Understanding organizational ethics: How PR professionals can steer a safe course

Through the Looking GlassImage by clspeace via Flickr

From PRSA’s Public Relations Tactics, Vol. 19, Issue 9/September 2009

By Linda Ld Jacobson, APR

Ponzi schemes, bank failures and million-dollar bonuses. The public barometer of trust in U.S. corporations measured a frail 38 percent for informed publics, aged 35 to 64, according to a StrategyOne survey in December 2008. Public backlash ballooned, erupting against those companies guided by a moral compass different from that of Main Street.
Under this public scrutiny, how can PR professionals assess whether an organization is steering an ethical course? And what strategies can PR pros implement if they find an enemy from within?

The Looking Glass

As a first step to understanding an organization’s ethics, PR professionals can perform a “looking glass” exercise that allows them to view an organization’s actions from two different moral perspectives, utilitarianism and communitarianism. In a utilitarian model, an organization stresses positive outcomes that produce the greatest good for the largest number of stakeholders, placing a priority on consequences. A communitarian ethic balances individual freedoms and social responsibility so that an organization’s decisions result from values expressed by its stakeholders.
To perform the exercise, focus both utilitarian and communitarian lenses on a particular corporate action, using PRSA member values: advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. Prioritize these values first within one model, then the other.
Jacque Lambiase, associate professor of strategic communications at Texas Christian University, uses this exercise to illustrate how the same values can produce very different outcomes. She says that objectively gauging corporate ethics is helpful for pros in the middle of a crisis or for those who experience a disconnect between corporate policy and corporate actions.

Red Flags

Unfortunately, when organizations begin to stray from an ethical course, PR pros aren’t always able to pinpoint the departure. But certain red flags can signal shifts in a company’s moral compass:
1. The organization’s decisions reflect an absence or low priority on ethics. Many organizations say that integrity is a core value, but the real test is whether the C-level emphasizes that value and demonstrates that behavior.
At American Airlines, Charley Wilson, managing director, external communications and international advertising, says that during a recent crisis, the airline’s CEO requested that a customer’s family receive the first communication, one of sympathy, before making any statement. That type of ethical leadership powerfully impresses employees. Indeed, a 2007 Deloitte & Touche Ethics and Workplace Survey revealed that 42 percent of employees believe that management’s behavior positively impacts organizational ethics. “We require our team to adhere to the airline’s standards of conduct, but nothing beats a leader who walks the talk,” says Wilson.
2. The organization does not show an overt commitment to ethics. Just because an organization says it is ethical does not mean it acts ethically. Ask these questions: Does the company corporately abide by a code of ethics? Are its values taken seriously internally? Is there infrastructure to support ethics or ethics compliance? Internally, does the company encourage open communications?
Reace Alvarenga Smith, APR, PR manager for Texas Health Resources, says that her organization places special emphasis on the company’s code of conduct, known as their company’s promise. “We provide monthly training sessions on what our promise means and behaviors we expect from employees,” Smith says. “Our promise gives us a filter by which we make all our corporate decisions and foster open discussions.”
Recent research undertaken by Jinae Kang, a doctoral student at The University of Alabama, reinforces PR perceptions of ethical practice in an open communications structure.
3. The organization lacks a robust fact-checking and approval process. PR professionals most often work collaboratively or cross-functionally when crafting communications. This means that attorneys, executives or coworkers review documents for factual errors or suggestions. If this process is absent, that indicates lax oversight. Wilson says that the airline’s Corporate Communications team complies with both the letter and the spirit of the law. If an issue arises, leaders at the company guide discussions, but decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.
4. The organization shifts responsibility. Lambiase points to an example in 2007 when a tiger at the San Francisco Zoo killed a visitor. “In addition to releasing incorrect information, the zoo director maligned the victim rather than focusing on the zoo’s responsibility to keep the public safe.” When things go wrong, ask yourself and your team whether the organization looks at its own role or assigns blame to others.

