«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
A company's code of ethics may not necessarily be practiced. In the case of Haliburton, said one student, such a code "makes them out to be a truly trustworthy…company, when their actions were doing more to prove that they…were more concerned with profiteering and capital gains."
Similarly, the Ford Explorer case is significant to the student as a corporate communicator "because it shows how to handle a crisis and what not to do to destroy a partnership… The significance of this to all corporate communicators is that the public must come first...communicating that (as well as acting upon it) can…make or break a company's image.
One student focused on the controversy surrounding the misappropriation by the Red
Cross of funds donated specifically for 9/11 victims. This young man noted that:
A significance in this case can be a lesson for others is just to be honest. Without honesty in your organization/company, you really won't go far at all....you must also share whatever information you have… Mattel's problem stemming from lead poisoning in toys prompted this student to comment: "An important concept I learned from this case is always to be up front and honest with the publics about what the situation is no matter how bad it is and how you are going to fix it."
Some students, were clearly able to tease out, from their cases, implications for them as future professionals, as seen below.
Other student comments on pedagogy and professionalism "Having the public relations (society [PRSA] members look over our work was an excellent idea because they picked out stuff that we might have glanced over. All our choices were good, but it did help to get the outside advice also."
The same student also said "I learned that to be a good public relations worker…you need to be able to see everybody's perspectives…you also need to be able to understand where they are coming from…so that you are able to address them in a way that (they) will listen to and understand."
One of the corporate communication students said, "If I take anything from this course, it will be that corporate social responsibility can play a major role in shaping the future when exercised appropriately with the best of intentions."
458 Most recent student responses regarding CSR and ethics. As indicated above, the Spring 2009 CSR-related papers from the corporate communication class suggested that students had difficulty identifying, comparing, and critically assessing organizations' CSR frameworks and norms and evaluating their compliance with these norms. They did not fully grasp the term CSR's significance. The class had reviewed the PRSA Code of Ethics at the beginning of the semester, as a frame of reference for compliance by corporate communication professionals, but did not meticulously review ethics scenarios, as was the case with the public relations students.
Based on these difficulties, and because I wanted the students to be able to extrapolate more from their case studies and evaluate them more carefully, I modified my corporate communication curriculum. In Spring 2010, I gave a short assignment to students in the same class. The majority had neither taken my public relations or media-writing courses. They were about to begin their fifth week into the semester. I had made it clear in class and in the guidelines to their final projects that the foci of the class, and the projects, would be ethics and CSR.
Therefore, I asked them to discuss what is meant by ethical behavior for an organization and its employees and executives, and also corporate social responsibility. Most students said that organizations should practice such behavior and CSR but beyond that they had difficulty pinpointing what this meant. I also probed for synonymous or even similar terms for both concepts and for examples of organizations and/or persons associated with those organizations who were or were unethical or did or did not practice CSR in the workplace. As anticipated, very few students could explain either term without resorting to tautology. Below is a sample of more thoughtful responses.
Spring 2010 conceptualizations of ethics and CSR.
Among those students who were able to at least attach some attribute or trait to ethical behavior, respect was most frequently cited. Students associated ethical behavior with being successful in business and the ability to sell products, which merely reflects a frequent confusion of marketing and public relations functions.|"Corporations have the obligation to report to their employees as well as the public on any information that they need to know," was one of the rarer views, below.
This same student said that CSR "stands for and represents obligation for one as well as
reputation." Some students associated ethics with morals; one student said:
What comes to mind for me is the Golden Rule…Sad to say…the business world is extremely corrupt. We have all these terms about being ethical, responsible, or moral, yet in this economy it's hard to see if things like this actually exist.
Another student's response about ethics echoed some of the terms used in the PRSA Code: "…behavior that exemplifies "core values and traditions." Another cited, "an open, honest, and transparent business mode and/or code of conduct." The same student emphasized that CSR goes beyond "the bottom line on a quarterly report," and that the company should "think of the greater good for the community they operate in and the consumers they serve."
Yet another student, who could not explicate an "ethical code," was articulate about CSR:
Before making decisions that may benefit the company, they must ask themselves: Will this decision be favorable to the public interest? If the decision does not take into consideration the public's welfare, it should not be administered.
Similarly, "The idea of corporate social responsibility…involves organizations taking into consideration how decisions they make will not only effect the organization but the community and society as well," The same student said, "…a professional may gain certain access to certain information in order to get their job done, and the ethics of this involves the professional 459 correctly using this information for the better of society and not themselves." This was a rare insight. Another student talked about (reactively) "taking responsibility of its actions if harm is done socially or environmentally," yet "the sole purpose of these practices is to maintain a positive image and remain in good standing with its consumers? Is the notion of CSR as most closely linked to consumers (so as to maximize profit) a notion want our students to internalize?
Significantly, students tended to see CSR and ethics as important to employees and consumers (customers) but stopped short of associating CSR with accountability to a full range of stakeholders, which is a key focus in management and other literatures (Clarkson, 1995). A few paused to consider the environment, but clearly a mistaken association was between CSR and marketing outcomes, rather than a focus on addressing a range of stakeholders and the public interest. Overall, few students viewed CSR more comprehensively.
