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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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1. How do Millennial public relations agency employees approach ethical dilemmas? Our findings confirm that this generation is conflict averse, with the majority preferring to find a way to avoid an issue rather than take a stand. When asked to respond to specific situations, almost 15% avoided the dilemmas entirely by not responding to the survey questions; the majority of the remainder chose the option to duck the situation when this option was offered. For those who did take a stand, more followed the boss’ orders than refused any of the assignments. Contextual data suggest that respondents often used utilitarian reasoning, stating that if no one seemed to be hurt by the action, then it was permissible, a perspective that may reflect Millennials’ valuing of consensus and team work, as well as respect for and trust in authority. Those who rejected the assignments most often used deontological reasoning, relying on transparency as the guiding principle.

240 The contextual data also confirm the anecdotal literature (e.g., Chobi, 2008) that Millennials value information seeking as a means of avoiding confrontation and achieving consensus. Those respondents who agreed to monitor the activist group viewed the assignment as research, which was to be encouraged. Overall, information was viewed as inherently value neutral, no matter how it was collected.

2. Do Millennial public relations agency employees find Bowen’s model helpful for making ethical decisions? Of note is that our pretest demonstrated that the wording of some aspects of the model did not resonate with Millennials. A number of pretest subjects found Bowen’s (2005) question “Am I proceeding with morally good intentions” confusing, an issue that was resolved by removing the word “morally.” Similarly, “Could I obligate everyone else who is in a similar situation to do the same thing I am about to do?” was recast as “Should everyone else who is in a similar situation do the same thing I am about to do?” The question “Would I accept this decision if I were on the receiving end?” was changed to “If I were the customer (or other public), would I accept this decision?” Finally, the question “Are dignity and respect maintained?” was changed to “Will the dignity and respect I have for myself and others be compromised by this decision?” The first step in the model requires subjects to determine if they are able to act autonomously, relying solely on pure reason. The majority of respondents (about 75%) believed that political, economic, and personal ambition factors were not problematic when making ethical decisions. Only about 20% of respondents agreed that if their autonomy was compromised, their ability to make ethical decisions was as well. Most Millennials, then, disagree with the basic precondition of the model. In fact, about 80% of respondents said the three autonomy factors either had no effect on their ethical decisions or caused them to make more ethical decisions rather than less, as Kantian ethics would suggest. According to the model, however, should autonomy not be possible, using group consensus decision making is a possibility, and the results of this and other studies suggest that a group consensus approach is inherently appealing to this group.

About 75% of respondents said they would find the six principles helpful when making ethical decisions, although it should be noted that we only tested attitudes. More research is needed to determine how Millennials would actually use the principles, or not, in practice. Deontological reasoning was evident in some of the comments, however, lending support to the conclusion that deontological approaches could resonate with a majority of this population, although the comments also suggest a vocal minority prefer utilitarian approaches.

3. Do Millennial public relations agency employees differ by gender or ethnicity in how helpful they find Bowen’s model? Contrary to expectations, women found half the principles significantly more useful than did men. More research is needed to determine why women believed the principles were more useful. Given the increasing feminization of the field, it might mean that a majority of young practitioners will find deontological reasoning quite useful, despite what the previous literature has suggested (e.g., Coleman & Wilkins, 2009; Kim & Choi, 2003, Pratt, 1994).

Minorities reported experiencing significantly more constraints on their autonomy. Given that Millennials comprise almost 40% minorities, these findings should prove cautionary because they suggest that a rapidly growing segment of the profession might find themselves in situations in which they do not feel empowered and are thus pressured to make less ethical decisions. This finding is supported by work linking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs with public relations practitioners’ ethical decision-making process in which it was found that practitioners would often feel forced to make less ethical decisions when faced with the need to meet basic or security needs (Boynton, 2001). As one respondent noted, “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...” Given the relatively small number of minority respondents, all ethnicities were combined in our analyses, which is less than ideal. More work is needed to parse out differences among races and ethnicities so that researchers are not simply relying on broad dichotomies of minority versus nonminority, which obscures important distinctions between and among groups.


4. Do Millennial public relations agency employees find educational training and codes of ethics helpful for making ethical decisions? Perhaps the most significant finding of this part of the study is that most Millennials list education and training as useful, and almost half rated the PRSA code of ethics as useful. These numbers are much higher than those found in previous studies (Curtin & Boynton, 2001; Gale & Bunton, 2005) and support the literature that suggests Millennials value ongoing education and training and like clear instructions (Hershatter & Epstein, 2006).

A number commented on particular teachers or supervisors from whom they had learned how to approach ethical issues. As one respondent stated, “I am very lucky to have an immediate supervisor with an extremely strong commitment to ethical practice... an important step for a young professional.” The PRSA code of ethics was not quite as highly valued, and the contextual data suggest that this may stem from the perception that it lacks traction in the workplace because of lack of enforcement and difficulty of application.

