The concept of ethics, like so much of life, is not black and white. It’s a giant, gray smorgasbord of opinions and ideas that morph and evolve year after year. What was viewed as ethical or unethical 30 years ago would not be viewed the same way today.
Let’s pretend it’s 1981, and a religious, conservative business manager finds out one of his employees is gay. He fires him shortly after for that reason alone. It would be 100 percent legal, and he would probably feel like he had done the right thing by his personal ethical code. Flash-forward to today and (thankfully) it would be illegal in most states, and be viewed by most as an unethical thing to do.
What is viewed as “ethical” can change on a case-by-case basis and a person-by-person basis. It’s a painting that’s never truly finished, where minor brushstrokes can alter the entire landscape.
There is no doubt in my mind that ethics are crucial in the world of professional communications. Can you imagine what our industry would look like without them? But understanding what’s ethical and actually making ethical decisions are two entirely different beasts.
A few years ago, I worked in middle management at a Denton telemarketing company. I talked to customers from every corner of the socio-economic spectrum and convinced them that the vacations we sold were exactly what their family needed. It was a completely different kind of strategic communication. Everything that came out of my mouth on the phone was true, but there were many other truths about these vacation packages that I was instructed to leave out by my supervisors. Did I know I was, to a certain degree, misleading the customer? Yes. Did I care? Yes, sometimes. Did I quit? No. I worked there until the owner closed the company down. I guess screwing people over wasn’t as lucrative as he expected.
The point is, I knew I was behaving unethically by perpetuating the deceitful façade my bosses put together to convince gullible customers to sit through a timeshare sales pitch. But being aware of it didn’t stop me from doing it. I never questioned what I was doing because I knew making the ethical decision would result in my termination from the company. They had training classes of at least 15 people, who were just as desperate for a paycheck as I was, coming through the doors every week. They didn’t need me.
Knowing and understanding what’s ethical is only half the battle. The other half is having the nerve to act on what you’ve learned. Education is powerful, but the need/desire for money can still come out on top. It happened to me.
I will never forget what Dr. Sheri Broyles told my class on the last day of Ad Concepts in December 2010. Having a “fuck-you fund” (her words, not mine) will ensure that you never have to betray your personal ethics because of money. You can walk away from a job and have enough money saved to support yourself until you can find something better. It’s great advice.
I know I was supposed to talk about the need for ethics in public relations and advertising. I think it’s obvious ethics are needed. I would be worried about anyone who tried to argue otherwise. However, I think it’s more valuable to consider how you would really act in an ethically tricky situation when money is involved and you have bills to pay.
Like I said before, the definition of “ethical behavior” can change, and it’s our job to navigate those changes the best we can. When money is thrown into the mix, it gets even more complicated. But we didn’t choose this profession because we thought it would be easy, right?
As the always-ethical G.I. Joe used to say, “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.” It’s up to us to take it the rest of the way and win the war.