«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
Bateman Competition and Amistad Campaign The exceptions to this were the PRSA Bateman Competition and Amistad campaigns, for which the students, on behalf of a client, actually implemented campaigns on and off campus. The three Bateman campaigns were for the following (clients): Solobiz.com, a Web site designed to help 18-32 year olds acquire the skills needed to open their own businesses; Visa, to increase financial literacy and responsible financial behavior among high school and college students; and Contiki Travel, an organization specializing in custom, affordable bus tours for young people. These three campaigns were constructed by teams of upper-level public relations students, with support from other students who were not on the teams but who also had already been grounded in ethics and CSR and had previously undertaken such campaigns. The Bateman work was evaluated on a variety of criteria by a national panel of judges (the Visa financial literacy campaign placed nationally). One of the campaign's messages was that financial responsibility cannot be seen as detached from a greater sense of social responsibility, and financial solvency has ethical implications. This is clear from the financial meltdown and current economic crisis, The Amistad campaign's goal was to raise awareness on campus and in local high schools of the Amistad, the reconstructed ship whose original captives had mutinied and were ultimately tried, and then freed, by U.S. Courts.
Global Norms and Cultural Relativism About midway through the semester, students in both public relations and corporate communication classes were exposed to cultural and other variables in global venues that can have impact on professionals and practice. They reviewed both specific adaptations of generic variables (Grunig & Grunig, 1998) and a template I created with political, social, and economic factors. We began with class discussions that documented corporate linguistic faux pas (e.g., Chevy Nova in Latin America, Coca Cola in China) and cultural no-nos (wearing white in India).
The major exercise in this unit was a series of group country studies. These studies (which I called scavenger hunts) were built on research conducted by students, who were divided into groups, assigned a country, and then subdivided themselves to investigate the most significant factors in working for a public relations agency abroad or for a global corporation.
Inevitably, the class would be confronted with ethical issues (issues for Americans but not for some of their global counterparts) that ran counter to accepted norms; looming large among them were bribery, graft, the sale of column space by journalists, all of which were more obvious flagrant violations of the PRSA Code than the thinly veiled infomercials so common in the U.S. Then, of course, when measured against fertilizer in pet foods and antifreeze in toothpaste, the former infractions appeared to be relatively "minor" In retrospect, more could have been done to elicit a deeper understanding among students of cross-cultural norms; a cultural promenade with students could include a face-to-face, or barring that, a webcam interview with an English-speaking native of that country. Certainly, an 451 individual's "ethnographic journey" would provide a much richer tapestry for understanding that even the most subtle cultural markers can be highly significant, with respect as paramount. Given that my students are required to conduct interviews as part of their term projects, there is no reason why they cannot interview a foreign subject and analyze his or her perspective.
The projects writ large In all the projects, students carefully assessed each situation, the affected publics, and the real and potential repercussions from those publics. Students ran hypothetical campaigns, consistent with ethical and excellence public relations and corporate communication practices, to address external and internal challenges. Their evaluations critically analyzed the choices they had made.
The corporate communication projects were designed to help students, as future corporate communicators, to keep CSR as a front-of-mind experience. They looked at organizations' own CSR frameworks and those of independent, umbrella organizations (e.g., Global Compact, Business for Social Responsibility, Global Alliance). These comparative frameworks assisted them in identifying benchmarks for socially-responsible behavior in a world where corporations are primarily known for their misdeeds and where public confidence in both private and public sector institutions is at an all-time low. Adherence in "the real world" to such frameworks has enhanced and sometimes repaired organizations' reputation, while promoting the public interest.
Choices of topics for "hypothetical" public relations projects Students were asked to preliminarily choose three organizations-one government agency, one not-for profit, and one private sector organization facing a major issue(s) or challenges and to write a short assessment of that situation and its significance. A majority of students, chose, of their own volition, to concentrate on not-for-profit organizations or public interest issues.
Sometimes students chose current public relations problems; more often, they chose to revisit past cases (e.g., NASA's dilemma after the Challenger explosion) and to run their own campaigns based on them. Sometimes, they created their own fictitious scenarios, such as community opposition to a center, in their midst, for HIV-positive patients. Students fleshed them out over a six-to-eight-week campaign and many were reviewed by PR professionals.
Examples of public relations term projects These included sports-related issues, primarily cheating in various forms (academic improprieties, attempted bribing of judges, using anabolic steroids and other illegal drugs) to give an unfair competitive edge to players, consumer safety faux pas (for example, glass shards in Gerber baby foods, antifreeze in imported knockoff toothpaste, Martha Stewart's Omnimedia's woes after her perjury conviction, Merck's credibility after the Vioxx disclosures, the Hale House charity financial mismanagement scandal, and the above threat to close an HIV-centered facility.
The public relations projects in the Fall 2001 semester, as noted below, centered on civil, commercial, and government institutions post 9/11. The safety and integrity the recovery of New York, in particular, and American civil society as a whole, depended on the police, the fire department, the New York Stock Exchange, the airlines industry, Amtrak (as an alternative to the airlines), and NYC and Company (the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau). The entertainment industry was also important to the morale of the public and to the continuity of creative production. The specific institutions and campaign details were the students' choices.
