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Prof. James E. Grunig: Moral behavior does not occur without study, research and reflection

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James Grunig ethics

In this interview my distinguish guest, the noted professor and author James E. Grunig, explains the need of a new kind of interaction between public relations people and their clients, why practitioners who aspire to professional standards must band together and define what is ethical behaviour and what is not and what further steps are needed to improve the reputation of the discipline. In the last decade my way of thinking about public relations was strongly influenced by James, so it is an enormous honor to dialogue with him on public relations ethics. (Dana Oancea)

Despite its growth, the PR practice is still struggling towards professionalization, exemplified by identity issues, diffuse boundaries and lack of clear ethical standards. If you take a look back at the development of the PR profession, what kind of picture do you see up to now in terms of ethical behaviour?

Thirty-six years ago, in my book Managing Public Relations, published in 1984, I emphasized the importance of professionalism for the development of the public relations discipline.  Professionalism is difficult for public relations people because they typically work in, or for, organizations where their profession is in the minority and their work often is not understood or appreciated. Lawyers work in similar circumstances. As a result, the employer or client often asks the professional to do unprofessional things, including engaging in unethical behaviors. Professionals can be distinguished from nonprofessionals because they have shared norms, values, and knowledge. In addition, professionals are able to control the nature and goals of their work, rather than allowing employers with little knowledge of the profession to define their work for them. These working conditions help us to understand the value of education in public relations and the value of professional associations in which public relations people can interact. Such interaction allows them to develop and maintain these norms, values, and knowledge and to discuss their experiences in seeking and maintaining power to control their work.

I have interacted with public relations professionals and educators in over 50 countries during my 50 years of work in public relations, and I have seen clear progress in the development of professional associations and in the quality and ethics of public relations practice. However, unethical or irresponsible employers or clients don’t always seek out professional counsel or practices. Too many see public relations as a quick and easy way to gain or maintain power or to deceive their opponents, and even their stakeholders. Because of the identity issues you mentioned, there are legions of pseudo public relations practitioners who quickly offer the services that the unethical employer desires. More often than not, they are not successful in achieving what these employers want. Usually, rather than solving problems, they make the problems worse. However, these pseudo professionals usually are adept at making it appear as though they have achieved their employers‘ or  clients‘ goals—using metrics such as image enhancement, media impressions, or advertising value equivalents. Unfortunately, the public relations profession has no way to exclude these pseudo professionals from calling themselves public relations practitioners. Unfortunately, also, true public relations professionals often sell themselves out to unethical employers or clients because they need to make a living—and thus often experience guilt or frustration with their work.
 
So, what picture do I see of ethical behaviour in public relations? I think we are inching forward, but we have a mountain to move, so to speak. There is still a great deal of unethical behaviour in the practice of public relations. Practitioners who aspire to professional standards must band together and define what ethical behaviour is and what is not. They can do this most effectively through professional associations and by supporting academic research and professional education. In addition, they need to educate themselves or seek education in ethical theories if they do not already possess such knowledge.

The role of ethics has long been tackled by public relations scholars. However, there are just a few empirical studies of ethical practice to date. What theoretical and practical difficulties does the modern PR profession encounter because of these empirical gaps?

If I interpret this question correctly, you seem to be saying that public relations scholars have addressed ethics from a theoretical or philosophical perspective, but there have been few studies that actually document professionals putting these theoretical principles into practice. The first part is true: Public relations scholars definitely have constructed ethical theories from classic theories of ethical philosophy. However, I am not certain that the second part of the question is true: I think there have been a large number of empirical studies of public relations ethics in practice, at least in the United States.

Let me address the nature of ethical theories first. Although there are many public relations ethicists, I will draw on two theories that I know the best, my own work and the work of Shannon Bowen, of the University of South Carolina, who earned her Ph.D. at the University of Maryland under the direction of my wife, Larissa Grunig. I wrote a lengthy chapter on ethics in the 1990s for a second edition of Managing Public Relations. Unfortunately, my time was filled then working on the Excellence project, and I never finished that second edition. With Larissa Grunig, who taught a course in public relations ethics at Maryland, we published that chapter as a conference paper in 1996. In 2014, I published a shortened version of this paper as an introduction to a special issue of the French Canadian journal Revue Internationale Communication Sociale et Publique. The first paper can be downloaded from the research website ResearchGate at this address. The shorter version is available at the same website at this address.

