«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
European educators were divided in their views of whether religiosity is a difficult issue to deal in ethics class. Some of them saw it as a challenge—“to allow students freedom of speech without something which is damaging to beliefs of religious students.” In that particular university, the majority of communication students represented Christian and Muslim believers, and their debates on religious topics imposed a challenge for a teacher who had to follow the policy of a secular university and did not allow turning the class in a religious battleground. In his opinion, in that university ethics comes into play in terms of respecting differences in an international classroom.
Another European teacher said that the fact that his students represent a number of religious denominations helps him to address ethical issues in communication: “My mission is to draw on this diversity.” As an example, while covering the topic of corporate social responsibility (CSR), the teacher asked students from Bangladesh and Pakistan if they were willing to comment on what CSR
is from an Islamic point of view:
They said that companies pay automatically—a percentage of their profit is deducted to the community fund. It’s the law because Mohammed said so. This example illustrated how Islamic principles are infused in countries’ financial system. In another class I was talking about a free choice in developing an organizational strategy. Islamic students said, “It’s an Allah choice.”
Apparently, the process of self-disclosure is a difficult one. As one American teacher said, “It takes a while to get students comfortable enough to discuss their concerns in class.” The reason is that students think that they need to be politically correct and “do and see things” in a socially expectable way.
A European teacher said that he treats his “Understanding Public Relations” course as a “very international course” in which ideas from any country are welcomed. In his view, an opportunity to freely express a personal view is the practice that distinguishes a university course from a training course.
Overall, while American PR educators are concerned with the internationalization of the PR practice, European teachers are in the process of finding ways to manage diversity within their communication classes.
Professional ethics code. While talking about the necessity to evaluate student learning in ethics class, one American professor remarked that educators cannot be successful in this task since there is “no way to evaluate the success in something that hasn’t been described yet,” meaning that the
profession has not articulated its ethical standards. He said:
Public Relations Society’s ethical standards are basically about trade protection: “don’t break the law,” and “don’t steal somebody else’s clients.” As far as any kind of substantive ethical standards for the profession, it’s all watered down and it’s voluntary.
Moreover, in this teacher’s opinion, the profession does not seem to be engaged in active debates about what these standards should be. So far, the profession has been restraining the trade, and “this is not ethics, it is business arrangement.” In this regard, Benson (2008) argued that academics should “distance themselves from their too-close historic association with business” (p.
20) and develop more close ties with non-governmental organizations.
Teaching controversy. Two American participants pointed out that an ethical controversy is embedded in the very process of teaching PR majors: “We teach students to write a letter to the editor and sign someone’s name. Is it ethical?” A European educator said that PR students are taught to get their messages through in an editorial content or journalistic stories without really saying, “I represent this company.” In her opinion, “It is quite similar to brand placement.” Yet, the teacher said that she would not take a stand by saying that it is completely unethical: “It depends on not so much PR people’s perceptions, but the audience’ perception of what is ethical and what is not.” This statement might have an implication for teaching ethics to PR majors: While making a decision about a case in which ethics is involved, practitioners should take into consideration not only their personal values and professional codes, but also know the audience’s attitude toward the issue. ”Who decides what is ethical?” is a crucial question that indicates the complexity of decision making process in public relations.
PR ethics in the international setting. At least a half of participants addressed challenges in teaching ethics imposed by the era of globalization. One U.S. female professor said that in her class, she focuses on case studies because “many of them are international, and the purpose of that is to show how complex ethical decisions can be.” The teacher said that for her, ethics exists not only at the theoretical impersonal level: “Ethics is in my office when international students come to cry on my shoulder about American bombing of a foreign country.” Another American participant believed that some ethical principles are easy to students to understand. For example, “Do not bribe’ is easy.” However, when this principle is applied abroad, it becomes much more complicated. As the teacher said, “What if you are in Turkey and need to place something in media? You have to pay a journalist, and it’s embedded in their culture and this is how they do journalism in Turkey.” Another participant echoed this statement, saying: “What is baksheesh? Is it social respect or a criminal act?” Apparently, the answer depends on the country in which baksheesh (a gratuity or alms) is being offered. In the U.S., it is an inappropriate act akin to bribery, whereas in some Asian countries, baksheesh is part of culture (Curtin & Gaither, 2007).
311 Although a senior educator believed that his goal is “to get students to recognize ethical issues in a real world situation,” meaning to help them see how general principles apply for specific situations, the teacher admitted that he could not say with a certainty what ethical standards for the practice of PR are applicable in the global scale.
A European teacher, an author of a few books about public relations, said that while a “set of techniques used by PR practitioners are very similar around the world,” PR professionals use them in a variety of ways, “depending on the nature of the media, the nature of society, and people’s values.” In his opinion, although the UK is much more similar to the U.S. than many other European countries, nevertheless, British PR practice is quite different from American PR.
