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  • Writer's picturePR Kinexions

What can we learn about ethics from the lens of a student?

In my public relations journey, I have noticed that the topic of ethics is consistently hot. Public relations students study the history of the field and are exposed to some of its unsavory beginnings. These entry-level practitioners enter the field with small reminders of “spin doctors” and “partial truths.”

While I was aware of PR’s dark past and questionable foundations, the field has evolved considerably over the past many decades. I chose a career in public relations because I like the idea of a profession that celebrates building relationships and advocating for clients.

We study ethics and some of the potential ethical situations we could encounter: from being truthful and accurate, to keeping confidences, to resisting pressures to lie or not to over-promise. We learn about how to respond to a crisis ethically and determine if an advocating approach or an accommodating approach is best for our organization’s reputation. One particular thought that piqued my attention was when a friend of mine said: “Just because something is legal, does that mean it is ethical?” These are the kinds of deep-level things we need to be thinking about as entry-level practitioners.

In my preliminary research on this topic, it appears that students may sometimes overlook ethics. My classmates and I can admit we feel that dealing with ethical issues is far in our futures or maybe that they would never even happen, but that is an oversight. Just because we haven’t faced an ethical challenge yet doesn’t mean that we won’t. Ethical issues are all around us. I am thinking of the story of a mentor of mine who was pressured to lie about an investigation. As PR practitioners it is important that we are mindful of our personal and professional ethics in all of our communications. Justine Sacco, a PR executive was fired from IAC, a leading internet and media company for an inappropriate tweet. Reading Justine’s story made me rethink my online presence when it comes to personal and professional use. What we say or do in our lives may not be illegal, but there are very real consequences to our actions.

Thankfully, PR students and professionals alike have access to ethical guidelines for public relations and business communications practice. In Canada, we have two professional bodies, the Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). Both have some relatively well-developed guidelines including the CPRS Code of Professional Standards. Between classroom study, being attuned to news media, and accessing available ethical guidelines, we can be prepared for our futures, and we don’t have to be caught off guard.

An ethical dilemma in a personal or business situation is only the tip of the iceberg of consideration. There are reputations and relationships both personally and professionally, internally and externally, all on the line. Bad decisions often lead to more bad decisions, and the impact is magnified. Some specific ethics-related pointers I picked up at a recent ethics workshop are:

1. Fact check and ask questions when you are unsure of something.

2. Take a step back and remove yourself when caught in a problematic situation.

3. Turn to your support network or local registered association and seek counsel.

4. Collaboration is crucial, so ask for a second, third, or even a fourth opinion about the situation and what you should do.

I think that the familiar phrase, “I’d rather be safe than sorry,” rings true when it comes to ethics. While I can appreciate that the outcomes for one ethical dilemma are unique, there is a tool to help wade through the situation. A new tool that was just released by CPRS is the Decision Tree. It can help reduce the stomach-turning anxiety that quickly overcomes professionals in the hot seat. All you have to do is start by asking one simple question, “is it a legal issue, might laws have been broken?” Depending on whether you answer “yes” or “no” to this question will determine how much further you will advance through the possible outcomes.

Something I am mindful of is how culture influences how ethics are perceived. I think ethics is defined differently all over the world; therefore, communicators need to take context, culture and geographical location into consideration. My take away from this ethics discussion is that ethics is central to our careers as PR practitioners. Being a student has its perks because we get the privilege of learning from our professors and the industry’s best and brightest professionals. Being aware of ethics, seeing some possible ethical situations that have had very real impacts on people’s lives has been inspiring. I encourage you, wherever you are in your career and in your lives, to take advantage of and explore ethical guidelines local to you and to listen to other people’s experiences. Students are always learning, and there is value in asking questions and leaning on one another for support. After all, the more we know, the more we are equipped with to advance in our chosen field and practice ethical public relations.

By: Theresa Ranallo with Dr. Sandra Braun

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