When to Say When: Navigating the morally ambiguous

My roommate, a self-proclaimed health nut, recently discovered the pro-high fructose corn syrup ads launched by the Corn Refiners Association. The night she finally watched one, she screamed my name for me to come in and watch. After it finished, she turned to me–near tears, and asked “how could anyone possibly agree to produce this?” My roommate is a marketing major, and as such, she found the entire ordeal not only upsetting, but also insulting. “It’s a matter of life and death,” she said. “How do you sign on to be a part of something like that?”

That got me thinking, we are all getting ready to enter the workforce–and as entry-level professionals, it is entirely possible that will be entirely replaceable. So my question is-at what point do you refuse to work on a campaign? Sure, you want to preserve your own commitment to ethics, but you also want to be successful.

It seems nearly every PR organization has its own code of ethics, and as we all know, the PRSA has it’s industry-wide ethics breakdown, but when it comes down to individual situations and the hazy questions of morality, how do you reconcile personal issues with loyalty to your company?

One PR blog brings up the argument that most people feel that codes of ethics exist only to professionalize public relations, and that typically they don’t offer anything outside of what any person would consider to be a normal sense of ethical responsibility.

I remember taking the required ethics class in the Cronkite school, where every day we learned how to navigate through the gray areas in journalism; but where do we really learn the ethics of public relations? Sure, we can study the various codes of ethics and memorize the rules that they suggest, but when it comes time to make a decision on a campaign that doesn’t quite fit into one of those handy rules, what do we do?

In the case of high fructose corn syrup, the ads aren’t implicitly unethical. What they’re saying is true… but the implications of a person taking the information that “it’s perfectly safe in moderation” and using it to justify consuming mass quantities of the substance are murky at best.

So what do you think? How can we navigate morally gray waters while still maintaining loyalty and professionalism? Would you have helped to come up with the pro high fructose corn syrup ad, knowing that it might have disastrous implications later down the road?

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4 Responses to When to Say When: Navigating the morally ambiguous

  1. aweiler says:

    I believe that if you have been trained properly and have a good moral base you should never stray from what you know is right. Ethics are based almost entirely on your personal opinion of what is right and wrong.

    I do believe that the Cronkite School should create more classes specifically created for PR students. While a lot of the issues go across all lines of journalism, we are forced to learn what a print or broadcast student would learn. We need more guidance in our field. Classes like ethics and the business and future of journalism should have more to to do with our field of study because to be frank, I don’t want to waste my time or tuition dollars.

  2. tmoore says:

    I think as PR professionals, we can navigate morally gray areas while still maintaining loyalty and professionalism by always implementing our better judgment and our own personal morals regarding ethics within the workplace. If a particularly questionable situation arises in which you, as a PR practitioner, are faltering the right decision then you should follow your innate instincts to navigate that morally gray area. Sometimes this means weighing and comparing the costs and benefits of our own morals versus the success of our careers.

    I do not think that I would have participated in the pro-high fructose corn syrup campaign, knowing that it might have disastrous implications later down the road. Health is important to me and portraying something, or framing something, in a deceiving way that may jeopardize persons’ judgment, comprehension, or proper decision making is not worth enough to me. I would however, have taken on the campaign if I had the opportunity to advertise the product in a more accurate and truthful light.

  3. Carleen says:

    All industries and professions involve ethical decision-making processes and moral gray areas, but it seems that for public relations the lines are blurrier than for many other career fields. Certainly lying is never acceptable, and in today’s Internet climate of openness, transparency and verifiability, lies will be quickly and easily exposed. But the salient points you make in your blog post speak to those instances in which it isn’t just about lying or telling the truth.

    Perhaps one of the reasons there seem to be more ethical dilemmas in PR is that, in PR, there are intricate relationships at stake and divided loyalties. PR professionals are torn between competing publics and target audiences as well as a need to balance one’s personal career needs, the client’s needs, and the PR firm’s needs, and the various publics’ needs. Often a decision that benefits one stakeholder group — for example, the high fructose corn syrup producers and sellers — could damage another — such as the high fructose corn syrup consumers.

    In our JMC 417 class, Dr. Matera outlined some steps an ethical PR practitioner should take to determine whether making a certain decision is ethical and preferable. One step is to elicit feedback from other PR professionals, supervisors and trusted mentors. Another step is to consider whether you’d be comfortable with a description of your decision being printed on the front page of the newspaper. Ultimately, codes of ethics are up to individuals, because there is no guidebook or manual on what to do in every situation. All ethical dilemmas are, by nature, subjective and nuanced.

    Unfortunately, sometimes you can’t know whether a decision is the correct one until you’ve already made it and are observing the effects and consequences. Fortunately, if you’ve made the decision by following honest ethical principles and if you can rationalize and defend the decision on ethical grounds, damage from mistakes can be mitigated.

  4. ddarnell says:

    I think that it’s very important for public relations practitioners to have an ethical code. When we enter the real world we’re probably going to face an ethical dillema at some point in all of our careers. It’s comforting to know that we can and should stand up for what we believe in. If we disagree with something then we have the right to stand up and express that verbally. There are so many people that say “Yes” to everything in fear of getting fired from their job. It’s better to stand up for your beliefs.

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