September 3, 2010
Editor’s Note: September is PRSA’s annual Ethics Month. To mark the occasion, members of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) conducted a roundtable discussion via telephone on May 5. Here is an edited version of that conversation.
Thomas E. Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA: The topic for this year’s Ethics Month BEPS Roundtable is: Should PR leaders serve as the conscience of an organization? This is very similar to the age-old issue of whether PR leaders should be at the board table. But in this case, let’s discuss what that role should be.
Patricia T. Whalen, Ph.D., APR: About 18 months ago, BEPS did a survey among 500 PRSA members and asked them questions about their interest in certification and what kind of training they wanted. We also asked questions about whether they wanted more training in ethics, how comfortable they would feel in the role as ethics officer and whether public relations should act as the corporate conscience and lead the ethics activities within an organization.
In our survey, the majority felt pretty strongly that PR professionals should play an important role in acting as ethical conscience of the organization.
Another interesting finding was that when we asked them how comfortable they were in that role, those who were more experienced or had the Accreditation in Public Relations (APR) with PRSA were far more comfortable with their own knowledge and skill set in acting in that role. Those who were younger, less experienced and not accredited within PRSA felt far less comfortable playing that role.
Patrick McLaughlin, APR: It is difficult for an inexperienced person to accept responsibilities as the ethical voice of an organization when they are looking to their seniors to provide guidance.
Patricia A. Grey, APR: Great point that reinforces the responsibility of senior practitioners to be role models and mentors for junior-level professionals.
Emmanuel Tchividjian: Even if we all agreed that PR executives should be the conscience of companies, the fact is that PR executives cannot make this decision. It would be difficult for him or her to convince the CEO that he or she should be the company’s conscience.
Robert D. Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA: The conscience of the organization is the CEO because CEO means two things: chief executive officer and chief ethics officer. CEOs have a responsibility to the company. Whether they delegate some of that, it is still on their watch.
Tom Duke, APR, Fellow PRSA: The CEO is not only morally but also legally responsible for these activities. The PR person should be the counselor but he/she is not the leader and can’t be.
McLaughlin: There are times when a well-placed, cautionary note can help keep leadership focused on doing the right thing because it is the ethically sound approach.
Debra D. Peterson, APR: Ethical behavior starts at the top with the CEO. However, the “conscience” of the organization shouldn’t reside with just one person but with all employees.
Renée T. Walker, APR: One, the CEO should establish an ethical culture. Two, PR professionals have to work in tandem, partnership and collaboration with the legal team. We deal in two courts — the court of public opinion and the actual court system. Either or both could be harmed if we aren’t in a productive and collaborative relationship.
By identifying areas of common ground to understand the legal and communication strategies and working in partnership, we can more effectively and ethically manage the court of public opinion, which influences the public’s perception and the company’s reputation.
Whalen: I agree. In 17 years of counseling corporate executives on these same kinds of decisions, I’ve learned to expect lawyers to tell me, “We don’t care about the court of public opinion. We’re going to win in the court of law.” My response every time has been, “If we lose in the court of public opinion, it won’t matter if we win in the court of law. We will have already lost our reputation, our customers and our employees’ loyalty.” It is important that the PR people are involved in this whole discussion.
Tchividjian: Imagine the CEO sitting at the board table and on his right, he has a PR or ethics person who says to him, “If you do this, you’re going to go against the court of public opinion.” The attorney says, “If you do this, we’re going to lose in court of law and that’s X millions of dollars.” The percentage of cases where the CEO will go with the lawyer is very high.
Walker: Work out the resolution with the attorneys before you present it to the CEO. For example, when we brief our board, public relations and legal speak in partnership — sharing the overall legal strategy and supporting communication strategy. When managed appropriately, public relations and legal are already aligned.
Francis C. McDonald, Ph.D., APR: We’re in a different environment now in terms of how we communicate. It can be more complex to discern what is a business decision and what is an ethics position.
Keith V. Mabee, APR: We have to be organizational boundary riders with one foot in the inner sanctum of the C-suite and the boardroom and the other foot out there in our constituency environment. A lot of it has to do with having the courage of your convictions, adept interpersonal skills and the ability to communicate your breadth and knowledge of the business and the industry you’re operating in.
Whalen: You need an understanding of business. If you’re counseling the head of a business, you have to understand all aspects of that business so that your counsel makes sense. This is an area of weakness within the PR profession.
We get people who are strong writers, but they don’t always know what they’re communicating.
Peterson: To serve as an effective counselor, you must be able to anticipate and understand issues and how they can impact your company. Being viewed as a credible individual who has integrity can help you make your voice heard.
Walker: If you want to become an influencer, then you have to understand the culture of the organization, know how decisions are really made and understand the language of the organization.
Duke: You need to have the experience and background to be a counselor. You have to be accepted because of that experience and background plus your performance with that organization.
Frause: You just aren’t going to rise to the C-suite by being a good communicator or a good PR person. You’d better be a business person within the business that you’re representing. You need to be smart and you need to have a point of view. You need to be on track with issues, both community-wide and politically.
James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA: As I see other PR practitioners give advice, there are —more frequently than not — three areas of weakness:
Lack of insight: We struggle to have anything to share that goes beyond what the boss already knows.
Inspiration: I watch advisers try to make emotional arguments favoring ethical behavior, but this irrational approach falls on deaf ears.
Options: We tend to walk in and say, “Boss, there’s a problem, here’s what you do.” What CEOs are looking for from people like us are choices — some set of options they can choose from so they can make some choices of their own.
For more resources on ethics and a copy of the PRSA Member Code of Ethics, please visit here.