I won’t go into detail about the theory I developed in those papers, but interested readers can download them from the above websites. In brief, however, I addressed two classical approaches to ethics: teleology, or ethics based on the consequences of actions, and deontology or ethics based on moral rules. The term "teleology" comes from the Greek word teleos, which means "brought to its end." Deontology comes from the Greek deontos, which means "of the obligatory." Teleological theories, in other words, judge rightness or wrongness by the ends to which decisions lead--their consequences. Deontological theories look more at means to those ends--by whether a decision satisfies rules that decision makers are obligated to follow. I reviewed many works on ethics both by philosophers and by public relations scholars and professionals. I then used elements of both of these approaches to articulate a theory of public relations ethics at the level of the organization—i.e., principles for how a public relations professional should advise an organization to behave in order to be ethical. In a few words, these principles were:

•    Teleology: Ethical public relations professionals ask what consequences potential organizational decisions have on publics. They also ask what beneficial consequences (or solutions to their problems) that publics ask from an organization.
•    Deontology: Ethical public relations professionals then have the moral obligation to disclose these consequences to publics, or address them if a public seeks the consequences, and to engage in dialogue (or symmetrical communication) with the publics about the potential decisions.

I believe these principles are reasonably easy to understand and easy to apply—that is, if the organization is willing to let the public relations professional apply them.

In her doctoral dissertation, Shannon Bowen developed a deontological theory of public relations that relied heavily on the philosophy of Immanuel Kant—especially his categorical imperative (essentially the question whether a decision maker would wish that an action should become a universal law that applies to everyone, including yourself). Shannon phrased the categorical imperative as “Would this organization accept this decision if it were on the receiving end?” She also identified several moral rules, asking “the organization to consider its duty, intention, and dignity as well as respect for the organization, publics, and society.” In a later book chapter, Shannon and Tiffany Derville Gallicano, another University of Maryland Ph.D. graduate, reviewed both teleological and deontological theories and concluded with an easy-to-understand flow chart for public relations professionals to use in following either or both of these philosophical approaches. That chapter also is available on ResearchGate.

Next, there is the question of whether there are empirical examples of organizations practicing these ethical principles, or similar principles developed by others. In the Excellence study (see Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations. 1992), we found that ethics was an integral part of the actions of public relations departments in the most effective organizations, and we found examples of ethical public relations in our survey results as well as in 25 case studies. We concluded that ethics was a principle of excellence in public relations. In her dissertation, Bowen conducted in depth case studies of two highly ethical organizations and found that they had applied her principles. Since that time, she has done numerous studies of ethical organizations, studies which can be found in a number of articles on her ResearchGate home page.

These are just a few example of the empirical study of public relations ethics. There are others, conducted by other scholars. In short, I believe that there are numerous examples of research demonstrating how public relations professionals have applied ethical principles.

Many practitioners complain about the reputation of PR, but at the same time we see some resistance to further attempts toward professionalization that might address this reputational issue. How would you explain this resistance?

To a large extent, human behavior is habitual. The American philosophy John Dewey described the role of habit is his Book Human Nature and Conduct, published in 1932. This was one of several books by Dewey that I have used throughout my research career, including in the development of my situational theory of publics. According to Dewey, people occasionally make genuine decisions about what to do in a situation, but generally they continuously do what they know how to do and what has worked for them in the past.

Public relations people are no exception. Most have learned how to do public relations from a mentor or through trial and error, rather than through formal education; and most have become comfortable in their work. As a result, they continue to supply the same public relations advice and techniques year after year to client after client. They are able to do so because employers and clients continue to demand these services. As long as there is a demand, there will continue to be a supply. When people outside this demand-supply loop (such as journalists or members of publics) look at public relations, they don’t like what they see. They see organizations that try to use public relations to camouflage irresponsible and unethical behaviors and they see public relations people who are willing to do this type of activity. As a result, public relations has a bad reputation. It’s very difficult to break out of this loop with a different type of public relations—for example, doing what I call strategic, symmetrical communication. As one dubious critic once asked me, “does anyone really practice public relations in this way?”

