«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Culture influences the public relations work of organizations. According to Sriramesh (2009), culture is linked to public relations and both affect each other. This culture is determined by environmental influences, the political system, economics, development, media systems and activism. The government influence of Brazil affects the practice of public relations as a controlling force—for good or bad.
Licensing and the Ethical Conscience In a study on the “corporate conscience,” Bowen demonstrated how senior-level public relations professionals act as ethical counsel to an organization and serve as part of the dominant coalition (2008). With a standard as a licensed profession in Brazil, public relations professionals would serve in management roles and therefore as the ethical consciences of their organizations.
According to a study conducted by Aberje, the largest communication organization in Brazil, corporate communication in Brazil is a strategic management function (Nassar, Furlanetto, Figueredo, 2008). Those working in the field of communication are viewed in the management function as opposed to a mere technician. If the public relations professionals in Brazil are part of the management function and adhere to a standard code of ethics as part of the licensing procedure, they would act more ethically than those who have no code and are viewed as technicians—as is often the case in the United States. This idea will be contended, tested and discussed in this study.
Bowen’s multinational study showed that public relations ethics was in a state of neglect.
Professionals do not embrace ethical principles and counsel in decision-making. He argues that the ethical conscience of an organization is within the top echelon of the public relations function. His research addresses the ambiguity around the role of ethics counsel in public relations and provides a theory to establish public relations as the ethical conscience of an organization. “Moral philosophy intersects the interests of business in the challenging mandate for corporate accountability and transparency. The central responsibility for ethical organization decision–making can be seen in terms of helping an organization communicate with its stakeholders and publics (Bowen, 2008, p.
272).” Organizational policies and decisions come from top management from legal, finance and operations. Bowen argues that this group of decision-makers should include a public relations professional to represent the values, beliefs and views of various publics whom they represent.
Ethical analysis will help an organization make decisions aligned with the interests of its stakeholders. Public relations management advises the dominant coalition and serves as the ethical conscience of an organization. Bowen confirms that public relations professionals should act as a 323 corporate conscience, integrity and honesty judge, or ethics counsel to top decision makers in the organization. Bowen explored the uncultivated area of the role of public relations as the ethical conscience through qualitative research including focus groups and interviews with IABC members.
One theme that emerged from his study was that an analysis of ethics was not necessary if the organization followed legal requirements and sought to do no harm.
Although the United States does not license public relations professionals to protect first amendment rights of free speech, the laws of the land apply to the field. In Brazil, the laws include a licensing process accompanied by a legally enforceable code of ethics. Culture influences both laws and ethical guidelines. Although the government influences public relations through laws or licensing, the media serve as the fourth-estate to regulate government control.
Bowen’s study showed that moral reasoning was preferred over legalism. “Public relations practitioners who were favorable towards the role of ethics counsel or ethical conscience expressed a preference for using moral reasoning to examine the potential consequences of decisions on publics (p. 272).” In Brazil, public relations professionals who are licensed may have rules from the government, but keeping a strict list of rules does not make a more ethical professional. The same principle applies to public relations professionals in the United States. Those who act ethically just to meet legal requirements are less ethical than those who use principles of moral reasoning to do what is in the best interest of all publics involved.
From his study, Bowen concluded, “Acting as an ethical conscience advances not only the mutual interests of publics and the organizations that serve them, but also advances the stature of public relations as a management function—a function with a solid foundation in ethical counsel and practice (p. 273).” According to a study by Molleda and Ferguson, the public relations professional who is considered part of management is responsible for the ethics and social responsibility role in an organization. In their survey of public relations professionals in Brazil, 66 percent occupied managerial roles (2004). Whereas women in the United States assume the technician role and make less than men, the relationship and value-focused Brazilian society allows for women to occupy managerial positions. The public relations practitioner can only employ the role as a change agent and conscience with a voice in management.
Ethical Codes Conflicts As the pioneering advocate for a universal code of ethics, Kruckeberg viewed a code based on theories and philosophy agreed-upon by those in the profession as the “logical universal beginning (1989, p. 13).” In a time before the increasing globalization of today, he recognized the value of standards in order to work on a multinational level. He said, “To ignore transnational corporations’ growing impact is myopic; to ignore the particular ethical considerations peculiar to the needs of professional communicators of multinational companies is folly (p. 16).” Hunt & Tirpok support a universal ethics code, as they view the proliferation of codes from different organizations as a threat to public trust in communication with a clear message and mission (1993). In support of Kruckeberg, they assent to the usefulness of ethics codes even though they may be interpreted according to countries and cultures.
Despite the benefits presented by Kruckeberg (1989) and Hunt and Tirpok (1993) of a universal code of ethics for public relations practitioners, culture influences ethical practices in each country. According to Ferrari (2009), different countries, regions and even groups define public relations based on unique cultural differences. “Everything we do in public relations requires adjusting to local realities that take into consideration the influence of culture, politics, the economy, media and the idiosyncrasies of each nation (p. 725).” Wright (1993) presented the idea that a strong and enforceable code of ethics is not a prerequisite of an ethical professional. “Ethics codes are unenforceable, only as good as those who subscribe to them, and don’t reward people for their ethical behavior (p. 15),” Wright said. The 324 voluntary nature of public relations codes of ethics makes them unenforceable. However, even an official licensing program may not be entirely enforceable, as suggested in the discussion of this study. Wright explained that codes don’t have a real absolute function without enforcement. “In reality codes of ethics in public relations are more cosmetic than anything else,” he said. “They’re warm and fuzzy and make practitioners feel good about themselves, but they don’t accomplish much (p.15).” Culture influences the understanding and practice of ethics in public relations. Cultures vary in language, non-verbal communication and social customs (Smeltzer & Jennings, 1999).
