Business Ethics A Fantasy?

If companies behaved ethically, would they need PR?

Let us pretend that corporations, small businesses and everything in between placed ethics above profits. Would they stay afloat? Perhaps not. But in the hypothetical realm, it may be a useful exercise to imagine that businesses could care more about serving people than serving the bottom line.

For example: Let us imagine that BP established itself as a clean energy company from the start; it sought balance between providing for humanity’s needs and supporting humanity’s future. Would cost-cutting measures that put an ecosystem and a coastal economy at risk ever pass through quality control? Only if certain people are deemed more valuable than others.

This scenario reminds us of who is represented by the bottom line; stakeholders who earn corporations’ affections are generally those who have money to invest. Who could blame these companies? They are simply playing their role in the capitalist ecosystem — like vilified predators, they are just acting out their true natures. But then why bother to pay a PR firm to represent an entity like BP, when clearly its stakeholders in the Gulf are not valued stakeholders, but spotted owls blocking the path of jobs and progress?

Branding, marketing and advertising aside, PR in its purest form is a Band-aid for poor behavior. If companies behaved ethically, they wouldn’t have to apologize, or coin the phrase “corporate responsibility” or conceive of the PR stunt. They would simply act as if we are all in it together. But, of course, this isn’t the case, and therefore we aspire to careers in the business of making businesses look good and act good, even when they don’t. Of course, it’s possible that a business could look bad, even when it is good, but few examples come to mind. Perhaps the old favorite, Tylenol, can endure another round in the winner’s circle. Innocent Tylenol acted ethically, and no more. Yet Tylenol wears the gilded crown of moneymaker who put people above profits. It’s like deifying a politician for not accepting bribes.

In the case of small businesses, let us imagine that a mom-and-pop coffee shop decides it needs PR. A firm could provide a few stories in the local paper — maybe a revamped website and cross-promotion. But what can a PR firm do for a small business that depends on discriminatory hiring practices and pays minimum wage? Are there any other choices? All businesses are forced to make choices that make them look like heartless corporations. Is PR simply an endeavor to soften capitalist aims when no one wants to admit that jobs, profits and growth come at the cost of the poor, animals and the planet?

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3 Responses to Business Ethics A Fantasy?

  1. caolson says:

    I can’t say I agree with this post. I’d like to think that all of my schooling in PR will lead me to a job that allows me to do more than just put Band-Aids on an organization’s missteps. I think it’s really limiting to believe that all corporations seek the bottom line over people. Instead, I believe that they seek help in learning how to connect the two things they care about most: their brand and their customers. That’s where PR comes in. I believe one of our major roles is not to teach companies to care about their customers, but to represent companies who DO care, but who may need help in learning how to connect their businesses to their stakeholders. In order to want to survive as a company, they have to care (at least a little bit) about their stakeholders, because without them, they would quickly die.

    In addition, I believe PR practitioners are extremely multifaceted. At least in our schooling, we have learned SO much more than just crisis communication (which I think is what you are mainly referring to in this post). In addition to crisis communication and ethics, we can use ALL of the many tools we have learned — relationship building, traditional and new media skills, communication skills, etc. — in order to be much more useful to a company than to just serve as the enforcer of good vs. evil.

  2. rsteinga says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post! Personally, I do not happen to agree with the statement that pure PR is a Band-Aid for poor behavior. I think that one of the key focuses of public relations is to stop or fix poor behavior, and usually PR gets saddled with the responsibility of dealing with crises, but that is not its purest form. I think that “pure” public relations involves creating relationships with different stakeholders in order carefully shape the reputation of an organization.

  3. rsutherl says:

    I agree with both of you, believe it or not! I’m not 100 percent cynical, but I think extreme points of view are conversation starters, and that’s what blogging is about, right? I think that at their worst, corporations (or “people” as they are now legally defined) are literal outgrows of people, but not necessarily the types of people who put caring and welfare at the top of the list. No one would enjoy the luxuries of the First World were it not for these people, yet they do not necessarily represent the best of humanity in terms of ethics and compassion. But they get the job done, and I enjoy the fruits of their labor. I agree that there are some companies that are essentially good and just need help communicating it — these are the types of organizations I hope to work for! No one wants to be in the business of covering up someone’s bad deeds, and I know my fellow students are unlikely to pursue a career in such a field. So thank goodness PR is becoming a more integrated, management-level occupation.

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