Epilogue (JOUR 4470)

This has been a surprisingly interesting ride.  Over the past four months, JOUR 4470 successfully expanded my ethical horizons.  While some of the material was slightly less than exciting, a lot of what we learned struck a chord with me.

I think the majority of college students who make it to a 4000-level course are (hopefully) smart enough to understand basic ethical standards on their own.  But this class solidified my existing knowledge about the PRSA Code of Ethics and several of the better-known ethical theories like utilitarianism and communitarianism.

The case studies I did with my group were my favorite assignments. My group was great, and they were a huge part of why I enjoyed this class so much.  I liked having the opportunity to apply the material being covered in class on a semi-regular basis instead of just learning about it and then regurgitating it a few weeks later on a test.

Going forward, I’ll feel comfortable with making solid judgments about the ethical quality of companies, coworkers, etc.  I’m fortunate to already be working for a company I believe to have strong sense of ethics.  With the telemarketing job I had a few years ago, the bar was set pretty low.  Now the exact opposite is true.  And thanks to this class, the bar will remain high for the rest of my life.

I had a genuine “oh, wow” moment the day we analyzed the Summer’s Eve advertising campaign.  My thought process wasn’t exactly, “oh wow, my worldview has been forever changed.”  It was more along the lines of “oh wow, I can’t believe we’re talking about this in class.”  It was definitely a good “oh wow” moment.  Our discussions about current events and older, interesting cases kept the class interesting.  Before the semester started, I expected a lot of vocabulary and boring examples.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Another thing I’ve learned this semester (not just from this class), is that when it comes to public relations writing, brevity is a virtue and unnecessary fluff is a sin.  Clear, concise statements are the most effective way to communicate ideas.  That’s why this blog is a little shorter than my previous ones.  I don’t want my last ethics entry to seem forced and bloated.  Honesty is the cornerstone of ethical behavior, and I’d like to go out on an honest note.

Farewell, 4470.  It was fun.

Evil Four Leaf Clover (JOUR 4470)

The written word can be a powerful weapon.  Printed defamatory statements can sometimes cause more damage than a knife to the gut.  However, the explosion of social media over the past five years has opened an almost-uncontainable Pandora’s Box.  With hundreds of millions of messages posted every day, it’s easier than ever for libelous statements to go unnoticed.

A defamatory statement in a newspaper or magazine sticks out like a throbbing, sore thumb.  It’s easy to spot and save, making the plaintiff’s case much easier if he or she decides to take legal action.  In the realm of social media, tracking down a libelous allegation is like finding an evil four-leaf clover.  This is why there has been so few libel cases related to social media over the past few years.  And while the number of lawsuits has more than doubled from seven in 2009-2010 to sixteen in 2010-2011, a comment found at the bottom of this article makes a solid argument as to why this is hardly a cause for concern.

First – when the numbers are so small, it’s hard to draw any statistically significant conclusions.  Second – one has to compare the number of lawsuits per year to the number of social media messages posted per year.  Even using a conservative estimate of 200 million messages posted per day, which comes out to 730 billion messages per year, the number of lawsuits per message is astronomically small.  Third – given the increase in popularity of social media over the past year, it’s almost a certainty that the number of lawsuits per message in 2009-2010 is larger than the number of lawsuits per message in 2010-2011.

Another reason social media-based libel goes unpunished is because it’s much easier for the perpetrator to hide behind their personal computer than it would be if they worked for a national publication like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  I could easily send out a tweet claiming a certain celebrity who is known for having no discernable talent and an embarrassingly short marriage has been spreading her herpes all over the state of California.  Is it unethical?  Yes.  Would I get in trouble for it?  Probably not.  With a paltry 50 followers, my (hopefully) baseless claims would gain little-to-no traction.  It would be like trying to use a feather to create a splash in a pond.  However, if I were Pete Cashmore from Mashable and I said the same thing, it wouldn’t be a feather landing in the water; it would be a two-ton boulder.

The influence and reach of the message are two major factors when it comes to determining damage and injury in a libel case.  Printed publications like NYT or WSJ already have an assumed influence and reach, which is why defamatory statements hold a lot more weight when published in a newspaper or magazine.  But I would guess 97 percent of social media users’ reach and influence doesn’t extend past their family and friends.  And while it’s certainly true that sites like Twitter and Facebook enable news and gossip to spread at the speed of light, Internet trash-talk has become so commonplace now that most people decide to take matters into their own hands instead of taking the “attackers” to court.

