently– in the last five years, I’d say– is the stakeholder empowerment has grown. Individual disgruntled employees, individual unhappy customers or investors can cause major problems for corporations.
And then finally, as we’re seeing everywhere from the streets of Egypt to Wall Street, there are no more secrets. And so, whether you’re a CEO who’s done something inappropriate or any other business leader or government leader, if you do the wrong thing, it becomes very visible, very quickly.
So, I think those factors are all driving the urgency of teaching this. Sometimes people will wonder, or students will wonder if they’re going to get more of this kind of ethics training when they get out of school. And companies do offer ethics training, some. Some do, some don’t. But I think there’s a real difference in the way companies look at ethics. And one of the comments that has been made today is about are corporate communication officers the best advisors on ethical issues.
I think what ends up happening based on my years of experience is that you share that responsibility in a corporate setting. Usually with others, like legal, human resources to a degree, especially when there’s some sort of a personal malfeasance, the audit group if there’s a financial impropriety. And then obviously, at the end of the day, it’s the CEO that has to set the tone and have the actions of the company reflect whatever is written in paper, whether it’s a corporate ethics statement, or some values principle, or whatever.
But I think most of the training that goes on in companies looks more at compliance than it does underlying values. I think that sometimes there’s a disconnect between what people have studied in school and then what they find when they get out in the workplace. And then I think these crisis situations that have been talked about already today certainly raise the priority and make it much more of a topical issue for most companies.
Some of the case studies that I’ve used are– I try as others on the call have said to use things that are in the news. I think the reality is, we have a target-rich environment. There are plenty of examples now– new ones every day. One of the things that I’ve come up with my class is I start every class session with asking them what they’ve seen in the news in the last few days that they feel could present an ethical dilemma for the company involved.
And even though the class I teach is not an ethics class– it’s called strategic communication management– we spend a lot of time talking about ethics. And I think that’s common in many classes that look at the strategic nature of communication. So, I won’t go through all these, but these are just examples, I think, of both people and companies that have faced either issues of financial impropriety, or outright fraud, or insider trading, or other efforts to escape the law.
There are examples in the public relations field as well though. And I think some of those have already been mentioned today. And I think they’re important because whether it’s the pay-for-play issue that was brought out through the Armstrong Williams case at Ketchum, or the overbilling in Los Angeles by FleishmanHillard– one of FleishmanHillard’s management employees, or people identifying themselves as being employees of the client, when in fact they’re employees of an agency, or the fake blogging that’s already been mentioned earlier.
I think all of those cases demonstrate that even though we have a PRSA code of ethics and it’s existed for a long time, it doesn’t mean that people don’t make mistakes. And I know all three of those firms. I’ve worked with all three of them. I know their leaders. They’re wonderful firms and they do the right thing in most cases. But even they would admit that these were situations where people made mistakes, and they’ve apologized for those. But I think it’s important for the people learning about the profession to reflect on the types of things that can happen within the profession itself.
I think that there are four things I try to focus on in talking about ethics, again, from a practitioner’s point of view. One is just governance. Can people believe in the companies that they’re buying from or working for, investing in? Are these companies being led in a fair and ethical way? I think the issue of transparency is a huge issue and it’s become even bigger in the blogging age.
But when advocating a position, does the audience know who’s paying for the advocacy? And that’s true whether it’s someone appearing on television, or writing a blog, or whatever the medium might be. Is it clear who’s funding that advocacy? And I think that’s the important part.
And then credibility– are our spokespersons, or the trade associations, or surveys we do, or whatever message we’re delivering, is that a credible message? Do the actions of that message match up with the words? And then finally, and this was mentioned by Kevin and others, business conduct. Are we earning the dollars that we billed to the client in legitimate ways? And that doesn’t just mean, do we work every hour that we bill? It also means, are we delivering effective counsel to our clients? And that’s whether it’s an internal client in a company or an external client in an agency setting.
I’ve used several role-playing situations and I’ll just mention three of them in the interest of time. Because I know we want to hear your questions. I present scenarios, and I won’t go through these in detail because of time, but one involves a paid spokesperson appearing on something like The Today Show, and whose responsibility is it for that person to acknowledge that they are a paid spokesperson? Is it the news organization or is it the client?
I tend to think that the safest path is for the spokesperson to say it very directly, whether they’re asked or not. Because I think that’s the most transparent way of doing it. And then I use a scenario that involves billing and the whole issue of padding the bills, if you will.
