The guy who hired me to do PR for AT&T was a former newspaper editor. Like his peers at most companies, he only hired ex-journalists. I had a degree in broadcasting and, though I didn’t know it at the time, I was kind of an experiment foisted on him by people higher up the food chain. For the next couple of decades, nearly all the new hires had some broadcasting background. Not because I had been such a roaring success, but because everyone was convinced that most people were getting their news from television.
Then the Internet changed everything. The new hires might not know how to spell, much less how to write, but they knew HTML and Java. Eventually, I was doing whatever hiring we could afford and I came to the conclusion that writing skills were the cost of entry and a leading indicator of basic intelligence. Beyond that, what technical skills people had was less important than their character. That’s even truer today.
Higher immigration rates are changing the demography of developed countries and globalization is spurring the growth of new middle classes in emerging markets. While PR used to be all about publicity and advocacy, its highest role today is helping companies make business decisions in a sound context. In philosophical terms, PR today is less about rhetoric and politics than about ethics. Less about explaining and winning permission for proposed actions than helping choose and shape the actions themselves, based on a clear understanding of the people they affect.
Now, to many people, “ethical public relations” sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of “jumbo shrimp.” But if the experiences of some of our leading institutions — secular and religious — have taught us anything in the last few years, it’s that large organizations can easily lose any meaningful connection with the ethical principles they espouse. Companies are just as vulnerable.
But ethics can’t be taught to institutions or companies. It has to start with individuals. Most PR people I know strive to be ethical. But in the workshops I’ve given over the years, I’ve discovered that, while they know that something like lying is unethical, they have great difficulty explaining why with any precision. And it’s amazing how elastic concepts such as truth, respect and loyalty can be.
If you can’t explain why something is wrong, the likelihood that you will recognize it — much less avoid it — declines precipitously. And the likelihood that you will interpret it rather loosely increases even more steeply.
In fact, every major PR crisis of recent years was rooted in an ethical lapse. Even when it started as an Act of God, it became a crisis because someone didn’t act ethically. Take Carnival Cruise Lines. An engine fire is an accident. But when it happens multiple times, you have to wonder if the company isn’t acting imprudently. Well, prudence is one of Plato’s four cardinal virtues.
Many ethics courses focus on understanding a published code of conduct. If the code doesn’t cover a situation, people are advised to seek the counsel of someone at a higher level. That’s fine as far as it goes. But companies like Enron and Worldcom had beautifully written values statements and codes of conduct. Still their leaders wound up in jail, most of their employees without jobs or pensions, and their investors with zip.
What PR people at every level need is a framework for reasoning that will help them recognize an ethical issue when it arises and then analyze it in terms of their own values, professional responsibilities and the consequences for everyone affected.
Unfortunately, our own self-interest — not to mention peer pressures and a raft of cognitive illusions — exercises a blinding force on our powers of perception. As one prominent ethicist put it, “Let’s face it, if it were easy to be ethical, more people would do it more often.”
Acting ethically can cost a sale, a promotion or even one’s job. It can ruin friendships, build a reputation of school-marmy-ness and alienate the powers that be. Compromises can be very seductive, especially if “everyone is doing it.”
So gather your communications skills, your technical skills, your knowledge of business. But in all your gathering, remember — to counsel clients, you have to know more than what to say, you have to know what to do.
This article originally appeared on the Rutgers School of Communication and Information website.
Dick Martin is an instructor in Rutgers’ new PR Certificate Program, where he’ll teach a course on ethics for public relations professionals. He was executive vice president of public relations for AT&T until his retirement in 2003. He is now a writer specializing in public relations and brand management. He is the author of four books for the American Management Association, and has published articles in such publications as the Harvard Business Review and is a contributing editor to the Conference Board Review.