Another reason for the low number of libel cases related to social media is the fact that the average citizen won’t be able to pony up the same kind of money a large organization like US Weekly or People can.  Internet service providers and social media site owners aren’t held responsible for the content users post on their sites, so after factoring in expensive court costs and lawyer fees, taking someone to court over a tweet or a status update hardly seems worth it.

The issue-du-jour a year ago was cyber bullying, which was the layman’s term used by media outlets for “libel.”  It made headline news across the country, but very few lawsuits actually made it to court.

The cacophonous ongoing conversation in social media makes picking out a single defamatory statement like finding a needle in a haystack.  It can be incredibly difficult to do, and in most cases barely worth the effort.  While words will always have the ability to damage, our increasingly short attention spans combined with the lightning-fast pace of the digital age we live in make most Twitter and Facebook posts little more than a blip on the radar.

There’s no doubt in my mind that statements published on the Internet should be held to the same standards as statements published in the press.  However, there’s also no doubt in my mind that people will continue to get away with libel through social media for years to come.

By the time you’ve reached the end of this blog post, at least a million more like it will have sprung up across the Internet.  And someone might have written the most awful thing about you on their Facebook page, their Twitter page or their blog.  And you wouldn’t even know it.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (JOUR 4470)

I was nervous and scared.  As I left my college advisor’s office, I combed over the information I had just received.  In my hands, I held my new life.  After taking two years off from school, I would be returning as a public relations major.  At that point, I knew very little about what PR involved.  Due to the explosion of celebrity-obsessed media over the past decade, I saw a lot of coverage involving statements released by the publicists’ of various stars.  After being somewhat successful in a sales position for several years, I thought, “I’m used to spinning stuff.  That’s basically what a publicist does.  I can do that.”  I started on my new path with an unethical mindset, completely unaware of what I was getting myself into.

Now, almost two years later, as I sit here reading over the PRSA Code of Ethics, I realize how much I’ve changed.  The concepts and rules suggested by the PRSA, which once seemed so foreign to me, now register as simple common sense.

In the PRSA Member Statement of Professional Values, the first listed value is advocacy.

“We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent.  We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”

This was the only aspect of PR I was somewhat familiar with when I restarted my education.  The majority of people view PR professionals as spin-doctors, and I think that belief (incorrectly) stems from this particular aspect of our job.  The key word in the PRSA’s explanation of advocacy is responsible, which I feel is unfortunately overlooked sometimes.  We’re viewed as a paid mouthpiece for an organization.  I can’t fault anyone for having that point of view; I was standing in their shoes once.  The only remedy is to change the public’s perceptions through our actions, not just through our words.  This is where the other values in the PRSA Code of Ethics come into play.

Honesty, expertise, independence, loyalty and fairness round out the Statement of Professional Values.  Each one represents a key element to maintaining ethical practices in the world of public relations.  These guidelines have not only significantly shifted my perceptions of PR, but they also changed the way I handle my everyday communication.

Under the “Independence” section, the Code of Ethics states, “We provide objective counsel to those we represent.”  Additionally, under the “Fairness” section, the Code of Ethics says, “We respect all opinions and support the right of free expression.”  While it would be a stretch to say these two provisions directly influenced my behavior, they certainly added some new ingredients to the gumbo that is my brain.  I once lost a friend because I refused to only see her side of the story in an argument she was having with someone else.  I was trying to be objective, and that didn’t fly with her.  If I had been in that situation before being exposed to various ethical codes, like the PRSA’s, I can’t say for certain I would have taken the same course of action.

Another crucial section in the PRSA Code of Ethics concerns the free flow of information.  The guidelines expressed here directly combat the negative image many have about the inner workings of public relations.  Specifically, that we only promote the good and try to bury the bad.  Once again, we must show this change instead of simply talking about it.

The Code of Ethics isn’t a long read, but if I were to create a SparkNotes version, it would look like this:

Be Honest.

Be Objective.

Be Accountable.

These standards show up in one form or another in every communication organization’s code of ethics, including the International Association of Business Communicators, the American Advertising Federation and the Society of Professional Journalists.

