Magazine article Communication World

Under the Microscope: A New IABC Research Foundation Study Highlights the Need for Training in and Understanding of Ethical Issues

Magazine article Communication World

Under the Microscope: A New IABC Research Foundation Study Highlights the Need for Training in and Understanding of Ethical Issues

Article excerpt

Ethics. Responsibility. Character. These topics generate considerable public and private debate. Public opinion surveys on honesty and ethics reveal that journalists, advertising personnel and public relations people score near the bottom--alongside used-car salespeople--on such polls. Is this public perception true to reality or a matter of myth?

The IABC Research Foundation initiated a global research study to advance our understanding of business communication ethics. The results were somewhat surprising, though certainly the topic of ethics has been top-of-mind among communicators for some time.

CW often delves into the issue, as readers--communication professionals--find themselves facing more ethical dilemmas in the workplace. In the May-June 2005 issue, Christine Nyirjesy Bragale, ABC, reviewing Ethics in Public Relations, asked, "Is ethical public relations an oxymoron?" "After you read this book," she concluded, "you won't have any doubts that the truthful answer is no."

How organizations define ethics is another matter. In this issue, for example, William Briggs, Ed.D., and Archana Verma discuss corporate social responsibility (CSR) as a way of doing good to earn a favorable reputation and benefit the bottom line (see page 25). CSR discussions usually do not include communication ethics, but they often feature strategic philanthropy. Yet organizational ethics is a guiding principle of CSR, and without that discussion, the consideration of the topic is incomplete.

Some CEOs also fear that paying attention to ethics is "too expensive." For example, increasing employee benefits or installing costly new equipment to address environmental concerns could increase operating costs. But Robert Dilenschneider and John Salak, writing in the June-July 2003 issue of CW, suggest that ethical communicators finish first because they also meet legal standards (in financial reporting) and therefore attract investors. Ethical communicators enjoy a competitive advantage because transparency leads to trust.

PR practitioners say they often advise on matters of ethics--and want to do so--but they frequently butt heads with legal counsel. Seeing the flipside, Daniel Goodwin, in the October-November 2003 issue of CW, worries that it is presumptuous to think that communication professionals can be the ethical consciences of organizations. Nevertheless, he writes, they "have a strong role to play in ensuring that a company is able to achieve its strategy while remaining true to its values."

But do we as a profession know the essence of communication ethics? Are we agreed on the role practitioners should play in ethical decision making?

Those were the questions the IABC Research Foundation set out to answer. The Foundation received responses to its ethics survey from 1,827 people, yielding an overall response rate of roughly 17 percent. Qualitative data was collected in North America, New Zealand, Israel and Australia via focus groups and in-depth interviews with senior and middle managers. Respondents were veteran practitioners: The majority had 10 or more years of work experience, were over age 35 and were college-educated; approximately three-quarters were women. Among the responses, more than 70 percent reported studying ethics or receiving ethics training "not at all" or just at a cursory level.

The process of ethics

Communicators agreed or strongly agreed to the seven items that addressed their role dealing with ethical concerns and issues of organizations. They agreed most strongly with two items: that ethics considerations are a vital part of executive decision making, and that communicators should advise management on ethical matters. (See chart on page 34.) Respondents perceived that their organizations maintain a clear standard, are open about ethical conduct, and encourage conversations about ethical matters and issues (i.e., a healthy, open, ethical communication climate). …

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