The Manichean error

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
    • Incremental
    • 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
  • Instrumental
    • 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.