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This paper traces student how students identified, evaluated, extrapolated, and applied norms for ethics and corporate social responsibility issues in public relations and corporate communication courses at several institutions over more than a decade. It explicates the curricula taught by the professor and focuses on how students integrated these norms into their planning of real and hypothetical campaigns. It will discuss class exercises and homework assignments meant to strengthen students' understanding of ethics, review term projects and the guidelines that drove them, and consider student project evaluations. It begins with a review of academic and professional writings about the place of ethics and CSR in the curriculum. It also refers to professional and industry bars for ethics and CSR, some of which were tapped for her teaching.
which emerged from the same 1998 NCA Summer Conference, explicitly recommended teaching ethics in the public relations curriculum. Recommendations included "that a consideration of ethics pervade all content of public relations professional education.,,, the Commission urges that every public relations course begin its syllabus and its first class with the statement that every true profession recognizes that a fundamental priority of any profession is its responsibility toward society at large." (Commission on Public Relations Education, 1999).
Of the four core competencies recommended by Van Leuven (1999) and the others at the 1998 NCA Summer Conference, ethics topped the list. Hutchison (2002) noted that a separate course in ethics may not be feasible, given pressures on lone professors of public relations who may have advising and other responsibilities. The bigger issue for this professor is: What would lead us as educators to think that even a dedicated course in ethics would be an adequate immersion for a lifetime of challenges?
Academics and practitioners across disciplines stressed the need to shift professional
emphases and recalibrate what students need to learn. As Wooldridge (2009) aptly noted:
THIS has been a year of sackcloth and ashes for the world's business schools.
Critics have accused them of churning out jargon-spewing economic vandals.
Many professors have accepted at least some of the blame for the global catastrophe. Deans have drawn up blueprints for reform…The result? Precious little….The giants of management education have laboured mightily to bring forth a molehill…That is too bad. You cannot both claim that your mission is "to educate leaders who make a difference in the world", as HBS does, and then wash your hands of your alumni when the difference they make is malign.
Wooldridge's heavy-duty rebuke stopped short of decrying a lack of ethics and CSR education.
This author will not deny the existence of such an education or a consensus among academics and professionals as to its importance—but ethics and CSR should top the teaching agenda.
What follows tracks one professor's attempt to give such agenda a higher classroom profile, hoping that students will critically evaluate companies' practices and act according to norms.
Public relations courses in which ethics have been taught. The author has taught introduction to public relations (which she taught, in other institution, as principles of public relations), public relations campaigns, public relations cases, research methods (focused on public relations projects), managing public relations for the modern corporation, corporate communications, organizational communication, team-based independent studies (one graduate [research] and one undergraduate [Bateman Competition]) and a professional communication class in which applying the PRSA Code and ethics scenarios played a significant role.
How ethics fit into the larger public relations curriculum. In my upper-level classes, the first few weeks, and in introductory public relations, the first half of the semester, are spent reviewing the evolution of excellent, ethical communication behaviors during the last 150-plus years. In our contemporary media-saturated environment, the organizational exemplars most frequently recalled by students, and thus, those that become front-of-mind realities for them, reflect misdeed, obfuscation, deceit, and abuse of power. Negative examples thus often become a starting point for any conversation about ethics and CSR. While few of these reach the nadir of the Enron/Arthur Andersen debacle, most students can recall a multitude of scandals.
The Tylenol case seems to be the rare positive model to which students consistently refer.
So I have learned that one acceptable, though not ideal, way to help students identify the positives is by analyzing and extrapolating the good from amidst abundantly negative corporate behaviors, the ones for which there is never a shortage of media coverage. Thus, case studies, 448 even some of the abbreviated studies available in the undergraduate textbooks (see below for citations), serve a valuable purpose in helping students identify those organizational behaviors worth emulating. The chapter case studies, supplemented by those in handouts (e.g., PR Reporter on the Hyundai case, often catalyzed students choices of semester projects and papers.
Sources illustrating ethical and CSR behaviors Theoretical frameworks explicated in texts used in and to prepare for my classes and for professional development from 1998 onwards (e.g., Center & Jackson, 2008; Cutlip, Center, & Broom, 1994; Grunig & Hunt, 1984; Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992, 2006). MacElreath, 1992, Newsom, Turk, & Kruckeberg, 2004) provided grounding and case studies in ethics). Texts were supplemented by handouts on generic and specific principles of excellent public relations practices (Grunig & Grunig, 1993), the PRSA Code of Practice (2009), PRSA ethics scenarios and case studies. Also included were other relevant files, standards, and global bars for corporate behaviors, aas set by professional associations such as the Global Alliance (2010), global CSR reporting agencies such as Business for Social Responsibility (2010) and organizations such as the Global Compact (2010), whose members agree to comply with basic principles of CSR. In addition, guest speakers (i.e., several public information officers from a foreign consulate and the National Guard, a former senior partner at Ketchum, a vice president for investor relations of a top public relations firm, PRSA public relations practitioners from the Connecticut Valley Chapter, PRSA, the head of an online advertising sales agency and others, shared their perspectives on appropriate and ethically-sound communication strategies with students.
