Lesson 2: Justifiable Lies Based on Circumstances?
“Does it really need to be said that obscuring the truth from consumers is wrong? Apparently, it does. Being vague about what entity is behind a movement is as bad as an overt lie. I’m certain these organizations will one day get caught pulling one of these scams. The consequences will be far worse than if they had been truthful from the beginning.”
“Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you” may seem to be a value which should be held universally. But Lesson #1 provides a contestation of the problems of universal ethics and the different ethical values held by individuals due to different circumstances. In fact, even the above quote may not necessarily be applicable globally—this is especially the case when public relations is defined differently in different markets. Although truthfulness is one of the ethical principles, it is possible that organizations give different weights to different principles. In fact, research shows when lies are justifiable (in terms of being consistent with one’s own conscience and what one considers to be organizationally and socially acceptable), individuals who lie may consciously believe that they are not lying at all. “In the case of justified behavior, the individual is not accountable to a requirement that normally applies on the grounds that the requirement has been undercut by an alternative one that better suits the circumstances.”
In a 2015 article published in Forbes magazine, it was quoted that in China, PR does not stand for “public relations,” but “pay the reporter.” However, as Chinese companies entered the global market, their prioritizing short-term performance above everything else, including public relations, could prevent them from growing. Thus, their increasing investments in public relations to proactively manage their reputations is integral to their international explanation.Next Page: Problems in Ethical Practice of Global Public Relations
Problems in Ethical Practice of Global Public Relations
Public relations has been increasingly adopted around the globe by different institutions in society to create mutual understanding between organizations and their publics. Globally, the field is becoming broader and more diverse as more specialties, which require the application of public relations theories, are growing in importance, such as investor relations. The field is growing with more students majoring in it, more professionals developing a career in it and more research being conducted to increase its body of knowledge. The global practice of ethical public relations is critical to promoting a functioning society for both organizations and publics to be engaged in the public sphere—unethical public relations could cause much turmoil, such as facilitating the growth of repressive governments and unethical corporations.
Two Approaches to Global Ethics
As previously discussed in Lesson #1, some say that universal ethics is possible while others say that factors, such as social, culture, economic and political contexts, affect ethical values. Taylor and Yang’s study of the codes of ethics of 33 public relations associations and eight international associations from six regions found that some countries adopt an organization-centric approach to ethics. This approach highlights the values of professionalism, clients’ interests and expertise and focuses on the ability of individual practitioners to serve the interests of organizations. Others adopt a sociological approach to ethics, highlighting the values of relationship-building and advocacy. This approach focuses on public relations’ duty to uphold high moral standards in society. Although universal ethics are possible and feasible, some ethical values are prioritized more than others. Ethical principles, as a matter of priority, could vary from country to country and from situation to situation.
There are standards of ethics held in all countries. Yet, a question remains: under what circumstances would one be motivated not to comply with these standards? Price suggested that “the action-guiding force of moral principles depends greatly on the extent to which we can reasonably expect that immoral behavior will be found out and, upon being found out, that it will be punished.” The lack of a framework which guides situation-specific codes continues to cause problems in professional ethics, such as emphasizing “excellence, best practice, and idealized versions of the profession.” For example, Burleson and Kline (1979) outlined that participants must be given equal chance to initiate conversations, make challenges and explanations and be free of manipulations, but there are times when persuasion is necessary and beneficial. In the context of global public relations, the culture-centered approach seeks to generate conversations based on truthful and co-constructed dialogue to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. But this view continues to be considered the best practice or idealized version of the profession.
Theory-Guided Ethical Practice
Different research studies have proposed different models to conceptualize and guide ethical decision-making in public relations. Of these, the different definitions and priorities held by practitioners around the globe continue to pose a challenge in the application of these models. For example, whether they should be an advocate (for publics) or an advisor (for organizations) could determine how they evaluate the morality of an act. While the definition serves as the basis on which organizations and practitioners develop their ethical standards, this part outlines some of the models based on which the global practice of ethical public relations should be considered. It should also be acknowledged that even one universally accepted definition of public relations could be interpreted differently—could relationship mean persuasion? As such, would the means used to reach the relationship pose ethical challenges?
