Lesson 2: Reaching Ethical Maturity: The Ethical Development of Public Relations Practice
Family reunions can be torture. Distant aunts and uncles who claim family relation pull out obscure photos and tell stories from your childhood – stories that you cannot recollect. They pinch your check, ruffle your hair, and comment on how much you’ve grown. Yet, despite your growth spurt, you somehow remain seated at the kid’s table.
Inevitably someone asks the question, “so, what are you studying in college?” You brace yourself, take a deep breath, and reply, “public relations.” You begin to recite the public relations definition drilled into your head by your "Intro to PR" instructor, but the aghast expression on your relative’s face stops you. You might as well have said con artist or swindler. The response would have been the same, assuming of course that your relative even knows what public relations is, but that topic is for another day and another lesson.
You should have said nursing. Nurses have topped Gallup’s Honesty and Ethics ranking every year since being added to the list in 1999. The least ethical profession – lobbyists. Lobbyists are considered less ethical than advertising practitioners, car salespeople, and members of Congress. Further, they have not shown any ethical improvement in the poll over the last several years. Before you breathe a sigh of relief, consider that the term “public relations” does not appear in Gallup’s poll. But, its definition of lobbyists, to influence and persuade others, sounds a lot like the press agentry and two-way asymmetrical practice of public relations. So, yes, we might define public relations as developing and sustaining mutually beneficial relationships, but your aghast relative – she’s thinking lobbyist.
Due to public relations’ ethical perception, professionals are encouraged to become more ethically literate. The first step to ethical literacy is to identify personal values and to understand the ethical orientations that guide our behaviors. These initial steps were discussed in lesson one. This lesson assesses the connection between the ethical orientations or principles and public relations practice. It also encourages practitioners to “grow up” in their ethical development.Next Page: Ethical Development
Everyone grows up. Our physical attributes, language skills, and reasoning capabilities develop as we get older. Ethical philosophers believe that we also “grow up” in our ethical development. Kohlberg believed that people develop from rudimentary understanding to a more advanced knowledge and practice of ethics. He developed three levels of development:
- The first level represents an elementary understanding of ethical development that focuses on avoiding personal punishment and meeting personal needs. Kohlberg explains that a child will not avoid stealing because stealing is wrong, but will avoid stealing in order to avoid punishment.
- At level two, an individual might do what is right, but will do so in order to maximize personal gain. Individuals begin to consider others in addition to themselves, but they often act ethically in order to appear as a good person or to fulfill professional obligations. For example, many professionals will act ethically because they have agreed to follow a professional code of conduct. Kohlberg believed that most adults reach this level and are heavily influenced by a desire to be perceived as a “good person.”
- The final level is considered the highest level of ethical development, and according to Kohlberg, reached by few adults. At this level, professionals show a genuine interest in the welfare of others and have a deep sense of universal ethical principles that guide their behavior.
These stages of ethical development move professionals from a basic individual concern to a recognition of their behavior on others. Bivins conceptualized this development as moral obligations, identifying five specific moral obligations for public relations practitioners:
- To themselves -- to preserve their own integrity
- To clients -- to honor contracts, to use professional expertise in their behalf
- To organizations/employers -- to adhere to organizational goals and policies
- To the profession/colleagues -- to uphold the standards of the profession
- To society -- to consider societal needs and claims
Like Kohlberg’s levels, these obligations progress from an individual ethical orientation to an outward ethical orientation. Such a progression is inherent in a deeper understanding of ethical public relations literacy. As professionals become more ethically literate, they have an increased understanding of the concentric influence of their ethical behavior on others.
Ethics & the Public Relations Models
Public relations practice, as represented by the four public relations models, also represent ethical development in public relations. Grunig and Hunt identified four models of public relations that progress from an elementary method of public relations to a more sophisticated practice. The models from basic to sophisticated include press agentry/publicity, public information, two-way asymmetrical communication, and two-way symmetrical communication. Each model represents a specific ethical orientation that when considered collectively illustrates the ethical development of public relations.
