Wrestling with Ethical Dilemmas

Cafe Terrace at NightImage via Wikipedia

by Margaret Ritsch

I’m chair of the ethics committee for the Greater Fort Worth Chapter PRSA (Public Relations Society of America). My big responsibility, and really my only responsibility in this volunteer position, is to put together a program focused on ethics in the fall.

All along I have wanted this program to be highly interactive — to really challenge us to carefully think through situations we face everyday in our profession that call into question our values and ethics. Now it’s just around the corner and I’m very excited!

On Wednesday, Sept. 9, we will run a full morning and lunch program with guest speaker Alan Hilburg called “Building a Recession-Proof Brand Communications Strategy Through Ethical Decision-Making.”

We’re asking everyone who plans to attend to be prepared to think through — and share — real situations and challenging questions.

We will work in small groups of four, following a conversational process that Hilburg helped develop called “World Cafe.” Sounds cool, huh? Brings to mind a little cafe on the River Gauche, smoke wafting from your Gauloises as you rereading your Camus and gaze at the stylish passers-by …. Back to Fort Worth. The program will be held at the Petroleum Club in our usual 39th floor setting overlooking the city.

Here’s Hilburg’s description of World Café:

“a conversational process based on a set of integrated design principles that reveal a deeper living network pattern through which we co-evolve our collective future. As a conversational process, the World Café is an innovative yet simple methodology for hosting conversations about questions that matter. These conversations link and build on each other as people move between groups, cross-pollinate ideas, and discover new insights into the questions or issues that are most important in their life, work, or community. As a process, the World Café can evoke and make visible the collective intelligence of any group, thus increasing people’s capacity for effective action in pursuit of common aims.

❧ Seat four or five people at small Café-style tables or in conversation clusters.
❧ Set up progressive (usually two) rounds of conversation of approximately 20 minutes each.
❧ Questions or issues will focus on ethics, ethical judgment and ethical decisions in life, work or community
❧ Each table has a host. Both table hosts and members to write, doodle and draw key ideas on their tablecloths or to note key ideas on large index cards or placemats in the center of the group.
❧ Upon completing the initial round of conversation, one person remains at the table as the “host” while the others serve as travelers or “ambassadors of meaning.” The travelers carry key ideas, themes and questions into their new conversations.
❧ Ask the table host to welcome the new guests and briefly share the main ideas, themes and questions of the initial conversation. Encourage guests to link and connect ideas coming from their previous table conversations—listening carefully and building on each other’s contributions.
❧ By providing opportunities for people to move in several rounds of conversation, ideas, questions, and themes begin to link and connect. At the end of the second round, all of the tables or conversation clusters in the room will be cross-pollinated with insights from prior conversations.
❧ In the third round of conversation, a new question is posed to deepen the exploration of the focus and again participants switch tables to synthesize their discoveries .

Round One Questions:
1. Write a definition of what constitutes unethical communications?
2. What is poor ethical judgment?

Round Two Questions:
1. What are examples of unethical language?
2. What contributes to unethical behavior?

Round Three Questions:
1. Describe the most unethical business situation you are aware of?
2. What are your most significant barriers to maintaining your own values when confronting unethical business situations?

Round Four Questions:
1. If you were going to create a PRSA Code of Ethical Communications, what would be the three most important elements of that work?
2. What are the greatest challenges in getting this Code adopted?

Please join us for this important, engaging learning opportunity at the Petroleum Club! The program begins at 9 a.m.; breakfast and networking at 8:30 a.m. Find out more and register at www.fortworthprsa.org.

More about the speaker:

Alan Hilburg, president and CEO of Hilburg Associates, is an award winning author, filmmaker, teacher and senior advisor in organizational transition communications and marketing. Now based in Northern Virginia, Hilburg lived in the DFW for many years when he served as president of the former Bloom Co. Hilberg is perhaps best known for his leadership, for over 30 years, as one of the world’s leading strategic institutional branding counselors assisting senior executive teams and boards of directors survive organizational transitions (crisis, litigation and the introduction and socialization of principles of values-based decision-making) while maintaining the continuity of their institutional brand objectives.Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Public relations being hurt by public’s cynicism about business

There were more than a few cringe-inducing moments in last night’s diatribe against public relations on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC. It is illustrative of the populist sentiments of the moment fueled by the tsunami of bad economic news and unfortunate business practices.

I hear and understand what Ms. Maddow and others who are raising their voices in criticism of investing in PR are saying. She is not alone by any stretch. Chicago Mayor Richard Daily thisweek took steps to cancel 11 PR contracts with the city. His administration had come under criticism for wasteful spending and PR was the poster child.

It is important that we as a profession listen to these scathing critiques. It is clear that there is a difference between what we believe we do and what the public believes we do. That is a fact.

So what did Rachel say? Take a look:

 

Rachel Maddow does her best impression
of Keith Olberman

Well, at least I’m not part of Burson-Marsteller! I’m sure they didn’t like to see their brand linked to virtually every bad thing that’s happened in this decade.

Michael Cherenson, who heads the national board of the Public Relations Society of America has written on this subject as well in his post, “An Ill-Considered View of AIG and Public Relations,” on the PRSAY blog.

