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Management of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility Issues in Public Relations


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At multiple points in their careers, public relations (PR) practitioners are likely to face decisions that are ethical in nature. Such decisions reflect a range of ethical dilemmas between, for example, truth vs. loyalty, justice vs. mercy, short-term vs. long-term consequences, and the individual vs. the collective (Kidder 1995, p. 18; Stacks & Wright 1989, pp. 53-67). Public relations practitioners, by nature of their position and job responsibilities, are often in a crossroad of a range of competing interests. Often, the tension may be between the practitioner’s own values and the culture of the organization. In other cases, it may be a conflict between the practitioner’s professional code of ethics and organizational norms and expectations. In yet other circumstances, they may be faced with competing interests between the organization and its various publics. At the very least, practitioners will frequently confront contradictions between business demands for economic performance and public expectations for ethical conduct.
Concerns over these competing responsibilities and the ethical dilemmas they produce for public relations are the subject of this essay. In it, a range of challenges faced by public relations practitioners related to issues of ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) are explored. It is argued that CSR has, in many respects, altered the expectations and demands placed on the profession.
As a profession, public relations have a long and contested relationship with ethics and more recently with corporate social responsibility (McBride 1989, pp. 5-20). Nevertheless, public relations has been regarded as a young profession that lacks core principles to guide ethical, responsible practices that cut across organizational and cultural boundaries (Olasky 1985, pp. 43-49; Rampton & Stauber 2001; Stauber & Rampton 1995, p. 236). As a result, it often is the target of regular attacks on its credibility and legitimacy, both within the organisation and by society. Within organisations, top management has not yet accepted public relations practitioners’ as part of important operational and strategic decision-making processes. Outside publics seeking greater corporate accountability usually view PR practitioners as key gatekeepers that limit access to full, comprehensive information about the organisation. Thus members of the public relations field find themselves in an awkward and ambivalent place, between “internal” and “external” dimensions of their work (Cheney & Christensen 2001).
Historically, public relations have drawn on the concept of professionalism to assert its commitment to the greater good of the society and to reinforce a credible image. As with other occupations, public relations practitioners have sought to introduce agreed-upon standards via professional codes of ethics and responsible conduct, created by respectable PR institutions and associations like the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR), the Public Relations Society of America and the International Association of Business Communicators.
While various codes of ethics exist, there is no theoretical framework for explaining ethics strictly from a public relations perspective. There have, however, been several attempts to outline ethical expectations and related decision-making processes for the industry. In public relations theories three types of theoretical models of behaviour attempt to outline an ethical principles framework for the profession.


The first model type stresses public relations’ role in encouraging discourse. Within this type lies a popular theoretical base for public relations, Barney and Black’s (1994, cited in Moloney 2006) attorney adversary model. This model operates under an assumption that if competing messages and viewpoints are adequately represented, the truth will inevitably emerge (Fitzpatrick & Gauthier 2001). There is an expectation that the public will absorb all of the contrasting messages and viewpoints being disseminated. After considering all of this information, the public is expected to form an advised, intelligent opinion.
The two-way symmetrical model first proposed by Grunig & Gruning (1992, p.289) structures public relations as a forum for discussion where a variety of individuals, opinions and values come together, generally arriving at different conclusions (Fitzpatrick & Gauthier 2001). This forum, similar to the discourse function of Barney and Black’s attorney-adversary model, adheres to certain ethical rules and standards with the goal of an ethical outcome (Barney & Black 1994, cited in Moloney 2006).

Fitzpatrick and Gauthier’s (2001, pp. 193-212) professional responsibility model extends the other theoretical models by freeing public relations practitioners from assuming social and communitarian responsibilities in their activities. Fitzpatrick and Gauthier characterized these as unrealistic and unattainable expectations. They classified public relations practitioners not under the umbrella of communicators, but rather as serving in a “professional” role, with appropriate responsibilities derived from this alternate form of classification.
According to Fitzpatrick and Gauthier (2001), there are three foundations of advocacy-related requirements for the public relations practitioner: a) persuasive communication should completely avoid or best minimize harm, b) display respect for people and treat them with appropriate dignity, and c) communicate the “benefits and burdens” of an action or policy in as fair a manner as possible.


In contrast, the second model type sees the primary duty of public relations practitioners as serving society and community. Nelson (1990, pp. 25-32) perceives the persuasive function of public relations practitioners as “utilitarian” in nature. These practitioners serve public interest by providing points of accountability for the persuasive messages that contribute to the forming of public opinion.
The social responsibility model was originally formulated by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm (1956, p.112) as a normative pattern of press operations. This model instructs public relations practitioners to enact their campaigns while serving a broader public interest and communal good (Baker 2002, pp. 191-205). Closely related is the communitarianism model (Leeper 1996; Etzioni 1993), which extends the social responsibility model to include additional duties of strengthening community and promoting communal values of fairness, democracy, and truth.
Sullivan’s (1965, cited in Spicer 1997, p. 35) partisan versus mutual values model defines public relations as the intersection between these two values. This theoretical base, expanded by Pearson (1989, cited in Pearson et al. 2007), argues that while a public relations representative owes allegiance to his/her client, employer or organization, he/she must acknowledge all, even conflicting viewpoints. A proper balance between obligation to employer and a “principle of mutuality” to contrasting opinions ensures a responsible strategic communication process (Pearson 1989, cited in Pearson et al. 2007, p. 292).
Finally, Hutton (1999, p. 209) proposed that the only model that truly describes public relations is one containing an underlying purpose of relationship management. This model, according to Hutton, is the only one capable of both defining the field while serving as a basis for its operation. Overall, the use of ethical self-standards as an operational framework for public relations is an approach gaining more widespread acceptance.


