«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
A European participant who teaches PR and journalism students as a adjunct professor while working full time as a television reporter, noted that the recent tendency of employers to pay less and make journalists work more negatively affects their relationships with PR practitioners. He said that in the 1990s, he used to sit with PR managers and talk through details of the story, and PR people always appreciated such attention. Now he “shoots and runs” to get the story to the air. He said that a leitmotiv of his lectures is that good PR managers are open and truthful, and if some reason they cannot provide journalists with accurate information, they would say, “Sorry, I cannot comment on this,” instead of misleading them with “fluffy words.” Anecdotal data show that PR researchers’ interest in investigating corporate social responsibility (CSR) in various organizational settings is growing every year. Meanwhile, it appeared that CSR might be perceived as an oppositional practice to public relations.
Quit or comply? The issue of how PR graduates should react if management wants them to engage in unethical behavior appeared to be very important for participants in this study. In this 313 regard, an American educator said that PR graduates’ first ethical choice happens when they choose for whom to work. Another teacher said that an ethical choice of PR practitioners would be “to help organizations stop doing unethical things.” However, there was a disagreement about whether a PR graduate should confront management if the boss forces the PR person to act unethically. Approximately one-third of American educators believed in a “quit-job” approach. One female educator said that she advises her students to have a six-month salary put aside to walk away from the organization any time. In this regard, one European teacher said that if PR graduates would leave their job every time they want to avoid an unethical situation, “their careers would be pretty short.” Another American participant said that she recommends to her students to start looking for another job immediately after they suspect that the company tolerates dishonest behavior, but quit the job only after they find another one.
Five American educators believed that PR graduates should become “educational” while trying to convince the boss to avoid an unethical path. As one American teacher said, “Ethics education helps students understand that they are not powerless,” meaning that they have tools to deal with ethical dilemmas. As this educator explained, instead of slamming the door and quitting the job, the PR professional should “do research and show what happened to people who followed this [unethical] way.” An American teacher said that he constantly emphasizes to his present and former students that as PR practitioners, they are not alone while facing an ethical dilemma: “One of the most important sources of your decision making is your network. You can call anybody up, and without even being totally specific, you can explain what is going on and ask them what they would do and why.” As an international PR practitioner in the past, this educator used this approach in his practice.
One American teacher said that often, a PR practitioner’s willingness to stand up for his or her beliefs helps prevent questionable campaigns. As an example, this teacher told a story of her former student who worked as a PR manager for an educational institution only six months when a tragedy happened: a few students died in a car incident. The supervisor of this manager wanted her to use this case to publicize the institution. Though the manager realized that she could have been fired, she still refused to implement such a campaign and convinced the boss to withdraw his decision as unethical.
A European teacher, who combines teaching and working as a journalist, said that in some situations, a PR person does not have other choices except to quit. He brought an example from his practice that he shares with his students. A PR manager of a large corporation was respected by journalists for his honesty and expertise. Yet, one day he disseminated information that turned out to be false. The PR manager resigned from his job after he realized that he was deceived by management that provided him with false information.
A common theme of the majority of responses was that while PR managers should consider an option of compromises, they should know “where to draw the line.” As a PR instructor said, “When you find yourself in such [problematic] situation, you try your best using your argumentative skills, your best ability to persuade your boss not to act unethically.” However, if “no matter what you said, decisions are made…There is always a job.” Proposition V: Participants believe that the best method to teach ethics is to combine a few approaches.
The majority of participants said that there is no a single best approach in teaching ethics to undergraduate students. One participant summarized the responses by saying that the best method is a mix of approaches. In his opinion, the key to effective student learning is to make ethics instruction “real and relevant” by employing, first, cases from the news that have a “local angle” that “makes students be interested” in the cases and, second, “talk through ethical scenarios.” Participants in this study outlined a number of approaches in teaching ethics that certainly reflect their teaching philosophies.
314 Keeping journals. An American senior educator said that “reflective management is the essence of public relations.” Ideally, the ability to reflect on professional issues should be cultivated in college.
In this regard, an American participant shared his experience in teaching PR students:
In my class, students kept journals, describing their experiences, and at the end of the course one common thing went out—now they recognize ethical dilemmas, now they are looking at their lives in different way. What happened is that they recognized humanity. They began to see that they are not just PR practitioners, they are still human. And that humanity demands of them certain responsibility: “I must approach my practice in a way that I can justify it as the right way.” Studying ethics theories allows them to see certain ways to make decisions and then begin to look at their own decisions.
Shadowing professionals. Another approach to better familiarize students with their future
occupation was articulated by an American teacher:
I found a good exercise—to go to do interview with professionals. Ask them a set of questions about if the practitioners had ethical dilemmas and how they resolve them. Then students write an evaluation of both the situation and the professional, whether it was done well or they would do it differently.