5. What is the relationship, if any, between EOR and Millennial public relations agency employees’ ethical decision making? Of note is that relationship outcomes did not significantly correlate with decision making tools and principles, such as education, training, and the deontological approach of the model, except for a weak correlation between satisfaction and treating self and others with dignity and respect, which may simply be an artifact of the data. What yielded quite robust findings were the correlations between relationship outcomes and autonomy measures.

The findings provide strong evidence for the conclusion that agency employees from the Millennial Generation believe they have a significantly better relationship with their employers when they experience fewer constraints on their ethical decision-making autonomy. As one noted, “I have expressed concern on actions that I felt would be unethical and as a result convinced the team not to move forward.” Where relations were more strained, respondents often suggested that they felt ethically constrained because their employers lacked ethics.

In the cases of strained relationships, Millennials often employed a deontological stance, noting that lying was never ethical and that the “everyone is doing it” argument lacked validity. The results lend support to the trade literature that this generation desires work that is socially responsible and values driven (Cone, 2006; Porter Novelli, 2008). They want to work for a company whose values align with their own. As a couple respondents observed in relation to the ethical dilemmas, “Our agency holds tight to our core values. No one in my agency would ask me (or participate) in any of these actions,” and “I would not take a position with a company that forced me to make this choice, it’s an unfair situation to be placed in.”

Implications for Theory and Limitations

This study finds conflicting support for Bowen’s model. First, although Bowen (2005) stated the model was accessible to laypersons, she tested it on older, well-established practitioners. Our study demonstrates that the wording of some parts of the model is problematic for a Millennial audience, suggesting that its utility would be improved by further simplifying the language to sound a bit less like 18th-century philosophical principles.

Autonomy is a basic presupposition of the model, yet many Millennials did not subscribe to this assumption, believing that they could make good ethical decisions despite, or possibly even because of, potential restrictions on their autonomy. One group who did believe that restrictions on autonomy affected their ability to make good ethical decisions was minorities. Consequently, the model may systematically exclude this growing group of minority practitioners from being able to make a decision without either referring it to someone else or engaging in group consensus decision making, as advised by the model for cases in which autonomy cannot be achieved. Given the pressures of job insecurity and internal politics faced by the minority respondents in this study, referring ethical dilemmas to others might not be pragmatic, particularly when ethically questionable requests are given by supervisors. Although this is not a fault of the model, it suggests that more 242 work is needed to identify the structural barriers still facing minorities on the job. It should also be noted, however, that the ideas of deferring ethical decisions to others and engaging in group consensus would appeal to the Millennial Generation of practitioners. In addition, although most respondents did not agree with the model’s assumption of autonomy as necessary for ethical decision making, they could still find the subsequent stages to be of use.

In fact, Millennial practitioners rated the utility of the six principles highly, lending support to a deontological model for the industry. This study, however, did not test the model in action, that is how Millennials would apply the model in actual situations. Further research should use methods that better capture process, such as ethnography, to determine how well the model works in practice.

Further research should also follow up on the finding noted above that most respondents believe they can either set aside factors that constrain their autonomy or even use these factors to positively inform their ethical decision making. This approach suggests Millennials might find a model to be more useful that is based on third-wave feminist ethics, which balances principles with individual values and context (e.g., Jagger, 1998). Such an approach combines deontological and utilitarian approaches without devolving into ethical relativism, and the contextual data suggest that at least some Millennials would find such an approach inherently more satisfying.

In terms of relationship management theory, this study lends strong support to the extant literature that posits the interrelationship of EOR and practitioner ethics. The main contribution of this study is to parse out that factors affecting ethical decision-making autonomy are strongly related to relationship outcomes, which emphasizes an environmental linkage. Practitioners who experience more autonomy feel empowered to make better ethical decisions and report higher levels of trust, satisfaction, control mutuality, and commitment with their employers. More research is needed to tease out the dimensions of this relationship, and while previous literature suggests that practitioners see a link between relationship outcomes and ethics in general (Boynton, 2006; Kim, 2007), further research is needed to determine if the strong relationship between autonomy and relationship outcomes holds across other age demographics.

Implications for Agency Managers

These findings suggest that contrary to popular opinion, Millennials don’t lack ethics. It might be better said that they may have different values than older generations, but many also demonstrate a strong belief in ethical decision-making processes that align with those of older practitioners. In fact, what is notable is the number who felt compelled to blow the whistle on what they saw as their employers’ lack of ethics. And most often, these ethical infringements were issues addressed by the PRSA code of ethics, such as not lying, and by a recent PRSA Board of Directors professional standard advisory (PSA-10) on phantom experience. In fact, it’s ironic that a problem managers have reported with Millennials is that of lying or embellishing experience on résumés (Dorsey, 2008); our study suggests the problem is not theirs alone. It may be more productive, then, to examine how Millennials’ values differ and how managing those differences can be profitably accomplished.

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