Lesson 2: Ethics, Trust & Decision Making
The second lesson in an introduction to public relations ethics.
Why Ethics Matter
Beyond understanding what we mean by ethics in public relations, it is crucial to understand why ethics matter. Public relations is an industry that is built and contingent on trust. Without trust from clients, we will be unable to truly serve them. Without trust from key stakeholders, we will be unable to authentically build mutually beneficial relationships.
When public relations professionals seek to build mutually beneficial relationships, trust is the cornerstone ingredient. In fact, many studies indicate that trust is the single most important factor in determining long-term committed relationships between stakeholders and organizations. Maintaining trust among clients and key stakeholders necessitates that public relations professionals understand the ethical obligations of their relationship with each group.Next Page: Exploring Ethical Obligation
Exploring Ethical Obligation
Understanding the role and responsibility of public relations professionals to both clients and key stakeholders is something that has gained quite a bit of attention in recent years. Several models have been proposed to help professionals comprehend the obligations they hold when functioning in this society. A few of the prominent ones have been:
- The Attorney-Adversary Model: In this model, the public relations professional is perceived as having the same social duty as a lawyer. The majority of loyalty would lie with the client and it is the public relations professional’s ethical duty to represent them in the best light, no matter what. There have been some concerns with this model, as it seems to neglect the obligation of public relations professionals to key stakeholders. Rather than serving only the client, primarily looking out for their interest and benefit, many suggest public relations has a mixed-motive in serving both the client and the public.
- The Asymmetrical Model: While the Asymmetrical Model of public relations is declining, there are still many who perceive the industry of public relations to be defined by this construct. In this paradigm, public relations professionals are viewed as the protector of the organization’s reputation, taking almost a combative stance against key stakeholders in order to guard the organization itself. Similar to the first model discussed, this perspective of public relations ignores the obligation to the public. In addition, well-meaning but misguided public relations professionals who follow this perspective would run into ethical concerns as they make decisions solely to “protect” the clients reputation instead of focusing on mutually beneficial relationships grounded in truth and transparency.
- The Symmetrical Model: Often advocated as the strongest model, this proposes that there should be on-going communication between organizations and publics in order to mutually adjust and build relationships that benefit all parties involved. While scholars generally seem to support this model, recently there have been some questions about how public relations professionals can, in fact, truly serve both parties at the same time. In addition, when one group in the model (the client) tends to hold most of the power and money, is it truly possible that both sides have equal voice and impact on the decision? In light of this, another model has been proposed.
- The Professional Responsibility Model: This theory suggests that ethical decision-making should require professionals to balance the interest of the organization they serve with the interest of the publics impacted by the organization. Whereas the Symmetrical Model seems to suggest that communication and relationships should be built on mutual adjustment, this theory places the public relations professional in the center of the process. In this model, part of the ethical obligation of professionals relates to the profession itself. In light of this, the activities of a public relations professional are not contingent on the bottom-line, or swayed by the client who holds more power, but rather rests in the fact that the profession itself is to balance the interest equally of both the public and the client.
While many more models have been proposed, these represent some of the most commonly practiced or perceived. It is important to recognize that the level of trust a client and the public have of public relations professionals changes drastically depending on the model being practiced. If, for example, a public relations professional is only concerned with the bottom line or defending a client’s reputation at all costs, the public is not likely to trust any communication as authentic. Instead, it may be perceived as coercive or manipulative. On the other hand, if the client and the public both believe that the public relations professional is committed to building authentic relationships that are mutually beneficial for all involved, they will be able to maintain the trust. Public relations professionals have been considered to have a fiduciary responsibility to advocate for their client, providing a voice in the marketplace of ideas. This kind of relationship depends on leadership recognizing that the public relations professional is loyal and trustworthy with confidences. In addition, the public will be able to anticipate that public relations professionals function as a voice of conscience for organizational leadership, providing recommendations on ethical behavior that will directly impact key stakeholders. This expectation is why publics can trust that the public relations professional is committed to mutually beneficial relationships and not just serving at the will of the client without regard to key stakeholders.
Depending on how a public relations professional understands their obligations in this mixed-motive profession, different ethical choices will be made. Understanding the commitment to both the client and the public is critical to make the correct ethical decision and, ultimately, to maintain trust of all groups involved. Beyond understanding the obligations, however, several models for making decisions have been proposed to help professionals think through various situations they may encounter.
