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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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As this study confirms, Millennials respect authority, but that authority is dependent on trust and respect established through a strong sense of organizational mission and integrity. Interestingly, agency size was not a significant factor in any of our measures. Sheer size didn’t matter, but contextual data suggest that having a clear mission or values statement that was well known by employees and evidenced every day in the workplace was key to Millennials’ satisfaction. They value integrity and social responsibility, and they are quite loyal to employers who not only espouse similar values but who also live them. Loyalty suffered when Millennials believed that their agency employers lacked integrity or were willing to sacrifice values, especially when immediate supervisors were not reprimanded for ethical infractions. Their trust, then, must be earned through not just talking the talk but also walking the walk. This is a generation that has been brought up to 243 value transparency, and they use transparency as a principle by which to judge actions. They don’t generally tolerate creative bookkeeping on clients’ accounts or inflating facts to clients or journalists because it violates their sense of trust and expectation of transparency.

Millennials value mentoring, with many mentioning in this study the key role played by a supervisor or teacher. They value education and clear rules, such as those provided by codes.

Assigning mentors to these young employees, then, as well as ensuring that any applicable code of ethics is readily available, will help them work through ethical dilemmas rather than try to simply avoid them, as this conflict-averse generation is prone to do.

More generally, Millennials value information, seeing it as key to understanding and working through issues ethical and otherwise. Information is an asset and as such is almost value neutral— how information is gathered is not as much of an issue as is the fact that information should be gathered. In fact, some have dubbed this group Generation Why because they continuously seek information and knowledge to understand the context for what they are doing. As one respondent said, “I like to know why we do things, not just how to do them.” Providing context and demonstrating how work contributes to agency goals and missions fulfills this need to know and generates more enthusiasm for work and better insight into issues that might arise. As Carolyn Cone (2006), chairman of Cone Inc., notes, “Companies need to provide hands-on cause-related experiences and then clearly and consistently share related societal impacts” with their Millennial employees.

While these suggestions sound relatively straightforward, they may be harder to implement not because of any inherent quality of the Millennials but because of inherent qualities of older generations. As one article addressing management issues notes, “Whenever someone older needs to place blame for all that goes wrong in this world, they can pin it on the newest generation. They’ve got no morals, we say, they’ve got no work ethic” (Walton, 2008, p. E1). Our expectation is that younger practitioners will simply be younger versions of ourselves and hold the same values; when they don’t, it causes us to question whether they belong in our profession as part of our group.

Giddens (1991) has termed this expectation of shared values ontological security. We expect a continuity in social relationships and the environment in which they take place. We are able to deal with the complexities of modern life, according to Giddens, precisely because we trust that our world is constant and knowable; it operates according to shared values. We take those shared values for granted, for “the ordinary is normal, the normal is natural and what is natural does not need a reason” (Van Leeuwen, paraphrasing John Stuart Mill, 2008, p. 151).

But what happens when we run into a cohort with different values? When that cohort stems from a distinctly different culture, we tend to make allowances, realizing that how things are done in Southeast Asia will likely differ from how things are done in U.S. agencies. But we have an expectation of shared values within our own environment, whether that be our schools or U.S. public relations agencies. And when our ontological security is threatened by difference, it “puts our certainties to the test about what is normal and healthy” (Van Leeuwen, 2008, p. 148); “Thus, Millennials become the ‘other’ by which we define ourselves, which leads to the reduction of complex relations to simplified dichotomous binaries—Us versus Them—and the discourse of stereotyping” (Curtin, 2009, p. 21). What our study suggests, however, is that it is much more productive to instead think of Millennial practitioners as cultural strangers, much as we would our colleagues from Southeast Asia.

Van Leeuwen (2008) coined the term cultural strangers precisely to describe those who are part of our environment yet in other ways are not part of our shared values. By recasting Millennials in this way, we can recognize their simultaneous similarities and differences. Such recognition can be anxietyproducing, in that it threatens our notions of normalcy and tradition, yet at the same time, it can bring into play a sense of fascination and fun, of discovering different perspectives and ways of seeing the world. (Curtin, 2009, p. 21) 244 We would hasten to add that viewing Millennials as cultural strangers does not mean we are advocating embracing ethical relativism. While their values may be different, our study demonstrates that their sense of ethics is, in fact, in many ways quite similar to those of older practitioners. In fact, they might even demonstrate a greater allegiance to deontological thinking and to the principles underlying PRSA’s code of ethics than have their predecessors. In this sense, they may even have something to teach older practitioners, if those practitioners can learn to get beyond the natural anxiety that results when ontological security is threatened.


Our conclusions are tempered by the limitations of the study. We lack a good sampling frame for this demographic, and while our results confirm much of the previous anecdotal and scholarly literature, they should still be viewed with a bit of skepticism. We are also limited in what we can say from a survey—we didn’t interview participants to get their perspectives, nor did we observe ethical decision making in action. What we can do is paint a broad picture of how Millennials report their relations with their agency employees and their approach to ethical decision making.

We conclude that in some ways, Millennials have been maligned because their values are not necessarily those of their predecessors. In turn, our study reveals that Millennials are also having their sense of ontological security challenged through observation of their older colleagues’ actions, and many lament what they perceive as a lack of ethics in older generations. In fact, Millennials’ sense of ethics is closer to those of their superiors than either side might think, and they value good relations with their employers. What they ask, however, is that agencies have clear values statements and adhere to them, and that they allow Millennial practitioners a glimpse of the big picture so they can better do their work. From our perspective, these are suggestions that can only improve the profession.



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