“I…doubt very seriously that AIG is engaging public relations firms to soothe the taxpayers’ souls, or portray the company as just another innocent victim in the current economic meltdown. My guess, as it would be in any crisis, is that the reputable and highly qualified public relations firms working on AIG’s behalf are tasked with explaining what happened, what AIG is doing to fix it, why such steps will be effective, and why those steps will prevent future such occurrences. Only then can the process of rebuilding AIG shattered image begin.”

Even with the laundry list of “evil” that Maddow read, public relations can play an important role — not in seeking to manipulate or distract attention — but in helping an organization understand how it needs to change in order to rebuild trust. We help organizations align what they do with what they say they do. And we provide a clear understanding of what the public wants and needs from them so they can make the necessary adjustments in their attitudes and behaviors.

In times of trouble, organizations have a tendency to turn inward, which is almost never in the best interests of their communities. Public relations can be a catalyst for positive change and greater openness. How do we get that point across in an era of growing cynicism and distrust?

The Nuts and Bolts of Twitter Presentation

This is cross-posted from the Next Communications blog:

Here is the Twitter presentation for the Best of the Southwest Communicators Conference. The conference was put on by the Texas Public Relations Association and PRSA Southwest District.

As promised to the attendees, here is the presentation:The Nuts and Bolts of Twitter

The session went well. Unfortunately, we got a little side tracked a few times and the timing was a little off. I hope the attendees take a moment or two and check out the final few slides. Thanks go to my partner in crime and co-presenter, Terry Morawski. I would also like to extend a special thanks to our volunteer from the session (@mayday08) who set up her profile live for the group to see.

Let me know what you think especially if you were able to attend the session.

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USA Today book review slams public relations ethics

This post re-printed with permission via Dan Keeney, APR:

I have not seen the book, “PR: A Persuasive Industry: Spin, Public Relations and the Shaping of the Modern Media,” but I already hate it. So did USA Today, which featured a review of the book today.

I’m not one to normally judge a book without reading it, but I’ll make an exception in this case. Any book about public relations that includes the word “spin” in the title has a huge strike against it. You see, “spin” is a derogatory word that suggests that we twist the truth or distract people in the practice of public relations. It’s not a good thing. And it is not reflective of what public relations practitioners do.

So I agree with USA Today’s ultimate assessment of the book today:

“If you are looking for a book to conclusively answer your PR questions, keep looking.”

Now for Seth Brown, who writes The Rising Pun and penned the USA Today review of the book. I have sent Seth an e-mail requesting that he cite the source of the very damaging claim he makes in his review.

“A poll of industry insiders revealed that most professionals don’t feel telling the truth is a duty of PR.”

Umm. Say again? I am knee deep in public relations issues and research every day and I’ve never heard of such findings. I hope Seth responds, because that is interesting information.

The Public Relations Society of America requires every member to abide by the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, which was most recently revised in 2000. The preamble to the Code notes the primary purpose of such rules:

“The level of public trust PRSA members seek, as we serve the public good, means we have taken on a special obligation to operate ethically.”

The Code clearly lays out the common values that guide a public relations counselor, the second of which is HONESTY.

“We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

The first of the Core Principle described in the PRSA Member Code of Ethics is “Free Flow of Information,” which states:

“Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making in a democratic society.”

So Seth’s suggestion that public relations counselors are propogandists is troubling to say the least.

One more thing: the USA Today piece suggested that there is no universally accepted test for public relations counselors. That is incorrect. The test for accreditation in public relations that is managed by the Universal Accreditation Board is exactly that — a test of a public relations counselor’s experience, knowledge, proficiency and professionalism.

Of course, that does not mean we can have some kind of certification of PR pros. There is a little thing called the First Amendment that prohibits limitations on free speech (except in cases of public safety or hate speech). So, no, we can’t limit a person’s ability to hang a shingle and call herself a public relations counselor. But you can ask if she is accredited if you want assurance of her credentials and capabilities.

Also, check out yesterday’s post, Ethics: Doing the right thing shouldn’t be so uncommon.

Live Blogging PRSA Chapter Experiment

We have another excellent program planned today for the Greater Fort Worth PRSA chapter luncheon:

“There’s not only Natural Gas, but PR, in the Barnett Shale”
Presented by: Julie Wilson, APR, past president of the Greater Fort Worth Chapter PRSA, and vice president, corporate development, Barnett Shale Division, Chesapeake Energy Corporation

To say that Chesapeake’s public relations activities and some of Julie’s remarks have generated publicity, conversation and even some controversy, is like saying that Ike was a pretty good Texas thunderstorm. When the objectivity of Chesapeake’s new venture, Shale.TV, was questioned, Julie responded, “If we need to be a leader in brand-new media sources, we think that’s great. We’re willing to take the skepticism or criticism because we think time will prove this out. And we’re patient.”

Julie has graciously agreed to share her tactics and views with us and she’ll respond to questions during the luncheon.

And Now for Something a Little Different

As a service to our members and the interested community, I will attempt to conduct a live blogging stream in the next post for those that wish to follow along or those that cannot make the luncheon. My hope is that we can share with you some of the tacticts, strategies, and questions and answers that will no doubt be of interest to a large number of people. We’ll try this experiment and see if this is something we’d like to continue to provide for future programs.