Ethics & the Public Relations Models: Press Agentry Model
The press agentry model is the lowest “level” of ethical public relations. This model focuses on publicity or press agentry to gain attention for the organization. Reminiscent of P.T. Barnum’s publicity stunts, this model focuses on self-interest or gaining attention, whether good or bad. As a result, this model can be used to exploit a situation for personal gain. For example, pharmaceutical CEO Martin Shkreli hiked the price of daraprim from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill overnight, a 5,000 percent price increase. In response to the uproar, Shkreli replied that his responsibility was to the investors of his organization, not the affected patients. His actions thrust him and his organization into the media limelight and spurred many antagonistic Twitter exchanges. Some suggest that the price hike was a publicity stunt to bring daraprim to the forefront of a broader audience. If so, the maneuver was successful, as the drug currently enjoys high name recognition beyond the scope of its current patients. Examples such as this one highlight the often-seamy side of the press agentry model. Manipulation and/or deception can often be used to achieve short-term rewards.
Like the teleological approach, the press agentry model focuses on outcomes more than processes. It considers the outcome more important than the means to get to the outcome. As a result, an ethical outcome could be the result of an unethical process. Laczniak and Murphy offer a maxim to help ensure the ethical dimension of this model. They suggest that professionals use the “TV test,” by always asking if you would feel comfortable explaining the action on television. Granted, the “TV test” isn’t foolproof. Shkreli seems to have enjoyed, even acerbated, his villainous profile in media interviews and on social media. In one Twitter exchange, a user said, “you should be ashamed of yourself. You have given people their death sentences. A person’s life is not business,” to which Shkreli replied, “No, you are wrong.” It seems in his mind that the outcome of increased profits was the most important.
Ethics & the Public Relations Models: Public Information Model
The public information model, the second level of public relations, is often described as the “journalist-in-residence” model. It utilizes media relation techniques to place public relations information into news stories. Championed by public relations pioneer Ivy Lee, this model focuses on truthful and accurate information in order to gain third-party endorsement.
Curtin and Boynton identify two ethical orientations for this model, axiology and deontology. Axiological ethical reasoning supports a focus on virtues. Aristotle, a leading axiological ethicist, believed virtues guide ethical behavior. A virtuous person has ethical habits that guide consistent ethical action. The public information model introduces the virtues of honesty and accuracy and encourages the consistent application of these virtues. Public relations professionals in this model provide honest and accurate information to news media. Unlike the press agentry model, the practitioners in this model adhere to virtues to ensure the ethical development and dissemination of information.
The identification of virtues in the public information model leads to the deontological ethical orientation through the systematic adoption of these virtues by professional organizations. Both the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Code of Ethics and the Society of Journalists Code of Ethics require professionals to adhere to honesty and the dissemination of accurate information. The adherence to a professional code of ethics follows a deontological ethical approach. Professionals follow a prescribed code of ethics that guide their behavior. For example, the PRSA Code of Ethics directs professionals to “adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth,” and to “advocate the free flow of accurate and truthful information,” when working with the media. Such a deontological perspective guides public relations practice within the public information model.
This model represents an ethical step forward in the development of public relations practice. While the press agentry model embraced a self-interest approach, this model highlights the needs of others in its ethical consideration, using the code of ethics as a guide. Public relations professionals can test the ethics of the public information model using the professional ethic principle. This principle guides professionals to only take action that would be considered appropriate by an objective panel of public relations professionals.
Ethics & the Public Relations Models: Two-Way Asymmetrical Model
The third model of public relations, the two-way asymmetrical model, advocates two-way persuasive communication. This model utilizes persuasive communication to influence the attitudes and actions of key stakeholders. Its two-way design supports a feedback loop to allow public relations practitioners to monitor the effectiveness of the persuasive communication. While the model includes an outward focus, the central concern is the organization and its interests. Like the press agentry model, the two-way asymmetrical model adheres to teleological ethical reasoning. As a result, the outcome is typically in the best interest of the organization. However, the feedback loop allows professionals to assess the associated benefits and costs to those external to the organization and make necessary ethical adjustments.
The two-way asymmetrical model highlights the conflict of loyalty common in public relations practice. Professionals are often divided in their loyalty to their organization and their loyalty to key stakeholders. The Golden Rule maxim offers a good guide for practitioners to balance this conflict of loyalties. This rule instructs professionals to act in a manner that they would expect from others. Public relations professionals can also use the “test of sincerity” when creating persuasive messages. The test of sincerity, much like the Golden Rule, says that professionals should use only persuasive methods and arguments that, if directed toward themselves, would seem legitimate.
Although resembling the press agentry model, the two-way asymmetrical model offers important ethical advantages. The model builds on the professional virtues found in the public information model and incorporates a feedback loop in the creation of its persuasive messages. The two-way communication provides a consideration for those beyond the organization that is absent from the press agentry model. Further, the model suggests that public relations professionals should consider the implications of their persuasive messages on others. Such a broadened focus illustrates the ethical development of public relations from a self-interest approach to one that incorporates a concern for others in its actions.
