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?


  1. Another great post Carli - as someone who hasn't studied PR specifically since University, it's always interesting to read blogs like yours to keep in touch with the subject again.

    I think with the example you give of public sector money being lavishly spent, there's always two sides to every story. Yes, the spending of public sector money will always be heavily scrutinised, and in some cases, rightfully so. However, as you put, if this was a private sector company, there wouldn't be an outcry.

    Companies spend money on trying to impress business leaders with tickets to football matches, golf days and so on for a reason (and there would have to be a reason - companies don't tend to give away money for the sake of it unless there's something in it for them). In this case, it might be strengthening business relationships or sealing a sales deal. If this works for the private sector, why not the public sector too?

    As I say, everything's not always so black and white, so in the world of PR, it really isn't for you to judge, but to make your clients look as favourably as you can.

  2. Hi Peter,

    Thank you for your comment. I am glad you find my blog useful - means that I am doing something right :-) I agree with there being 2 sides to every story and also with the point you make about there being reasoning behind some 'controversial' decisions. I echo your views about not judging and making our clients look the best we can, however the danger comes when your personal ethics don't approve of the action - what do you do then? Obviously you have a responsibility as you have to keep a roof over your head but how could you work on something that you didn't agree with? It's certainly a difficult one. My advice is that you should pick an organisation that suits you, have a look at their clients and see how you could fit it - that way there is more of a chance that you won't have to do something thats out of your comfort zone.

  3. Great post!

    I have seen a few things in my career and of late have been asked to do some things which have tested which side of the moral fence I sit on. I have always come down on the side where my morals are intact but I have been put out of favour with the people who ultimately decide if I am employed or not. Unfortunately this has led me to hate an industry I love(d) and now seek a change of industry and career. Would I change the things I have done so that I could stay secure in employment? I would have to say no, I stick by what I believe and I am happy that my morals are intact.

  4. Hi Edd,

    Thank you for your truthful comment. It was good to hear from someone who has been in a situation that I have described and to see your reaction to it. I am glad to hear that your morals have remained intact however am slightly disappointed that you are now out of love with the discipline because of it. It would be interesting to know if you were aware of the possibility of carrying out such tasks before you took the job.

    Once again thanks for your comment.

  5. Hey Carly,

    I wasn't aware of being asked to carry out certain tasks. It was a situation where, once my experience and knowledge was brought to the attention of business owners, I was asked to carry out tasks based on the knowledge I have accumulated over the years. In one instance it was very bluntly put as, do X or you have no use to use any more.
    I have come to the conclusion that, unfortunately, my experience and knowledge is working against me because there are less experienced and knowledgeable people within high level management in most businesses so they feel somewhat threatened by my presence under them. In which case asking me to do morally challenging tasks is win win for them. On one hand if I carry out the task then they win by getting what they want and if I don't they can quite easily brand me as a trouble maker and terminate my employment, winning again.
    I have for a few years become to feel like a dinosaur by having 'old school' values and beliefs about how to run/manage/operate within business. What you see is what you get with me and it seems that doesn't fit any more.

  6. Ah the ethics of the 'dark art' - very thoughtful post Carli, and I'm encouraged that young up-and-coming PRs are thinking this way.

    I have always worked in charity / third sector PR, and so - fortunately I suppose - have personally never held much of a budget to be lavish with or waste. But, when tough decisions are made by charities (such as the closure of frontline services or cultural shifts that may appear contrary to the charity's original raison d'etre) this can hit reputation very hard, and rock the spirit of even a hardened PR. Public will for charities is not as impenetrable as it once may have been. As the sector braces itself against austerity cuts and a weakened corporate income, we will face more tough decisions. And the media and public will scrutinise any hint of waste.

    But (arguably) charity PRs are more resolutely tied to the morals at the core of our organisations.

    We do what we do...

  7. I think if you really disagreed with something you were asked to do, you should stand up for your opinions and question the higher authority.
    If you work in a decent workplace your position would be taken on board - as part of the team your opinions matter, and a good workplace will listen to them.

  8. Hi Carly

    Great post!

    Having worked in the public sector I can understand the situation your source has been involved in and also know the things that go through your head during these times. That's not to say that those higher up have it easy, so decision that they make about how to spend public money are extremely hard, and I'd like to believe they make those decisions in the best interest of the public. However, there is always those who will do it in their own interest. I can only use Andrew Lansley giving GPs the NHS budget, when his wife is a GP. I wonder who that will benefit.

    NHS rant aside (my NHS rants are even starting to annoy me) I truly believe when you work in PR, you do so accepting the fact you will know the ins and outs of most stories within your organisation. The problem that comes with this is that you have to - or at least I have accepted - that this is my job, and even if you consider it is ethically wrong, you still have a job to do.

    Now please don't get me wrong, I haven't been faced with an issue to date that has really challenged my morals, so my views could change in time. I just feel there are times when we have to accept that we have chosen to work within PR and with that come certain work-related tasks that may not be what we'd ideally like to do.

  9. Interesting read Carly. I'm not sure you can say there's a right answer either way.

    I think the one thing you always have to do is justify your decisions to yourself. Should any ill sentiment come back, so long as you can justify doing what you've done, and take any consequences accordingly, I don't think there's much else you can do.

    Makes you think for sure though...

  10. Hi Edd,

    That really is a shame that you found that to be your experience. I do hope that you get sorted in the end and find a job that makes the most of your skills...and doesn't exploit them!

    Thanks for your insightful comment - I really appreciate it.

  11. Hi Rob,

    It's brilliant to see a post from someone working within the charity sector. I suppose morals are all clearly defined when working for a charity as the people who work there will be fully behind the cause they are working for.I also understand your point of not having the lavish budget that some companies have - often means you have to find more inventive ways of gaining audience and donations. I found your article on location based social media extremely interesting: - its great that charities are using all the techniques available to them. The waste issue is a good point to bring up - the media are extremely quick to point out if a charity has spent money on something that the public deem pointless. Keep up the great work with Whizz Kidz Rob.

  12. Hi David,

    Indeed I agree, which strengthens the importance of looking for a job within the right workplace. To quote Ben Matthews from the Impress conference in London - you should make sure you choose a company which has the same morals as you. That way you are less likely to be put in a situation similar to the in my blog. Thanks for your comment.

  13. Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your comment. Nice to hear from another individual from the public sector - although rather scary that you have experienced the same sort of thing. I agree with your point, sometimes you have to look at it and say, well yes, this is my job and if I didn't do it then someone else will. Like you say, we enter into our jobs knowing of some of the situations we are likely to be put in and have to therefore deal with them when they arise. Thanks for your honest comment :-)

  14. Hi Mazher,

    I LOVE your point about justifying it to yourself - that is a very good point. I tend to judge my decisions as to whether it affects my sleep - if I do something and then can't sleep after deciding a certain thing then I know that often it is the wrong thing. You also mentioned about justifying it to others which is often different to explaining it to yourself. The public wont understand if you stand and say that the reason you did something was to keep your job and a roof over your head. I am glad that you think my post makes you think - makes me think I am doing something right ;-) Thank you for your comment - brought up a new angle on looking at things.