In the graduate seminar (Managing Public Relations for the Modern Corporation), there were an even greater number of projects focused on not-for-profit issues. Among these issues were welfare to work and the problems created for women trying to balance motherhood, school, and work, rehabilitation programs for released convicts, alcohol and drug abuse programs, and other public policy issues. In addition, one excellent student project focused on the controversy 452 surrounding the distribution of funds by the Red Cross, supposedly earmarked, but not appropriated, for victims of September 11. Another public relations campaign, on behalf of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, centered on accusations of competition-fixing by the judges at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Certainly the latter campaigns were replete with ethics overtones. What follows is an overview of some of the feedback on these projects. To preserve the authenticity of student comments, I have retained the original spelling, phrasing, and grammatical/structural choices, even where it has been incorrect.
Student Feedback Student feedback on the projects did not primarily focus on ethics and CSR. Much of it centered on the specific skill set students acquired through the projects, the dynamics of working as a team (where relevant), the challenges students faced in meeting deadlines, the value of engaging in thorough research, the importance of relationship building, and post-mortems on what students would have changed about their projects. Nevertheless, even with these specific foci, many student comments reflected a value orientation. Sometimes, this was grounded in theme-based public relations, as was the case with projects that followed on the heels of 9/11 (see below). Sometimes it was an overarching statement, for example: "In running a pr campaign, you need to be very truthful accurate and ethical at the same time. In some circumstances it becomes difficult at times."
Students on ethics and CSR-- public relations projects. One student commented:
I realize that as a public relations practitioner, I may often represent clients who have acted very unethically and my job is to find the most ethical way to fix their public image….I am thankful that in the field of public relations, there is an emphasis to form solutions that are moral and are in the interests of the public.
This clearly relates to the importance of helping students to grasp concepts of public interest (Martinson, 2001), above. Also, as indicated above, students may not have clearly defined or articulated the public interest but gravitated towards those issues and institutions. Their evaluations often demonstrated an innate understanding of the centrality of these institutions— for example, hospitals' and schools' relation to public welfare and the role they play in positive social interaction and in pre-empting criminal activity. As one student put it, The hospital is a major part of the community not only a place where residence (sic) of the inner city can come for medical aid. It is also a place that promotes social interaction. A place for kids to come as a day-care type system to keep them off the streets with the drugs and everything.
Although this is, again, not strictly an ethical issue, it reflects a sense of social responsibility.
Another student articulated a similar social responsibility agenda.
The point of my project was to bring this grief-stricken community together and celebrate the life they have. By inviting other members from surrounding communities I found it as a way to stop isolating this community and actually embracing its assets.
Often, the scenarios reflected fewer pro-social behaviors. Then from within organizations or due to external pressure, publics demanded an accounting and clear communication changes. Kovacs (2006, 2008) proposed that the higher level of CSR stems from a push from within. Nevertheless, barring that, students were quick to grasp that once a need for disclosure is identified, organizations must respond in a fully transparent way in order to retain the trust of their constituent publics.
453 Trust and transparency as ethical foundations and as essential to CSR Over the years, student projects have often dealt with organizational crises or challenges that have involved corruption, fraud, and other kinds of deceit, including cheating among athletes, many of whom ostensibly serve as role models. As per one student, "Overcoming the problem of corruption takes much more than just trying to fix the hockey team. First you must regain the trust of your publics." A student undertaking a public relations project for a prominent mayor indicted on corruption charges expressed her desire to represent his city, which was inextricably tainted by the mayoral scandal itself. Such topics call for public relations responses that aim to restore publics' trust in the private sector and in not-for-profit and government institutions.
One interviewee (for a student campaign dealing with an athletic scandal at University of Michigan) commented that strategies used in the student's public relations response would have been useful when the scandal broke. Communication with the student body at that time was inadequate. Just the mere act of keeping publics informed is an act of good faith meriting trust.
One student's campaign to restore a non-profit's reputation after its chief embezzled money said, "The experience of this project taught me that…being honest with your publics is first and foremost during a crisis. Even when a scandal breaks…management should admit their
wrongdoing." Another student dealt with Merck's difficulties with Vioxx. He said:
I see how using a transparent methodology when it comes to dealing with a public that may potentially feel violated by a corporation's actions is very helpful in regaining the trust of the consumer base…their (Merck's) withdrawal of the drug from the marketplace without an FDA mandate, although late, helps their appearance in the public eye.
To this student, Merck's admission of the drug's potential for cardiovascular illness was the right thing to do. In many students' minds, truth and transparency went hand-in-hand with ethics. At the same time, students were highly critical of organizations that ignored the public interest. For example, one student, who constructed a campaign after glass shards were found in Gerber baby food, criticized Gerber for neither proactively issuing a recall within the first 24 hours nor updating its publics as to the problem and any solutions. She said, "A company may make its decision thinking money wise, but…it should be made with the concern of the people...although it may save them money now, in the long run it will cost them."