«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
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Ethical Issues as an Important Factor within International Public Relations: Heuristic remarks on a Systematical Analysis and a Comparative Case Study from Five European Countries Dr. Holger Sievert (Zeppelin University / TU Munich / WWW Muenster)
IntroductionEthical questions represent quite a difficult subject within Public Relations. Of course, there already exist general, but significant commitments to PR ethics, such as the “Code d’Athènes” or the “Code de Lisbon”. Of course, ‘PR ethics’ is today an established subject within PR education as well as within PR associations worldwide. If you count the number of “Sunday speeches” on this subject, for example, everything seems to be going just fine within the profession. And of course, the new “Stockholm Accords” will have to address some ethical issues, too.
However, I strongly believe that this is not the case. The ongoing struggle over PR ethics in a country like Germany within the last year alone, shows this very clearly: One academic claimed that PR had a “licence to lie”, deception being in turn a fundamental part of the profession. And some practitioners tried and succeeded to produce blog content on behalf of a relatively large corporation without mentioning the management’s paying for the activity, an example of malpractice that precipitated a large media discussion and even brought PR associations onto the TV news and resulted in a number of magazine features (which normally never happens at all).
If we want to discuss PR ethics in a contemporarily relevant way, we need to examine not only a kind of “must do ethics” (“Pflichtethik”), but also “target ethic” (“Zielethik”). If we want to enhance and affirm the growing value of public relations for organizational success in today’s networked society, we also have to consider the overall function and responsibility of PR within modern society; it is simply not sufficient to consider it satisfactory to have merely fulfilled one or another formal standard in our behaviour. Therefore, the ethical question becomes fundamental for the future of PR.
And if we want to discuss PR ethics on an international scale, it is also very important not only to look at simple explanations of “good” and “bad”, but also to see this ethics within the context of their country of origin and their target-country. What might be very well-established and traditional in one context, might be very modern and open-minded in another – and vice versa. In other words: If we want to observe PR ethics on an international scale, we need to analyse it within its quite complex (cultural) context.
This paper aims to do so. In order to conduct the comparative analysis, the authors will apply a methodological framework developed originally by one of them. It was fully presented in the paper “From Back-Seat to Dashboard: The Global Navigation of International Corporate Communications”, presented at last year’s Annual Meeting of the Commission on Global PR Research at the International Public Relations Research Conference in Miami (vgl. Sievert 1 2009b). An older version of this argument also won last year’s IPR Bledcom Special Prize.
In his development of this concept the author argued that there is no comprehensive interlinking of PR knowledge with relevant expertise derived from other disciplines; in this light he proposed a heuristic analytical grid, along with its interdisciplinary application using the example of Media Relations. The current authors will first examine in detail the most important ethical aspects of each level of the heuristic analytical framework, and then use the findings to analyze the situation in five European countries as a first practical application.
699 The functioning of the heuristic framework A highly differentiated heuristic working model for social subsystem of ‘corporate communications is required for a full analysis of “International Corporate Communication” ICC. The model proposed by the current authors is based on four contexts, all of which are of immense importance when it comes to the navigation of Global PR activities (cf. diagram 1).
Diagram 1: Heuristic grid for analysis of (international) corporate communications Source: Sievert 2007, adapting Weischenberg 1992 The social subsystem of corporate communications can be represented by the layers of an onion, but also by a kind of “compass” showing the different dimensions of the model. There is space here only for a very short outline of these (for more details, please see the literature mentioned at
For each of these contexts within ICC, research can be carried out regarding the individual countries which are the targets of international communications. This research would consider the extent to which distinctions can be made between the contexts or the extent to which differences in other industries or corporate cultures flow from them. In this way, and for each communication situation confronted in practice, a grid could be developed that would cover all target countries, institutions, media and actors. PR agencies could use the grid as they planned and evaluated efforts and strategies. Exactly how many and which particular compass axes should be selected for an individual strategic communications goal would depend upon the situation in question.
Ethical aspect within the ICC framework and results for “typical” European countries The following section will present some initial results on the ICC compass for European countries, with specific regard to the ethically interesting aspects of each level. More general results concerning the featured countries will also be presented at year’s Miami session of the Commission on Global PR Research.
The selected European countries are Germany, the UK, France (on account of their being three of the largest countries within the European Union, and grounded as they are respectively in very different Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Roman cultural tradition), Poland (as the largest EastEuropean EU member) and Denmark (as an example for Scandinavia). We will order our discussion of the results by context rather than by country, so as to make a direct comparison easier.
Normative context The first context to be considered with regard both to the five countries and to pertinent ethical issues in PR, is the normative context. This context concerns the norms that are generally recognized within a media system (cf. Sievert 2009: 5). For this purpose, the model by Hallin and Mancini (2004) can be used to compare characteristics of the political and media systems in the chosen societies. The authors defined nine parameters, within which the general political perspectives and the media system in concrete are analyzed. The parameter with most ethical input in these seems to be “qualification of the communication profession”. This criterion considers
the degree of professionalization of the communication business (cf. Hallin & Manchini 2004:
Concerning this ‘qualification of the communication profession’, the media systems in Denmark, Germany and United Kingdom are self-regulated and show a high degree of professionalization (cf. Hallin & Manchini 2004: 67), whereas France and Poland have a less professionalized system (cf. Hallin & Manchini 2004: 67) (cf. Wyka 2008: 60). Within this discrepancy, there is (potential) space for ethical conflicts. Countries with a highly professionalized communication environment normally possess an own code of ethical standards and control institutions, which determines the duties of communication professionals on the one hand, and, on the other, ensures the quality of their work (cf. Whitaker et al. 2004: 31).
Therefore, it can be assumed that reliable content is provided; and because of this assumption an implicit trust develops between producer and consumer. Conversely, countries with a lower 702 professionalization in the communication profession may suffer from a lack of competency, proficiency and a negative public image (cf. Coombs et al. 1994: 24), and consequently find it more difficult to build up trust with their audience (cf. Harcup 2004: 4). Therefore, a high professionalization of the communication profession in a country can ensure that both morality and social standards are retained. Through this, if indirectly, it can secure ethical standards within the context of PR.
703 Structural context The structural context will focus on the target (or “sender”) institutions, thereby examining the financial structures and the cultural implications associated with them (cf. Sievert 2009: 10f).
Based on the work of Berglöf (1997), Williams and Conley (2005) and Mallin (2006), the target countries will be analyzed with help of five variables, which together cover the various dimensions of corporate finance and corporate governance. The most obvious variable with regards the current ethical question is “CSR orientation”. In this the authors consider how much emphasis corporations or other organization in the investigated countries place on corporate social responsibility.
In respect of this criterion, it can be seen that all the examined countries all place a degree of emphasis on ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR). Nonetheless, in this comparison, Germany, United Kingdom and Denmark show a higher priority on CSR than France and Poland (cf.
Schrott 2007: 87, Den Hond et al. 2007: 206, Perrini et al. 2006: 43, Hilz 2008:, 60 and Habisch 2007: 497).
A trend towards CSR within the investigated countries is undeniable. Companies are becoming increasingly conscious about their responsibility in a society, a consciousness which is in turn reinforced by a general increase in public awareness of the importance of ethics (cf. Idowu & Filho 2008: 127). The famous quotation of Milton Friedman’s, “The social responsibility of business is to increase profit” (NY Times Magazine 1970: 13), thus appears in view of this to be both outdated and incorrect. With regard to corporate communication, it is clear that ethical behaviour within the CSR context requires a regular, meaningful, and sustained communication, rather than a trickle of filtered, sporadic information (cf. Jonker & de Witte 2006: 214).