Ethics isn’t simply black and white
As PR practitioners, ethics is a topic that we take incredibly seriously. We have a privileged role as advisers, advising our clients on how to navigate the world of communications through an ethical lens. The challenge is that ethics is not black and white, there are many nuances and perspectives to consider. Is it a matter of opinion? Do we have a set of guidelines that are law-abiding and untouchable? How do we apply values and morality when they are very personal considerations?
Account Manager Chloe Chescoe and Junior Account Manager Katie Leach recently took part in a half-day CIPR Ethics & PR course, to learn more about the role of ethics in the communications industry and how it can sometimes be a little tricky to articulate. We asked them to report back on what they discussed in the course and to share any key learnings to help other practitioners going forward.
What is your understanding of ethics in relation to PR practice?
KL: Ethics is hard to define, but my understanding is that it’s the evaluation of a situation using a set of moral principles. In PR, ethics considers a set of values that are specific to the industry such as integrity, honesty, loyalty and respect.
CC: I entered the session thinking ethics was a set of guidelines you adhere to and you don’t question, but what I’ve learnt is that it’s not that simple. I agree with Katie, it can be a set of moral principles that are in the best interest of you, your organisation, your client and the wider public. One idea we discussed was ethics being as simple as holding a mirror to yourself and your organisation and asking what we want to be known for.
Is ethics a matter of opinion or should you abide by the ‘rules’?
KL: I think ethics is much more than a matter of opinion. It is an instinct within us that enables us to make a judgement on what is right and wrong. Commonly, we see ethics as a system of objective moral beliefs, whereas opinion tends to imply a subjective view that only states personal preference.
CC: We learnt that ethics asks you to balance your own interests with those of others. This links to ethics being a matter of perspective; every situation is different, and we must advise on situations individually. However, we all agreed that there is more to it than that. We considered that the reason ethics exist is that there must be a minimum standard. If there were zero guidelines, then how would we advise others? The CIPR Code of Conduct is our professional guidelines. We adhere to them, but we should consider that circumstantial elements may alter them slightly.
Another guide is our agency values, which are a foundation on how we aspire to behave. One of those values is that we act with integrity, always striving to overcome challenges to do the ‘right’ thing and deliver excellence to our clients and the wider community. We know that honest, transparent communication is critical to building trust and protecting reputations, especially when overcoming conflicts or driving change.
How do ethical decisions differ within different cultures?
KL: The way we view ethics differs from culture to culture because our moral values are heavily based on our experience, environment and upbringing – these three things are different for everyone. For example, if you are brought up in a culture where it’s common to turn a blind eye to dishonesty, you may believe that supporting a client who displays signs of dishonesty is okay or ‘not that bad’, whereas if you have been brought up being taught the opposite, that you must be honest in everything that you do, you will take a different view.
CC: We learnt about relativism. As Katie mentioned, this is where knowledge, truth and morals are not the same when it comes to different cultures. When making ethical decisions in PR, it’s not ‘one size fits all’, especially when culture comes into it. I believe that ethical frameworks should be flexible to incorporate cultural differences. What is thought to be ‘ethical’ in one country may not be the case in another. We can’t just ignore that.
Do you agree with the reflective equilibrium theory? (Intuitions and Principles)
CC: Reflective equilibrium is about analysing your intuitions against your principles. Are we committed to constantly revising our principles? If not, then I don’t agree it’s the best approach. You must challenge your own beliefs and revise them regularly so as not to become complacent. This is particularly important when we consider unconscious bias and when we face self-confirmation bias which, by its nature, is difficult to spot.
KL: I think reflective equilibrium theory is a powerful way to bring balance to something as broad as ethics. It requires us to evaluate our system of beliefs to decide whether we can justify them; this is effective because it gives a structure to follow when faced with an ethical dilemma. Whether this is the absolute best way to approach ethics, I couldn’t say.
What do you think is the best approach when advising clients on ethics?
KL: When advising clients on ethics, there are lots of things to consider. The course allowed us to discuss three approaches: rules (deontological), outcomes (consequentialism) and character (virtue-based ethics). The general consensus was that none of these approaches could work in isolation, but a mixture of all three would be the best approach when advising clients. Outcomes and virtues are important, but they can be subjective. So, including a set of rules can help structure your approach.
CC: I found this interesting, and it confirms why ethics is not black and white. Do we just follow the ‘rules’? Is it okay to withhold information in order to protect your client? Do we rely on the moral character of a PR practitioner in isolation? I would argue that they all depend on the situation.
What I found difficult here is that there really isn’t a right answer. We constantly look to follow rules, but when it comes to making an ethical decision, it’s going to be based on the circumstances.
What ethical considerations apply specifically to PR practitioners?
KL: My top ethical considerations specific to PR are:
– Freedom of the media
– Mutual respect
CC: I agree with Katie. PR practitioners each have individual roles and responsibilities, but the considerations Katie mentioned should be the minimum standard to practise ethically.
How will you apply your learning from this course?
KL: I learnt a lot from this course and will apply the different approaches when advising clients. When faced with an ethical dilemma at work myself, I will apply my learning in three ways: identifying the issue, reflecting on it (reflective equilibrium) and offering a solution.
CC: I think this course has identified that there needs to be more conversation around ethics. To play devil’s advocate, are we spending too much time trying to find the ‘right answer’ when there might not be one?
I believe it’s important to trust your intuition but having a community of likeminded individuals around you to challenge your thinking is beneficial to your growth as a PR practitioner as well as finding the right ethical answer for your clients.