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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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While universities have been coerced by governments to become more market oriented, practitioners, particularly those who work in public relations believed that globalization is “forcing the need to clearly articulate the essence of the brand—its values, its ethics and its principles” (Hayes, 2008, p. 16). In the US, the role of public relations education as the process of immersion into the profession is not limited to the transmission of professional knowledge and skills, but it is also concerned with introducing professional beliefs and values to students. Moreover, public relations students should receive a well-rounded education that serves as a precondition for a fulfilling life.

Based on discussion above, the following research question is proposed:

RQ 1: In regard to ethics instruction in public relations, do teaching philosophies and practices differ depending on where—in the U.S. or Europe—respondents teach?

Method Participants. To examine teacher perceptions of ethics education, semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 52 American (n=32) and European (n=20) educators.

The sample was selected to represent different nationalities, genders, age groups, and teaching experience. The American participants were recruited and 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. Appointments with them were 303 made via email before the trip, and face-to-face interviews were conducted in their offices in October-November 2008.

The overall sample consisted of 30 males and 22 females with the age range from late twenties to early sixties. Six participants had a Master degree and 46 had a Doctorate degree. The majority of participants had their degrees in Communication and related fields, and their teaching experience at the university level varied from 2 to 40 years.

Both groups of educators—American and European—included recognized leaders in public relations education, who have published numerous journal articles and book chapters and have served as editors and co-editors of communication journals and books. Some of them were wellknown experts in public relations ethics and communication ethics. These individuals have known each other and collaborated with each other for many years, and thus, similar attitudes could be formed among the colleagues. Thus, to assure the variance of the data, some junior faculty were purposively included in the sample.

Instrument. To capture teacher perceptions of ethics education, a semi-structured interview consisted of 10 questions was developed.

Since qualitative in-depth interviews are more like conversations, they help “uncover participants’ meaning perspective” (Marshall & Roswell, 1989, p. 82). Therefore, the conducted interviews focused not only on collecting factual information (e.g., resources in teaching ethics), but also spotlighted respondents’ opinions and values attributed to different aspects of ethics education.

During interviews, respondents were specifically asked to provide the interviewer with examples from their experience as public relations educators. This evidence became part of “thick description” (Denzin, 1994) of the data.

All interviews were conducted in English. The interviews averaged 40 minutes in length. The participants agreed to audiotape their interviews which were then transcribed for analysis.

Findings and Discussion This study examined similarities and differences in teaching philosophies and practices of American and European teachers. The main finding of this study is that all participants strongly agreed that ethics education is essential for public relations students. The 52 teachers provided diverse explanations of why ethics needs to be taught to future professionals, and educators often mentioned more than one reason. Qualitative analysis (Lincoln & Guba, 1985) suggested that there were a number of themes (organized as propositions in this manuscript) associated with the importance of ethics instruction at the university and college level.

Proposition 1. American and European public relations educators think that ethics are important for education, but they view this importance in different ways.

The theme of awareness appeared to be the most frequently mentioned by U.S. educators.

However, there was not a single interpretation of the meaning of this notion.

Awareness as preparedness to deal with ethical dilemmas.

One-third of U.S. participants explained that ethics education is vital because “it creates awareness that the professional world is saturated with ethical dilemmas” and this is why it is so important to “give an understanding of what is ethical and what is not.” As one female educator said, “I don’t think that PR students understand what they will be confronting. It’s not a golden lovely world out there where everybody plays fair.” In her opinion, educators should prepare students to face not only “a big hairy incident” akin to Enron, but also to deal with “little things” that might not appear as unethical at the first glance: A request to use “hyperbolic word in the press-release” or usage of a “company’s logo in the proposal without client’s permission.” Two U.S. participants emphasized that PR graduates should be aware that they would be expected to advise management on key decisions in ethically challenging situations.

Awareness as the responsibility to use knowledge in the ethical way.

304 Seven U.S. participants thought that ethics instruction is an essential part of PR education because it creates awareness about the morality of knowledge, or the necessity to be responsible for “what we do with what we know.” One participant noted, The core reason for why we teach ethics is that communication students need to know that by learning new expertise—how to persuade and influence people—they have a moral obligation not to use it in a way that would be harmful to people.

Another respondent echoed by this: “By the very nature of the profession, we are powerful and influential in society. We have to be aware of that and aware about how our actions do impact society.” Awareness as an induction into the profession.

One-half of interviewed American educators perceived ethics instruction as being “best suited” to create awareness that, as one senior teacher said, “Education is not about knowledge and skills only but also about a basic subscription to ethical values of the occupation.” The fact that public relations is an inherently ethical occupation that has moral obligations to society was

articulated by another participant:

The idea is being ethical is essential to the stature of public relations as a professional activity. And by definition to be professional, the activity must uphold some kind of public interest which is what is embedded in your code of ethics. So it [ethics education] is absolutely essential and our job as educators to communicate values to our students.

