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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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To examine university teachers’ perceptions of ethics instruction in the PR curriculum, semistructured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 52 American (n=32) and European (n=20) educators. The American participants were interviewed during two national and two international conventions during 2007 and 2008. The researcher undertook a trip to Europe to meet communication educators in seven universities in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany in the fall of 2008.

First, European and U.S. educators perceived ethics instruction as an important aspect of the PR education. However, while American educators called for a more thorough instruction in the professional ethics, European teachers emphasized the need to educate communication professionals who are experts in ethics in the philosophical sense.

Second, while American PR educators feel obligated to help the industry thrive, European educators distance themselves from the industry seeing universities as autonomous enterprises that are not “accepting orders” from practitioners.

Third, according to European educators, American PR educators tend to create a rather normative or ideal image of the profession, whereas Europeans tend to provide their students with a realistic picture of public relations practices.

Overall, the present study found that in the same manner as PR practices reflect national specifics of the countries in which PR activities take place, PR educational philosophies reflect national PR practices and broader societal contexts. Teaching philosophies might diverge, and in some cases, quite sharply, meaning that there might not be an opportunity to generalize educational practices even within Europe or the U.S., needless to say, in the global scope.



Despite Aristotle’s contention that ethical behavior cannot be taught, but must be a part of a person’s upbringing, moral philosophy was studied at the medieval university (Sloan, 1980). These days, ethics education is not taken as a panacea for the moral problems since awareness of ethical conduct does not necessarily result in moral behavior. Although the effectiveness of ethics education has not been supported (Bok, 1976), to leave ethics out of a curriculum might mean the failure to prepare students for real life, which is saturated with moral anxiety. The pressure for moral education increases with the intensity of moral confusion in society (Radest, 1989). U.S. scholars argued that the public relations practitioner’s role as a corporate conscience should become central in the wake of the threat of terrorism and large corporations’ financial misconduct (Grunig & Grunig, 2009). The question arises whether and how universities and colleges prepare future public relations practitioners to deal with ethical dilemmas, withstand pressure from unethical supervisors, and become proactive in establishing a moral element in organizations’ strategic decisions (Grunig & Grunig, 2009).

In an attempt to answer this question, this comparative study examines public relations educators’ perceptions of ethics instruction in the PR curricula of Western European and U.S.

universities. While European PR education is labeled as “largely United States centered” [Vercic, van Ruler, Butschi, & Flodin (2001) cited in Sriramesh (2009)], this study focuses on both similarities and differences between American and European teaching philosophies that can be explained by such environmental variables as the history and culture of higher education in the U.S.

and Western Europe.

Literature Review and Research Question Modern Thoughts about Teaching Ethics Acknowledging the fact that there is not an agreed-upon definition of the term “moral education,” Callahan (1980) nevertheless proposed that ethics education is “an educational process with the goal of improving moral behavior, instilling certain virtues and traits of character, and developing morally responsible persons” (p. 71).

The report by the Hastings Center (1980) said that ethical principles are already being implicitly communicated in various university courses, whereas the main goal of explicit teaching of ethics is “to uncover hidden assumptions, unchallenged and unexamined values, and treat the realm of morality with all the rigor and discipline that other areas of human study and concern already

receive in the university” (p. 8). Callahan (1980) articulated the following goals of teaching ethics:

Stimulate students’ moral imagination, or evoke such emotions as empathy, sensibility, and caring;

teach students to recognize ethical issues, or detect hidden value biases and see the moral implications of personal and collective decisions; elicit a sense of moral obligation, or to act in accordance with the perception of right and good; develop analytical (logical) skills to help students analyze ethical propositions and their justification; and, finally, tolerate and, thus, reduce disagreement and ambiguity while resolving moral dilemmas.

The formulation of the last goal has been modified to fit the era of globalization. Recently, scholars’ attention has shifted from the problem of reaching consensus to the goal of managing dissensus in a global village (Curtin & Gaither, 2007). Particularly, public relations was conceptualized as a “multicultural field that entails an ongoing competition and cooperation among a finite number of cultural voices” (Leichty, 2003, p. 277). Such a cacophony of voices calls for greater sensitivity to cultural diversity and pluralism; such an understanding becomes a synonym of ethicality, or obedience to moral conduct, in public relations.

Ideally, public relations scholarship should be diverse since it reflects a variety of international PR practices. Yet, there is a scarcity of empirical research outside of the U.S.

301 (Sriramesh & Vercic, 2009). L’Etang (2008) argued the “U.S. born” dominant paradigm in PR has been criticized by a number of non-U.S. scholars for its focus on “functional issues such as effectiveness, excellence, methods, evaluation, professionalism, PR role and status” (p. 10).