Oftentimes, the cultures of different countries conflict with codes of ethics. Smeltzer and Jennings (1998) said, “To some companies, adapting to foreign cultures often requires ethical compromises (p. 57).” These companies may work within other countries in a manner contrary to codes of ethics, and sometimes the very tenets of capitalism and human rights. Each country enforces different laws. Although an action may be legal, it may not be ethical—the two components are not transposable. For example, “grease” payments, or bribes to facilitate international business are allowed under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Although such practices may be considered “legal,” the ethicality can easily be disputed. Accepted international practices may violate laws and commonly accepted standards of ethics and social responsibility in the United States. Smeltzer and Jennings questioned, “Should individual national cultures or should company ethics codes control the firm’s ethical decision for international operations?” How can organizations work ethically on an international turf with no ethical regulations or rules? Smeltzer and Jennings ascertain that a company with two sets of values—one for domestic and another for international business—is “headed for an ethical crisis (p. 63).” While arguing the inevitable influence of culture on international business, they defend the idea that absolutes should exist, supporting an international code of ethics.
History of Public Relations in Brazil Although the practice of public relations started in Brazil in 1914, it did not develop until the 1950s due to governmental control and dictatorship. The first instance of public relations in Brazil involved a transnational company, which represents the multinational interactions of the field today.
The Canadian electricity company The Sao Paulo Tramway Light and Power Company Limited, today known as Eletropaulo-Eletricidade de Sao Paulo, created a public relations department led by Eduardo Pine Wolf. Under the democratic rule of President Getulio Vargas, a national policy on industrial development contributed to the growth of the communication industry. The government officially recognized the profession of public relations in 1967 by law number 5,3277. This new law required those working in the field of public relations to receive a bachelor’s degree in the field and register with the government. Brazil was the only South American country with a monarchy throughout most of the nineteenth century. It was also the first country to license public relations—a practice influenced by the governmental control associated with the dictatorships (Ferrari, 2009, p.
705). The military influenced the licensing of public relations in an attempt to control communication, which has had a more negative than positive effect on public relations in Brazil.
At the time of the governmental recognition of the profession, Brazil was proudly recognized as the first country to legalize public relations. However, controversies exist around whether the regulation contributes to the growth and credibility of the field, since it occurred at a time when public relations was not clearly developed or defined. The government passed the law at a time when the military and government controlled communication more closely for national security.
In 1980, Brazilian citizens protested the policy demanding more freedom of speech and transparency in government communication. With undesirable regulations to practice public relations, those working in functions of public relations refer to their work as organizational communication—a conglomerate of public relations, marketing and internal communication. “If you work in the area of organizational communication or business communication, you don’t need to 325 have an undergraduate degree in public relations. In fact, you can have a degree in any area from publicity to engineering,” said Mateus Furlanetto, assistant director of Aberje (Furlanetto, 2010).
According to Furlanetto, the law is damaging to the profession, since those who did not receive an undergraduate degree feel uncomfortable in the practice. The federal counsel, known as CONFERP gives citations and tickets to companies if those working in public relations do not have a license. In contrast, the government also requires many companies to have someone doing the public relations work, leading to more outsourcing and covert titles (Furlanetto, 2010). This type of regulation has already proven difficult in Brazil because of the size of the country and variance in educational opportunities.
In a survey study conducted by Mele, Debeljuh and Arruda, they found that 77 percent of Brazilian companies surveyed have some kind of ethics document, such as a code of ethics. They attributed the significant number of companies with codes to the trend of revising codes of ethics in South American countries to separate corporate values from government corruption (2006, p. 28).
Although some may argue that simply having a code does not translate into more ethical actions, Mele, et al. found a correlation between the number of documents in each company and “the intensity of means used to implement them (Mele, et al., 2006, p. 31).” Despite the issues associated with implementing a code of ethics, perhaps, more codes instead of a universal code could increase commitment to ethics.
Despite the law and federal regulating body, the licensing is difficult to enforce with the expanding and globalizing field of public relations (Molleda & Athaydes, 2003, p. 271). While licensing could define public relations, creating a more unified and ethical profession, licensing in Brazil has not proven to define public relations. In fact, the results will show that the opposite may have occurred.
Although the government recognizes public relations with licensing, the public has not entirely granted legitimacy to the profession (Molleda, Athaydes & Hirsch, 2009). Brazilians mistrust the “government characterized as bureaucratic and inefficient (p. 736).” The connection of public relations to government creates a negative image of public relations in the eyes of citizens. In many developing nations, including Brazil, the government becomes more important than the general public to those working in public relations (Taylor & Kent, 1999). The government control of media influences the practice of public relations. Some professionals and scholars do not support the licensing, because it limits freedom instead of promoting ethics. This in-country study provides insights of those working in public relations on the concept of licensing and its effect on ethics.