Applied Classroom Exercises and Projects in Ethics and CSR The first weeks' grounding in ethical principles and social responsibility supported and set the bar for public relations and corporate communication for the remainder of the semester. Students analyzed the PRSA Code of Practice, worked out solutions to ethics scenarios, and reviewed case studies in social responsibility or lack of it. They honed critical skills by means of individual assignments, small group in-class and take-home exercises, journal responses to audiovisual materials, listening to and questioning guest speakers, and undertaking term projects that they critically evaluated. One example of a class exercise follows.
Conceptualizing and articulating ethics and CSR. This was one of the most recent classroom exercises, initiated systematically for the first time in spring 2010. I asked my class to type answers to five questions that conceptualized and articulated, through synonyms, relevant organizations, and/or behavioral patterns, ethics and corporate social responsibility. I was trying to see if students could "connect" ethics and CSR as highly significant for study and practice.
Teasing out ethical dilemmas and social responsibility from news stories.
Early in the semester, in order to challenge students to identify situations faced by organizations or individuals who required effective public relations, I often divided The New York Times or other major daily newspaper, literally page by page, distributed it among students, whom I separated into groups, and asked each group to pick out one story that 1) demonstrated a compelling need for public relations and 2) contained a strong ethical or social responsibility component or issue. Sometimes, I would cut out a variety of stories and put them into a box, hat, or other receptacle and ask students to pick out stories with viable public relations, public interest, and ethical issues at their core. If students doubted whether a story truly involved public relations problems, they could select another story from the receptacle or from another source.
Following their selection of stories, each group would assess and present to the class as a whole the public relations and ethical issues involved. Members of other groups were free to 449 contribute to the discussions. Nevertheless, as the exercise was to jog students' thinking about public relations' role, the public interest, and ethics, we did not always delve, in depth, into all possible solutions. It made sense, at that point in the semester, to stress problem recognition/ situation analysis. More of the curriculum, particularly the research module, needed to be covered before students would have the requisite planning skills to be prepared to effective responses to the ethics and CSR problems inherent in each of their project topics.
Some, but not all, of the stories chosen were later developed more fully as term project topics. My pedagogical goals at that time were that: 1) students could recognize situations that posed clear ethical dilemmas, for which public relations was imperative and 2) they could extrapolate from these more clear cut cases and navigate through ethically ambiguous situations.
This introductory exercise gave students some control over case study/ project content (they could select a topic of interest to them) and developed critical and creative thinking skills. They also saw how public relations problems were manifest even in "ordinary news," plucked "straight from the headlines." Below, I discuss the Bridgestone Firestone ethics exercise used in my classes, in conjunction with the PRSA Code.
Bridgestone-Firestone Exercise Students had already reviewed and discussed in small groups the PRSA Code (2000) and worked through a number of PRSA's ethics scenarios (PRSA, 2010). Subsequent classes broke into small groups and PRSA-generated case studies (PRSA, 2010) and discussed James Lucaczewski's (2000) piece on ethics. The Bridgestone-Firestone (BF) exercise, which I created, reads as follows: "Based on our discussions concerning ethics and the principles upon which ethical, excellent public relations is practices, decide a strategy that will best help you communicate effectively and develop relationships with your publics."
The exercise listed eight publics, including Ford Motors, and other fictitious entities, a national consumer safety organization and a grassroots advocacy group. Students were to first decide which core values/principles of the PRSA Code directly related to the BF case from the group's perspective and to write a short statement that outlined the group's position. Referring to core values in the Code, one student (representing Ford) cited the Code's Advocacy, Independence, and Honesty values, and noted that public relations practitioners must be responsible advocates for those they represent. They must provide a "voice for the marketplace
of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate"(Ford, 2010) She said:
Ford did not act in the interest of the public, instead acted in their own financial interest…(Re:) Independence (is another value of the Code which) states, "We are accountable..." Ford did not want to take responsibility for their actions. They, as well as Bridgestone Firestone, were too busy pointing fingers to see the damage they were doing...Last but not least…you must at all times, be honest.
Honesty is defined as such "…highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent"… Withholding any information that may be …public interest is detrimental to public relations professionals.
Similar comments were made by others working on this BF exercise. Term projects follow.
Term Projects: Public Relations Campaigns and Corporate Communication Case Studies The most substantive vehicle to assess students' grasp of ethics and CSR was clearly through their term projects. Although the project guidelines varied somewhat from semester to semester and the corporate communication projects demanded the most careful analysis of organizational frameworks for ethics and CSR, all the projects explored diverse organizations' responses to significant internal or external challenges. In most of the public relations classes, students 450 constructed hypothetical campaigns for a range of organizations faced with potential consequences from latent, aware, and active publics.