by Jessica Bruce
[This is the final article in a series of twelve guest posts on professional ethics by graduate students in the Master of Arts (Communication) and the Master of Public Relations degree programs at Mount Saint Vincent University as a part of my Ethics & Law course, a required part of their graduate programs.]
As I begin my career in the public relations (PR) industry; I find it discouraging to think that the apparent general public consensus is that PR professionals are incapable of making ethical decisions. When I tell someone that I am completing my Masters in PR, they are quick to respond, “You mean your Masters in spin?”
That society is generally skeptical of the behavior of PR professionals, and the subsequent lack of trust in public relations practices seems to be a consistent and on-going issue for our profession. The negative stereotype is that practitioners are unable or unwilling to perform what is often suggested as the dual role of both personal professional, and organizational conscience, and that the former outweighs the latter for most PR pros.
One industry leader, John Palushki has urged PR professionals to not only take charge of their dual role, but to facilitate the acceptance of these roles in the organization. To use the wise words of Barak Obama (likely based on the words of Nelson Mandela): “If not now, when? If not us, who?”
This is a noble thought, but the road to ethical decision making is not an easy one for any professional, especially amidst competing priorities. To fulfill the duties as the conscience of an organization, one needs to be able to address any ethical mole hills before they become mountains. However, this is where simplicity becomes complexity and as professionals, we have more people to answer to beyond the general public – A.K.A The Boss. And therein is the dilemma that all people face: to do the right thing, or to do what you’re told.
Managing these competing roles is a daunting task, but fostering a culture of consciousness can ultimately protect your organization from needing to deal with potential ethical issues that may arise. An extreme example of the difficulty in accomplishing this can be found in the current Rob Ford situation: although many Chiefs’ of Staff and PR representatives recognized the potential ethical issues related to how the Mayor of Toronto operated, it appears many of them defaulted to the “do what your told” line of thought (most likely, however, following many attempts at fostering the other side of the coin, but not being able to create shift in organizational thought, with a resultant loss of confidence of colleagues and the public). For professionals who balance this dual position, research suggests that individuals have a broadened conception of their roles and responsibilities, including an eager duty to public interest.
If this is the case, then why are PR professionals not first-round picks for the position of ethical decision maker for most organizations?
The problem lies with the fact that most believe that the PR profession is built on simply acting in best interests of the organization (which is generally associated with ensuring financial performance) and neglecting an important constituency – the public. But are PR professionals unjustly getting a bad rap?
In a study conducted by Neil and Drumright reported in 2012 to understand the behaviors and decision making patterns of PR professionals as the organizational conscience found that PR professionals were very qualified and capable of providing ethics counsel on issues. These issues extended far beyond PR responsibilities including such issues as security breaches & issues in human resources.
So, we’re capable – that’s reassuring. But how are we going to change the minds of the skeptical masses?
Statements like the “power for change is in the hands of the youth,” and “you can’t teach old dog’s new tricks” are oft- used clichés, yet speak to fact that changes in mass perception take time. Studies examining the education of apprentice PR specialists in ethics reveal that ethical instruction correlates with ethical awareness; graduate students demonstrated that those who were exposed to ethical education were more likely to; highly value ethics, identify ethical issues, and to have discussed unethical practices with other professionals.
It seems like we’re on the right path: the notion that we are creating more ethically sound graduates suggests that one day we may live in a world where reliable ethical decision making and PR become an assumed or expected combination.
I do think we can change. As the research suggests, attempts are being made to equip our future practitioners with the guidelines and tools for effective, and most importantly; ethical decision making. Fulfilling the dual role as both PR professional and organizational conscience is not simply a fantasy, but a reality. Ethical education seems to be a strong indicator that as PR practitioners, we stand a chance of changing the dated stigma that, PR and ethics make for an unfavorable cocktail.
As Nelson Mandela famously put it: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Jessica Bruce is currently completing the last leg of her Master of Public Relations (MPR) at Mount Saint Vincent University. She hails from a small town in Prince Edward Island where she acquired her love for the beach, salt air, ocean views and most importantly, potatoes!
 Marlene S. Neill & Minette E. Drumwright (2012) PR Professionals as Organizational Conscience, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 27:4, 220-234, DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2012.746108
 ] Gale, K & Bunton, K. (2005). Assessing the impact of ethics instruction on advertising and public relations graduates. Journalism & Mass Communication Educator, 60(3), 272-285.