«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
857). These correlations underscore the premise of virtue ethics. Baker (2008) suggested that continually performing virtuous behaviors not only builds virtue but also results in virtuous habitual acts. Therefore, it is in the synthesis of good character and habituated good acts that the moral exemplar is created.
Another key element of a moral exemplar’s good character and action can be found in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. The last stage of moral development, the postconventional stage, is considered the most advanced and the most difficult to achieve. It is in this stage that an individual becomes aware of the autonomous nature desired to sound ethical decision-making. It is here that the individual engages in principled moral reasoning. They often choose principles of action and then commit to them personally. Kohlberg (1971) states, At this level, there is a clear effort to define moral values and principles that have validity and application apart from the authority of the groups and persons holding these principles, and apart from the individual’s own identification with these groups. (p. 625, as cited by Kline and Woloschuk, 1983) When an individual reaches this stage, they will have committed to certain universal principles or codes of ethics. Goree (2000) suggests that moral development allows one to look inwardly and address more difficult questions of ethical decision-making. It is here that the one begins to design a set of moral standards that is completely their own. As a person delves deeper inside to make sense of an ethical issue they are facing, they not only become aware and sensitive to the decision at hand but they naturally couple and connect their own personal standards with those being questioned. Goree (2000) further stated, Moral reasoning skills tend to mature from concrete to abstract, just as other reasoning abilities and cognitive skills do. In this light, moral development is not really about what you do, it is about why you do what you do, or more precisely, it is about how you think.
(p. 102) The assumptions postulated by moral development theory are foundational to the character of a moral exemplar, which leads to the actions performed. In many instances, the actions of a moral exemplar are predetermined by their character and standard of morality previously set and practiced. However, it should be equally noted that the ability to be deemed a moral exemplar is not an event but a process. A moral exemplar is renown for their countless acts of good that occur over time.
Why does the individual look to moral exemplars?
By the very nature and definition of a moral exemplar outlined here, the moral exemplar represents a very small number of individuals in our society, which perhaps accounts for their paucity and uniqueness amongst the masses. William James (1902) stated that one’s ‘‘common instinct for reality... has always held the world to be essentially a theatre for heroism’’ (as cited in Sullivan and Venter (2005), p. 101). Our society is one in which the existence of a hero or in this case a moral exemplar is necessary or quite vital to the world we live in. Their very existence gives one hope for a better future and hope that as individuals or collectively we can 98 build a better social system. This idea of the “hero” has been a point of reference (Schlenker B.R., Weigold, and Schlenker K.A., 2008) for most people since childhood. However, as one transitions into adulthood, heroes become more tangible, someone identified through religion, family, or a profession.
Another reason individuals look to moral exemplars lies in the need to create and nurture a social system of order and cohesiveness – a moral community. In research examining advertising practitioners and issues of ethical decision-making, Drumwright and Murphy (2004) posited that actions or choices made are more complex and far-reaching than at the individual level and are inclusive of those concepts that define and make up the social systems that surround us. When looking at the developing character of a moral exemplar, then the individual codes of morality one develops and adheres to affects and influences those universal standards set forth by society. Inherently, it is a combination of individuals’ personal set of codes that build social systems. Pojman (2006) said, “Morality is also closely related to law and some people equate the two practices” (p. 3). Each individual has a will that makes law for itself as if for everyone. Since humanity, together, legislate the moral law, we thus form a moral community, “A Kingdom of Ends” (Baker, 1999). Sullivan and Venter (2005) further suggested that individuals look to heroes or exemplars because “[t]hrough their deeds, they become exemplars for the model citizen; thereby promoting cohesiveness and social integration within the societal framework they represent” (p. 102).
Another crucial reason that the individual looks to the moral exemplar is in an effort to compare and check one’s own moral character. Sullivan and Venter (2005) pointed out that, “People regularly garner information about themselves and their abilities through comparisons with others” (p. 102). As an individual compares themselves to those they consider to be moral exemplars they are constantly measuring their own moral temperatures, seeking to equalize or balance theirs with their moral exemplars. This is moreover achieved through imitation and mirroring. Schlenker, Weigold, and Schlenker (2008) stated, “[Comparisons] can also serve as inspiration to motivate self-improvement, produce the glow of basking in their accomplishments, and even enhance self-evaluation through assimilation” (p. 326).
Moral exemplars in professional fields In the professional world, many scholars have examined moral exemplars in various fields. They are determined to identify who these individuals may be and how they became frames of reference for professionals in the workplace. It has also been a goal to understand the moral functioning (Walker, 1999) of those individuals. In research on moral exemplars in the computing profession, Huff and Barnard (2009) posited that one’s moral career is determined based on those moral characteristics and values assumed by an individual, stating, “Each of the exemplars is attempting to achieve goods that are central to their conception of who they are as a computing professional” (p. 52).
The research about moral exemplars in the professional world is in its beginning stages.
Further in-depth examination is needed to establish frames of reference for a moral exemplar, which will prove vital in professions that engage daily in actions that require sound moral reasoning to not only benefit the organization they serve but also to society as a whole.