Ethical Decision Making Models
Sometimes, people consider understanding the obligations of public relations professionals as a science. The ability to apply ethical reasoning into a tapestry of various situations, however, is truly an art. In an attempt to address this, many scholars have proposed ethical decision-making processes, based on ethical frameworks previously addressed. The following are three popular models that are designed specifically for professionals to understand how to apply their ethical commitment in action. The following is a brief introduction to these decision-making models:
- Bowen's Model for Strategic Decision Making: This model for ethical decision-making is specifically designed to help with issues management. In other words, it helps professionals make correct decisions in a management process in order to avoid ethical problems and crises. In this model, Bowen suggests first ensuring that the professional is autonomous in the decision making process. In other words, it is important in this model that the public relations professional is free of outside influences that may change what choices they would make. Then the model guides the professional into making a decision based on considerations for the key duties to the client and publics. In making the decision, professionals are encouraged to consider whether others in similar situations could be obligated to perform the same way, whether they would still make the same decision if they were on the receiving end of the choice, and whether similar situations like this have been faced before. After making the decision, there is also guidance on how to communicate the choice. Questions that a professional should consider include “am I doing the right thing?” and “am I proceeding with a morally good will?”
- TARES Ethical Persuasion: Often, public relations professionals are communicating messages designed to influence values, opinions, beliefs and behaviors. When using persuasive communication, there are certain ethical obligations that the communicator holds. The TARES model is a guide for this kind of communication. TARES, suggests using the following acronym as a guide: “Truthfulness (of the message) Authenticity (of the persuader), Respect (for the persuadee), Equity (of the persuasive appeal) and Social Responsibility (for the common good).” In other words, the public relations professional needs to make sure their communication aligns with each of these five areas prior to using it.
- Potter’s Box for Decision Making: This is perhaps one of the most simple but often employed models for making ethical decisions. This model was developed by social ethics professor, Ralph Potter and is often used in a variety of professions. This process guides individuals through a four step process involving 1) examining the issue at play in the situation; 2) identifying values that should be employed, 3) recognizing guiding principles and 4) ascertaining loyalties that should be employed. This model is one that rests on professionals understanding principles, values and loyalties in order to be able to navigate the ethical choice correctly.
These three models are certainly not exhaustive. In fact, there are many more and they are valuable to learn in order to apply in various situations. The main thing to understand is that these models have specifically been developed in order to guide professionals who face a plethora of situations. Rather than expecting professionals to make decisions that are ethical on a case-by-case basis, the models provide a universal guide to understanding the ethical obligations held by this profession.
But are codes of conduct (discussed in lesson one) and ethical decision-making models enough to create ethical professionals?
The State of Ethics in Public Relations
Despite the growing conversation regarding ethical obligation and decision-making models, the industry of public relations still has a great deal of growth ahead in the area of ethical behavior among professionals. There are several reasons for this.
Lack of education and support: First, some have suggested that there is a lack of education and support within public relations professionals’ roles that inherently prohibits them from truly performing as a “voice of conscience” within organizations. When exploring whether senior level professionals felt that they had training that equipped them to provide ethical counsel, many voiced concerns over a lack of education in this area. Additionally, some professionals held to the perspective that public relations is an advocacy role, not a ethical counsel role.
For those that did feel that public relations professionals are inherently obligated to provide ethical counsel, a lack of access to key decision makers in organizations proved to be a problem. When public relations professionals are willing but not invited into conversations regarding an ethical decision for an organization, the role of ethical counsel is minimized.
Organizational culture: Second, organizational culture and structure has a profound impact on public relations professionals. While being a voice of conscience does require access to the upper management, the ability for all public relations professionals to have strategic input in the organizational decision-making process is crucial to the overall purpose of public relations in organizations.
While many organizations are just now beginning to recognize the full value and role public relations professionals play, a recent study by Neill and Drumwright found that there are things that practitioners should do in order to expand their ethical impact on companies. As previously mentioned, building and maintaining trust is critical to being given the opportunity to provide ethical input. Whether an entry-level position, mid-level manager or senior practitioner, every public relations professional should be concerned with maintaining trust with the relationships around them. In addition, professionals who are likely to have a strong impact on the ethical perspective of an organization view public relations as much more than a communication role. It is a strategic problem-solving role.
- Find ways to connect with key people: Finally, those who wish to truly exercise ethical counsel should find ways to informally connect with key people like those in legal, management and marketing. There needs to be a sense of courage and independence when delivering ethical advice, but also a deeply held trust in the relationship. Those who do not develop and purposefully pursue this kind of place in an organization will often lack the ability to engage in the ethical counsel component so necessary to public relations.
Finally, specifically for millennials, there is a unique perspective on ethics in public relations that will change the face of the industry. Curtin, Gallicano and Matthews found that young public relations professionals in agencies often value transparency and clear ethical rules when practicing in the industry. There is a desire for concrete guidelines and expectations so that they are able to maintain strong relationships among colleagues as well as with the public. In addition, this study found that a majority of young public relations people thought that education and training was useful or somewhat useful, while a little less than half felt the same way about codes of conduct. While the overall findings noted that public relations professionals entering the industry today have different values than older generations, there is still a strong belief in ethical decision making practices and, perhaps, the greatest commitment to deontological thinking among professionals. In other words, the professionals entering the market place today believe that they need ethical training, are eager for ethical guidelines and have a strong sense of duty, a commitment to transparency, and a pursuit of trusted relationships.
