Magazine article Communication World

Take a Stand: How Bringing Ethics and Reputation Management into Your Decisions Can Help Your Organization and Advance Your Career

Magazine article Communication World

Take a Stand: How Bringing Ethics and Reputation Management into Your Decisions Can Help Your Organization and Advance Your Career

Article excerpt

'I used to have the door of the CEO's planning meeting slammed in my face every week," recalls one anonymous public relations executive from the oil industry. "Until one week, a few years later, when I had to be out of town ... I got a message from the CEO saying, 'Where does public relations stand on this?' From that day on, I had an advising role."

That kind of experience is not unusual. While nearly two-thirds of PR professionals surveyed for the 2006 IABC Research Foundation study, The Business of Truth, reported access to the C-suite, also known as the dominant coalition, just 29 percent said they advised their CEO consistently. Thirty-five percent reported a lack of access to the C-suite.

It doesn't have to be this way. Consider the following steps you can take to increase your access to senior leadership and become a trusted adviser on ethical decision making, while also helping your organization or clients be more responsible and engage in longer-term reputation building.

Make sure the C-suite cares about reputation

Reputation management and ethical advising are intertwined at a very basic level. An organization that studies and analyzes the ethics of its actions gives itself a foundation to build good relationships with publics and stakeholders, thereby building trust and enhancing its reputation. Take, for example, Johnson & Johnson's 1982 Tylenol recall. Following the deaths of seven people who ingested cyanide-laced capsules, the company chose to recall millions of bottles of Tylenol based on a purely ethical standpoint, rather than a financial or legal standpoint. That action boosted Johnson & Johnson's reputation as a trustworthy organization, and the company and the product were able to regain public trust and market share. (J&J's reputation took a hit last year, however, following a "buyback" recall that led to congressional hearings.)


This example illustrates how ethics is at the very core of corporate reputation. An organization's publics and stakeholders rely on and expect consistently honorable behavior; when an organization promotes and engages in consistently ethical behavior, stakeholders and publics grow to trust it, and mutually beneficial relationships develop.

Bring multiple perspectives to your analysis

Public relations is best suited to counsel and advise on ethics because it maintains relationships with many groups, both inside and outside the organization--local communities, elected officials, regulators, media and social media members, activist groups, investors, competitors, and so on. This lengthy list enables PR professionals to better advise on values and ethics than other functions because they can assess a situation from many perspectives and, in essence, see the whole picture.

Does your CEO recognize that perspective? If not, chances are you will need to educate him or her about the many and varied relationships maintained by the public relations group, and how that information can become a commodity in times of strategic planning and decision making. As a PR professional, you understand the values of publics better than anyone else in the organization. That means you can prevent clashes of values and ethical conflicts better than anyone else by advising top management on potential problems before they happen.

Offer the ethical perspective

How do you get into the C-suite if you are not included? Or, if you are only occasionally included, what can you do to increase your participation? Research that I have conducted with hundreds of public relations practitioners and executives reveals a few potential routes. We all know that a crisis can hit an organization at any time and will demand expert analysis. Being the person that the CEO can count on to include multiple perspectives in the analysis, and being ready to predict the responses of various publics to potential solutions, allows the PR leader to showcase his or her expertise.

Offering advice on ethics is key to membership in the C-suite. Ira situation involves a crisis or draws media attention, being the one to bring ethical concerns to the table can pay off not only in protecting the organization's reputation but also in earning the respect of the dominant coalition. However, keep in mind that ethical analysis must be based on consistent and rational standards, rather than on instinct or experience, as the latter could allow one to overlook crucial factors. While the legal and financial departments typically suggest what the organization can do in light of a particular situation, the public relations executive considering ethical implications should recommend what the organization should do.