Many students extrapolated CSR only from its absence, as in Toyota's, and secondarily, Walmart's, woes. Multiple references to Toyota are understandable, given the degree of coverage on the recalls, the belated communication by its chief executive, and the public hearings. We can be grateful for this front-of mind experience, but students should be able to identify a range of organizations that exhibit positive (albeit, at times, conflicted) manifestations of CSR. I was frustrated that student responses did not reflect positive, professional ethics and CSR norms.
A pedagogical experiment in process: Corporate Communications Spring 2010 Given that the majority of students had great difficulty expressing the essence of ethics and CSR, I knew a different approach was needed. During the next class, I returned the above assignments to the students, whom I then divided into groups. I asked each group to consider deeply the meanings of ethics (including its origins), the possible stakeholders for whom ethics and CSR were consequential, and to jot down notes on the backs of their assignments. When they were given this second opportunity to explain ethics, more students referred to morality. One student who associated ethics with family and religious values, and as differing with different cultures, had a harder time pinpointing CSR. She said, "CSR are values and beliefs a company has," but like many students, did not specify how those values and beliefs should be operationalized.
These recent classroom experiences and the inconsistency and misconceptions in student understandings of ethics and CSR underscore the need to continually reinforce these concepts and find ways to adjust them pedagogically so that they are as tangible as possible to students.
For next week's class, I have asked the corporate communication class to study the PRSA Code and will provide students scenarios for group exercises, as I did for the public relations classes. I will now discuss the limitations and implications of the research and explore what pedagogical modifications might facilitate increased understanding of ethics and CSR and their implications not only individual transactions but for all sectors and all stakeholders, across societies.
Discussion and Suggestions for Future Research Based on the above data and the empirical realities of classroom teaching, my unequivocal response to Hutchison's (2002) question about where ethics should be situated in the public relations curriculum is that it should be taught everywhere. There is no such thing as too much reinforcement of ethics and CSR; "in your face" as a concept does not apply here. The prevailing workplace environment of obfuscation and outright greed in business, and yes, sadly, even in not-for profits and governments, has caused our country's economy, and that of many others, to spiral out of control. It produced the chaos that turned so many lives upside down.
Such a reality calls for equally strong or stronger countervailing measures. The public relations profession cannot afford a "next generation" of practitioners who have become jaded or 460 indifferent to breaches of ethics and social responsibility. Given the extent of impropriety, the lack of disclosure, and the negative environment that has mushroomed in the last decade, a thorough and consistent diet of ethics and CSR throughout the curriculum is clearly demanded.
Evaluating pedagogical approaches for reinforcing ethics and CSR As an educator, I am ambivalent as to whether this infusion of ethics and CSR awareness should be merely be subtly woven into the fabric of every class or it should also be offered as a required class (required because many students would not elect an ethics class). In retrospect, I would, minimally, assign sections of a public relations ethics text, such as that Fitzpatrick and Bronstein (2006), create more ethics and CSR-based group and individual assignments, and provide more audiovisual excerpts, both for homework and in-class use. I would also integrate articles from other disciplines, such as Bhattacharya, Korschun, and Sen's (2008) work on CSR initiatives that strengthen stakeholder-company relationships, and requiring a nominal number of hours committed to service-learning or an equivalent commitment to a shadow experience.
As we speak: A CSR postscript.
This semester, through journal entries and the above activities, I have begun to reinforce the CSR component earlier and more intensively. I am also cognizant that unless students can themselves clearly articulate the meanings of CSR and ethical behaviors, and operationalize their meanings, it will be difficult to get them to appreciate and apply those practices in the workplace.
They need to understand the value of CSR frameworks and the utility of external benchmarks or bars in maintaining standards. The fact that most students did not compare their organizations' adherence to both internal and external CSR bars is unsettling.
Perhaps more class time and more careful planning should have been allocated to this section of the project; it could have been that many students were at a loss as to how to select and compare external and in-house CSR frameworks. On the other hand, students are known to often navigate around unfamiliar and more time consuming topics. Nevertheless, as an educator, I have to assume that I could conceivably have done more to make this aspect of the project more comprehensible to the students. This semester, I have included more in-class explication of frameworks that set the bar for and benchmark CSR and ethical behaviors. I have screened DVDs and videos, not only of dramatized real-life whistleblowing cases, but also documentaries.
I had students visit Web sites (e.g., Ethisphere. PRSA, Global Compact, Global Alliance) where expectations for CSR and ethics, in some cases, as manifest in fair trade or human rights practices, are made explicit. This coming week, the Global Compact is sending a representative to talk with my students about CSR issues and the voluntary compliance with 10 basic principles that the Compact expects of its members.
Is this overkill? I hardly think so but perhaps my students do. Yet, if I can't get them to appreciate that ethics and CSR should drive their professional decision making, perhaps I can at least get them to appreciate a spin on the Hippocratic Oath that their physicians should be prepared to honor: If you cannot do good, then at least aim to do no harm.
When I think about my limited capacity to influence my students, or when I see them thinking and performing in ways that I consider antithetical to what I would hope they would do, I try not to get discouraged. Nevertheless, sometimes I do, and when it happens I have to remind myself that I can plant the seed, but have no control over whether it will bear fruit or how that fruit may turn out. I just keep planting and sowing and turning the soil and hoping that at least some of my students will have an "Aha" moment when it comes to ethics and CSR.