In view of this, Fawkes highlights that practitioners consider the following factors to reach ethical decisions:
- Ethical values of the communicator: considering the factors based on which they construct their ethical standards
- Ethical culture in which they operate: considering how they express their implicit and explicit values
- Professional codes and practices: considering what they are and how they are enforced
- Ethical expectations of publics towards the practitioners and the media: considering the different variety of individual and social ethical values that exist and their impact
Fawkes (2007) proposed the following model of ethical dynamics of communication that takes into the multiple factors of ethics—this is especially applicable to the global context where these factors could vary from one country to another. This model, again, highlights the different levels of factors influencing ethical decision making: individuals, organizational, professional, societal and global.
While there is a lack of framework which guides the application of situation-specific ethics (which tends to prevail in practice), Bowen found it problematic that “there was a lack of ethical codification in the organization that led to individuals making decisions based on situational ethics and personal value systems rather than a unified organizational approach to ethics.” She proposed that a rational and consistent approach be adopted because issue managers, who bring their own personal values when making decisions to address ethical issues, could result in an inconsistent organizational approach to ethical decision-making. She argues that consistency in ethics is necessary without which selfishness could result in the misuse of power and corruption. It prevents public relations from contributing to the social good.
“Ethics trains the decision-making to be analytical to sort out a fair and logical action without using caprice to drive decisions.” But it remains problematic that most public relations professionals have not had the educational background to define public relations and practice ethics consistently that they continue to rely on their own personal and professional values to make ethical strategic decisions for organizations.
Bivins introduced the systems theory into ethical decision making in public relations. As aforementioned in Lesson #1, ethics refers to making decisions that one could justify. Hence, ethics in a global context is about making decisions that one could justify in the context in which they operate for which public relations theories play an integral role.
According to Bivins, public relations practice should be considered in relation to the other units with which it operates interdependently, such as business and law, because such units co-exist in the environment and could affect the outputs. There are units which affect the operating environment more than others. There are units which affect the environment only under specific circumstances.
“A system in a state of disequilibrium with its environment will usually either try to adapt to the changes, or attempt to control the environmental forces causing the imbalance.” In this respect, the definition of public relations (in relation to how it responds to the system) could affect its four-step problem-solving model in terms of situation analysis (how an issue is defined and how publics are prioritized), strategic analysis (how to set goals and objectives and determine strategy and tactics), implementation (how to plan activities in relation to the objectives) and evaluation (how to evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the program and move on).
Bivins (1992) proposed a systems model of ethical decision making below:
When going through the process, moral obligations to the following must be considered: ourselves (in terms of preserving our own integrity), our clients (in terms of honoring contracts and acting on their behalf), our employer (in terms of adhering to its goal and policy), profession (in terms of upholding its standards) and society (in terms of considering its needs and claims).
Ethical Segmentation of Publics and Relationship Building in the Global Context
As aforementioned, public relations is ethical when decisions can be justified. To do this, public relations’ definition should be revisited. Public relations consists of two parts: publics segmentation and relationship building. Because organizations have limited resources, they cannot build relationships with everyone and ought to segment and prioritize certain publics with whom they would build relationships to help organizations make more effective decisions. As public relations practitioners are the boundary spanners to be entrusted with the expertise to predict how to best achieve the optimal outcomes ethically for both the organization and its publics, it is of crucial importance that they systematically follow some principles to predict how to best reach their expected outcomes ethically.
In risk situations, public relations practitioners are advised to engage in communication to empower the recipients of a message in order to make an ethical decision which would optimize the outcomes of all affected parties. However, ethical decision-making is challenged by many obstacles. For example, an organization may seek to keep the public informed and seek consent from them before making an ethical decision, but what the public consents to may not necessarily optimize the outcome for all affected parties. What public relations practitioners predict to be the most optimal outcomes for both parties and the approaches taken to reach the expected outcomes could be challenging. Applying this globally could pose even more ethical challenges.
