«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
A larger message that I send to them [students] is that we are responsible, we are covenant of the earth, and if we don’t take care of the earth, if we don’t care of the people, it’s no purpose of us. We are stewards of the earth. And I expect PR to be used in this manner.
The majority of American educators emphasized that their goal is to give their students an understanding that public relations is not isolated from the community in which PR operates, and this is why public relations professionals serve interests larger than those of the organization that hired them. As one senior educator said, “The organizations’ interests are never devoid from the interests of other people in society.”
Another senior teacher and scholar linked the profession, ethics, and democracy:
We have a role in society; we have a role in a democracy that we have to perform, and there are certain things that we can’t do because they are unethical from the professional point of view.
Addressing the issue of PR professionalism and ethical behavior, an American educator linked professionalism and ethics by saying, “If you want to be a professional, do the right things because the difference between PR professionals and those who are selling their time to a higher bidder is expertise and ethical standards.” Meanwhile, European educators were rather careful in their opinions about a special ethical role of PR professionals in society. A distinct theme of the majority of European participants was a clash between PR theory and PR reality. As one teacher said, “The main goal is to give students realization that at the theoretical level, things might look simple, whereas in the reality, things are much more complicated.” According to European educators’ perceptions, generally, in the real PR practice, an individual is constrained by “too many factors and too many actors.” One teacher writes down theoretical statements of PR scholars and quotes of PR practitioners on a blackboard, inviting students to discuss differences between “normative and real PR.” Another teacher, a former PR manager for a non-governmental organization, said that to perform well in the professional life, students need “to understand pressures and constraints” of the reality before they enter the profession, and this is why teachers of his department constantly address “controversies of PR practice.” Across the three countries—the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany—educators revealed similar philosophies when addressing a discrepancy between theory and practice. As one teacher, a former PR practitioner said, “We encourage students to hear about difficult issues in PR and about criticism of PR work by critics and journalists; sometimes they are very rude. We encourage them to write essays about it and make presentations.” Students of this teacher monitor the PR Watch website and constantly meet with practitioners and critics during guest lectures.
Another teacher, talking about the Excellence Theory (Grunig, 1992), called it a “PR professional 20th century ideal model of relationships.” In his opinion, these relationships are ideal because they are described as “reciprocal and are not shaped by imbalances in power.” Meanwhile, in his opinion, an appropriate framework of thinking should be, “What would be realistic 307 expectations against ideal?” The teacher added that a “discussion about approximation to ideal” is needed if teachers want to shape a realistic understanding of PR practice among students. In his opinion, American higher education is closely tied to the industry that leads to the practice of a “narrow vocational training” in communication departments. Meanwhile, his department “stepped over making it [education] not merely vocational training” but the education that meets requirements of academic professions. Importantly, the department remains “open for standards set by both the industry and vocationalism,” but these standards do not override an academic principle of liberating minds.
A European teacher whose area of expertise is political communication said that while visiting the U.S., she witnessed a negative PR campaign, which focused more on diminishing the image of a rival rather than improving the image of a candidate for whom a group of PR practitioners worked. The teacher commented on it by saying, “It might be all right from a professional point of view, but it’s questionable from the ethical point of view.” This idea—“PR” does not automatically mean “ethicality”—was well pronounced in a number of European monologues.
Another teacher noted that since public relations has such a strong association with spin, his academic duty is to examine manipulative PR practices. The teacher asked, “Is it ethical to pretend that spinning doesn’t happen?” And then he concluded, “It would diminish PR education if we didn’t talk about embarrassing issues.” Coming back to American interview participants, it is important to emphasize that none of the American participants said that they avoid discussion of “the dark underbelly of the PR industry” (Burton, 2007). In this regard, one American teacher remarked that “ethics is a luxury” these days, whereas her colleague said, “Reputation of PR is as low as it could go.” However, it did not appear that in their classes, U.S. educators pay the same amount of attention to negative PR practices as European teachers seem to do. As an American PR instructor said, “You can learn better if you see what other people do is right.” Another American teacher provided a further explanation for why positive examples should be included in teaching discourse.
He said that when students go to the profession, “they will observe others and have both positive and negative exemplars.” A possible danger is that PR graduates might have only negative exemplars, and “they will think that this is how the industry, the profession operates.” This is why by “sensitizing students to ethical situations and even giving them a little bit of moralizing information,” public relations teachers “equip students better to deal with ethical problems when they go to the profession.” Another U.S. educator was concerned with the fact that students “have a lot of models for amoral points of view in terms of professional lives and relationships.” In this sense, ethics education is crucial since it provides students with other—ethical models—for their professional lives.
To summarize, although both groups of the participants—American and European—realize that public relations practice is far away from being consistently ethical, they take different paths to prepare students to deal with questionable ways of doing PR. While European teachers (“realists”) spotlight the dark side, American educators (“idealists”) emphasize the bright side. It is important to clarify that these paths do not run in opposite directions; teachers do not bring up exemplars that are either totally negative or purely positive. It is rather a combination of both. If the PR practice can be imagined as a continuum that runs from white to black, a large grey segment would appear in the middle, symbolizing the complexity of labor of “developing and nurturing relationships” (Berger, Reber, & Heyman, 2007). This complexity was acknowledged by all participants in this study regardless of the country in which they teach.
