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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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Forty respondents commented on the scenarios. One said, “I honestly don’t think these sorts of things happen,” but five said they had faced similar situations at work. In terms of how problematic they found the situations, comments ranged from “I wouldn’t work at a PR agency that was using these tactics” to “These aren’t that big of a deal.” The four respondents who believed that the situations were unethical used deontological reasoning, with transparency the principle used. The eight respondents who thought the scenarios were not ethically challenging used utilitarian reasoning (e.g.,“Pretending to be a volunteer is just what a reporter will do to get a good story. I don’t think anyone is really getting hurt.”). The other main theme that emerged came from six respondents who said they would pretend to be a member of the activist group if they agreed with the group’s goals;

they didn’t assume that they would be asked to monitor the group precisely because it was problematic for the client.

235 Some respondents (14.2%, n = 33) skipped the scenarios, although 10 contributed comments.

Six respondents said they didn’t answer because they didn’t believe the choices provided were sufficient. They said, “There is almost always another solution” and requested “more information” and “deeper looks.” Four said they didn’t answer because they would never face these situations;

they wouldn’t work for an agency that asked such things of its employees. As one said, “Our agency holds tight to our core values. No one in my agency would ask me (or participate) in any of the above actions.” Another added, “I would not want anything to do with [these situations] and would seek solutions to stop them. If I got fired, I would take pride knowing that I did the right thing...

although that doesn’t pay the bills.”

Applying Bowen’s Model

The first step of Bowen’s (2005) model requires subjects to ask themselves whether they are autonomous by considering whether they are being guided by political influence, monetary influence, or pure self-interest. Respondents were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed with statements such as the following: “Because of internal politics in my workplace, I make decisions about ethical issues that I am not entirely comfortable with.” Most respondents thought they were autonomous, with few believing that workplace politics, the need for job security, or personal ambition led them to make decisions about ethical issues with which they were not entirely comfortable (Table 2). Workplace politics garnered the highest level of overall agreement (15%) as an influential factor in making at least slightly uncomfortable ethical decisions, followed by the need for job security (12%) and personal ambition (7.5%).

TABLE 2: The Relative Role of Autonomy Factors in Ethical Decision Making

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When Millennials were asked to rate the impact of these autonomy factors on their ethical decision making, however, the order changed (Table 3). In response to questions such as “To what extent do internal politics at your workplace affect the ethical decisions you make?” almost a third (31.3%) thought the need to keep their jobs was a significant influence, closely followed by personal ambition (29%). Only 13.4% fingered workplace politics as having a significant impact on ethical decisions.

TABLE 3: Degree of Impact of Autonomy Factors on Ethical Decision Making

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ethical decisions, rather than less ethical decisions, with personal ambition demonstrating the clearest demarcation of a positive influence on ethical decision making.

TABLE 4: The Influence of Autonomy Factors on Ethical Decision Making

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No significant differences emerged by gender with regard to the impact of workplace politics, the need for job security, or personal ambition. Minorities, however, reported feeling a significantly greater impact from issues of job security (t = 2.31, df = 173, p =.022) and personal ambition (t = 2.08, df = 171, p =.039) than did non-minorities.

According to Bowen’s (2005) model, practitioners who can rule out political influence, monetary influence, and pure self-interest can proceed to seeing if the ethical decision they are about to make would receive an affirmative answer to six questions (practitioners who cannot rule out political influence, monetary influence, and pure self-interest should “defer the decision to another issues manager” or “use group consensus decision making” (p. 193). Based on the pretest, changes were made to the wording of four of the six questions. Bowen’s question, “Could I (we) obligate everyone else who is ever in a similar situation to do the same thing I am about to do (we are about to do)?” was slightly adjusted to “Should everyone else who is in a similar situation do the same thing I am about to do?” In addition, Bowen’s question, “Would I (we) accept this decision if I (we) were on the receiving end?” was changed to “If I were the customer (or other public), would I accept this decision?” Also, Bowen’s question, “Am I proceeding with a morally good will?” was changed to “Am I proceeding with good intentions?” Finally, Bowen’s question of “Are dignity and respect maintained?” was changed to “Will the dignity and respect I have for myself and others be compromised by this decision?” This last question would now require a negative answer, rather than an affirmative answer, to pass the test. We did not change the other two questions, which include “Have I (we) faced a similar ethical issue before?” and “Am I doing the right thing?” Respondents found all six of the model’s questions to be useful. Responses for finding the model’s questions to be useful ranged from 60.2% for the question about having everyone in a similar situation do the same thing the practitioner is considering to 93.7% for the question about not compromising dignity and respect for self and others (Table 5). Conversely, about a fifth of the respondents did not find the test that would require everyone in a similar situation to do the same thing to be useful, and about 15% did not find putting themselves in the other’s shoes or relating to a similar situation to be useful.

TABLE 5: Perceived Utility of Bowen’s Six Principles for Ethical Decision Making

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Although previous literature suggests men would find the model more useful than women would, women were significantly more likely than men to find the questions about doing the right thing (t = 2.23, df = 168, p =.027), requiring everyone in a similar situation to do the same thing (t = 2.50, df = 171, p =.020), and proceeding with good intentions (t = 3.16, df = 171, p =.002) to be helpful. No significant differences were found between minorities and non-minorities on these measures.

Correlations were run to determine if workplace politics, job security, or personal ambition were related to the perceived utility of the six tests (Table 6). Workplace politics did not significantly correlate with any of the measures. Those who believed job security was an issue they faced were significantly less likely to find treating themselves and others with dignity and respect to be useful.

