I’ve been perplexed for a long time about the interface between public relations and ethics. Most PR associations espouse codes of ethics, although they seem devillishly hard to police, leading some people to ask what the point is. After long reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is almost impossible for an international PR association to adopt a code that goes beyond vague platitudes. Applying ethics within an international context is extremely difficult because of cultural differences.
I know that I have just opened myself up to accusations of moral relativism, but bear with me while I develop my line of thinking.
Let’s start with the empirical research. After studying 28 countries over a decade, Fons Trompenaar identified a number of attributes that determine the values of various cultures. Let us be clear, this is not about the window dressing that many cultural guides talk about (who walks through doors first, how do you exchange business cards, etc.). It looks at our fundamental mental programming, which is extremely resistant to change, unlike specific behaviours. His cultural dimensions have profound implications for global businesses and public relations professionals.
I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop on cultural issues and business communications that was organized by IABC France. The speaker was Marc Wright, Publisher of Simply-Communicate. It was the second time I’d seen Marc’s entertaining yet thought-provoking presentation, and this allowed me to reflect a bit more deeply on the implications of the content than I had the first time.
The first of Trompenaar’s dimensions looks at how much weight is put on rules and relationships, and how the closeness of relationships and the context influence the extent to which rules are respected. The non-business example Marc gave was to imagine that you are a passenger in a friend’s car when, having exceeded the speed limit, he hits a pedestrian. Do you lie to the police for your friend or not?
Questions from the audience were revealing: how much above the limit was he driving? How seriously injured was the pedestrian? Some people felt that they had to tell the truth, especially if the pedestrian was seriously injured. Others said that they would probably protect their friend. Others said that they would feign ignorance of the friend’s actual speed. When they question was rephrased so that it was the teenage daughter who was driving, many more people said they would lie. The point is that our rules are ideals, and our values influence how strictly we respect those rules under different conditions. This has huge implications for business ethics.
Someone from a universalist culture will argue that she can’t circumvent the rules just because someone is a friend. If the friend is from a particularist culture, he will rebut that she is uncaring because she won’t even take their relationship into account in her decision.
Another highly relevant cultural dimension is the level of individualism versus communitarism. In a culture where the community is highly valued, concepts of justice will be very different. To people from individualistic cultures, the sacrificing of an individual to “the greater good” sounds like the top of a very slippery slope towards totalitarianism. But it makes lots of sense from an evolutionary perspective. It’s really the social translation of propagation of the species (family/tribe/clan/society).
Trompenaars also looked at the extent to which achievements are ascribed to individuals or groups. The business implications of this are clear if you take the example of intellectual property. Individualistic cultures place a high value on giving credit and rewards to individual creators, whereas other cultures will ascribe the achievement to a group. In the latter context, the knowledge belongs to society and should be freely used to achieve the most gain for everyone.
These are just some of the issues highlighted by Trompenaar, but they illustrate the complexity of ethical debates in global contexts. One of the things that strikes me with existing codes of ethics for PR is that our international associations have strong national roots. I am a member of the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC), which, for historical reasons, still has the bulk of its members in North America. Membership in other regions is growing rapidly, but it will take a number of years before the balance shifts significantly. When I re-read IABC’s code of ethics in light of my reflections on culture, I realized that a lot of it is either tautological or contradictory. For instance, the principle that “IABC members engage in communication that is not only legal but also ethical and sensitive to cultural values and beliefs.” First of all, as the text above indicates, I don’t think you can be ethical outside of a system of cultural values and beliefs, so the definition of ethical changes. But what about when there is a conflict between “legal” and “ethical”?
This week, the United States celebrated Martin Luther King Jr Day. Here is a man who, inspired by Gandhi’s actions in India, used civil disobedience to fight unjust laws. From where we stand today, we can say that what he did was ethical. We can also say the same for the actions taken to end Apartheid in South Africa. But you could play the Devil’s Advocate and argue that King incited people to engage in illegal acts, and therefore his demonstrations were PR acts that flew in the face of this code of ethics.
The other thing that I find troublesome in the IABC code is the statement “that ethics, the criteria for determining what is right and wrong, can be agreed upon by members of an organization”. Members of any such association are self-selecting. They band together because they share some beliefs, therefore I think that this statement is true with regard to activities inside the association. However, when you are talking about a professional society with practitioners across the globe, I am not so sure about the possibility of reaching agreement on these issues with regard to our work outside the confines of the association.
In fields such as medecine, where there is an empirical body of knowledge to apply, it is easier, but not always possible. That is why the debate rages about whether euthanasia is acceptable and whether it violates medical ethics. There is no absolute answer to such questions. With regard to public relations, almost all of our activities are subject to such judgment calls because our activities are less empirical than performing surgery or prescribing medication.
So rather than developing or refining codes of ethics, I think that PR practitioners’ professional societies could offer a lot more value if they provided the training and resources to help communicators make the necessary ethical evaluations in a wide range of settings. Demonstrated expertise through professional development (as opposed to less tangible lessons learned from hard experience) would give us another strong argument for why our function is central to the strategic thinking inside our organizations.