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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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Identifying moral exemplars is needed in order to increase the levels of trust. Edelman is one of the top public relations companies in the world. They base their services on education about how public relations professionals could increase company’s potential by increasing trust.

The whole public relations activity according to Edelman is to find and act on what people trust the most. According to 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer, trust is the most important asset for the companies. The 2009 Edelman Trust Barometer study reported decline in trust across all the industries, specifically in banking, insurance, automotive and media. Identifying moral 101 exemplars would not only provide examples for individual practitioners to reference but would ultimately strengthen the trust people have towards the public relations profession.

Research Questions The research strongly indicates the significant need for moral exemplars in our society.

The criteria that determine who and what a moral exemplar is has proven to be of a complex nature, one that is far-reaching and critical not only to sound moral reasoning in one’s individual lives but to those that we are collectively responsible for in and outside the professional world.

Moreover, identifying these exemplars in public relations would not only acknowledge those individuals that have lead the industry in sound moral reasoning but also provide a much-needed frame of reference for those entering and already practicing in the field. To date, there has been no research identifying moral exemplars in public relations. Therefore, the overall aim of this research is to identify which individuals public relations professionals consider to be moral exemplars in the field and if so, what are their characteristics. We propose the following

research questions:

RQ1: What are the characteristics that make a person a moral exemplar?

RQ2: Whom do practitioners identify as a moral exemplar in the public relations field?

RQ3: What makes the person identified a moral exemplar in public relations?

RQ4: Is there a person in the public relations field that is generally accepted as a moral exemplar in the practice?

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In order to answer these research questions, a convenience sample of public relations scholars and practitioners between the ages of 25-65 were randomly selected from PRSA and invited to complete a Web-based survey. An online survey was the research method used. The survey consisted of five demographic questions and four moral exemplar questions to define what a moral exemplar is; identify personal moral exemplars in public relation; identify those individuals generally accepted as moral exemplars in the field; and to identify attributes and characteristics of individual named. Participating professionals were emailed a link to an online survey developed using Qualtrics Survey Software. More than 1,000 public relations professionals were invited to participate in the study.

Using the constant comparative technique, a content analysis of the survey questions was conducted. After all data was collected, responses were assigned to individual units of analysis and placed into a set of conditional categories. Each new unit of analysis was examined and compared to previously assigned categories to see if inclusion in those categories were appropriate based on relevance and similarities between the units. If a unit did not fit into one of the previously assigned categories, a new category of classification was created. Researchers reviewed and compared all assigned categories to identify common attributes and characteristics among categories.



Survey Response Participating public relations professionals were emailed a link to an online survey developed using Qualtrics Survey Software. More than 1,000 professionals were invited to participate, and 65 responded.

Of the 65 valid survey responses, 30% were between the ages of 31and 45 and the second largest age group, at 29%, between 46 and 59. Eight-three percent of the respondents were white, with 6% congruently reporting the race of African American and Hispanic. Sixty-seven percent of the respondents were female. The survey responses further reported that 80% of the respondents were practitioners, with 16% reporting the status of practitioner and scholar, and 4% reporting only to be a scholar. The majority of the respondents have worked in public relations six years or more, with 34% working 11 to 20 years, 20% working 6 to 10 years, and 25% working 21 years or more.

See Table 1

RQ1: What are the characteristics that make a person a moral exemplar?

The respondents listed several characteristics that make a person a moral exemplar. Over half of the respondents (63%) reported that honesty was a characteristic that makes a person a moral exemplar, 39% also reported that integrity was a characteristic, followed by 23% reporting that community-minded/concern for others was another characteristic of a moral exemplar.

Additionally, ethical behavior (22%), accountability/responsibility (20%), and a strong moral compass (16%) were the other top characteristics to follow.

Using the constant comparative technique, a content analysis of the survey question, “Write down the characteristics, attributes, or traits that make a person a moral exemplar” was conducted. After all data was collected, 56 participants from the sample group answered the question and 204 responses were assigned to individual units of analysis and placed into a set of conditional categories. Each new unit of analysis was examined and compared to previously assigned categories to see if inclusion in those categories were appropriate based on relevance and similarities between the units. If a unit did not fit into one of the previously assigned categories, a new category of classification was created.

Researchers then reviewed and compared all assigned categories to identify common patterns and relationships among categories. Related categories were then combined and new categories created based on established characteristics of a moral exemplar. The respondents identified a total of 71 characteristics that make a person a moral exemplar. Many of the characteristics not identified in the top ten included, knowledge/intelligence, advocacy, following professional code of ethics, leadership, consistency, and passion.

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individuals as a boss, fellow-practitioner, or professor. Twenty-three percent of respondents could not identify a moral exemplar in public relations.