And then a third scenario involves more of a corporate communication or an employee communications issue about a company that knows it’s going to shut a factory down but tries to delay the knowledge of that so they can get a favorable tax break from a local government. That sort of thing does happen all the time. And as Kevin says, one of the issues that people face in the profession, especially at the more junior levels, is how do I deal with this when I’m asked to do this by my management? Do I quit? Do I raise the issue? What is the most appropriate way of maintaining my own ethical standards when I’m asked to do something that I feel is inappropriate?
So that’s just a few points from the corporate side of things. And I think, Bruce, we’re going to answer questions now?
BRUCE BERGER: Yes. Dharma, do you have any comments to make about question procedure? Or perhaps you have questions that have come in at this point.
DHARMA SUBRAMANIAN: Yep. We got one question, which I think Tom might have addressed, but I’ll just read it out anyway. [INAUDIBLE] says, “Curious to hear that Edelman has such a strong code of conduct. What about allegations that Edelman invented the Flog, or face-vlog Walmarting across America? Also, please comment on Microsoft giving Acer computers loaded with Windows Vista to bloggers.
BRUCE BERGER: Tom, do you want to comment?
TOM MARTIN: Well, I’ll comment on the Edelman thing. Because I know Richard Edelman very well and we’ve talked about this. When that happened, he acknowledged it was a mistake on his own blog. They reviewed their internal procedures for how they do that. It happened about three years ago, I think.
He apologized pretty publicly and pretty profusely about it. And he’s been very active in the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, which took Edelman and Walmart to task for doing that. So, I feel like just because you have a code of ethics, doesn’t mean your people, even at management levels in your organization, aren’t going to ever make a mistake.
But I think what all agencies are doing now, much more than they’ve ever done before, is they’re training their people more routinely on ethics issues, they’re examining their own internal processes, and they’re trying to operate in an ethical fashion.
But the reality is that our profession skirts this topic in many ways. We do surveys in order to validate our points of view. But do we always make it clear how those surveys are being funded? We do a lot of things like that that we, I think, need to be very careful with. Because that’s why we sometimes have credibility issues.
I encourage my students, for example, to look at the website prwatch.org. Now PR Watch has its own point of view. It’s the Michael Moore of the PR profession. But I think it’s important to listen to our critics and hear what they have to say. Here are the issues that they think we are not treating in a totally transparent way. Because if we listen to them, then maybe we’ll do things in a better way.
DHARMA SUBRAMANIAN: Thanks, Tom. Just a couple of other questions for the panelists. For Kathy and Shannon, “Could you please share with us the best teaching moment you’ve had in teaching ethics in the classroom– a case that worked, a teaching approach, or specific class activity. And tell us why it was so effective.”
KATHY FITZPATRICK: Well, I’ll just give a brief– this is Kathy– brief response to that. One of the theories, which also can become a case is the marketplace of ideas. And I have found that using marketplace of ideas theory and explaining that and looking at it from an ethical perspective help students answer the question about how they might evaluate their ethical decisions. And if you look at the principles of marketplace theory, for example, do voices have access to the marketplace?
Well, that raises the question of, what clients will I represent and what will I do for those clients? Issues of transparency come into that, as well. So, I think marketplace of idea, for me, has always been a real winner. And I find that the students talk about that in their reflection papers that I do at the end of the semester.
SHANNON BOWEN: And for me– this is Shannon. I think it’s always just seeing the students become individual moral decision makers. I have them present a case at the end of the semester that they have chosen themselves from the real world. And they apply one of the ethical theories that we’ve studied to analyze and essentially, solve the case. And every semester I’m just so proud of them being able to do that. So, I can’t pick a favorite.
But I think just seeing them being able to rationally describe their thought process and explain the ethics of the situation, to me, it’s watching them be able to apply all of the things that we’ve talked about. And that’s fantastic.
DHARMA SUBRAMANIAN: Thank you Kathy and Shannon.
KEITH BURTON: Other questions, Dharma?
DHARMA SUBRAMANIAN: Here’s a question for Kevin. You said in your remarks that student’s main fear regarding ethical dilemmas was saying no to management. How would you counsel them then to do so?
KEVIN SAGHY: Oh. Well, two things there. I would say have something tangible. Like the PRSA code of ethics, for instance. If you brought that to your manager, it’s not about your word versus theirs anymore. It’s more like, here’s the established code that says what we’re doing is wrong here. Maybe we should consider another course of action.
And then before it gets personal– I know Tom mentioned, do we walk out of the job? Make it more about the company. If there’s another case study out there that a company has really suffered because of something similar that your manager’s proposing, you can bring that to table and say, look, our company or our organization could really suffer here if we follow through with this. And they’re going to be worried more about the organization than your personal feelings.
