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Personal View: Ethical behavior is your responsibility

By Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

We’ve somehow managed to make our way into a new year having more-or less survived a fascinating 12 months of, at best, questionable words and actions by local, state and national leaders at all levels in all industries.

Whether it be blatantly incorrect or uninformed statements or shockingly improper actions by seemingly intelligent individuals, we have been treated to a non-stop array of revelations that have caused at least this observer to question their ethical awareness.

The laundry list includes automobile manufacturers who choose to ignore safety concerns expressed by their own employees, healthcare providers who seem to have forgotten the “do no harm” oath by which they are expected to abide, and government officials who have chosen to disregard the wishes of their own constituents.

No. Ethical action is not a legal requirement. But, if history teaches us anything, it is that acting and speaking in the best interest of those who look to us for guidance - or as role models - is crucial.

I’ll be among the first to say the world isn’t perfect. We all stumble once in a while. But being aware that you made a misstep or misstatement and acting quickly to correct or clarify goes a long way toward reassuring those who look to you for guidance and inspiration that all is well.

Unfortunately, as we have seen and continue to see time after time, our government and corporate leaders seem to operate on the “baffle ‘em with b.s.” theory instead of giving clear, from-the-heart responses.

Fortunately for us, as members of the Public Relations Society of America, as well as for our colleagues in the International Public Relations Association, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, International Association of Business Communicators, and numerous other professional associations around the world, we have clearly-stated, comprehensive ethical guidelines to assist us in responding to ethical challenges.

Today’s hyper-connected universe leaves little wiggle room for specious pronouncements that appear to be a response but, upon closer examination, are revealed as blatant attempts to dodge the bullet. With our communication capabilities today, though, this action is doomed from the start. As I love to tell my students, “You can run, but you can’t hide. I will find you, and I will  find out.”

With that as a backdrop, we turn our attention to the seemingly never-ending charade of “he said, she said” playing out day after day in local, national and international news. PRSA’s National Chair for 2018, Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, provided some insightful observations for PR News in February 2018 about the PR professional’s role in organizational communication.

D’Angelo makes an excellent case for ethical conduct, but he also offers a realistic look at those situations where the substance of one’s response is shaped by other factors: “Certainly, there are times when professional communicators need to protect the privacy rights of those we counsel by safeguarding confidential information, but that doesn’t require white lies, however immaterial, as a remedy. If we can’t answer a question, it’s a professionally acceptable response to say, 'I can’t answer that, and here’s the reason why.'”

Or, to use another time-honored adage attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “Honesty is the best policy.”

Finally, Ivy Ledbetter Lee laid out our responsibilities as representatives of those clients or employers clearly and concisely in his “Declaration of Principles” (1906): “In brief, our plan is frankly, and openly, on behalf of business concerns and public institutions, to supply the press and public of the United States prompt and accurate information concerning subjects of which it is of value and interest to know about.”

Yes, my friends, ethical challenges are not a new thing. But the ability of others to check and challenge our communications on behalf of clients or employers and to share their perceptions and opinions with countless thousands of others is creating a whole new realm of hurdles that we must address and overcome.

Happy 2019!

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