The perspective one holds of the obligations to clients and publics drastically impacts one’s approach to ethics. Where does loyalty belong? Who should benefit from the services of public relations professionals? What commitment do public relations professionals have to the public versus the client? Answers to questions like these reveal underlying beliefs about the very nature of the industry itself.
As an industry that is dependent on building mutually beneficial relationships, serving both the client and the public in an industry of mixed-motives, public relations professionals must pursue training in ethics. On any given day, professionals face myriad of ethical decisions. Understanding ethical frameworks, background and decision-making models allows professionals to have tools that can be applied in these situations. In addition, it is important that professionals carefully consider the structure of the organizations they join. Will public relations professionals be given a voice in decision-making? Will public relations professionals have the opportunity to truly impact ethical behavior of the organization? Finally, every professional has a personal responsibility to not only understand the ethical obligations of the profession, but to behave in such as way within their work environment that they can build trusted relationships among colleagues and peers, affording them the opportunity to truly fulfill the ethical role of public relations within organizational life.
Case Study: SeaWorld’s Response to “Blackfish” and Employee Behavior
This lesson focused on the role of trust in ethical behavior, ethical decision-making models and the way professionals perceive their obligation to clients and stakeholders. There is, perhaps, no better case study for this conversation than that of SeaWorld and their response to “Blackfish,” a documentary about the treatment of Orca whales by the organization.
While there is a significant amount that could be discussed regarding this campaign, for the purposes of this lesson we will provide a brief overview of the situation and focus in on a specific situation within the campaign.
In 2013, Blackfish was released for public viewing. The documentary focuses primarily on Tilikum, an orca whale that rose to fame in 2010 after killing his trainer during a live show. The documentary was designed to highlight the treatment of Orcas in captivity and the consequences of forcing these powerful animals to entertain thousands. In the years that followed the popular documentary, SeaWorld experienced many consequences including a drop in revenue, park attendance and partnerships with other organizations. As a result, SeaWorld launched a robust campaign to respond to criticisms including committing to $100 million in construction to double the Orca tanks, $10 million to conservation efforts for Orcas in the wild, in addition to efforts like #AskSeaWorld, designed to engage directly with key stakeholders and a dedicated website focused on responding to key points in the documentary. Many of the campaign efforts were criticized and the social media hashtag resulted in some problematic online interaction.
Course of Action
The primary focus for this case study, however, is on one specific tactic that took place in early 2016. Even though nearly three years had passed since the launch of the documentary, the organization was still facing severe impact due to damaged reputation. In February 2016, media reported that SeaWorld had sent employees to pose as animal rights activists to protect the company from “credible threats.” Following the media coverage of these undercover employees, SeaWorld released a statement that the board directed an end to the practice of employees posing as animal rights activists, but maintained that these efforts were meant to “maintain the safety and security of company employees, customers, and animals in the face of credible threats that the company had received.”
In acknowledging that actions should align with values and ethical commitments, SeaWorld’s chief, Joel Manby, issued the following statement:
We recognize the need to ensure that all of our security and other activities align with our core values and ethical standards. As always, the security and well-being of our employees, customers and animals remain at the forefront of our business practices.
Consequences & Moral of the Story
With the long history of accusations against the organization’s integrity and transparency, this specific tactic significantly damaged the on-going campaign to repair the organization’s reputation.
Allen, K. (2016, February 29). “SeaWorld Admits Employees Posed as Activists.” PR Daily. Retrieved from: http://www.prdaily.com/crisiscommunications/Articles/SeaWorld_admits_employees_posed_as_activists__20249.aspx
Bromwich, J. (2016, February 2016). “SeaWorld Admits Employees Posed as Animal Rights Activitists.” NY Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/26/business/seaworld-admits-employees-posed-as-animal-rights-activists.html?_r=0
Titlow, J. P. (2015, August 4). “SeaWorld is Spending $10 Million to Make You Forget About ‘BlackFish’.” FastCompany. Retrieved from: http://www.fastcompany.com/3046342/seaworld-is-spending-10-million-to-make-you-forget-about-blackfish
Consider and prepare responses to the following questions for discussion in class.
Please provide a one to two paragraph answer to the following questions:
- Compare and contrast the benefits and concerns that can arise with the four ethical obligation models described in this chapter.
- What is the purpose of having ethical decision-making models?
- What are some challenges that professionals face when providing ethical counsel?
Case Study Application Questions
Please answer the following questions after reading the one-page case study provided with this lesson.
- Reflecting on the specific tactic of sending in employees disguised as animal activists, what would be some ethical concerns that should have been raised from a public relations standpoint?
- SeaWorld’s response to why they had sent in employees undercover was to provide security. While they did acknowledge they should have used a tactic that aligned with their values, what is your perspective regarding the reason of safety being used to send in employees undercover?