Thursday, 25 November 2010

Do WHAT Boss?!

It is very easy to sit and say: “I would never do anything that would contradict my morals and ethics.” But what happens when you have responsibilities? When you have to keep earning to make sure that you don’t end up homeless or jobless?

Individuals are in limbo, according to Seib and Fitzpatrick (Peter and Olson: 2006: 296) PR practitioners have a loyalty to themselves, their client or organisation, their profession and to society as a whole. Brilliant when they are all in sync but what happens when there is a difference. What happens when you have to do something that you don’t agree with? Quit? Do it? Tell the press?

One anonymous source from within the public sector gave me this example:

“What do you do when the top dog of your organisation has been squandering taxpayers’ money on lavishing business leaders with football tickets, hotel accommodation and games of golf? Seeing public money used in this way is a hard pill to swallow; to say staff were shocked at what was going on is an understatement. So, after a sprinkle of some PR fairy dust we managed to avoid what could have been an otherwise explosive story.”

Initially you would accuse my source of being dishonest and covering immoral behaviour, from a cognitive approach there are obvious examples of absolute rights and wrongs being displayed here. But I don’t agree, I take a more non-cognitive approach. Non-cognitivism says that’s morality is subjective and bound up in the specific cultural context of individuals. There are only beliefs, attitudes and opinions. This means that individuals are able to change their opinions (or have them changed for them) in order to justify their motives and make their morals fit the situation. Handy for us…

This situation could have been a massive story, the media would have pounced and ran with it! It would have caused major public unrest especially given the current economic climate, when the public has little respect and trust in the public sector. So is this really essential knowledge right now?

If this was being carried out in a private sector company there would be no question’s raised, it would just be plain interesting, and let’s face it, Directors take customers out to wine and dine all the time. But because this is public money does this change the situation?

The source said: “As PR people we are often privileged to sensitive, suppressed or unpalatable information, and our job isn’t to judge it, but decide the best way to use it.”

But how do we decide the best way to use it? There are many ‘ethical decision making’ models in textbooks such as Potters Box but frankly when do we have time to sit and weigh up every situation and think about consequences that can’t always be accurately predicted?

The model I will be using when I enter employment is Parson’s five pillars that ‘carry the weight of ethical decision making in public relations’ (Peter and Olson: 2006: 302):

- Veracity

I agree that you must tell the truth, more of my thoughts on this can be found in my blog post: The truth, the whole truth… But what is it?!

- Non-malfeasance

I do not intend on harming anyone purposefully. However it is important to note that this statement can be applied to different stakeholders. So my behaviour should not harm either: myself, my client, my organisation or society as a whole. Not always achievable!

- Beneficence

I must ‘do good’. Entering into the job market it could be said that I hold many slightly rose-tinted views. But I would like to think that I will do good with my job, whether that is for the organisation I work for or for our clients.

- Confidentiality

I will respect privacy. Confidentiality is often protected in the way of rules and regulations anyway, but if it is not then I will try my upmost to do so.

- Fairness

I must be fair and socially responsible. Easier said than done. Is being socially responsible telling the public everything or is taking a slightly more paternalistic view and deciding to protect them from certain information?

I will be using this model because it allows the practitioner to place emphasis on differing stakeholders and it also fits in with my main morals of telling the truth and not causing harm.

I don’t think it is possible when working as a PR Practitioner to have a black and white view on what is right and wrong because you are dealing with a high number of stakeholders interests everyday so what is right for one of them might not be for another.

I must say, I think my source summed it up completely:

We hold the information, we shouldn’t judge it, just use it how we think best.

How do you decide what is right and wrong? What ethical decision making processes do you use? Or do you just use gut instinct?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Of public interest, or just plain interesting?

Our society’s fascination with other people’s lives is engrained within us from a very young age and is reflected in the high number of gossip magazines that we purchase as a nation. We have always liked to keep up with the Jones’s but the first stage of keeping up is knowing what they have in the first place. Like it or not, we are a nation of nosey parkers...

According to Peter and Olson (2006:69) UK regulations have been based on the distinction between public and private interests. However, it raises the question as to whether the general population know their real interest or whether these interests have been shaped by people such as ourselves, PR professionals. The textbooks call it paternalism, some may call it propaganda.

As PR practitioners we are paid to shape opinions and persuade people to our way of thinking, are we not?

So what’s the difference, do the public need to know everything just because they find it interesting? And do we have a duty to tell them details when they need only know facts and figures?

Before we decide what is ‘of public interest’ we have to define it. There are two main ways in which it is viewed, emergent and aggregate. Emergent concepts decide on areas of public interest by encouraging interactions between people in the form of discussions and debates (Peter and Olson:2006:70). The aggregate concept adds together desires and wishes of individuals. For example, according to the aggregate concept it could be argued that Emmerdale is of public interest because a lot of people watch it.

To fully get to grips with this I shall apply a case study: Michael Jacksons Death

Type in Michael Jacksons Death into Google and over 15 million results will come up.

What information was of public interest?

He died, his greatest hits album would be released soon and his tour was cancelled.

What information was interesting to the public?

Everything else. Did his Dr overdose him on drugs, the rumour that one of his children wasn’t his, what his mum and dad thought, how much money he had earned since he died, where his money has gone, who gets his estate.

Did the public REALLY need to know all that? If we decided that the aggregate concept is correct then yes they did, due to the fact a lot of people were interested. An emergent view would also support it, people were talking about it meaning that it was of public interest. But in my opinion people just wanted to know because they were nosey, did it affect their lives directly? No.

A study claims that 64% of people polled believed the coverage for Jackson’s death was too much. So it seems that some people agree, bet they still bought the papers though.

In this case I believe it was the fact that the papers knew that the public were interested in the story so it was a guaranteed way to sell papers. However it could be argued that it was an example of paternalism, in the sense that the papers (‘an elite few’) decided that the public would be interested in Jackson’s death to such an extent and fed the public a certain view on the situation, filled with controversy, dramatisation and ‘exclusives’.

The rise of individuals personalising their media choices and being able to choose the news that they receive could be seen as a solution to this apparent paternalism, however in my opinion it will always exist. Parents do it to their children, wives do it to their husbands and husbands do it their wives. It is a form of protection, putting their interests first.

Often the public’s interests are catered to with kiss and tell stories and countless articles on the adventures of their favourite celebrities but what happens when there are rules and regulations to prevent things from being printed? What about confidentiality? To a certain extent this could further fuel interest as it is not meant to be known, so when it is found out the media run with it and the public lap it up.

Does it make a difference however when you are talking about companies rather than celebrities? Do people still have that yearning for information and scandal? Indeed they do, ranging from directors of companies putting their foot in it like Gerald Ratner or grand openings gone wrong in the case of Terminal 5 at Heathrow. People are always interested in knowing what goes on behind closed doors.

As a PR professional we have to make this distinction: what do people need to know to ensure they make a rational decision? What isn’t essential knowledge and often more importantly, what do we need to keep quiet? Often we hold information that could make or break an organisation or that could cause major unrest society and it is up to us how to use it…

Scary thought hey?!