As Michael Winkleman described, public relations professionals and educators are currently engaged in a vigorous discussion of the role of ethics within the profession and the means by which ethics can be taught to both public relations students and professionals. According to Winkleman, the rise in concern over ethical issues can be traced to the reaction of the profession to events in the 1980s, which included high-profile instances of insider-trading and covert government foreign policy activities.
In addition, the ethical debate is thriving because corporations have realized that they have to pay more attention to social demands and be more responsive to “stakeholders. ” This realization has paralleled the move from theoretical ethics to applied ethics. Winkleman’s conclusion is that ethics are crucial for public relations because they will benefit the profession and the companies for which the public relations work. Ultimately, ethics are good for business.
In addition, there is empirical evidence suggesting that public relations professionals basing their decision-making and recommendations to management on ethical principles and social responsibility are more likely to have a greater role in management decisions and activities. The result of this concern over ethics in the public relations field has resulted in a vigorous debate over the pros and cons of a universal ethics code.
Many writers agree, despite their differences, that not only does ethical decision-making give public relations professionals more opportunities to participate in the management function, but it also assists the development of public relations as a “profession. ” Ethics and social responsibility are also vital issues in public relations because public relations facilitates communication among the company and its many publics, including society at large.
As Pratt notes, there are three main points that result from all the empirical research conducted on practitioner ethics. First, “they underscore the notion that ethics is an important issue practitioners confront. ” Second, “they suggest that practitioners cannot ignore public (and industry wide) evaluation of their professional ethics and that corporate managements need to continually institute ethics in the workplace. ” Third, “they suggest that older practitioners can help set an organization’s ethical tone.
However, as will be discussed later, Donald K. Wright convincingly argues that ethical behavior is performed by practitioners primarily out of a sense of personal morality and wanting to be respected by his/her various publics, rather than as a result of vague, codified ethical guidelines. Perhaps, what makes the subject of ethics difficult to address from a pragmatic point of view within public relations is the paucity of empirical research and theoretical writing on public relations ethics.
This is surprising given that 75% of the educators at a recent AEJMC conference stated that ethics was an important aspect of their teaching and that PRSA members, in a questionnaire, voted the Code of Professional Standards to be the most important member benefit. Calls for Universal Ethics Code Many educators are currently urging public relations practitioners to adopt a universal code of ethics. The interest in this topic is evidenced by the special issue of Public Relations Review from the spring of 1993 entirely devoted to the subject of ethics.
Naturally, the problem will arise in developing a code that can specifically address each specific morally problematic situation. Possibly due to this problem, some of the writers addressing this issue have been somewhat non- specific in delineating the actual components of an ethical code. However, others such as Hunt and Tirpok have suggested the framework for a code and the strategy for its employment. Kruckeberg believes that increased globalized trade has hastened the need for an international (universal) code of ethics for communicators.
In analyzing the functions of transnational corporations, he describes four social benefits these companies provide to Third World countries: “(1) development of human resources through employment, training, and indigenization…;(2) strengthening the knowledge base through research and development and the transfer of technology; (3) raising standards of living through the creation of wealth, encouraging local industry and providing consumer goods; and (4) enhancing the quality of life by assisting programs that raise standards in health, housing, nutrition, and education.
Given that a transnational corporation is actually able to produce these benefits in Third World nations, they are indeed meeting demands of social responsibility. However, Kruckeberg notes that many corporations have encountered criticism relating to graft and corruption issues, consumer issues, environmental/human safety issues, and political/humanitarian issues. For example, Nestle was embroiled in a controversy surrounding their marketing practices in the Third World of breast milk substitutes.
Nestle responded effectively and in a socially responsible manner in 1981 by endorsing the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes the day the measure was enacted and assembled experts to monitor the company’s compliance with the Code. Kruckeberg suggests that a code of ethics could be developed that would be “capable of guiding behavior which attempts to resolve the inherent moral dilemmas [of the four types of criticism previous described] as well as other dilemmas that have occurred or potentially could occur.
Many of the codes currently in existence do not take into account the particular responsibilities of transnational corporations. However, despite weaknesses in ethical codes they serve four valuable functions: (1) providing guidelines for practitioner activities, (2) demonstrating what clients and supervisors should expect from practitioners, (3) providing basis for charges of wrongdoing, and (4) providing defense against charges of wrongdoing.
The new code of ethics should be developed under the leadership of professional communicators from multinational companies, but there should be input from all members of the professional public relations associations. Hunt and Tirpok extend Kruckeberg’s argument and suggest that the public relations profession needs to establish a universal ethics code. In addition, they suggest an actual framework for the code and provide a strategy for its adoption.
Hunt and Tirpok believe that a universal code of ethics ought to apply to all communications professions, uniting public relations and journalism in this sense, but that the code must be adaptable to the needs of the individual professions. While journalism’s purpose is most often objectivity, public relations’ purpose is often advocacy. In this manner, public relations practitioners share the general nature of their purpose with lawyers.
Nonetheless, “all systems and codes of ethics seem to be rooted in the same fundamental principles and similar values. ” Their suggestion for an actual code is that it deal with first order concerns, such as “keeping faith with the public” and “achieving consensus,” not specific communications situations, since no code could possibly address all these situations. The timetable for developing and adopting the code would take six years.
The first stage would be organizing and conducting a conference of academics and representatives of professional organizations with the purpose of drafting the code. In the second phase encompassing two years, a task force would visit the professional organizations with the aim of obtaining suggestions for modification, implementation, and dissemination of the code. The third phase would involve the ratification and implementation of the code.
In the final stage, the code would be published and publicized “to inform target publics about the code and its importance to global communication. ” There have been objections to the implementation of a universal ethics code on the grounds that public relations cannot be defined, that anyone can practice public relations due to First Amendment-type rights, and that there are differences within the global community as to what constitutes ethical behavior.
Kruckeberg dismisses the criticism of cultural relativists who argue against a universal ethics code citing Asuncion-Lande’s recommendation that in distinguishing “between what is universal and what is distinctive in the ethics of different cultures, ethicists should develop an inventory. ” This inventory of universal ethics would include “culturally sanctioned rules of ‘proper’ interpersonal conduct, i. e. rules which serve to preserve order and to promote social harmony and unity and which provide stability of human relationships in a rapidly changing world. ”