Overall, the majority of U.S. educators underlined the importance of ethics education as education that contributes to the improvement of the profession and society: Commitment to professional values, moral obligations to society to behave ethically, and the ability to perform a counseling function in a complicated ethical situation.

European educators appeared to have a more homogenous opinion about the importance of ethics education. They were united in their perception of the essentiality of ethics education as a means to make students “be aware of themselves, their identities and their personal values;” as education that encourages them to think that “every decision that they make in lives has an ethical aspect.” In other words, the majority of European participants emphasized the importance of ethics education as the process of character development. A world-known European educator and scholar


There is no a causal relationship between an ethics course and making good choices on the job. But definitely, ethics education helps students become more critical and reflective, and more reflective people will make more thoughtful decisions.

“Reflectivity” appeared to be a key word in European educators’ discussion of ethics education. One of the teachers explained that “reflecting means comparing your understanding and practice (if you had worked before you entered the university) before and after a theory was introduced.” Besides that, the teacher thought that for students, it is also very important to be exposed to different opinions and compare your understanding of ethical dilemmas with understandings of classmates. He added, I want students to say, “When I face with an ethical dilemma, I understand that I can look at it from more than one point of view, I can analyze it using different theories. But at the end, I need to make a judgment, and this is my judgment, and my values will make me behave this way or that way.” I want my students to understand that an ethical choice is a self-conscious choice based on reflective thinking.

305 While American educators emphasized their commitment to the public relations industry, European teachers underlined their universities’ disengagement from the industry. A young female

professor who teaches a PR course at a leading European university said:

We incorporate ethics in courses throughout the curriculum, but not because we are afraid that students after graduation would do unethical things. We integrate ethics in the discussion of the theory of science. We talk about ethics not from an applied perspective but from a science perspective.

However, the issue of “loose coupling,” or a lack of cohesion between the European system of higher education and PR industry might not be so simple and straightforward as it might appear at the first glance. As a doctoral candidate (a teaching assistant) said, Our tradition of higher education is not to train people for a certain job. Officially, we don’t prepare students to be excellent PR managers or journalists. However, it’s a complicated issue. Only three percent of students are going to have careers as researchers, and more than 90 percent of graduates will have jobs in communication. Of course, I teach them with this fact in my mind. But at the same time, I don’t hand them out strategies and tactics like “how to make your business grow.” In my opinion, this is not what the university is about.

A senior professor said that they have “some courses on skills but they are not our focus.” In her opinion, the goal of the university is to give “reflective knowledge, not only applied knowledge.” The colleague of this professor provided the rationale for this goal by saying that knowledge is outdated very fast, and this is why the university should concentrate on developing the analytical mind. In her opinion, it is hardly possible to help students become “skeptical and critical about social reality” if PR courses are taught as “you teach a PR Campaigns course – by providing students with a check list ‘what you need to do to make your campaign successful.” American scholars (Elliott, 2007) are concerned that university textbooks that address practical ethics do not do so in a satisfactory way: They introduce classical moral philosophies only briefly and, thus, reduce them to slogans. A few European scholars brought up this issue in their interviews. A professor, who teaches a media ethics course in a European university, said that he had a chance to look at an American PR textbook. He found it to resemble a “school book or recipe book.” Such a textbook might fit the “American functionalist environment,” but it is questionable if this text can be used in Europe. The teacher said that he assigns undergraduate students to read “hundreds of pages of original texts every week” because “students need to learn by themselves” instead of “being supplied with recipes about how to act.” In this regard, an American educator (Duffy, 2000) argued that “Textbooks must not only prepare students in practical matters, such as how to plan a public relations campaign, but in ideological matters” (p. 311).

Another European teacher appeared to have the same teaching philosophy of independent study (“the essence of university life”) as his colleague who teaches the media ethics course. He also assigns his undergraduates to read original texts, and these manuscripts come from major academic communication journals. Asked about whether students perceive such assignments are being too difficult and time consuming, the teacher said that the students “complain but they still do then” because the students understand that they are expected to read academic texts in the university.

Proposition II. American and European public relations educators’ practices reflect different teaching philosophies.

The realism/idealism dichotomy might be a rather questionable concept in both philosophical and common senses (Pierce, 2007). However, some phenomena are difficult to describe without these two categories. Keeping in mind limitations of this dichotomy, this study nevertheless appeals to the concepts of realism and idealism to define some differences in American and European teachers’ philosophies.

306 Presumably, the fact that participants in the U.S. and Europe teach the same expertise contributes to developing similar thoughts and beliefs. As an example, the statement made by a wellknown U.S. ethicist, “I want students to think not so much about what they should do but more about why they should do the right things,” was echoed by many American and European educators.

However, a notable difference appeared in the overall direction and tone of American and European monologues. The majority of U.S. educators’ indicated a special role of public relations professionals as contributors to an ethical climate of society and exhibited a positive, “can do” attitude while talking about a possible impact of ethics courses. This is reflected in the following

inspirational rhetoric of one U.S. educator:

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