Notes from an ethics panel at the PRIA National Conference, Darwin, October 26, 2010
The Manichean error
- The most common error in thinking about ethics is the Manichean view – good and evil, right and wrong
- View compounded by publicity for spectacular unethical behaviour eg astro turfing, front organisations, spying on activists, etc
The real problems
- Most ethical problems stem from a fundamental fact about PR practice – we are paid to change the way people think or behave.
- While this is not inherently unethical it is perceived as such by many critics of the industry and there are risks involved in how we do it.
- The real ethical problems tend to flow from two risks involved in how we go about doing our day-to-day jobs of changing thoughts and actions.
- The risks are that we become unethical as a result of actions which are either incremental or instrumental
- Gradual crossings of lines
- Pressure – salary, promotions, mortgage, keeping a job, competing with peers and others, lack of time, short cuts
- Poor workplace culture
- Practitioners because of these pressures or cultures try to go that step further eg fiddling with a survey result, organising a survey in which getting agreement set response is sought, exaggeration of benefits or disbenefits
- Result is a gradual accretion of actions which are not unethical in themselves but are collectively so
- Worse they start to create a culture in which the unacceptable becomes normal and judgement lapses can occur
- Commonly known as whatever it takes
- But actually comes from a philosophic concept which discusses how the end is the goal and the means by which it is achieved are irrelevant.
- This is the opposite to Kant’s categorical imperative “act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become universal law.”
- Eg maximising run off from catchments
- Most common problems in industry, NGO or political campaigns
- Characterised by fear creation, exaggeration to the point of dishonesty, consciously manipulating a situation etc
- Obvious examples are push polling although a common one is also consultation programs which are not genuine but are designed to appear to be consulting.
What is to be done?
- Need to create a strong corporate culture in which people can be free to make considered judgements. Can’t remove pressure but can channel it into constructive paths.
- Need to understand the common views about ethics and how to make ethical decisions
- There are lots of guides:
- PRIA Code and practice notes (problematic for various reasons)
- industry codes
- philosophers such as Bentham, Rawls, Kant, Augustine, Hume etc
- Potter Box model
- Simon Longstaff’s plain words guide (eg do you pretend to be out of the office, do you refuse a client’s instruction and lose the client, do you exercise critical judgement about goals or just tactical cunning about achieving them?)
- Longstaff view about plain words very attractive – what do right and wrong mean?
- If you lose track of the answer you in trouble.