Situational Theory of Problem Solving (STOPS)
STOPS is a theory which guides organizations to segment and prioritize publics with whom an organization should build relationship. Because public relations practitioners are the boundary spanners determining which publics are prioritized, the adoption of a theory that guides ethical practice is critical.
On a daily basis, public relations practitioners work on public-initiated public relations (PPR) problems. They identify who active publics are through environmental scanning, such as media analysis and public consultation. They incorporate their concerns into organizational decision-making processes. Active publics have high problem recognition (e.g., recognizing the organization’s decision or behavior to be affecting them), high involvement recognition (e.g., feeling involved in and connected with the problem) and low constraint recognition (e.g., believing that they could do something to resolve the problem).
As a result, they would be active in their communicative action in problem solving, such as actively seeking and sharing information about the problem. These active publics are segmented and prioritized because their communicative action could turn other non-active publics into active publics. If organizations do not consider their interests and concerns in the decisions they make, these active publics could create an issue which could eventually escalate into a crisis.
In communication campaigns, practitioners work on organization-initiated public relations (OPR) problems that they would seek to create active publics about a potential issue which threatens an organization’s mission. Thus, in the situation analysis, practitioners should conduct environmental scanning to identify and understand these issues. For example, the identification of skin cancer among farmers could be useful for the Cancer Council Australia because high cancer rates could threaten the mission of the organization. The creation of active publics who would be actively engaged in communicative action in problem solving could potentially turn non-active publics into active publics by increasing their problem recognition and involvement recognition and decreasing their constraint recognition.
In applying STOPS to ethical practice of global public relations, the following questions should be considered:
- Definition and interpretation of public relations: What is my definition of public relations? How have I interpreted and operationalized this definition?
- Use of ethical standards: What has affected my decisions (personal, organizational, professional, societal and global ethical values) about how I identify active publics?
- Prioritization of ethical standards: In the list of ethical values, how have I prioritized some over others?
- Evaluation of alternatives: Have I generated and evaluated the alternatives in how I identify active publics?
- Justification: Is my adoption of ethics in this context justifiable? Have factors, such as power, affected how I have come to these decisions?
- Impact: What is the impact of this decision on my organization, my profession and the local and global communities?
In most situations, ethics is universally held and practiced. However, we could be prone to believe that there is no ethical issue when the decisions we make are justifiable (especially if we think they are socially acceptable). Practicing global public relations could be challenging when we have a set of universal ethics which are not applicable to all situations. Our adoption of situation-specific ethics requires specific training and evaluations of how and why decisions are made in a certain manner and the possible impact of these decisions. In particular, we should question how personal, organizational, professional, societal and global values affect the decisions made and how the decisions made would subsequently affect these values. Practicing ethical public relations requires us to also examine whether our ethics is consistent with our receivers’ ethics.
Case Studies: Reckitt Benckiser’s Chronic Crisis in South Korea & Coke Scare in Belgium
Reckitt Benckiser’s Chronic Crisis in South Korea
In the adoption of ethics in global public relations, the framework of global public relations requires attention to be paid to political economy, culture, media system and the levels of activism. Also, global corporations operating in foreign markets should also be aware of the relationship between their home countries and host countries; it is possible that foreign publics could hold different expectations for organizations from a certain country which could be expressed in the form of consumer nationalism.
As early as 2011, it was reported on South Korean national television that an official inquiry would be made about an outbreak of lung diseases particularly prevalent among children and pregnant women. A possible association was made between the diseases and the use of humidifier disinfectant made by a U.K. company that targeted parents in South Korea where winters were cold and dry.