Ethics Strategies

PR pros who find themselves working with or for an unethical organization can employ a number of strategies, according to Dr. Karla Gower, director of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations:

  • Arm yourself with knowledge. Know the laws and regulations that concern the organization’s industry, especially laws dealing with communications. Be able to discern if something is seriously amiss with a company’s financial statements.
  • Prepare for a variety of crisis situations now. Once a crisis occurs, there is more potential for the legal response to take over at the expense of public relations. Gain buy-in now on the priorities for making appropriate and sensitive messages.
  • Trust your instincts. Don’t blindly accept assignments. Ask questions!
  • Begin a campaign for ethics. Occupy the role of ethics counselor, and campaign for the organization to adopt ethical practices.

What if the PR professional continues to grapple with conflicts or meets extreme resistance? Gower says it may be time to end the relationship. “It’s never easy to walk away from a job, especially in this economy, but at the end of the day all you have is your integrity,” she says. “You won’t get any thanks for staying loyal to an unethical company, not even when you end up taking the fall for others.”


Linda Ld Jacobson, APR, is the principal of Que Public Relations and an instructor of PR ethics at The University of North Texas. She can be reached at ljacobson@quepr.com or via Twitter @LindaJacobson.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

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]

Three reasons why PR is no longer the whipping boy

This is cross-posted from The Saltlick blog.

From marketers to journalists to mom bloggers, PR has traditionally been the favorite scapegoat of those in other areas of the communication field. Commonly referred to as purveyors of the “dark side” of communications, public relations professionals have dealt with a tainted label far too long. But that label is a non sequitur now, and here’s why:

1. The economy is a great leveler. Hoards of journalists have exited their profession – and at least some of them have entered public relations, a field they once castigated. I’ve watched this trend with interest and predict that more seasoned journalists will come to view public relations professionals with a lot more respect.

2. Digital deadlines and a “news now” mindset necessitate an alliance. News journalists simply have more to do with fewer resources. Today’s journalist must view PR professionals as a service-oriented commodity, necessary due to digital news timeframes. Newer journalists will welcome strong PR relationships.

3. The mommy blogger PR Blackout yielded backlash. Even Trisha, owner of MomDot.com, admits that she ill chose the name of a one-week campaign whose intent she *claims* was to encourage mom bloggers to get back to the basics of parent blogging. The ensuing conversation split the parent blogging community, yielded poor participation (latest estimates were 20 committed to participating) and had journalists like Cnet’s Caroline McCarthy declaring that “Working with the public relations industry is core to any journalist’s (and now blogger’s) job, as is the use of press releases and in some cases review products.” It’s a sure sign that whipping up on PR is passé and not to be done.

I also think that PR is naturally embracing strategic relationship management and expectations from an increasingly complex array of stakeholders and publics in a way that marketers and advertisers cannot in Web 2.0. Stakeholder demand for authenticity is placing PR professionals in the leadership role to define corporate values and to sustain interactive relationship building. The result is that the PR profession is building trust with more constituencies than ever before.

Taken together, these markers signal – to me, at least – a new era in PR, one that shows the value of the profession.

The How (Not) Guide to PR

This post is cross-posted on the LAF Blog here.

I blog a lot about PR tools, how social media affects PR and what we can do to be better PR professionals. However, what about those that are entering the PR field and wondering what tools they do need?

What about the tools they DON’T need? Let’s face it, not everyone is a rockstar PR professional, nor are they ever going to be. Many times, hard work and dedication will get you far in this field. If you don’t have the foundation, however, you won’t make it. Below are three points that won’t add to the next great PR pro:

1. I want to dress up, meet celebrities and like, host parties

sic_londonnyc_0 The public relations field is viewed as a glamorous all night party on many TV programs. With how my TV kids watch nowadays, it’s no wonder that many enter their college public relations programs thinking that’s what it is. Wrong. Public Relations does not equal solely publicity. Yes, you might plan events. You will be the one running around, making sure all of the details are seen to, dealing with any crisis and making sure that everyone is happy.

2. I have to write and research?

Yes. Two strengths I always tell PR students is that they must be able to write and research well. Most of my days are spent writing, researching and executing media relations. PR is all about getting the word out – and you have to know the market and your audience before proceeding.

3. “I’m a people person.”

Good for you – so is everyone else. Your personality can get you far in this field – but it’s through pitching, promoting a brand and landing media hits that will get you even farther. Many times, being extremely personable can come off as flirty and non-professional. There is a line – and you have to work for a brand that fits your personality.

So, what would you add?

