Applying Ethics Can Help You Think Outside the Box

I’ve been teaching an intro to public relations class and the most recent lecture covered ethics in PR. It was a great reminder to give more thought to my actions, because looking back over the past few weeks I actually can name several instances where I could have applied ethical thought to my actions and to my recommendations. In other words, being ethical is not a big-decision-once-in-a-career type of topic. In fact, if we take care to be thoughtful in the small decisions, there will likely be fewer big decisions.

For example, social media is new to all of us, so of course there are ethical considerations to be made. Isn’t it ironic that “transparency” is an important value in online communications, yet PR professionals often make posts for busy executives? We should really stop and think about what is OK and what isn’t. I thought this series of blog posts on ethical questions in social media by Todd Defren was excellent and very thought provoking.

Beyond social media transparency, other areas PR practitioners encounter include plagiarism, withholding information, competition, safeguarding confidences, conflicts of interest, relationships with journalists, as well as enhancing the profession. What are the ethics we use to determine what we should do? What are the values we espouse that define what we will do?

The three main ethical theories stem from Kant, Aristotle and John Mills:

Deontology – Acting out of duty and respect to a rule or principle. An action is either right or wrong, according to rules that are rational and could be applied universally.

Virtue Ethics – An action is right if it is what a virtuous agent would do. A virtuous agent is one who acts with virtues, or character traits that human beings need to flourish or live well.

Utilitarianism – An action is right if it promotes the best consequences, and the best consequences are those in which happiness is maximized for everyone affected.

Our personal and professional values help us apply these ethics by defining what it is that makes us virtuous and happy. PRSA outlines values for public relations professionals as advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness. What other values do you try to live by?

For me, the takeaway is to be more thoughtful. I should have a basis for my decisions and actions other than “this is how we’ve always done it.” And thinking through the ethics of a particular situation can help you come up with a variety of options that perhaps were not initially apparent, but are actually really creative and innovative solutions to an otherwise difficult situation. Think about it!