Meanwhile, functionalism presumes a consensus which is hardly reachable due to the fact that different individuals have different views about what is functional and what is dysfunctional (L’Etang, 2008). In her opinion, “Although many academics seek to ‘build PR theory’ one might wish to question the existence of such. The very term ‘PR theory’ almost seems to imply there could or should be a single framework” (p. 13).

L’Etang (2008) argued that while the dominant paradigm encompasses such perspectives as feminist, rhetorical and relational, it failed to incorporate other critical perspectives. Particularly, the dominant paradigm is based on positivist approaches and quantitative methods, whereas critical and cultural scholars [post-positivists, or those who were “othered by the dominant paradigm” (p. 253)] value qualitative methods of inquiry.

The fundamental societal changes in norms and values resulted in the perception of education as an economic investment, whereas the “fundamental purpose of and reason for education—that is, the search for truth—is forgotten” (Mendonca & Kanungo, 2007, p. 7). Not surprisingly, some graduates of a prestigious university believed that money, fame, and power are main life achievements (Mendonca & Kanungo, 2007).

In this light, a question arises whether ethics courses, being introduced into universities’ curricula so rapidly these days, are able to contribute to student perceptions of education in its original meaning—as the process of acquiring knowledge and skills and developing character, and to have a positive impact on student moral development. To Boylan and Donahue (2003), to enter a profession means to enter an ethos, or a set of values and norms that constitute an environment in which the profession operates. Therefore, an overall task of higher education is to communicate to students professional values and provide them with an understanding of appropriate ways of professional practice.

American and European Universities and Globalization The university is the second oldest institution in the West (the first one was the Roman Catholic Church). Being a key to social mobility and progress, the university has had its status as a powerhouse for centuries (Rothblatt & Wittrock, 1993). Yet, its high societal status does not guarantee its absolute autonomy from the challenges imposed by economic, political and social developments. In regard to the modern time, the globalization era has been labeled a threat that is more serious than previous epochs of scientific revolution, industrialization, secularization, and totalitarianism (Currie, DeAngelis, de Boer, Huisman, & Lacotte, 2002).

It appeared that such a strong word as “threat” is used mainly to denote governments’ attempts to force universities to become competitive players in the global market arena. Meanwhile, a number of scholars have argued that business-like behavior and concern about maximizing profit are not compatible with the purpose of higher education (Hostetter, 2007). As Adrian (2005) put it, The modern university has become a political and economic force that has eroded its core identity and created a crisis of purpose in institution. The “free” search for “truth” has been lost in the rush to wealth and power, and economic development has become the principal objective rather than a derivative of higher learning (p. 153).

Historically, America’s reliance on free markets turned the national system of higher education to dependency on market’s needs in services and products. U.S. universities accept financial help from industry in return for research and future employees (Trow, 1993). Accordingly, students as consumers have shaped the university curriculum to meet expectations and demands of the job market. By contrast, in Europe, the market has not dominated the sphere of high culture (Trow, 1993). While U.S. universities perceive their role as contributors to technological and 302 industrial development, European universities see their role as developing theory or contributors to knowledge for its own sake (Owen-Smith, Riccaboni, Rammolli, & Powell, 2002). As an example, although the Dutch government is concerned with the economic aspect of higher education, nevertheless, the government leaves a certain degree of autonomy to the institution and thus, diminishes the presence of market mechanisms in the system of higher education (Currie et al., 2002).

However, recent developments in Europe (e.g., the collapse of Soviet regimes, the disenchantment with State planning and large-scale bureaucracy) have led Europe to a search for new models of higher education. Since the theme of the market in higher education has acquired global attention, American models have attracted “special international interest” (Rothblatt & Wittrock, 1993) European universities that were traditionally recognized as flagmen of higher education for almost a thousand years lost their world leadership to U.S. universities in the past 50 years (Caddick, 2008). To address this problem, the European academic community initiated the so-called Bologna Process, which among many other goals seeks to apply the UK/US degree structure (bachelor, master, and doctoral degrees) to universities in 46 European countries to create “a single education currency” (Caddick, 2008).

The revolution in communications has allowed more frequent exchange of ideas among international academic communities and provided more opportunities for the cross-fertilization. Like never before, scientific ideas are readily accessible and thus, subjects of adaptation and assimilation (Rothblatt & Wittrock, 1993). Coupled with an increasing level of intercultural communication that might lead to the decrease in the strength between the territory and social identity and the emergence of a “global consciousness” (Rizvi, Engel, Ruthkowski, & Sparks, 2007), the sovereignty of a particular university as a policy-maker becomes questionable. Indeed, there are growing tensions between the historic mission of the university as the transmitter of ideas and values (Hostetter, 2007) and the necessity to respond to market demand and competing economies. As Currie et al. (2002) argued a shift from cooperation to competition has already happened in the higher education system worldwide. This shift has not been welcomed by the entire academic population (Seccion Especial, 2004). One of the reasons is that this process (as many others that originate in the West) is associated with Americanization (Hall, 1991).

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