For society to evolve to place in which the greater good can truly serve the greater whole it will take more than a few good men and women, but a profusion of followers, if you will, that have adopted a blueprint of sound moral principles that guide decisions made and actions performed. Moral exemplars are a necessity and crucial to the balance in personal and 99 professional ethics. Louis Pojman (2002) said, “The saints and moral heroes are the salt by which the world is preserved” (p. 164). As the prior research (Sullivan and Ventor, 2005) has posited, individuals look to moral exemplars not only as a measure of self and improvement thereof but there is a connected consistency that bonds society and those that desire to participate therein. This again speaks to the vital weight mankind has placed on the moral exemplar;
therefore, an even more significant need for not only points of reference and imitation on one’s part but the production of more exemplars in our society.
Moral reasoning and Public Relations practitioners For a long period of time, public relations was perceived as a middle ground between propaganda, advertising, marketing and journalism. Professionals who come to public relations from these fields brought rules, traditions and standards of ethical reasoning from those professions. Today, public relations has a number of definitions that keep changing with the appearance of social media and merging between communication professions. With so much uncertainty in the profession, defining moral exemplars could be a difficult task. One of the issues that the public relations professionals face, is defining their role among similar fields such as marketing and advertising. Fitzpatrick & Gauthier (2001) explained that “the field has done a poor job in defining what public relations professionals do in justifying their value and worth to society” (p. 195).
Despite the uncertainty in the profession, public relations has a professional code of ethics. Lieber (2008) discussed that the presence of the professional code of ethics and its enforcement are important elements when defining a profession. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) code of ethics serves as an example of moral reasoning in the United States and professional associations in other countries. The code states that “ethical practice is the most important obligation of a PRSA member” (PRSA, 2000). However, the challenge is in the absence of any form of enforcement of the code. Additionally, with the increasing globalization of public relations, there is a growing challenge in defining international ‘ethical’ standards (Lieber, 2008). These challenges combined, suggests the significant need for more defined ethical guidelines and decision-making processes (Lieber, 2008).
While there is a benefit in such regulation as a code of ethics, there is a question of whether there are people in public relations who serve as examples of keeping and improving this code of ethics. There are a number of ethical articles and blogs with recipes and “easy steps” for principled public relations practice. However, researchers have contended that there is a need to look deeply into “broader theories of moral philosophy” (Boyton, 2006) in order to develop better moral guiding principles. Cabot (2005) acknowledged that most of the ethical research has been done by the professionals in moral philosophy and moral psychology. These two disciplines created a basis for moral regulation of work ethics theory and practice. Other professions that have contributed to the construction of the moral and ethical research were dentistry, nursing, and accounting. In research by the Center for the Study of Ethical Development, public relations professionals were listed in the top ten professions that have to deal with the most ethical decision-making issues. Public relations professionals came only after journalists and dentists (Coleman and Wilkins, 2004).
Characterizing ethics in public relations, Boyton (2006) found that the most important values for public relations professionals are truth, honesty, respect, fairness and accountability which go along with six values of PRSA Code of Ethics: honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. These values may be key components in identifying and framing moral 100 exemplars in public relations. Such high levels of the ethical and moral intelligence require appropriate professional preparation. However, the research shows that new graduates are more likely to receive such ethical training when entering public relations field. Boyton (2006) stated that public relations students “reason about moral situations at a level comparable to advertising professionals (and accountants, for the matter)” (p. 330). While the most important skill for entry-level public relations jobs is press release writing, it is possible that in their classes, students have disregarded the critical nature of ethical decision-making. In order to better prepare for their professional life and see the advantage of sound moral reasoning, there is a need for public acknowledgement of the moral exemplars in this profession.
Even though it might seem that those professionals who work in private business, agencies and corporations would have substantial differences in how they view ethics, Lieber (2008) argued that “moral development in public relations significantly differ based on job segment” (p.244). The research concluded that the only difference was found in the level of education. Additionally, it was concluded that there was a gap between corporate and agency practitioners in comparison to academic professionals.
Addressing the bad reputation public relations professionals have as “spin doctors,” Fitzpatrick & Gauthier (2001) stated that “public relations professionals continue to be plagued by charges of unethical conduct” (p. 195). The author compares the usage of public relations to the usage of guns. Like guns, public relations campaigns could be both used for ethical and unethical purposes. Baker (2001) stated that the public might have good reasons for such mistrust since “the public-with good reason- has come to recognize that too frequently the goal in persuasive communication centers around exploiting them” (p. 151).
And just like guns, public relations is often used in extremely negative and chaotic situations to protect, or in the case of ‘black PR,’ to hurt others. Fitzpatrick & Gauthier (2001) noted that because public relations professionals often work with highly intense and negative circumstances, the practice actually takes these negative attributes by association, stating, When an institution is the subject of public criticism for perceived irresponsible behavior, the public relations representative shares the blame—regardless of his or her involvement in or knowledge of alleged bad acts. This “guilt by association” has become increasingly detrimental to the public relations industry as more and more organizations fail to meet public expectations (p. 195).
On the other hand, public relations is a known tool in bringing to reality the goals of charitable organizations by providing cheap tools for raising public awareness. Also, the profession serves as the strongest democratic tool in providing a dialog between nations and their governments, companies and their stakeholders. While some perceive the duty of public relations is to serve the public interests, others consider public relations professionals as the voice of corporations. Both of these opinions are correct and the profession acts under dual roles and perceptions. It is common for this duality to decrease trust in the profession and further clouds the process of identifying moral exemplars in this field.