Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics

Being “rational” isn’t enough.  
I’d like to think that I am a rational being, who weighs both sides of an issue and uses critical thinking before coming to a conclusion.  In the study of ethics, however, the idea of ‘rational’ thinking becomes complicated by the co-existence of two equally ‘rational’ means of making a decision.  Utilitarianism says that an action is ethically good if maximizes the positive outcomes for the greatest number of people possible.  On the other hand, deontology says we are all duty-bound, and an action is ethically good if it can be universalized (if everyone repeated this action everywhere, would it be okay?), if it maintains the respect and dignity of all people and if it is done with good intentions.  Both are arguably valid ways of analyzing an ethical dilemma, but given the myriad ways in which utilitarianism can be manipulated to serve horrible intentions, I choose to ascribe to deontology. 
What does this have to do with public relations?
               
In last week’s PR theory course, we spent close to an hour debating the idea of whether or not we, as future public relations practitioners, would work for a major tobacco company or other unethical organizations.  The class was split; half of us believed we would do whatever work was available, as we would separate our work from ourselves and our own morals.  The other half of us believed we would not work for such a company, with blatantly unethical practices, even if it meant struggling more with our personal finances.  I would argue that those who would take such a job were applying a form of utilitarianism.  To them, the greatest good would be maximized by them being employed and able to feed their families.[1]  The deontologists in the group felt duty-bound, as members of society, not to lend their skill sets to an unethical cause.  This class debate clearly showed the need for a better instruction on ethics in public relations courses nationwide.  Whether we work for unethical companies, or are simply faced with ethical dilemmas in the course of our work (which is inevitable), we will need to be equipped with the decision-making skills to choose the ethical path. 

Ethics in Public Relations ≠ Public Relations Ethics
As the “corporate conscience” of an organization, public relations practitioners are increasingly called upon to be the ethical voice in a time of tumult.  As such, public relations students must be taught how to be autonomous, unbiased and ethical decision-makers.  However, the day-to-day ethical decisions we will make are not the same as an industry-wide code of ethics to which practitioners must adhere.  While organizations like the Public Relations Society of America do have a code of ethics, such codes often lack enforcement and/or a true understanding of public relations’ role as corporate conscience.   
For these reasons, I believe public relations educators must do two things. First, they must integrate some sort of course on ethics and ethical philosophy into their curricula.  Students in public relations must be informed of the pros and cons of applying both utilitarianism and deontology to dilemmas with which they are faced in the real world.  They must be taught to apply ethics IN public relations.  Second, public relations educators must craft their own list, alongside industry professionals, of public relations ethics.  Without these steps, future public relations practitioners will be ill-equipped to face the ethical quandaries they will undoubtedly stumble into during their careers.   Whether or not we would choose to work for a tobacco company, we should at the very least be empowered with the understanding of ethical analyses that can help us make any and all decisions we face in the most ethical way possible.           


[1]However, they were forgetting that a greater number of people are harmed by the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products than would be helped by their employment there.