Another European educator believed that American and European educators might have different opinions about how to teach ethics to PR majors because of significant cultural differences.
He said that while “American culture encourages earning a lot of money and CEO’s million dollars salaries are acceptable in the U.S., European culture encourages to be “normal” [to be satisfied with a modest income]. We don’t think that a million dollars salary is ethical.” Problem of evaluation of student learning. American and European educators were united in their opinion that evaluation of student learning might be the most difficult part of the teaching process.
As one U.S. teacher said, “We test, we don’t evaluate.” Indeed, many participants in this study emphasized that tests— a multiple choice or even open-ended questions—cannot be taken as a reliable measure of student effective learning in part of predicting their behaviors. As one European educator said, “You can assess the awareness of ethical dilemmas and understanding of theoretical frameworks but in part of choices that they [students] might make after graduation... It’s beyond of my control!” Another participant echoed, “You can make students learn but you can’t make them behave.” At the same time, the majority of educators believed that “continuous exposure to ethics leads to more thoughtful behavior,” and they referred to studies that examined perceptions of ethics courses by university graduates. As a European teacher said, “We ask them [students] not for knowledge only, but also for an opinion that indicates whether students are growing in their perceptions of ethical issues.” The majority of participants recognized the need for more subtle and sophisticated methods of assessing student learning than “in-class tests/exams.” Among methods mentioned by the participants were: Written essays, student presentations, class discussions, reflective journals, and informal observations and meetings. An American teacher said that one informal meeting helped her realize that a student, who “performed very well in class while recognizing ethical dilemmas in scenarios, did not apply ethical theories for herself.” The teacher said that the student wanted to mention in her resume the fact of conducting research. The teacher asked for details, and the student answered that she wrote research papers for money. It appeared, according to the teacher, the student thought about herself as a “good businesswoman,” and did not see anything wrong in being paid for research papers. The teacher concluded: “The only way to know if you sparked, launched, cultivated, nurtured ethical thought and behavior is seeing it over time.” Journalism vs. Public Relations, or Who is responsible for a bad PR image? Regardless of the country in which they teach, participants were concerned with tension that exists between journalism and public relations professions. A world-known American PR educator made it clear that this
situation negatively affects the educational process:
I am not convinced and never will be convinced that journalists are inherently more ethical people than public relations people are. But journalists love to feel it. Law and ethics is often taught by a journalism faculty member, and PR students come out feeling bad about themselves because PR people are characterized as liars and journalists are characterized as heroes of society.
312 A European educator said that in her country, if someone wants to offend a journalist, he or she needs to call him or her a “PR person.” Another European teacher said that the image of PR is worse than its practice, and a “break through” seems impossible since journalists are attuned to bad PR practices and ignore positive acts.
A European teacher whose research focused on relations between journalists and PR managers found that journalists expect PR people to be advocates for their companies and do not expect them to reveal “the whole truth” in a testimonial manner, because journalists want to “get easy to digest, straightforward information,” and they do not want to “complicate things.” While a number of participants believed that journalists contributed to creating a negative image of public relations, a European expert in organizational communication believed that this “unwanted” image was built in the 1970-1980 by American professionals themselves. In his opinion, in that time PR people “tried to influence public opinion too heavily.” Later on, “they learned from the science that PR is limited in its ability to influence people’s minds.” However, there are still a lot of efforts to “green-wash a questionable image.” This teacher is used to discussing “windowdressing” practices with his students. As an example, he asked them to think about “why an American fast food company supports sports?” Students saw elements of “green-washing” in the company’s efforts, but in general, they agreed that helping athletes is better than “doing nothing,” meaning not trying to balance harm caused by unhealthy food.
Another European teacher said that ordinary people believe that “PR people are dishonest and journalists are honest, but they don’t know how much newspaper information comes from pressreleases prepared by PR practitioners.” As an example, this teacher offered his students to discuss a “white powder case.” This event happened in a European city. One day, a large city territory was covered by a white powder, but media labeled it a “light grey powder.” The teacher presumed that PR managers of the plant that was responsible for the eruption of the white substance, aimed to avoid association with anthrax. However, instead of handing his conclusion to students, the teacher walked them through the process of decision-making, asking them if they were PR managers and journalists, what would they do in such a situation? Would they call the substance a “white powder” and possibly scare the population? Or would they “stretch the truth” by calling it a “light grey powder”?
The teacher said that such “a small thing was an eye-opening experience” for his students, a sort of introduction to the topic of purposeful frames in PR and journalism—frames that might be the result of a collaborative decision of representatives of both professions.