*Photo copyright of HBO and Sex and the City.

Hack and Flack: Still Adversarial

Image via Wikipedia

From Andra Bennett, APR – Chapter President

My journalist husband and I have considered starting a blog called Hack and Flack, taking off on NPR’s Click and Clack but more like Mary Matalin and James Carville. Remember TV’s “Odd Couple” intro: “Can two divorced men {hack and flack} share an apartment without driving each other crazy?” Neil Hefti music up now.

Those sentiments were all in play at last week’s GFW PRSA luncheon when four publishers/editors of local weeklies [Lucie Allen, publisher/editor of the Spanish-language Panorama News; Lee Newquist, publisher of the Fort Worth Weekly; Blake Ovard, managing editor of The Star Group Newspapers, and Kay Pirtle, editor of the Wedgwood News] and an ex-ombuddy were corralled in a room of PR practitioners.

The weeklies were invited because Greater Fort Worth PRSA members wanted to hear how they were doing financially and how we could work together on news stories.

Oscar, meet Felix.

During the Q&A, Lee Newquist, publisher of Fort Worth Weekly, was asked how PR practitioners could be of the most value to the weeklies. As part of a longer response, Newquist answered, “PR companies, at least on the journalism side of what we do, are problematic because they’re in between (us and) the person with the real answer. I don’t want to talk to a PR person whose sole role in their career is to spin it and make it sound good.” There was nervous laughter from the audience, and several Tweets.

Blake Ovard, managing editor of The Star Group weeklies, echoed: “All of the cities have a PIO, and their job is to keep you from getting the story, so they don’t understand why I don’t want to talk to them. They say, ‘Well, I have all your information.’”

At this point, neck hairs began to bristle. Marc Flake, Tarrant County PIO, took umbrage with those statements and stepped forward. He related how he had facilitated the Weekly’s requests for a recent cover story by Peter Gorman that examined issues related to the medical examiner’s office.

“I was very helpful with Mr. Gorman,” Flake said, “and told him who he needed to talk to, gave him background, gave him all the documents (and) contract information he needed. I don’t stay between you guys (and county sources). I help you get the information you need.”

Spontaneous applause erupted from PR crowd.

I found the exchange refreshingly candid — and disturbingly enlightening. It brought home to me that the adversarial relationship between hacks and flacks is still alive and well.

Some may dismiss weeklies (and indeed all newspapers now) as non-influencers or think their constituents don’t read those papers, so who cares what they think? But with the market share of dailies falling and weeklies currently increasing, we need to have this honest dialogue to bridge the gap of misperceptions.

Maybe the panelists didn’t realize they were in a room with cream of the crop PRSA practitioners, who hold to a PRSA Code of Ethics,which state in part:

 

HONESTY – We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests ofthose we represent and in communicating with the public.

LOYALTY- We are faithful to those we represent, while honoring our obligation to serve the public interest.

FAIRNESS- We deal fairly with clients, employers, competitors, peers, vendors, the media, and thegeneral public. We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.

PR practitioners are obligated to our organizations / clients and their stakeholders as well as to the public interest. Journalists are obligated to the public’s right to know, their readers and advertisers. (Yes, advertisers were mentioned several times by the panelists as being quite an important audience.)

Here’s the rub: being honest and ethical doesn’t always translate (in the private sector, anyway) to being as “open” as some of us would like. This is due to a number of reasons, including proprietary information, SEC regs, security concerns and political sensitivities.

As PR practitioners, we have to weigh the benefit vs. risk of responding to certain media inquiries. Brave responders will answer even a hostile reporter in order to provide balance. But cautious ones will favor silence if media objectivity is questionable and they are mischaracterized or taken out of context repeatedly.

In our changing media landscape and diminishing dailies’ prowess, it would behoove PR practitioners to eschew derogatory terms for alternative or community weeklies (punk rags, podunk papers) and appreciate their financial strength and scope of influence among many constituencies.

By the same token, journalists should re-examine their broad-brush generalizations about PR practitioners as spinners and blockers. In light of shrinking news staff and resources, ethical PR pros provide information, assistance and access to high-level sources that will only become more critical for journalists who want to report the truth.

Read about the financial status of the dailies and the hack’s take on it here.

Related articles by Zemanta