The respondents were also asked why they identified specific individuals as a moral exemplar in the public relations field. All of the answers were congruent with the characteristics of a moral exemplar that the respondents had previously listed. One respondent said of a fellow practitioner, “[S]he exemplifies everything I just mentioned previously. One characteristic she also possesses is that of integrity. She has this unwavering sense of integrity that no crisis or problem can rattle.” Additionally, many of the responses included specific illustrations of the conduct of the individual identified. A respondent said of former PR professor, “He has forgone jobs based on his moral convictions. He does the right thing. He stands up for others. He is kind and considerate and yet intelligent, a leader, and a person students can relate to. He demonstrates the importance of relationships, public, and moral decision.”

RQ3: What makes the person identified a moral exemplar in public relations?

The respondents were asked to name the characteristics of moral exemplars they have chosen in the previous question “what is it about this person that makes them your moral exemplar?” After analyzing the answers of 49 respondents, the characteristics they named were organized into four general categories: personal character, relationships with coworkers, relationships with clients, skills and relationships with public.

See Table 3

Personal character features were the most important to the respondents in their descriptions of a moral exemplar. The greatest responses were honesty, doing the right thing, following moral and ethical standards, compassion towards others and hardworking. Other character qualities were doing what was promised or “walking the talk,” common sense, optimism and sense of humor. One of the professionals summarized these qualities of her PR

moral exemplar by stating:

“She has more commonsense than any person I have ever met in my life. I believe she would never compromise her morals or ethics for anyone or any company – ever. She believes in doing the right thing and seems to have an innate ability to always know what the right thing is.” Another category that the respondents gave great emphasis was the relationships with coworkers. According to responses, a moral exemplar should be a person who willingly shares her wisdom and teaches by example, who is friendly, knows how to communicate well with others in the organization, puts people first, and treats everyone like a family. Such a person should not have an ego and should be open to suggestions of others and act on them.

Skills were named as an important component of a moral exemplar; however, they were mentioned less frequently. This category included an ability to balance work and private life, sports activity, professionalism, strong professional knowledge, ability to make ethical decisions and ability to make a difference. In the category of relationships with clients a moral exemplar is seen as a person who would only work with the moral clients.

104 Additionally, the balance is not just important in the personal life but in managing relationships with public. Some of the most important qualities in this category were getting the truth to public and balancing between the interests of the public and interests of the company.

RQ4: Is there a person in the public relations field that is generally accepted as a moral exemplar in the practice?

After all data was collected, 41 participants from the sample group answered the question “is there a person or people in the public relations field that is generally accepted as a moral exemplar in the practice?” Sixteen participants (49%) responded that they did not know or could not think of anyone specific. A few respondents reported that public relations professionals who work in nonprofit organizations and military public relations professionals could be named as exemplars as well. One person mentioned that APR designated PRSA members who agreed to stand by the Code of Ethics are also great candidates for the position of moral exemplar. Some of the respondents reported that they considered the CEO’s of large public relations firm to be exemplars in public relations stating, “I think in general the legends are those whose names are on the doors of the best firms across the country.” When looking at the background information of the people who were named moral exemplars, most of them were CEOs of small and large public relations agencies, many of which are named after them. A few work in governmental public relations and interestingly enough the current President of the United States was also mentioned among the moral exemplars identified.

Discussion and Conclusion

This research sought to find who were the moral exemplars in PR. A survey of 65 professionals was taken. We found that as with other professions, moral exemplars do exist and have had a significant role in the public relations field. In citing the works of Gardner et al.

(2001), Baker (2008) addresses this very concern of “the loss of powerful ‘heroic’ role models that inspire the young members of a profession…” (p. xi) and further suggests the need for such a role in the public relations profession. We also found that the PR professionals that were surveyed were able to identify key characteristics of a moral exemplar. Moreover, we found that while the majority of participants were able to identify a person as a moral exemplar or someone they look to that has those key characteristics of a moral exemplar, they were not able to identify an individual that was generally accepted as a moral exemplar in the public relations field.

When public relations professionals were asked to identify the characteristics or attributes that make a person a moral exemplar, the majority of respondents identified honesty (65%) as an important characteristic. The second largest response was integrity (39%). In prior research (Boyton, 2006), honesty was identified as one of the important values to have by public relations professionals. It is also one of the six core values listed under the PRSA Code of Ethics. These results are congruent with current research that suggests that integrity is one of the key criteria of a moral exemplar (Hart, 1992; Rugeley and Van Mart, 2006). Both characteristics engender the criteria necessary for one to be deemed a moral exemplar.

In response to the questions who and why specific individuals were identified as personal moral exemplars, the participants indicated that the presence and influence of a moral exemplar in one’s personal and professional life is vital to the existence of society. The respondents that identified a moral exemplar reported the close relationship they had with the moral exemplar and 105 could specifically account incidents in the moral exemplar’s life or work experience that exemplified a “heroic” act on their part.

The results of this research showed that the moral exemplars in public relations are people who are honest and stay dedicated to their moral standards no matter what. When describing the qualities of moral exemplar, the respondents were using their actions to describe why they deserve being a moral exemplar. To show the ability of a professional to balance their work and private life, one respondent described a successful businesswoman who had five children; other examples included the ability to multitask and participation in multiple activities such as political life or pursuing athletic goals. The ability to make good choices and do good works is what also determined a person as a moral exemplar.

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