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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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Buchholz, Evans, and Wagley (1994) argued that the survival of an organization depends on how successfully it makes decisions in the complex arena of public issues. An organization’s ethics statement gives leaders valuable guidelines regarding how issues are to be approached and what core values are central in the decision.

Many executives might not be cognizant of the role ethics plays in decision making.

Ethical values are often obscured by the phrase, “It feels right,” or “I know this is the right thing to do.” However, only decisions based on a rational analysis of communication options through the perspective of a philosophical paradigm achieve the necessary rigor to be deemed ethical.

Decision making in ethics should go beyond an intuitive analysis (Baker & Martinson, 2002;

Bivins, 1992, 2006; Gower, 2003; Parsons, 2004).


Authenticity means being the same on the inside as one appears to be outside of an organization, or even personally. Before one can be authentic, a manager of an organization must reflectively examine her own beliefs, values, and ethical decision-making paradigm, so that they

can be represented authentically in discussions with others. Rawlins and Stoker (2006) agreed:

“Being authentic requires a strong sense of self” (p. 426). The complex concept of authenticity is comprised of these three general concerns: transparency; truthfulness (veracity, honesty, or credibility); and genuineness, intention or a morally good will.

Transparency refers to being open with how business is conducted, meaning that operations are visible and understandable from outside the organization. Rawlins (2009) defined transparency as the opposite of secrecy. Transparency goes beyond the requirements of disclosure because it allows the organization not only to disclose but also to be knowable in its inner workings, its policies, its decision-making processes, its priorities, and its relations 72 with stakeholders and publics. Rawlins (2007) cited an industry study that found that the number one response among publics to the question “How can organizations rebuilt trust?” was “be open and honest in business practices” (agreement = 94%).

Honesty or truthfulness in public relations is vital to goodness. As the obverse of deception, truthfulness is morally worthy because it allows the freedom to make an individual choice, respecting moral autonomy, rationality, and dignity. To lie is morally unworthy because it erodes the fabric of society; if everyone lied, no one would expect truth. Only truthful communications can be generalized with equal respect for all people, making honesty morally worthy. Therefore, the principle of veracity holds that the truth must be told, even when ugly or not advantageous to an organization’s own desires.

Genuineness speaks to the heart of moral intention in that an organization is genuinely pursuing an ethical course of action, rather than using ethics as “window dressing” to keep itself out of trouble by appearing ethical. The organization wants to be ethical, and demonstrates that through its actions, rather than simply wanting to appear or seem good.

L’Etang and Pieczka (1996) posed serious challenges to the genuineness of an organization by questioning how respectful and symmetrical communication can coexist between an organization and publics given the power differential that exists between the two. The only answer to that challenge is to question the motivation of the organization in its communication and decision-making with regard to publics. If the moral intention is less than simply “to do the right thing” philosophers such as Kant would deem the action unethical (Kant, 1785/1993). He held that a morally good will is the only thing that can exist as an incorruptible good, in and of itself (Kant, 1783/1977). A good intention or a morally good will is the highest standard of ethics in moral philosophy.

Authenticity is comprised of transparency, honesty, and genuineness or a morally good will. Philosophers regard these concepts as prima facie good, or morally worthy in-and-of themselves, placing authenticity as a core concern of any ethical organization. Authenticity is to “be” rather than “to seem.” Rawlins and Stoker (2006) included the concept of authenticity as vital in public relations, along with sincerity and autonomy. They explained, “An authentic person is not as concerned with how well the message is received as much as how well it represents his or her true thoughts” (p. 426).

The Arthur Page Society issued a study in 2007 named “The Authentic Enterprise.” In that report, CCOs averred: “in a word, authenticity will be the coin of the realm for successful corporations and for those who lead them” (p. 6). The Authentic Enterprise advised that “values, principles, beliefs, mission, purpose or value proposition – must dictate consistent behavior and actions” (pp. 5-6).


Consistency is a deceptively simple concept. It is tempting to think of a definition of consistency that implies a rigid or even routine decision-making paradigm and little else.

However, understanding consistency in terms of the moral-philosophical meaning of the word signifies relying on a rationally devised and thorough means of analysis before any decision is possible. The analytic approach to decision-making renders snap judgments useless, and decisions based on feeling or instinct not worthy of being termed ethical in the philosophical sense. A reliance on enlightenment, modern, and rationalist moral philosophy means that decisions can be made from an understandable and consistently applied framework. A rationaleconomic model of decision making requires an enormous amount of research and information to arrive at an optimal decision; a bounded rationality model requires decision-makers to operate in an imperfect information environment in which all information or risks are not known (Sims, 1994). A bounded rationality approach, employed by morally autonomous decision-makers, results in the most enduring decisions in an imperfect information environment. By eliminating bias, capriciousness, selfishness, and other pre-influencing concerns from the decision-making process, publics can understand the decisions of management as both logical and defensible, even if they do not agree with the values or conclusions inherent in the decision.

In public relations, consistency raises the question of loyalty to an organization as an advocate versus loyalty to professional ideals as an advisor to the organization. Each perspective on the ideal, ethical role of public relations practitioners has merit, and each perspective has pros and cons. By maintaining a consistent decision-making process, moral philosophy engages public relations practitioners with the normative ideal of being autonomous, objective, rational decision-makers rather than simply advocating organizational positions. As difficult as the prospect may be to implement rational objectivity and autonomy in the real workplace, the mental exercise alone of attempting to remove bias, pressures, and other personal desires from the decision may allow practitioner to have a better view of the organization through the eyes of publics. Research of Baker and Martinson (2002) supported the argument for consistency of applying ethical paradigms, “There is a very real danger that public relations practitioners will too often play a dysfunctional societal role as professional persuasive communicators if they have not established ethical principles to guide their communication practices” (p. 18).

Establishing standards of ethical decision-making in public relations, and implementing that same standard consistently across issues and with varying publics produces a consistency that disavows capriciousness. Though complete objectivity is not possible in a human state, the philosophers who advocate this mental exercise realize that more thoroughly considered, respectful, and reversible decisions should ensue through the mental exercise of rational autonomy. When decisions consistently reflect thought on behalf of publics, in addition to the normal thought on behalf of an organization, they are consistently more respectful and inherently ethical than unobjective decisions.

Consistency allows organizations to build trusting relationships with publics. If a public knows what to expect of an organization because it has been consistently rational in the past, it tends to trust the organization to continue being rational and fair in the relationship.

Reflective Management

Combining all of these concerns of moral decision-making, as evidenced in the inherent good seen in the definitions of public relations as well is in a philosophical analysis of the field, helps define a normative ethic for the field. We can term the whole of these concepts reflective management and operationalize them in the model as seen in Figure 1. Reflective management builds on the positive social role established by van Ruler and Vercic (2005) while significantly expanding on the ethical role of public relations. This role is based in moral philosophy, the analytical means through which it achieves a normative ethical status, and it describes the normative role that public relations should play within both organizations and in society.

74 The Reflective Model of Ethical Public Relations Management in an Organization

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