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

By Bowen, Shannon A. | Communication World, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

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


Bowen, Shannon A., Communication World


'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.)

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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. …

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