Writing a moral code. An assignment to write a personal moral code appeared to be a creative and meaningful way to help students articulate their personal values and professional intentions. One American educator said that her students write a personal professional ethics code that becomes part of a portfolio. First, the teacher advises her students to observe potential employer’s reaction on the code while he or she goes through the portfolio. If the employer stopped and paid attention to the code, it might be a good sign—he or she cares about ethics. If the code did not draw attention of the employer, it might be an alarming signal. Second, the teacher advises her graduates to hang their ethics codes on the office wall to make it public. In this case, if the boss wants a PR practitioner to do something that violate ethics, the practitioner can always say, “Wait a minute! It was in my portfolio when you hired me; you knew that it was my consideration. And many ways, it can be considered a contractual obligation.” Another teacher, emphasizing the importance of an assignment to write a personal ethics
One student emailed me years after graduation, saying, “I just started reading my own moral code. I want to tell thank you for guiding me along through this process, and I am confident to tell you that in most part, I’ve been living up to my code.” In this regard, communication teachers appeared to believe in the ethical capacity of their students, or their abilities to comprehend ethics issues. One American teacher said, “In essence, all of them [students] have [ethical] capacity. The question is how much knowledge, practice and reasoning abilities they have,” meaning that good intentions should be backed up with experience, self-confidence, and critical thinking. Another educator remarked that unethical people do not choose the PR profession—unethical people might gravitate to professions that provide a chance to earn millions of dollars.
Proposition VI: The majority of American and European educators think that the best format of ethics instruction delivery is to combine a free-standing course with ethics discussions in every course.
Participants appeared to have different opinions on what format of ethics instruction—a freestanding course or ethics incorporated throughout the curriculum—is the best way to insure student effective learning. One participant’s opinion summarized views of the group of American and 315 European teachers (24 participants) who believe in the approach of “ethics throughout the curriculum:” Ethics needs to be taught as an essential part of every course because every choice that is made—whether a strategic planning choice or wording choice—has an ethical component to it. Any time when you make ethical choices that can affect others you are making ethical judgments, and you have to be mindful of applications of these ethical judgments.
A group of nine participants disagreed by saying that PR education should include “a stand alone PR ethics course, maybe media ethics course, certainly, separate from law.” In one teacher’s opinion, “Ethics needs to be slow cooked, in the sense that it needs to be integrated in everything we do, as oppose to garnish we sprinkle on the top at the end of the course, “By the way, everything that PR professionals do should be ethical.” This opinion represents a number of participants who think that “ethics deserves to be a separate capstone course.” The majority of respondents believed that the most effective way is to have a free-standing course and use ethics discussion in every course in every class meeting.
This study showed that the balance of theory and practice was a challenging endeavor for American PR educators. As one teacher said, If you go too philosophical, you lose them [students]. If you go absolutely practical, they don’t understand how to apply the situations in specifics. Try to find a balance where they can reason through abstractly but still see practical application. That’s a hard work.
Overall, the analysis of qualitative interviews showed that American and European teaching philosophies and practices are overlapping, and differences between them are explained by larger differences (e.g., societal and university culture and history). While U.S. educators emphasized the necessity to study norms and values of the profession, European educators focused on studying classical theories and articulating student personal values, or encouraging them to develop their “own personal take on public relations” (L’Etang, 2008).
ConclusionAs a response to European convergence, a doctrine of a European Space for Higher Education was developed in Bologna, Italy, in 1999 (Seccion Especial, 2004). When it is fully implemented in 2010, the doctrine will result in a borderless system of higher education in Europe (e.g., unified credits transfer system, the ability of students and professors move across countries, and internationally compatible degrees). The Bologna process reflects concern of the high level educational managers that European universities are “unemployment factories” and their desire to modernize the process of teaching to meet requirements of labor market (Seccion Especial, 2004).
European participants in this study represented universities that have already introduced a new structure of university courses—graduate and postgraduate cycles. However, it appeared that communication teachers were not enthusiastic about the changes. Although only one senior teacher openly said that a new Bachelor-Master structure is a “step back,” other teachers found other ways to express their disagreement with the system of education that is set up to “educate students in a direct and efficient way.” They think that the task of universities is to provide a broad liberal education, which will help graduates reach their personal and professional goals, as opposed to a “narrow vocational training” that gives skills but does not liberate minds. Apparently, the Bologna process as a response to globalization has produced tension between the European identity and culture and the necessity to compete in the global business.
The two groups—European and U.S. educators—demonstrated similar attitudes toward ethics instruction in the public relations curriculum, seeing it as an important aspect of communication 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. Thus, two different dimensions of ethics 316 education emerged: Ethics instruction that helps students comprehend and subscribe to norms and behaviors of the PR profession (normative ethics), and ethics instruction that helps student to understand the nature of moral thought and practice (meta-ethics).