Personal ambition was significantly negatively correlated with the utility of four of the six principles:

putting themselves in the other’s shoes, asking if they were doing the right thing, proceeding with good intentions, and not compromising their own or others’ dignity and respect.

TABLE 6: Correlation of Autonomy Factors and Six Principles

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A total of 30 respondents commented on this section of the survey, and we summarize the main themes here. Six respondents said they didn’t feel pressured at work, for example I’ve actually found (and appreciated) that my agency strongly considers my personal opinion of what is ethical. I haven’t been in many situations where I’ve needed to make decisions based on ethics, but when I was, I was pleased to see that my employer appreciated my thought process and input.

Many more respondents, however, blew the whistle on what they believed were unethical actions either committed by their employers or asked of them by their employers. Among these, six mentioned the phantom experience (i.e., inflating credentials and capabilities). One participant wrote, “Sometimes my employer makes me tell clients that I have more work experience than I really do.” Five mentioned financial misdeeds. One commented My employer has a bad habit of taking clients to dinner and offering to pay. When we return to the office the next day, I am given the receipts and told to complete an expense report and bill the total charge to the client under “administrative costs.” This is both unethical and unprofessional, and when I voiced my concern, I was told that “all the agencies do it—it’s no big deal.” It is unfortunate that lying to clients is considered acceptable practice.

Another who mentioned financial misdeeds said, “I felt I had no choice but to comply with his requests in order to keep my job.” Five respondents mentioned lying to clients separate from the phantom experience and financial misdeeds, including “I was told to lie about feedback I’ve gotten from reporters about the level of ‘newsworthiness’ of an announcement.” Three others mentioned media relations issues, including puffery and “relentless” pitching to uninterested journalists.

238 One respondent was asked to astroturf for a client but simply neglected the assignment, noting, “Thankfully, my supervisor never asked about it or followed up with me on the project.” Two mentioned problems because their values did not align with those of the client in terms of environmental or corporate responsibility, leading one to conclude that “Public relations was fun in college to learn, but it’s not fun to do.” Overall, the comments revealed a distinction between those who felt they had autonomy on the job and those who didn’t, such as the respondent who wrote At this point in my life, a job is a job, and in terms of ethics, I’ll do what I have to do to keep my job, my personal feelings will take a back seat. With the economy so bad, it’s just one of those things. I can’t afford to let my personal feelings complicate my career.

The Role of Education/Training and Codes

In terms of the utility of education/training and the PRSA code of ethics, most respondents (73.6%) rated education/training highly, while not quite half (46.7%) rated the code highly (Table 7).

Only 10% didn’t find education/training useful, whereas 23.2% didn’t find the code useful.

TABLE 7: Perceived Utility of Education/Training and PRSA Code of Ethics in Ethical Decision Making

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Fourteen respondents commented on this section. Among them, two mentioned that family values and upbringing were the major factor that guided their ethical decision making. Three mentioned teachers who had stressed ethics and inspired them to think more about ethical issues.

Four mentioned they were not familiar with PRSA’s code of ethics, even though at least one of these mentioned being a PRSA member. Three stated that the code simply wasn’t helpful because it wasn’t enforced, wasn’t the focus of PRSA activities, or simply wasn’t practical: “PRSA is a nice organization but when making day-to-day decisions, but you’re not going to bring up the ‘code of ethics’ with your boss. Come on...”

The Relationship between EOR and Ethical Decision Making

To explore the relationship between relationship outcomes and ethical decision making, correlations were run between the four relationship outcome indices and the autonomy factors (workplace politics, economic necessity, personal ambition) and their impact on ethical decision making, Bowen’s (2005) six principles, and the utility of education/training and PRSA’s code of ethics. Table 8 shows a strong relationship between the autonomy factors described in Bowen’s model and Hon and Grunig’s (1999) relationship outcome indices.

239 Table 8: Correlation Table Showing Relationships between EOR and Autonomy Factors

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Note: * correlation is significant at the.05 level; ** correlation is significant at the.01 level.

A lack of control mutuality, commitment, and satisfaction significantly correlated with workplace politics and economic necessity but not the impact of personal ambition. A lack of trust correlated with all six of Bowen’s measures. Poor employer-employee relations, then, are tied to a felt lack of autonomy on the part of employees. Correlating Bowen’s six principles with Hon and Grunig’s outcome indices resulted in only one significant correlation: Those who believed that the dignity and respect they had for self and others was useful for ethical decision making also reported greater satisfaction (R =.193, p =.011). No significant were found between the utility of education/training and the code and the relationship outcomes.

A few comments addressed aspects of the interrelationship of good employer relations and ethical decision making. The most common was four respondents who mentioned problems associated with their superiors lying and with a general lack of transparency, which led to ethical stress and poorer employee-employer relations, particularly since these transgressions went unpunished. Another two mentioned financial improprieties and the relationship stresses they engendered, such as I do not have much respect for my bosses. I feel that they are unethical people who only care about themselves or the money they are making. They do not offer guidance or good ideas. I’m disappointed with the lack of leadership in my firm.


We address each of the research questions below, followed by a discussion of the implications for public relations theory and recommendations for public relations agency managers. One overarching observation, though, is that we learned almost as much from how these Millennial Generation agency practitioners filled out the survey and what comments they made as we did from the numerical data.

Research Questions

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