Ethics & the Public Relations Models: Two-Way Symmetrical Model
Finally, the two-way symmetrical model of public relations is considered the most sophisticated and ethical practice of public relations. This model focuses on dialogue that creates and sustains mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its key stakeholders. This model attempts to minimize the potential imbalance of power between organizations and stakeholders found in the asymmetrical model of public relations and embraces a broader social responsibility perspective. As a result, the organization is not considered the primary beneficiary of public relations activity. Rather, stakeholders and society are both important considerations.
Curtin and Boynton noted that Kant’s categorical imperatives of equality, justice, and fairness guide many of the ethical decisions within this model. Kant believed that there were certain universal laws that all reasonable people must meet. These principles help guide professionals in the development and sustenance of mutually beneficial relationships. Utilitarianism is another ethical reasoning common to the two-way symmetrical model of public relations. Utilitarianism reasons that the most ethical decision is one that brings the greatest good for the greatest number of people. From this standpoint, the organization is often subservient to societal needs as public relations professionals seek the greatest good.
Dialogue is a central component of the two-way symmetrical model. This model supports continuous two-way communication between an organization and its stakeholders. Ethical literacy, however, must guide the dialogue to ensure ethical communication. Habermas’ theory of ethical discourse offers guidance in this area. He believed that ethical discourse cannot be dominated by one party, but must represent a give-and-take form of communication. Ethical discourse occurs when individuals treat one another with openness and respect. Habermas identified four criteria necessary for ethical discourse: the communication must be comprehensive; it must be true; it must be appropriate for the audience; and it must be sincere. Pearson built on Habermas’ theory and offered four additional conditions necessary for ethical public relations symmetrical discourse:
- There must be the opportunity for beginning and ending communicative interaction
- There must be the opportunity for suggesting topics and initiating topic changes
- There must be the ability to provide a response and to have that response treated as such
- There must be the ability to select channels of communication
Using these guides, professionals can ensure ethical, two-way communication. Unlike the asymmetrical model, the symmetrical model includes a larger societal focus. Communication is designed to include a myriad of voices in order to ascertain the most ethical action.
Many researchers believe, however, that the two-way symmetrical model represents an idealized practice of public relations. Kohlberg would agree. He believed most adults would never reach a societal focused ethical maturity displayed in this model. Yet, this level of ethical development is important to the ethical practice of public relations.
Public Relations Value Systems
The four models of public relations not only represent the development of ethical practice in public relations, but they also illustrate two value systems within public relations. Albert Sullivan identified these two value systems as a partisan value system and mutuality value system. The partisan value system is displayed in the first three models of public relations: press agentry, public information, and two-way asymmetrical. In these models, the organization is primary. The public relations professional uses the values of loyalty, commitment, and obedience to enhance the organization and its position in society. The second value system, mutuality, is displayed in the two-way symmetrical model of public relations and includes the interests and rights of others. Sullivan believed that the mutuality value system leads the truly ethical public relations professional. Using this value system, public relations professionals not only consider the interests of the organization, but also the basic rights of all stakeholders affected by the organization.
Sullivan identified three basic rights that the mutuality value system protects:
- the basic rights of individuals to accurate and complete information regarding matters that affect them
- the right to participate in decisions that affect them
- the right to have their rights represented by others
Like the two-way symmetrical model, mutuality is societal focused. It is built on the ethical development of previous models. For example, the press agentry model introduces the importance of organizational interest in the practice of public relations. The public information model adds the importance of honest and accurate information when promoting the organization. The two-way asymmetrical model incorporates a feedback loop that allows professionals to expand their ethical focus to key organizational stakeholders. Finally, the mutuality value system or the two-way symmetrical model, encourages ethical professionals to develop a societal perspective that can guide the ethical practice of public relations.
TARES: Ethical Message Development
Message development is central to each of the public relations models. As such, professionals need to incorporate ethical literacy into their messaging. While the ethical orientations described earlier provide guidance, the TARES test developed by Baker and Martinson and Gower offer specific guidance in message development:
These questions offer professionals a means to incorporate ethical literacy throughout the message creation and dissemination process. By considering TARES, professionals can better balance the priority of the organization and society to ensure that their public relations practice reaches the ethical maturity found in the two-way symmetrical public relations model.