I believe that the best way to break out of this supply-demand loop is through research. First, evaluation research on the most common, and often unethical, practices generally shows that they don’t work. Public relations people tend to cherry pick this research, however. They choose only data that show that what they are doing is effective (such as media hits or impressions) and hide data that show they are ineffective. Many employers and clients, however, are not so easily fooled any longer. They want evidence that public relations has value for an organization, and the most enlightened ones also want evidence that it has value for stakeholder publics and for society. Such evidence requires a different set of metrics, such as relationship indicators. And, to add value, it requires a different set of public relations approaches and techniques. Thus, the second type of research is more academic and theoretical in nature, such as the research that my colleagues and I did in the Excellence study and in the many studies of organization-public relationships conducted around the world.

To improve the reputation of the discipline, therefore, public relations people must break their habits. They need to study the basic research that has been done on public relations and its value, and they need to explain it to employers and clients who might demand a simplistic way of covering up their irresponsible and unethical behaviors or potential behaviors. They then need to do evaluative research on their work to show employers and clients that a more responsible approach works well for organizations, publics, and society; and, if necessary, they should revise their public relations activities when evaluation shows that it doesn’t work. Hopefully, this kind of interaction between public relations people and their clients will create a new demand-supply loop in which public relations becomes a responsible profession with a good reputation.

While professional associations invite PR practitioners to ‘tell the truth’ and ‘adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth”, in practice truth is often elusive, being influenced by perspective, completeness of information, interpretation, and perception. How can we better operationalize the concept of truth in the public relations practice?

The question of what is truth, or what are objective facts, has been debated by philosophers of science for many years and has been debated by modernist and postmodern scholars in many disciplines. It also has been the subject of research in psychology. The consensus is that truth and facts are influenced by presuppositions, or what also can be called a conceptual framework, worldview, or mindset. As one philosopher of science, Eugene Meehan, said in 1968: “The facts do not lie before the observer, immutable and unchangeable. What a fact is depends on the conceptual framework through which perceptions are screened.”

The school of thought that once dominated the philosophy of science was called logical positivism. Those who ascribed to this view believed that there was order in nature waiting to be observed. Facts, or truth, are outside of us and immutable, if only we could find a way to control our presupposed ideas to observe them. If used properly, however, the scientific method would allow us to empirically observe reality and use it to check the accuracy of our ideas, or theories, that we use to understand and explain reality.

Logical positivism came crashing down after Thomas Kuhn wrote his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1970. Kuhn introduced a subjective view of science, in which he said that objective facts cannot be used to test one theory against another because the overarching conceptual framework of each group of scientists, which he called a paradigm, predetermines what facts to observe or what experiments to conduct. In his words, competing ideas are “incommensurable” and cannot be tested against each other because each paradigm observes different data. One of my mentors when I was a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin, Richard Carter, explained that the question was whether “order” is the natural state of the universe, if only we could observe it. Instead, Carter said, the natural state of the universe is disorder, and the only order that exists is supplied by humans who use their ideas and theories to interpret it.

Kuhn’s ideas were widely challenged by other philosophers of science who developed a more middle-of-the road approach. They believed that theoretical frameworks could be evaluated by checking the conceptual clarity of the theories and by comparing the number of problems that competing frameworks can solve. To do this, however, a scientist must be able to recognize his or her conceptual framework, or set of presuppositions, and be able to compare it with competing conceptual frameworks. (Anyone interested, can find more of my thinking about the philosophy of science and public relations in this book chapter.

One of my former Ph.D. students, Jeong-Nam Kim, now at the University of Oklahoma, recently described two ways in which people solve problems—progressive reasoning and retrogressive thinking. Progressive problem-solving gathers available evidence (or facts) first and then uses it to determine a reasonable conclusion. Retrogressive problem-solving, in contrast, uses available evidence to support a pre-arrived conclusion. Most people don’t have the time or motivation to examine all of the facts in a new situation and reach a reasoned conclusion. Instead, they rely on what Dewey would have called habitual behavior. They use what they already know and understand to solve new problems they encounter. As Jeong-Nam explained: „When we use retrogressive thinking, we filter out information against our pre-arrived solution in favor of evidence supporting it. We gain more confidence from each piece of evidence supporting our solution than we lose from each piece against it.“  In science, retrogressive thinking has been called confirmation bias—i.e., researchers are more likely to observe and report data that confirm their theories than data that falsify them.

