Here’s to the season and getting up to speed on blogging. I’ve been ignoring this test-blog of mine for some time now and it seems that it’s about time to get on the ethics in public communication band-wagon again. Funny how the busiest season of all sometimes gives rise to the most work accomplished.
I’m currently on sabbatical and writing a lot about ethics and social media. But I wanted to share a piece I wrote for PR Canada (now defunct) a few years ago as a kind of ethics Christmas present.
About ten years ago I was working as lead public relations counsel to the Dean of Medicine at a Canadian medical school. Sometime during the course of the first year, the faculty decided that they would once and for all dispense with the traditional recitation of the Hippocratic Oath at convocation. Calling it an anachronism and meaningless to the young doctors of today, they took this move to ditch what has, as much as anything else, been a terrific public relations tool for the medical profession.
The picture is inspiring. Several hundred newly minted doctors stand just after receiving their diplomas to recite an oath that is some 2000 years old, reputedly written by Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, or one of his students, depending on whose version of history you read. Reworked many times to fit the modern sense of what medicine is and should ethically represent, the oath, while not binding in any way, represents a symbol of a physician’s ethical responsibilities.
Critics, of course, take a different view. There is s belief among some that the oath does nothing more than set out the parameters for physicians to protect themselves. Others just think that the very idea is anachronistic.
However, it is still a part of the graduation ceremonies for many medical schools. Indeed, when the faculty at the medical school where I toiled made their move to disassociate themselves from it, the outcry came not from the long-in-the-tooth faculty and clinicians, but from the senior students themselves. When the soon-to-be graduates heard the rumor that they would be denied the opportunity to take it, they lobbied to keep it a part of the ceremony. The Dean asked me for my opinion. From a public relations perspective, I said, it’s probably worth keeping in. If the news that the medical school is getting rid of the oath makes it onto a journalist’s desk, I said, the opportunity to question a change in basic values would be too good to pass up. And it was clear that the graduates, future donors to the school would be upset by the change. (Was I being too mercenary?). Bottom line: they left it in the ceremony. At that school, anyway.
So, why all this talk about the medical profession’s ethics oath to you, the public relations professional? Well, it’s almost Christmas, and it occurred to me that I ought to give you a gift of sorts.
Why don’t we have a PR version of the Hippocratic Oath, I thought? It might be nice to consider the kind of pledge we might make as we enter our chosen field. So, I re-examined the Hippocratic Oath for some guidance and created an Oath for us.
It’s something to think about over that eggnog. Consider it my gift to you. Get it laminated and put it on a wall if you like. Here it is:
The Oath of Hermes*
In some senses, this says that we ought to consider following the Golden Rule: Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. But that’s a very simplistic distillation of ethics. Perhaps, then, my real gift to you this holiday season is simply to give you something that makes you think about your own behavior and your moral standards. We often use this time of year to re-evaluate our priorities, anyway, so what’s s another re-evaluation? I believe that thinking about ethics this way is just a way for me to indicate my commitment to personal integrity and a set of higher ideals – and remember, they are just that – ideals. We might fall short from time to time, but we need to have something to aim for.
* I had to find a name for this oath since we PR practitioners don’t really have any champion historical Greeks, unless you consider the various rhetoricians of the time. So I called it after Hermes, messenger of the gods, much like we are messengers in our own work.