So, I would always have that back up, make it about the organization. If you’re really in a tough spot after that, then I think maybe it’s personal and it’s time to leave if it’s really that controversial.
BRUCE BERGER: Tom, do you want to weigh in on that as well from your perspective?
TOM MARTIN: I think that these are tough questions. And I think ultimately, what people are going to have to do is they’re going to have to decide, is this an organization that has values that are consistent with my own? What I encourage students to do is to try to ask that question as much as they can before they ever join an organization.
And there are ways you can do that. You can obviously see what the company says publicly. But you can also talk to people who work there and try to get from them a sense of what is the ethical culture there. And that’s whether it’s a PR agency or a company. You can look at news coverage of the organization and see how they’ve been covered. Have they had controversies?
If it’s an agency, you can go on websites, like PR Watch, and see what they say about them. So, I think there are things that potential employees can do before they get hired. But if they get hired and things come up– I’ve never had to resign a job because I felt that I was being asked to do something that would compromise my principles, but I know people who have had to do that– who have done that.
And I agree with Kevin, it’s a last resort. I think it’s best to try and change things as much as you can from within. And I know agencies have resigned clients because the client has asked them to do things that are inappropriate. People have given their employee’s a choice to work or not work on certain accounts if they feel that they can’t support the product being sold, things like that.
But I think you’ve ultimately got to be true to yourself. And if you’re not, then I think that becomes a real problem for you long-term.
KEITH BURTON: Tom, it’s Keith Burton. I have a question for you. And it really relates to an area that we’ve talked about here at the end, and that’s the emergence of social and digital medias– frankly, a new platform for our work as we do this work and evolve as a profession. We’re charting new ground every day in these areas. And I think the questions that we’ve gotten in the areas that you covered, for example, related to blogging and using these new tools– we’re still discovering new ways to use these and certainly will in the future as we think about consumer marketing and branding, and communicating with employees and all manner of opportunities to do that.
This seems to be an area where ethics will continue to evolve. Is that your experience in thinking about this area as we see it unfold?
TOM MARTIN: Absolutely. I think it’s creating enormous issues. In the first place, you’ve got bloggers now who are being followed sometimes by 100,000 people or more– a million people. You’ve got people who’ve become very powerful in their industry niches just out of nowhere. They’re the “Justin Biebers” of the blogging world.
And so, what that means is, you don’t have somebody you can appeal to if you feel you’ve been wronged by them– if you feel they’ve said something inappropriate. And I know a lot of companies are wrestling with the issue of, do they invite the blogger to go on a– like Kevin was mentioned earlier– go on a company trip? Or do they send free merchandise to the blogger? Or do they involve them in a tour? How do you approach that world? It’s not like you’re dealing with CBS, or The New York Times, or whatever. I think that’s one big issue.
The other big issue on the internal side is when you have an executive who wants to participate in the blogging world, especially the CEO, how do you manage that? And is every word written by that person? Should that be that person’s own words? Or is ghostwriting permissible? I think it’s less tolerated in the blogging world or in social media than it has been in press releases and traditional media.
And I also think that in order to have that be the most real and the most authentic, it needs to have a little filtering and as little massaging as possible. And yet, as we all know, that becomes very tricky when you’ve got people who are being held accountable for everything they say or do. So, I think it’s raising some huge issues in our field.
KEITH BURTON: I want to thank Tom Martin as well as the participants today, Shannon, and Kathy, as well as Kevin and Dr. Bruce Burger for his leadership around this topic. I know I’ll speak for Bruce and The Plank Center and saying to this group, in all of the years, I think, we’ve known Betsy Plank and knew of her work, and her commitment, and her passion, there was not a topic that had greater meaning and purpose for her and her work with the Public Relations Students Society of America– with the PRSA and with others– than the topic of ethics.
It was the number one commitment that she had. And she reminded all of us of the importance of it to our work and to the future of our profession. So, it’s with that imprimatur as we think about this topic today, that I want to thank Dr. Berger for his organizing it with just outstanding panelist as well as great content. Again, just as a reminder to this group, as we close out you’ll see the panelist’s email addresses is a part of this presentation. If you have questions of any of them, even beyond those that you’ve heard today, I would invite you to go back to the individuals that you heard.
If you have specific questions or thoughts that you want to share with them, please do that. And again, as indicated in the beginning of this call, we’ve taped this conversation. It will be available on The Plank Center website. You’ll be able to go to that site, which is plankcenter.ua.edu to both see the deck as well as to replay this conversation. So, with that, Bruce, I want to thank you, as well as all of our participants, as well as the attendees for this webinar for your involvement today on behalf of The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations. And wish you a good afternoon.