Jeong-Nam called the tendency toward retrogressive problem solving „cognitive arrest“ and used the concept to explain widespread conspiratorial thinking that has reached epidemic levels on social media. Jeong-Nam does not offer any easy solutions to these problems, just as philosophers of science have not. In his words: „This [psychological] research does not offer an easy answer to the issue. It is clear that increasing information has done little to combat it. What may be more important is an emphasis on self-conscious, effortful reasoning and attention to clear, intentional communication. Neither evidence nor argument seems effective in reducing cognitive arrest, so we need to rethink traditional communication strategies with attention to both directions of human thought. The exchange of ideas is the heart of free society. Cognitive arrest and conspiratorial thinking threaten that exchange. It is essential that we break up cycles of easy thinking and reintegrate conspiratorial thinkers into the intellectual marketplace before those thinkers or their ideas become a threat to intellectual or civil harmony.“

So, what does this mean for an ethical public relations professional? First, „truth“ is always subjective, and it is defined by conceptual frameworks and previously chosen solutions to problems. Thus, „telling the truth“ is not a real ethical solution. We need to think more deeply about what we think and how our clients and members of publics think. Second, public relations professionals should not take advantage of retrogressive and conspiratorial thinking to mobilize those who already agree with the organizations they represent and to ignore everyone else. They need to develop a communication framework so that their clients are helped to understand those who disagree with what the organization is doing as well as those who agree and to help serve all publics as well as society. Those who disagree with the organization, however, may also be victims of conspiratorial thinking, so organizations must try to listen to them to understand their retrogressive thinking. Most importantly, ethical public relations professionals must be aware of their own retrogressive thinking. If they don’t, they will have little to offer their clients as counselors.

James Evans, an emeritus professor of agricultural communication at the University of Illinois, has described this role as that of an honest broker and joint problem solver. In his words these terms describe “the timeless principle of entering the communication process as a respectful partner with intended audiences rather than looking at them as ‘targets’ or groups to be manipulated for one’s own purposes. … that is why I like to consider “joint problem solving” as a useful goal for communicating, with “honest broker” communications as a means to that goal.

PR practitioners are fulfilling a range of professional roles and identities, not all of which being enough articulated in the literature to date. The role of ethical counsellor seems to be a wishful but a problematic identity for many PR practitioners, particularly those who lack access to the boardroom. What kind of ethical tensions do you link to several PR identities?

Public relations professionals who play no role in the strategic decision processes of organizations will have a difficult time serving as ethical counselors. Professionals should have the freedom to direct their own practice. If they don’t, they are at the mercy of those who do direct the practice—usually senior management or clients who think they know what they want from public relations but actually have limited understanding of what public relations can do for the organization if practiced strategically and symmetrically.

Practitioners without access to top management, however, can attempt to do what Patrick Jackson, a now deceased former leader of public relations in the United States, called counseling from below. That is, they can provide ethical advice from below to those who direct their work in the hope that they will be listened to. If this advice is not followed, then the practitioner has a difficult decision: Should I do what I am told even though I know it is unethical? One alternative is to resign, but we all need to make a living. Another is to do what you are told but to point out to the employer or client that you think the activity is unethical and what you think the consequences of the unethical behavior will be. Eventually, the client might begin to listen to you, especially if the negative consequences that you predicted would occur actually do occur.

There is little evidence that codes of ethics have shaped professional communication practice in the past decades. Do you think that we should rather focus on personal ethics like honesty, transparency, accuracy and fairness?

There have been many studies of the codes of ethics of public relations professional associations. Most have concluded that these codes do not fully address most of the ethical problems that public relations professionals need to consider. Very few of these codes address the role of public relations as an ethical counselor. Most of them are related to how public relations people interact with each other, with the media, or with clients.

