Practical ways to build ethics into PR programs

Lofty ethical philosophy is fine, but what can you do to be ethical in your everyday practice of public relations?

Ethical systems

Firstly, there are three broad approaches to ethical dilemmas:

  • The utilitarian (teleological) approach, which focuses on consequences or what action will be best for the most people. It requires people to consider all alternatives and the consequences of their actions. “The ends justify the means.”
  • Advocacy (deontological) ethics is about rules and duties, of right or wrong, about actions and not ends. “Do what is right, regardless of the consequences.” A common deontological position in public relations is advocacy of the employer or client’s position above all other interests.
  • Situational ethics, also called ‘ethical relativism,’ suggests that every dilemma must be evaluated in its particular context or situation. Instead of applying a rigid set of rules in each decision, people decide on a case-by-case basis. This approach can be helpful when there are several ethical obligations to resolve in the one issue and when blindly following rules would cause significant harm. It does deal with the principle that just because one class of individuals does something, that doesn’t mean it is right.

You can think about which approach or combination of approaches is most compatible with your organization’s values and policies. This will be helpful as a guide to making ethical decision-making policy.

A practical formula for tackling ethical dilemmas

In addition, these practical guidelines will help resolve ethical dilemmas:

  • Define in writing the specific issue or conflict. (The act of writing it out as hard copy or typing it on a computer screen helps to clarify it in your mind.)
  • Identify the relevant internal or external factors, eg political, social, financial, that may influence the decision.
  • Identify and rank the key values and principles involved. What reasons can you provide for prioritizing one competing value or principle over another?
  • Identify the parties who will be affected by the decision and define your obligation to each. Do you need to confer with those parties about the potential risks and consequences of alternative courses of action?
  • Select ethical principles to guide your decision-making process.
  • Make a decision.
  • Develop and implement an action plan that is consistent with the ethical priorities you have determined as central to the dilemma.
  • Reflect on the outcome of this ethical decision-making process. How would you evaluate the consequences of this process for those involved?

This process should help you deal with ethical dilemmas.

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