The Pillars of Public Relations Ethics
In conclusion, the public relations profession has grown in its ethical practice, as evidenced in the public relations models. Yet, it is erroneous to assume that the application of the lower public relations models is unethical. Rather, ethical public relations literacy guides the professional in the ethical considerations in inherent to each model. By understanding the values and ethical orientations of each, public relations professionals can better assess appropriate ethical behavior.
Parsons offers a comprehensive ethical guide to help professionals in this assessment. Derived from the maxims of bioethics, she suggests five ethical pillars to summarize ethical literacy and support ethical decision making.
The five pillars are veracity (to tell the truth), non-maleficence (to do no harm), beneficence (to do good), confidentiality (to respect privacy), and fairness (to be fair and socially responsible). Parsons argues that the pillar to do no harm offers a starting point to avoid intentional and foreseeable harm. This pillar is balanced by the proactive pillar of “doing good.” Looking for opportunities to do good offers an “altruistic ethical intent,” that professionals should strive to uphold. The pillar of fairness is reminiscent of the ethical orientations that value and respect all individuals and balances the pillars of veracity and confidentiality. These pillars can be translated into five guiding questions to help professionals in ethical public relations practice:
- Will anyone be harmed if we use this approach?
- Are we taking advantage of an opportunity to contribute something good to society?
- Is the message truthful? Could anyone be misled?
- Does this respect the privacy of individuals and the organization?
- Is this approach unfair to anyone including society?
Using these questions, public relations professionals can better assess the ethical implications of public relations practice and grow deeper in their ethical development.
Lesson 2 Self-Check Questions
- Explain how the press agentry model exemplifies a teleological approach. What are the ethical advantages/ disadvantages of this practice of public relations?
- How does the application of the PRSA code of ethics represent a deontological approach in the public information model of public relations?
- How does the two-way asymmetrical public relations model offer an “other” perspective absent from the two lesser models? Why is this perspective important to ethical development?
- How does Habermas’ theory of ethical discourse support the ethical practice of two-way symmetrical public relations?
- How might the pillars of ethical public relations guide the ethical behavior of public relations professionals?
Case Study: Wonder Woman: An Honorary Ambassador or a Mascot?
Gender equality is a fundamental human right, but not one that woman and girls enjoy worldwide. In recognition of this need, the United Nations (U.N.) named gender equality as the fifth of their 17 goals to transform the world. Their goal is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. A first step toward this goal was to name an official honorary ambassador for the U.N. The effort, while notable, drew ire from many. Why? Because the honorary ambassador was . . . not real.
On October 21, 2016, the United Nations announced Wonder Woman, the classic DC Comics super-heroine, as the official honorary ambassador for the United Nation’s year-long campaign to “Stand Up for the Empowerment of Women and Girls Everywhere." The iconic comic-book character was chosen for her commitment to justice and her portrayal of strength.
Wonder Woman’s appointment was part of goal five in the 2015 U.N.’s 17 sustainable development goals that aspire to leave no one behind by 2030. Wonder Woman’s appointment was designed to highlight women and girls who are wonder women in their own right, to illustrate what can be achieved if women and girls are empowered, and to bring about positive change in the home, workplace, community, country and the world.
“Wonder Woman's character is the most iconic and well known female comic book superhero in the world, known for her strength, fairness and compassion, and her commitment to justice, peace and equality," Maher Nasser, outreach director of the United Nations' Department of Public Information, said. The appointment corresponded with the 75th anniversary of Wonder Woman’s debut and with the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, featuring Israeli actress Gal Gadot.
The appointment lasted a mere two months amid a firestorm of protests, comprised predominately of U.N. staff. Staff protested on the grounds that Wonder Woman is “culturally insensitive, overly sexualized, and not real.” Within 48 hours of the announcement, concerned U.N. staff posted an online petition to encourage U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reconsider Wonder Woman as the honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Their petition stated, “Although Wonder Woman was originally created to represent a strong and independent ‘warrior woman’ with a feminist message, she instead, in her current iteration, is a large-breasted, white woman of impossible proportions scantily clad in shimmery, thigh-baring body suit with an American flag motif and knee-high boots – the epitome of a ‘pin-up’ girl.”
The ceremony announcing Wonder Woman’s appointment featured several prominent entertainment figures, including Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman in the 1970s hit television show, Gal Gadot, the actress portraying Wonder Woman in the upcoming Wonder Woman movie, and Diane Nelson, president of DC Entertainment. The ceremony also announced a joint U.N. and DC Comics social media campaign to promote women’s rights.