Nevertheless, 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 description of PR practice.
Attempting to explain such a discrepancy within the Western academic world, European educators brought up a number of factors. First, they believed that culture (e.g., positive “can do” attitude) influences teaching philosophies and practices of U.S. educators. As a European teacher said, “Probably, American teachers think that they have more influence on students than European teachers do.” And her colleague believed that whether in everyday life or academia, Europeans “are more skeptical, cynical, and realistic,” compared to Americans.
Second, European participants, who are familiar with American PR scholarship, believed that the scholarship tends to emphasize and call for normative PR rather than to explore its real practice.
As a result, American teachers, who are scholars as well, are inclined to concentrate students’ attention on ideal rather than on existing models, contributing to the building of the dominant paradigm (L’Etang, 2008). A leitmotiv of the resistance movement that emerged against the U.S.
based dominant paradigm in the middle of the 1990s (L’Etang, 2008) was clearly heard in monologues of European educators, who insisted on their own way of conceptualizing, practicing, and teaching public relations.
Third, the majority of European participants pointed out that American universities that educate PR professionals are closely tied to the PR industry. In L’Etang’s (2008) words, “A key assumption of the dominant paradigm seems to be that academic work should contribute directly to practice” (p. 252). In European participants’ opinion, such a dependency potentially puts a lot of pressure on PR educators who might feel obligated to be “cheerleaders or apologists or both for the profession.” Meanwhile, European universities that educate future PR practitioners are “full universities, not applied science universities,” meaning that they are responsible for the “general liberal education” that seems to be disengaged from industries.
In this regard, Nessmann (1995) argued that PR programs in the U.S. and Europe differ significantly in their structure and nature. The majority of European universities do not offer a degree specifically in public relations and emphasize a broader communication degree, whereas more than 160 American universities have a PR degree program or at least a sequence. Moreover, Hazleton and Cutbirth cited in Nessmann (1995) noted that European universities focus on theory more than on practical skills, whereas American universities are preoccupied with job related training, since U.S.
educators want their students to compete effectively on the job market.
According to the majority of European teachers, the fact that universities maintain their right to be neutral toward the PR industry has its implication for ethics education: “It’s more about teaching critical thinking than training to solve work problems.” This remark of a European teacher was a leitmotiv of interviews with European communication educators.
Fourth, one-third of Europeans linked the religiosity of American society and “undivided personal and professional identity.” This tie, according to one participant, “makes Americans think that they should confront what they believe is not right, even if they might sacrifice a job in this struggle.” Another teacher said that the missionary culture makes teachers inspire students “to go and change the world,” and this rhetoric is understood by the students who have been part of the missionary culture from the early age.
Fifth, the majority of European teachers believed that because their universities have a much more diverse undergraduate population than American universities, the teachers, as one educator said, “cannot be ethical dictators who try to impose some rigid ethical standards on people who come from very different assumptions and different experiences in the world.” In his opinion, Students should emerge from here being critical and reflective, showing awareness of issues, showing the ability to appreciate both sides of a question before drawing the conclusion, and not trying to adopt some unreal pure PR ethics which doesn’t recognize that PR is based on the real working world.
309 While spotlighting differences in American and European PR education and analyzing their causes, European teachers emphasized that in the same manner as PR practices worldwide cannot be treated as “right or wrong,” PR education cannot be judged from an ethnocentric point of view. As one European teacher said, “PR is a kind of mirror to society. PR people are social beings and what they do reflects society.” Accordingly, PR education in general and teaching approaches in particular are social and culturally bound phenomena, and they should be analyzed taking in consideration a multi-level societal context (university, region, country, and continent).
Proposition IV: American and European educators appear to be similar in their perceptions of challenges in teaching ethics.
Difficulties associated with teaching ethics to public relations students originate from multiple sources at different levels—individual, professional, and societal. These challenges include but are not limited to an increased student religiosity, vaguely defined professional codes of ethics, relations with journalists, and overall societal environment.
Religiosity. A few U.S. and European teachers addressed the issue of student religiosity which is defined as a “person’s degree of adherence to the beliefs, doctrines, and practices of a particular religion” (Dube & Wingfield, 2008, p. 503). One professor said that he found that “religious absolutism often can be quite dysfunctional in terms of public relations work.” In his opinion, when students appeal exclusively to the Bible, such a practice tends to “short-circuit any kind of individual critical thinking.” Two other American educators noted that quite often, their PR students confuse ethics with religion. However, as a response to teacher’s attempt to show that “religiosity” does not automatically mean “ethicality,” students might complain that “the teacher challenges my religious beliefs.” The two respondents admitted that they are not ready to deal with challenges imposed by student religiosity, and they think the U.S. educational community should discuss this issue to find meaningful ways to respond to manifestations of religious indoctrination in classroom.