Value in Ethical Standards

What is ethics?

According to Dorothy A. Bowles and Diane L. Biden, authors of the book ‘Creative Editing’, ethics is a

“Set of principles of conduct governing an individual or group.”

Ethics is also not only about our conduct and the conduct of others but it is also about what that conduct should be. In the public relations world, PR practitioners face day-to-day situations that challenge the corporate and individual ethical standards we have set for ourselves. Our core values and beliefs create these standards to which we hold ourselves.

PRSA Code of Ethics

Because our ethical standards are continuously tested as PR practitioners, we can all benefit from having a set of ethical principles to which we can refer as questions around individual situations occur. The Public Relations Society of America created and maintains what is known as the PRSA Code of Ethics. These codes were created on a set of core values and advise PR professionals to:

  • Protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
  • Foster informed decision making through open communication.
  • Protect confidential and private information.
  • Promote healthy and fair competition among professionals.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest.
  • Work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession.

These principles help maintain the core values and standards, to which we as PR professionals hold ourselves to. The Code of Ethics also helps govern our relationships  with our clients, the community, society and other PR professionals.

Potter Box

Another helpful tool, described in detail in Bowles and Biden’s ‘Creative Editing’ book, is called the Potter Box. The Potter Box was designed by Ralph Potter and helps dissect the ethical responses to situations. This box introduces four steps which include:

  1. Step 1: Defining the situation
  2. Step 2: Identify the values underlying the choices
  3. Step 3: Appeal to a moral principle to help justify your decision
  4. Step 4: Choose your loyalties

Bowles and Biden state that:

“To make a decision, we move through each dimension- from defining the situation to considering values to appealing an ethical principle to choosing loyalties – eventually reasoning our way toward a solution or judgment.”

University of Maryland: Jayson Blair

The one case that comes to mind for me when thinking about ethical standards among students is a former University of Maryland journalism student, Jayson Blair. Blair was a Diamondback Editor-in-Chief in the 1990s. His story has become famous among students when learning what not to do to get ahead in your career.

As a student in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, Blair was highly praised among his peers, professors and staff alike as an excellent journalist with a promising future ahead of him. These beliefs were only confirmed when Blair scored a summer internship with The New York Times. He showed promise to the staff at The Times as well because a few weeks into the fall semester, Blair was offered a full time reporting position at the newspaper.

Blair let the paper know that he had only a few more credits to complete so the paper deferred their offer until he graduate. In January, 1999, Blair started working at the New York Times as an intermediate reporter. After only a few short months at the paper, Blair was found to have completed multiple acts of journalistic fraud while covering stories for The Times. He made up quotes, took material from other newspapers and online publications and concocted outlandish stories to get his work published.

The Times eventually learned of Blair’s deception as a writer and reporter and quickly fired him. They worked on their own investigation to find out how Blair was able to mislead them for so long and exactly what stories were deceptive and false. In their report, they stated that,

“The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

What happened with Blair shows us just how far someone can and will go to deceive you and stray so far from a set of ethical standards. After hearing about Blair’s story, we are able to appreciate the PRSA Code of Ethics as an individual, a student and a professional in the public relations field.

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Crisis mismanagement: Penn State and UVA

During the Grunig Lecture Series V, there were many Public Relations Professionals in attendance that included, David Almacy and Judith Phair, both whom discussed the crises at Penn State and UVA this past year.

David Almacy, a senior vice president in Public Affairs at Edelman’s DC location, discussed both cases and how each school was poorly prepared for the social media onslaught after news broke of the scandals.  In the case of Penn State, the school was met with a crisis management nightmare when the truth came out about Jerry Sandusky and an alleged cover up among Joe Paterno, head football coach at the time, as well as the Athletic Director and other school administrators. Almacy described the three most important questions for Edelman, as well as Penn State, to answer before they were fully prepared to come out to the public. Those questions were: What happened? Who knew about it? And what’s being done to fix it?

Almacy also discussed why Penn State was not prepared for the social media attack it faced as Edelman found Penn State was not really on social media. This created a problem for the school as social media is easily accessible to the surrounding public and when a school like Penn State is involved with its community, they are more likely to get support from that community when a crisis like this happens. He discussed how UVA was in a similar predicament as they were not even remotely prepared for the reaction of the public when the university president was fired. The primary lessons to come out of both of these crises are:

  1. Silence is not a strategy. Laying low can often be more damaging than being involved because if you aren’t saying anything then others will start to fill the void. In that case, the schools would be double behind.
  2. Building channels within the community ahead of time would help the community to become an advocate on your behalf before, during and after the crisis.

Judith Phair, the president and founder of PhairAdvantage Communication, LLC , focused on Penn State’s reactions, or lack thereof, as soon as the scandal broke and  up until now. The main point Phair made was that in most universities, Penn State included, the sports program is almost a separate entity from the rest of the school. The problem with that is that the schools PR team was not prepared for the crisis and was playing catch up the whole time. This was probably one of the reasons why Penn State was slow in communicating with the public as they themselves were not entirely sure or prepared to deal with the media until they knew everything.

The question you have to ask is, why didn’t Penn State or UVA have a solid plan in place that dealt with these types of crises? Unfortunately, we will never know the answer to that question. What we do know is that both schools will be looking into developing a crisis management plan for any future crises they will face.