When listening to your gut isn’t enough: The need for ethics training?

ethics scaleYear after year students filed into my classroom to listen to me discuss ethical issues in public relations and corporate communication. Strike that. They filed in believing that they were going to listen to me only to find that they were going to have to be considerably more involved than simply being the vessel into which wisdom would be poured.

My ethics classes required students to do more than show up. And inevitably as they immersed themselves in the discussions, the films, the debates, the arguments, the decisions – they concluded that at least to some extent that gnawing feeling in their gut telling them they’re about to do something that’s just wrong actually has something to say. It was always interesting to me to observe just how many of them thought that this was enough. They soon learned that in the absence of any knowledge about what is expected of them as ethical PR practitioners, that ‘gut check’ simply wasn’t going to be enough.

Last year American communications professor Katie Place (who has written many very good pieces in academic journals about ethics in practice) published an article in the Journal of Media Ethics titled “More than just a gut check: Evaluating ethical decision-making in public relations.” She contends that although the concept of evaluation has taken a deep foothold in the canon of strategic communication planning it has yet to make a mark in the arena of ethical decision-making. In other words, we make decisions about the ethical thing to do never to revisit them to see if, in fact, they were the right decisions.

She conducted a small study asking a sample of (American) PR professionals the following question: “How do public relations professionals evaluate or reflect upon ethical decisions?” What she found was that there was considerable reliance on the so-called gut check. “Participants stated that they relied overwhelmingly on their moral intuition by conducting ‘gut checks’ to evaluate ethical decisions they made in the public relations workplace.”[i] Indeed, she also found that this gut check evaluation was affected by a practitioner’s age, career experience and personal background. This kind of evaluation does not seem to have any of the earmarks of an objective assessment based on benchmarks of any kind.

If we think about this rationally, we have to ask the inevitable question: How can we rely on informal gut checks for ethical evaluation in the twenty-first century when we see examples of morally reprehensible business ethics all around? Can these gut checks be trusted? Perhaps not.

For all of us ethical decision-making is a daily part of what we do although we sometimes don’t recognize the dilemmas since they are so common. We rely to a large extent on that feeling of something being either right or wrong. However, many people in business today have never had a chance to explore their own moral development, their personal principles and how these play a part in decisions that can affect not only their career, but the organizations and people with whom they work throughout that career. This, of course, is the basis of the case for mandatory ethics education and training for current and future PR practitioners. Can ethics be taught? That’s not the real challenge. The real question is: Can ethics be learned? I think it can.

[i] Katie R. Place (2015) More Than Just a Gut Check: Evaluating Ethical Decision Making in Public Relations, Journal of Media Ethics, 30:4, 252-267, DOI:10.1080/23736992.2015.1082913, p. 258.

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