Personal ethics are important, but they only partially solve the ethical problems that practitioners face. As I explained in my two ethics papers that I mentioned in my answer to your second question: “Public relations practitioners confront a number of personal ethical decisions in their work. They may be tempted to do insider trading, to provide free passes for plays or sporting events to journalists, to take or receive gifts, or to accept or offer bribes. They may divulge confidential information to a competitor, pad an expense account, falsify a time report, conceal errors, lie, or selectively report research results. Ethical rules may help practitioners solve these problems, and professionals who are more ethical as individuals generally provide better ethical advice to their organizations as counselors. In spite of the great attention paid to personal ethics in the public relations literature, however, these problems, although important, are not the most central ethical questions for the public relations profession.”

In those two papers, I discussed several other ethical problems facing public relations people. These are 1) relationships with clients and other practitioners, 2) loyalty to whom? 3) choice of a client or organization, 4) advocate or counselor? 5) secrecy and openness, and 6) ethical challenges of digital media. I don’t have the space here to explain my ideas about each of these challenges. I refer those who are interested to my two papers. Overall, however, I would say that personal ethics are important but that they alone are not enough to deal with the ethical challenges of public relations.

How can PR professionals be better prepared in terms of ethical behaviour? What might take the PR industry forward in terms of ethical behavior?

Public relations professionals must be educated and knowledgeable. Knowledge of what is ethical and moral behavior does not occur without study, research, and reflection. I hope I have provided some ideas that might be useful, as well as references to relevant ethical thinking and research. Knowledge is power and is the most likely way in which the industry can move forward.

In addition, I would urge public relations people to think more about the concept of corporate social responsibility (or CSR). As Shannon Bowen and Tiffany Gallicano wrote in their paper that I referenced previously, public relations people too often think about social responsibility in terms of philanthropy or community relations projects. I have seen this also in many of the CSR projects that I have judged each year in the Romanian PR Award. CSR projects too often are done to gain media coverage or improve the “image” and profitability of the organization. True organizational responsibility involves counseling management on responsible decision-making and behavior, not on doing CSR projects unrelated to the consequences of organizational decisions and behaviors.

I am an admirer of an organization called the Caux Round Table, which advocates what it calls moral capitalism. The Caux Round Table was founded by a group of responsible corporations at a conference in Caux, Switzerland, in 1986. It launched a set of principles for responsible business in 1994, principles that can be found on the Round Table’s website: https://www.cauxroundtable.org/principles/. I also recommend the book The Road to Moral Capitalism, written by Stephen B. Young, the executive director of the Round Table. A great deal of useful information can be found on the Round Table’s website, including a monthly newsletter titled Pegasus. The Caux Round Table, as well as the academic literature on social responsibility in both business management and public relations, can provide a great deal of the knowledge that PR people need to be ethical counselors to their organizations.


James E. Grunig is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. He is the coauthor of “Managing Public Relations, Public Relations Techniques, Manager's Guide to Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management”, and “Excellent Public Relations and Effective Organizations: A Study of Communication Management in Three Countries”. He was editor of “Excellence in Public Relations and Communication Management”. He has published 250 articles, books, chapters, papers, and reports. Grunig was named the first winner of the Pathfinder Award for excellence in academic research on public relations by the Institute for Public Relations Research and Education in 1984. In 1989, he received the Outstanding Educator Award of the Public Relations Society of America. In 1992, the PRSA Foundation awarded him the Jackson, Jackson & Wagner award for outstanding behavioral science research. He won the most prestigious lifetime award of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) in 2000, the Paul J. Deutschmann Award for Excellence in Research.


Usefull ressources on ethics in public relations:  

James E. Grunig, Larissa A. Grunig: Implications of symmetry for a theory of ethics and social responsibility in public relations, 1996

James E. Grunig: Introduction. Ethics problems and theories in public relations, 2014

Shannon Bowen, Tiffany Gallicano: A philosophy of reflective ethical symmetry. Comprehensive Historical and Future Moral Approaches in the Excellence Theory, 2013

James E. Grunig: Symmetrical presuppositions as a framework for public relations theory, 1989


 Interview by Dana Oancea. Copyright PR Romania     

  

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