Defining Ethics

Ethics have been defined in diverse ways: as the moral responsibility of a communicator to present the truth as one honestly understands it; as the duty of audience members to question falsehood when one encounters it; and as a social contract and moral compass for society. Martha Cooper notes that a social contract for ethical communication exists. That, “when we make decisions through communication…a sense of commitment, a sense that when people say things, they really mean what they say, or what we think they said." Our modern concept of the ethical communicator, dates back before recorded history, to the time of storytellers.

The social contract discussed by Cooper goes back thousands of years to Greece and Rome. Quintilian (c. 35–100 CE), a Roman rhetorician, refers explicitly to the social contract of the communicator who is expected to present the truth. Communicators should be “good people skilled in speaking” (Quintiliana XII:4)…and above all, be good people. Being a communication professional is no different. We have an obligation to make the best decisions and take actions that will both benefit our organizations, as well as our stakeholders. We make good decisions by applying principles of ethical communication and action.

Although notions of what constitute “a good person” have fluctuated, the notion that a communicator is expected to “speak the truth” has remained a consistent belief. We expect our communicators to tell us the truth. But knowing the truth is a constant struggle.

Ethics are also about having an awareness of the possibilities in a problem or situation. If all we do is the same thing that we always have done, our decisions are not ethical. Individuals and decision makers need to assess all possibilities, gather information, conduct research, and consider one’s options before making a decision. Ethical decision-making is not the same as simply following an ethical code that prescribes what to do in various situations. Codes of ethics prescribe courses of action and behaviors to situations that have been settled. In public relations, for example, the principle of “never guaranteeing placement” of stories and newsworthy content, is not up for debate. Professionals over many years of practice and discussion have decided that guaranteeing placement might encourage an individual to make choices that are not in the best interest of one’s organization or client. Thus, “codes of ethics” enshrine behaviors and actions that are not in contention any more. By contrast, ethical decision-making is a dynamic process that cannot be reduced to a simple rule.

Q: What are other ethical behaviors that are generally settled issues in the public relations profession?

Q: What are some ethical behaviors in regard to social media that have become generally accepted?

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