In general, all the ethical guidelines set forth by these organizations can work for our personal lives as well.  However, like I’ve written in several of my previous blog posts, money has an enormous influence when it comes to ethical decision-making.  For some, the cliché is true:  money makes the world go round.

These codes of ethics are vital to the survival our respective industries.  They won’t be able to prevent every unethical action in the future, but they will be able to educate people entering the profession about proper conduct and best practices.  Some will hold on to the information, some won’t.  I’m proud to say I did.

Every section of the PRSA Code of Ethics is equally important, but the last section is what I take most seriously: enhancing the profession.  When I tell people I majored in PR, the most common responses are, “Oh…what is that?” and “Oh, really?” with a raised eyebrow.  One of my goals as a soon-to-be professional is to do my part to build the public’s trust in my industry.  Thanks to greedy businesses and bratty celebrities, society’s faith in public relations is shattered.  It can be restored.

Doing the right thing isn’t always easy.  But a clear conscience feels a hell of a lot better than a fat wallet.

Sources

http://www.prsa.org/AboutPRSA/Ethics/CodeEnglish/index.html

http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

http://www.aaf.org/images/public/aaf_content/images/ad%20ethics/IAE_Principles_Practices.pdf

The Broken Classics (JOUR 4470)

The term classic refers to something that can stand the test of time and still be worthy of recognition.  Some of the classical ethical theories are still relevant today; the term almost fits, but not in a very flattering way.

Now, just in case any outsiders stumble onto this blog (and if you did…sorry), I’d like to give a quick ethics lesson.

  • “Intuitionist” moral reasoning – we’re born with a general sense of what’s moral
  • Consequentialism – the ends justify the means (if the consequence is good, the act is good)
  • Distributive Justice – a moral society will consider the needs and rights of all its members
  • Egoism – An act is only morally right when it promotes one’s long-term self interest

I think two of those four theories can still be applied to modern advertising and public relations.  The other two can be applied to our society, but not our advertising and PR practices.

I believe most people are born with a sense of what’s moral.  I don’t remember my parents ever telling me, “Don’t kill anyone!” as a child.  I just knew not to do it.  I find it strange that companies, which are made up of people just like you and me, seem to function with a completely different mindset.  Do you think pharmaceutical companies would blatantly state all their medicines’ fatal side effects in commercials if the law didn’t require it?  Probably not.  Generally speaking, it isn’t good business to tell your customer that your product could potentially kill them.  And that’s what it comes down to: “good” business.

In a modern application of Consequentialism, the “end” that justifies the “mean” will be money at least 75 percent of the time.  In my first blog post, I wondered whether HP’s announcement to stop producing the TouchPads was part of a PR stunt to generate buzz and public interest. It’s unethical to deceive your stakeholders, but if that was their plan all along, do you think they care now?  The TouchPads flew off the shelves at a discounted price, and HP now has a hit product on their hands.

Distributive Justice is similar to Intuitionist moral reasoning in its relation to modern American society vs. modern advertising and PR.  In America, we make a valid effort to give the minority a voice.  In modern advertising and PR, the minority only gets a voice when money is at stake.  If an advertisement is accepted by the majority of the middle class, but rejected as offensive by some of the wealthy upper class, the ad agency would pause and consider what the upper class has to say because they have more money.  However, if the ad is accepted by the majority of the upper class, and rejected by part of the middle class, the ad agency probably wouldn’t lift a finger.  That’s why the FCC exists.

For Egoism, I hate to beat an ethically dead horse with a broken ethical stick, but Enron still reigns king.  The executives involved in that scandal had nothing but their long-term self interest in mind.  Bernie Madoff is another A+ example of this theory.

Money is a thorn in ethics’ side.  Two of the four ethical theories mentioned above are applied in a negative way to modern advertising and PR.  And the other two would be applied in a negative way if it weren’t for laws forcing companies to do the right thing (which brings in the rules-based approach to ethics, deontology).

Shakespeare’s classics have been preserved throughout the years with their original meaning and value.  Unfortunately for PR and advertising ethics, its classics have been slowly twisted over time.  Rather than help the man who is dangling upside down from a third-story window, let’s just catch the money falling from his pockets.

Half the Battle (JOUR 4470)

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.

For example…

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.