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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Corporations and governmental organizations are communicating about a wide variety of environmental issues, including energy efficiency, waste, recycling, and green products or services. These organizations are talking about the issues internally through the intranet and employee newsletters, and externally through websites, news releases, annual reports, and customer newsletters. This suggests that the most popular audiences for environmental messages would be employees, the media, shareholders, and customers. A subsequent question confirmed that employees and customers are very popular audiences for these messages, but shareholders are much less frequently targeted with environmental messages. This study did not ask about media as an audience, which was a weakness. Other channels of communication that were used but were rated substantially lower were weblogs, social media (Facebook, MySpace), podcasts, wikis, and Twitter/microblogging. This was surprising given that environmental advocacy groups have a strong presence in social media and are frequently engaging in dialogue with communities in this space. Organizations may want to reconsider their social media strategies and weigh the value of communicating about the environmental initiatives through these channels.

The practitioners in this study rated their organizations’ environmental transparency as above average, with the highest rated claim being “My company wants key publics to know what it is doing in regard to the environment and why it is doing it.” Clearly the organizations that were more committed to transparency and to disclosing information to publics engaged in more communication about environmental issues. This may suggest that a greater commitment to transparency will lead to more environmental communication, though that does not guarantee the communication itself will demonstrate accountability and be useful for publics who are making decision about the responsibility of the organization. Organizations need to consider all dimensions of transparency in their environmental communication.

Comparing the ranking of environmental topics for amount of communication, practitioner knowledge, and practitioner attitude, it becomes apparent that the order of environmental issues is surprisingly similar. This suggests not only does the mean score of knowledge, attitude, and amount of communication correlate, but possibly the levels of each for individual issues may be closely related. As practitioners become more knowledgeable about environmental issues, they may develop a stronger attitude about the need for the organization to address the issues and this may lead to more communication being disseminated from the organization. However, it is also possible that these three variables may work in another order, and that mediating variables may be present in the relationships. Nonetheless, it is interesting to note that practitioners with greater knowledge and more positive attitudes tend to work for organizations that communicate more about the environment. This suggests that knowledge 59 about environmental issues may play a role in the amount of corporate and governmental communication about environmental issues and policies. More research needs to be done to explore the relationship between knowledge, attitude, and communication among communicators. Clearly, practitioners in this study have built their environmental knowledge from self-education, including news media consumption, visiting websites, reading books, and talking with others. However some knowledge was gained through formal education as well, including training, seminars, and classes. It may be valuable for organizations to offer training sessions and seminars in environmental communication to public relations employees. At the least, this will improve employees’ understanding and attitude toward environmental issues as they relate to the organization, and it may improve communicators’ motivation to develop campaigns and other communication around environmental issues.

The quantity and the transparency of environmental communication is important for corporations and government organizations because they are judged by key stakeholders in part by their social responsibility including their commitment to eradicate any impact their processes or policies on the environment. Not only will greater environmental knowledge cause public relations professionals to produce a better communication product, but it may also allow them to lead the way to greater environmental performance within their organizations.


This study examined the characteristics of environmental communication from corporate and government organizations, and it tested for a relationship between practitioner environmental knowledge, environmental attitude, and an organization’s level of environmental communication.

There were a number of limitations to this study. First, the use of survey data provides challenges in the interpretation of causation. While the author would like to say that practitioner knowledge predicts practitioner attitude and organizational environmental communication; that cannot be established with this data. Second, the sample in this study presented two problems. It was not a random sample, and the response rate was low. Therefore, the generalizability of the data is questionable. Third, personal environmental beliefs of practitioners were not measured, and therefore, their impact on practitioners’ responses could not be determined.

Future studies should further explore environmental transparency to solidify the explication of this concept. Research also should explore how organizations are engaging with different publics around environmental issues. This would help deepen our understanding of the environmental communication.



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62 The Nature of Good in Public Relations: What Should Be Its Normative Ethic?

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The discovery of what is true and the practice of that which is good, are the two most important aims of philosophy. -Voltaire (Goodman, 1997) Consider, for a brief moment, the ontological nature of good. 2 Communication is among the concepts that we can call good, or morally worthy in the eyes of philosophers who closely examine the question. It creates bonds between humankind, it allows us to organize, share and record knowledge; communication makes it possible to thrive and produce rather than to simply exist. Communication can be said to be an inherent good because in its purest form, that of good intent as opposed to deceit or malice, it leads to the shared creation of knowledge and truth.

What is the good in public relations? Can it both build trust and persuade? These questions haunt the public relations industry and its practitioners, those who hire public relations agencies, and the scholars who study ethics in public relations. By exploring the nature of good in public relations, I seek to help clarify what we really mean when we say “public relations ethics.”

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Defining the Field Examining some leading definitions allows the critical scholar to understand if the concept of ethics is included in public relations itself, if the authors assume public relations is ethical or unethical, if they use words implying duty or obligation versus public good to tell us what form of ethics they might prefer, or if an asymmetrical or symmetrical worldview underlies these definitions.

There are hundreds of definitions of public relations. As one, Heath and Coombs (2006)

defined it in this manner:

Public relations is the management function that entails planning, research, publicity, promotion, and collaborative decision-making to help any organization’s ability to listen to, appreciate, and respond appropriately to those persons and groups whose mutually beneficial relationships the organization needs to foster as it strives to achieve its mission and vision. (p. 7) Their definition is accurate and comprehensive, and does include an ethical vision for the role of public relations in building collaborative decisions and appreciating publics around the organization, akin to the duty of respect to which many ethicists obligate communicators. Heath and Coombs’ definition is normative in that it relies on relationships being mutually beneficial – an ideal state for relationships, but one not always possible to achieve. Class action lawsuits, boycotts, and other problems with mutually beneficial relationships are common in the relationships between organizations and publics. Still, the value of the definition offered by Heath and Coombs is that it includes the ethical concept of collaboration, meaning that publics have some control over the decisions that affect them. Also, the ethical concepts of listening and appreciating that are highly valued by modern philosophers in both rationalist and deontological traditions.

In offering an ethically rounded discussion of how to define public relations, Heath and Coombs emphasized a "smart" approach to public relations. "Smart" is an acronym the authors

designed to remind public relations practitioners to think of these considerations:

• Societal value and meaning -- focusing on the consequences an action can have on society

• Mutually beneficial relationships -- fostering the interests of all involved parties

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