During the ceremony, concerned U.N. staff stood in silent protest by turning their back, raising a fist in the air, and leaving halfway through the ceremony. In addition, nearly 100 staff members held signs in the U.N. lobby that read, “I am not a mascot,” and “Let’s get real.”
Course of Action
The U.N. addressed concerns of Wonder Woman’s appearance by “toning down” her image. At the announcement ceremony, a life-size image of Wonder Woman depicted her from the waist up with a cape around her shoulders, covering her chest. In subsequent photos, Wonder Woman is consistently shown from the waist up, omitting the patriotic aspect of her costume, and with a darker skin tone.
Two days following the announcement, the U.N. held a press conference to address the concerned U.N. staff and petition supporters. Cristina Gallach, a senior U.N. spokeswoman, dismissed the idea that the U.N. does not represent “real” women as role models for gender equality. “To these views, I would like to say that the United Nations has many real-life women and men fighting for gender equality and the empowerment of women every day,” she said.
Former Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter also dismissed U.N. staff’s concerns. Describing the petition supporters as “nitpicking” and to “get over it.”
Online petition supporters disagreed. On their petition site, one supporter stated, “The bottom line appears to be that the United Nations was unable to find a real-life woman that would be able to champion the rights of ALL women on the issue of gender equality and the fight for their empowerment . . . this role is too important to be championed by a ‘mascot.’”
After only two months, Wonder Woman’s role of honorary ambassador ended. U.N. Spokesman Jeffrey Brez said that the U.N.’s decision to end Wonder Woman’s role was made soon after the launch. He emphasized that the decision was not due to the online protest, despite the nearly 45,000 signatures collected at the time of his announcement.
“The objective was to reach out to Wonder Woman fans to raise awareness of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 5,” Brez said. “We did that. We are happy.”
DC Comics spokeswoman Courtney Simmons echoed their pleasure with the brief campaign. “[We] are extremely pleased with the awareness that this partnership brought to United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #5, as well as elevating the global conversation around the empowerment of women and girls,” she said. “Wonder Woman stands for peace, justice and equality, and for 75 years she has been a motivating force for many and will continue to be long after the conclusion of her UN Honorary Ambassadorship."
Moral of the Story
Wonder Woman is not the first fictional character to be chosen as a U.N. ambassador. Winnie the Pooh served as an honorary ambassador for the International Day of Friendship and Red, one of the characters from the Angry Birds mobile game, was chosen as an honorary ambassador for the International Day of Happiness. Yet, U.N. staff note that neither of these fictional characters represented humans. Not everyone, however, agrees with the U.N.’s latest decision. At the time of this writing, a new online petition is requesting the reinstatement of Wonder Woman as the honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. The U.N. has not provided additional comment.
- Which model of public relations do you believe is most prevalent in the United Nations’ decision to appoint Wonder Woman as honorary ambassador? How well did the U.N. assess the ethical implications of this model?
- The U.N. staff described Wonder Woman as a “mascot.” What public relations model did they perceive in the announcement? Explain their ethical concern in this use of this public relations model.
- Wonder Woman’s appointment was part of a larger societal cause to impact positive change for women and girls globally. How well did the United Nations maintain their moral obligation to society, as described by Bivins? Do you perceive other obligations in the U.N.’s ethical decisions?
- Using Parsons’ five guiding questions, how well does the United Nations uphold the ethical pillars of public relations? Explain your answer.
ABC News. (2016, October 21). Wonder Woman named honorary UN ambassador, staffers
protest ‘sexualised cartoon character.’ Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au
Alexander, E. (2016, October 21). Wonder Woman named UN ambassador in controversial
move. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com
Concerned United Nations Staff Members. (n.d.). Reconsider the choice of Wonder Woman as
the UN’s honorary ambassador for the empowerment of women and girls. Retrieved from http://www.thepetitionsite.com/741/288/432/reconsider-the-choice-of-honorary-ambassador-for-the-empowerment-of-women-and-girls/
Goal 5: Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. (n.d.). Retrieved from
Hersher, R. (2016, October 13). Wonder Woman named honorary U.N. ambassador for gender
equality. Retrieved from https://knpr.org
Roberts, E. (2016, December 13). UN drops Wonder Woman as honorary ambassador.
Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/
Williams, A. (2016, December 22). Lynda Carter deflects critics of Wonder Woman. Retrieved