Public Relations Ethics: The Role of the Individual. Part 3

Codes of conduct are often too idealistic. The PRSA advise practitioners to leave a position if they are being asked to act unethically whereby the public’s or organisation’s interest is at risk of being harmed. However it could be argued that the practitioner may do more good staying on to argue their case rather than resign and have the agency hire a practitioner who is willing to work unethically.

Additionally the PRSA advises member to,

“Sever relations with any organisation or individual if such relationship requires conduct contrary to the articles of this Code.”

However, in reality, a practitioner will be reluctant to ‘sever relations’ with an organisation that is paying for his or hers services. If a practitioner has financial responsibilities and a family to support etc, they are unlikely to leave a comfortable position in favour of their moral conscience, especially in the current financial climate.

Often the codes of conduct are ambiguous and open to interpretation. They are also not clear as to who should be prioritised first by PR practitioners, the organisations they work for or the publics they speak to. The PRSA promotes ‘mutually beneficial relationships between organisation and publics’ but fails to provide guidance for when obstacles surrounding this situation present themselves. In case of this event, the practitioner is advised to act in the way which causes the least amount of harm. However preventing harm may be achieved by withholding certain pieces of information, which then too can be deemed unethical and subsequently defeats the second principle of ethics, veracity.

Ultimately the triumph of either harm or truth is reduced to a judgement call by the practitioner, which relies on a mature ethical grounding.

Therefore, at the end of the day, the adoption of ethical practice depends on the individual and thus ethics are culturally specific. 2 factors determine how and why ethics are adopted; situational factors i.e. education, religion and personality etc, and secondly individual factors i.e. age, sex and nationality etc.

With these factors in mind, ethical codes are effective as long as the individual allows; if people are willing to lose their jobs or client accounts because of their ethical values then the codes of conduct will govern their work more so than if an individual does not have a mature moral conscience.  To those who do not have a strong moral standing, ethical codes will merely act as a veneer or ‘window dressing’ to persuade those outside of the industry that PR professionals work to a strict moral code.

Additionally it has been proven that a practitioner is more likely to follow a code of conduct if they are positively reinforced or rewarded for their ethical behaviour.

On the flip side of this, determining whether ethics are used or not could matter more dependent upon who is enforcing the behaviour i.e. higher management. Ethical codes are ineffective amongst PR practitioners who view themselves as agents of a higher authority; that is to say that if the matter of ethics lies with an individual of a higher decision making level than the practitioner, the practitioner may subsequently believe that adhering to ethical codes is not their duty, but that they must simply do as their boss tells them to.

There exists an increasingly important link between members of higher management setting a precedent for the application of ethical behaviour among its practitioners. Moral character, ethical attitude and intelligence of top level managers within a firm significantly impact the ethical nature of an agency and its practitioners. Top level managers serve as role models, provide ethics training and enforce appropriate discipline for those who practice unethical behaviour.

In conclusion the effectiveness of ethical codes is dubious as their use depends on practitioners and their environments, and thus there can never be a universal code that is applicable for everyone. Since the code of conduct, as promoted by the PRSA, has now shifted to serve an inspirational function, their effectiveness has increased. This is reflected in the growing number of agencies who require new employees to sign and understand a code of conduct, even if they are not members of a professional organisation. Through education practitioners will clearly identify the governing principles of ethics. Consequently ethics will become more consistent practitioners’ work which allowed them to build more trust with their clients and stakeholders. K

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