One of the biggest ethical challenges for practitioners has to constantly reconcile the conflicting loyalties and duties that they have. Craig Miyamoto discusses the duty to the “Five masters” as he calls the five duties of public relations professionals as described by Philip Seib and Kathy Fitzpatrick in Public Relations Ethics (1995), e.g. self, client, employer, profession and society.
Practitioners are expected to first consider their own value system and personal ethical codes. These will guide decisions based on what you truly believe is right or wrong. Ask yourself, "Can I sacrifice my own personal values for the client, for my employer, for my profession, or for society?"
The client is generally the first loyalty beyond self. Practitioners should ask themselves, "Knowing what I know, can I represent the client?" If practitioners knowingly allow harmful work to continue, they'll be violating their duty to the public, which many would agree takes precedence over duty to employer.
It is assumed that practitioners have a duty to support their profession and their professional colleagues. In this way common standards of behaviour can be agreed and the bounds of acceptable practice established. Very important in this respect are the established Codes of professional conduct of PR practitioners.
Finally, society is the key component to ethical public relations decisions. PR practitioners are expected to serve the public interest. This essay supports that this particular “master” takes precedence over all the others, including self.


For public relations practitioners the stakes have never been higher, both personally and professionally. Increasingly, CSR advocates have, to their credit, transformed corporate expectations into corporate demands. So too have the expectations and demands on public relations changed. Some scholars (Falconi 2004, pp. 92-94; Schoenberger-Orgad & McKie 2005, pp. 578-583) have argued that public relations have not been up to the task, partly because both the definitions and the practices of CSR have become more rigorous and far-reaching in recent years. For example, Whetten et. al. (2002) recently defined corporate social responsibility as “societal expectations of corporate behaviour; a behaviour that is alleged by a stakeholder to be expected by society or morally required and is therefore justifiably demanded of a business” (p. 374). This move beyond legal compliance is likely to produce a variety of dilemmas for public relations practitioners devoted to CSR, as public companies, at least, must address the balance between shareholder interest and community interest.
The broadening of the range and scope of CSR-related practices is evident in the proliferation of CSR reporting (Tinker & Lowe 1980, pp. 1-17) and CSR indexes (Courville 2003, pp. 269-297), both of which may impact public relations practitioners. The ethics of corporate social responsibility disclosure have been the most difficult to reconcile with shareholder expectations and activist demands (Browne and Haas 1974, cited in Blowfield & Murray 2008, p. 207; Gelb & Strawser 2001, cited in Crowther & Rayman-Bacchus 2004, p. 112). Maintaining integrity becomes more challenging when a company must report less attractive details or respond to criticism. The problem that faces many companies engaging in public dialogue is how to ethically, legally, and effectively disclose information while maintaining a positive image (Argenti & Forman 2002).
Many corporations have responded to societal demands for responsible behaviour with extensive reporting mechanisms. It is common, in today’s business environment, for the annual report to be accompanied by the CSR report, as well as consulting firms (e.g., Accenture, Deloitte), institutes (New Economics Foundation), and universities to devote resources to social auditing.


A global economy has produced a wide confluence of factors that make the future form of CSR less predictable and, ultimately, ambiguous and rife for contestation. Public relations practitioners and the universities that educate them are challenged to address more directly the range of ethical dilemmas that CSR produces for the profession. As it was outlined in this essay, it is believe that the most recent iteration, strategic CSR, creates further challenges and issues for public relations, most notably a re-articulation of the long-standing tensions between economics and ethics, performance and responsibility.
The strategic CSR appeal to bring together economic and social interests, the corporation and the community, makes it all the more important for PR practitioners to manage closely its logics, its discourses, and its practices.

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...Public Relations Review 34 (2008) 399–402 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Public Relations Review Short communication Issues management and inoculation: Tylenol’s responsible dosing advertising Shari R. Veil ∗ , Michael L. Kent 1 Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma, 395 West Lindsey, Norman, OK 73019, United States a r t i c l e i n f o a b s t r a c t Issues management developed as a long-term process interested in the continued health and success of organizations. This essay presents a contemporary issues management case that uses inoculation and a priori solutions as issues management tactics. The case study involving Johnson & Johnson’s responsible dosing campaign demonstrates that organizations perceived to have a high standard of corporate social responsibility are not above using deceptive tactics to protect their brand. © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. Article history: Received 29 April 2008 Received in revised form 11 July 2008 Accepted 28 August 2008 Keywords: Issues management Corporate social responsibility Inoculation Crisis communication Public relations practitioners increasingly need to serve as ethical counselors to the dominant coalition (Health, 1994) and as the ethical conscience of the organization (Ryan & Martinson, 1983; Wright, 1996). Despite the role of issues management in guiding ethical decision making (Bowen, 2005), some communication campaigns have suspended...

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