U.K. company, Reckitt Benckiser, was a market leader in the disinfectant which was used by 8 million people in South Korea. It was found that its product, Oxy, could have caused 80 percent of the related deaths. The company was found to be guilty of false advertising because it was not “safe to humans” as claimed. The company expressed sympathy to those who suffered, but it declined to apologize and challenged the reports regarding the deaths. They would not accept responsibility. They expressed that “This matter is unprecedented due to the complexity and technical nature of the issues, as well as the number of related parties potentially involved. The question of causation is still very much a live issue and is subject to judicial review in the litigation.”
Course of Actions
In May 2016, the company finally made an apology and accepted responsibility. The head of the Korean division of the company bowed several times and said that it was the first time they accepted the fullest responsibility and that they were late. It was estimated that more than 500 people had registered for claims as a result of their or their families’ suffering from lung illnesses caused by the product. A humanitarian fund was set up to help and compensate victims of the case.
A boycott in South Korea affected the company’s growth. It was advised that in addition to compensation, they should work with victims to restore trust in the country. The company’s image was seriously damaged. Between the discovery of the association and the apology, a lot of protests were held by victims and had gained the attention from the country—it was a long fight in which chronic active publics wished to bring attention to global publics as well.
Moral of the Story
The story highlighted the important role of chronic active publics in increasing problem recognition of other publics. Some groups further mentioned that because the company sold their products globally, they wished to increase global publics’ problem recognition about the safety of their products. The case highlights the interconnectedness of global problems and how global publics could create networked effects which affected organizations’ relationships with their publics globally.
- What are the ethical problems in this case?
- What are the global ethical problems present in this case?
- How was public relations practiced in this case?
- How should public relations be practiced in this case?
Coke Scare in Belgium
This case is written based on Taylor’s (2000) study on the Coca-Cola scare in Europe.
Globalization has increased the interconnectedness among countries—what an organization does in one country could affect other countries. Therefore, public relations must be put in an international and intercultural context to help organizations build and maintain organization-public relationships in an international context. Cultural variations could affect the relationship between an international organization and its foreign publics.
In 1999, Coke was involved in a crisis when school children in Belgium reported to have fallen ill after drinking Coca-Cola. Coke denied responsibilities and expressed doubts toward claims of additional illnesses. As a consequence, Belgium, France and Spain suspended the sale of Coca-Cola. But Denmark, Sweden and Norway did not.
Course of Actions
Taylor (2000) explored how two cultural variables, uncertainty avoidance and power distance, could explain the different reactions made by the governments in different countries. It was cited that in countries with high uncertainty avoidance, workers needed written rules to guide ethical decision making. Thus, in high uncertainty avoidance countries, there should be a formal code of ethics. In low uncertainty avoidance countries, on the other hand, informal codes should be prepared for employees. Power distance could affect whether an organization chooses one-way or two-way communication—it is about the acceptance of inequality. The interaction between uncertainty avoidance and power distance in a country could affect with whom and how an organization communicates to deal with a crisis. It reflects the extent to which its publics could tolerate risk.
As a U.S. company, Coke is an ambassador for the country. It did not accept responsibility, but it agreed to suspend the sale of the products. Its reaction received negative responses from the public. It took nine days for its CEO to acknowledge the problems and pledge to win back their customers.
Moral of the Story
One challenge in this crisis was that Europe was a highly complex region with countries’ having different levels of uncertainty avoidance and power distance. The key publics in the crisis were consumers, governments and shareholders. It was reported that Belgian, French and Spanish consumers stopped drinking all Coke-brand products; the government was ignored as a key public. These three countries scored high in uncertainty avoidance and power distance—they tried to avoid risk and did not trust those in power. In Sweden, Denmark and Norway, uncertainty avoidance and power distance was lower—they were more willing to accept Coke’s explanation for the crisis as more risk-tolerant countries. It was concluded that “cultural interpreters” were needed to build and maintain organization-public relationships in foreign host countries.
- What are the major takeaways from this case?
- How could Coke have handled it differently?
- Based on what theoretical framework could Coke be guided on its crisis communication?
- What international factors should have been considered in the application of the framework?