As one chief communications officer explained, "I advise on ethics all the time--they just don't call it that." He added that in his experience, terms such as reputation and long-term credibility are more successful than ethics in conveying the arguments about what an organization should do in a given situation. Thus, public relations professionals should couch their recommendations as actions that will protect the organization's reputation and credibility, build trust among publics, and recognize the value of long-term relationships. Such arguments do not always carry the day, but they provide a sound and defensible means of explaining in logical terms the overall goals of ethical public relations.

My research shows that making such arguments in a credible and consistent manner over time increases the PR professional's chances of being included in the dominant coalition, even if that advice is not always followed. After all, most CEOs recognize logical and credible analyses when they hear them. But gaining the information necessary to conduct such analyses may require creative skill and information gathering. The need for information on various perspectives is another reason why the public relations function should maintain relationships with various stakeholders and publics, even those that are considered adversarial. In times of strategic planning, that information can be a commodity that you can present to the dominant coalition.

Connect ethics with reputation

One executive from my research said, "We are the keepers of the corporate reputation. Naturally, that involves ethics." The point that this practitioner made illustrated the connection between reputation and ethics. When we recognize that ethical organizational behavior is inextricably connected to the company's reputation, the importance of knowing and advising on ethics becomes clear.

The public relations profession needs to move beyond compliance or an advocacy approach to become an ethical adviser to top management. In doing so, we can keep an organization's reputation safe and further enable the public relations function to contribute to organizational effectiveness, goals, strategy and the bottom line. Long-term relationship management requires attention to building trust with stakeholders and publics, and that trust is based on ethics.

Approaches to ethical decision making

If one is going to broach the waters beyond compliance to advise on ethics, he or she must be conversant with ethical philosophy in order to give a meaningful analysis. The IABC Code of Ethics is a wonderful place to begin thinking about ethics, and the IABC Business of Truth report provides deep training in ethical thought. Thorough study is required when a communication professional gets to the level of advising the CEO because those situations are rarely simple. What is needed is not a way to differentiate between right and wrong, but a way to analyze the situation when there seems to be more than one appropriate course of action. It is when many seemingly correct but conflicting arguments are in play that we need ethical analyses. There are two types, and many resources are available to learn them in more detail. Here is a quick overview.

A utilitarian ethical analysis asks, "What serves the greater good for the greatest number of people?" This approach seeks to make decisions in the public interest, or decisions that serve most of our publics and stakeholders. Serving the greater good should be used to analyze the potential outcomes of a decision. The decision with the most positive consequences and the least negative consequences is deemed the ethical option. In more complex analyses, one can look for classes of decisions or moral principles in similar situations that can help to guide the analysis--an approach that is called rule utilitarianism. By removing the specificity of the act, rule utilitarianism seeks to create what we, as rational thinkers, consider good outcomes.

The second form of ethical decision making is called deontology, meaning based on duty. Research shows that most public relations practitioners in the U.S. rely on a deontological ethical framework; that includes codes of ethics such as IABC's. One chief communications officer in my research revealed a deontological approach when he said, "If we do the right thing, the consequences will take care of themselves."

Deontology looks to the moral principle or principles being upheld by a decision instead of the decision's consequences in order to determine what is ethical. The decision maker should ask questions such as "Am I rational and unbiased?" and attempt to see the decision from the perspective of each public or stakeholder that may be affected by it. Does it maintain their dignity and respect? The public relations professional should also ask, "What is my duty in this situation, not just to the organization or client but to publics, stakeholders, myself and society?" Finally, a deontological analysis holds that a decision is not ethical unless it is made with good intentions, or a pure desire to do the right thing--to behave with ethics and integrity before all other concerns.--S.A.B.

follow the code Read IABC's full Code of Ethics at

get the report The IABC Research Foundation report The Business of Truth is available for purchase through the IABC Knowledge Centre (, or via Discovery, IABC's online library (, where IABC members can access the electronic version of the report free of charge.

Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., is an associate professor of public relations in the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. She has several years of professional experience working as a research analyst for political and corporate clients, and consults on ethics training and ethical decision making.

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