April Five: Ethical Decision Making

When you reach a fork in the road, will you know which road to take?

When you reach a fork in the road, will you know which road to take?


It’s hard to believe my college career is almost over! I have been taking my last required course this semester, which is Ethics, Law and Diversity in Strategic Communication, the inspiration behind many of my blog posts this year. Although this class is my last required course, it’s definitely not the least. Although it’s important to be experienced and educated on topics in public relations to have a successful career, ethics is the only facet of any industry that can make or break a career in a matter of seconds. This class has taught me lifelong methods for making ethical decisions and has equipped me with resources I know will refer to many years from now.

Here are five resources and decision-making tools that I have used in-depth this semester:

1. LEAP is a decision-making model that I learned at the beginning of the semester that I plan to keep handy as I “LEAP” into my first job. This is a great model to use for any decision, as it is thorough and asks a few really great questions.

L- Learn everything you can

  • What are the key facts and data?
  • What outcome is important?
  • Which laws/policies/codes apply? (Always keep the PRSA Code of Ethics handy)
  • What raises an ethical red flag?
  • Who are the stakeholders?

E- Evaluate your options

  • Level 1: If all stakeholders agree, move ahead
  • Level 2: When it’ s not that simple…
  • Consult a mentor for a fresh perspective
  • Identify key consequences

A-  Access your intuition

  • Can you sleep at night knowing you made a certain decision?
  • What would your mother think about said decision?
  • As my professor says, “how would you feel if your decisions today were tomorrow’s headlines?”

P- Put your decision into action

  • Time to act
  • Evaluate

2. The Potter Box is a decision-making tool created by Harvard’s Ralph Potter that helps break down an ethical dilemma into a definition, list of values, principles and loyalties that help the user make a final decision. This model is useful in seeing the bigger picture when making important choices that will have consequences, good or bad.

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  • Definition: What took place?
  • Values: What values come into play in each decision you could take? (Values can be professional, logical, moral, sociocultural or religious).
  • Principles: What moral principle is applicable to this situation?
  • Loyalties: How will your decision affect those who you are loyal to?

3. The PRSA Code of Ethics has basically been my Bible throughout this course. Even before taking this ethics class I have used the PRSA Code of Ethics at PRSSA conferences and events, but I know this will always be a helpful tool and reminder of the important values each professional should exercise

4. Case Studies- How can we ensure the past wont repeat itself if we don’t know the history of ethics in public relations and advertising? I enjoyed participating in four case studies this semester that helped me understand applied ethics on a deeper level and examine how an understanding of ethics can help professionals avoid major consequences. More importantly, conducting ethical business is much more rewarding and beneficial for the industry, the company and the community. Several case study projects I participated in include SeaWorld’s response to Blackfish, Dolce and Gabbana’s “fantasy rape” ad campaign and BP’s crisis management in the destructive oil spill. I hope to continue paying attention as case studies play out so I know how to handle my own if the time comes.

5. Lastly, I’ve been learning how a network of reliable professionals can be important throughout my career. The longer I’ve had internships, the more I know how easy it is to stumble into potential ethics blunders. As a new professional it’s so important to have mentors who have been in the field longer than I have so I they can guide me along the way and help me spot potential crises. It doesn’t matter how old or experienced you are—there’s always more to learn.

I look forward to a lifelong journey of learning, experiencing and blazing trails. Graduation is only the beginning!

“A Tweet Away From Being Fired”

Free speech means you can say what you want, right?

Not without consequences—a painful lesson PR pro Justine Sacco learned last December when she tweeted what many people labeled “racist” and “insensitive.”

Her tweet is pictured below:

Justine Sacco tweet

Shortly after she boarded her plane in London, the tweet went viral. While she was unavailable on her flight to South Africa, her company fired her, Twitter users mocked her with the hash tag #HasJustineLandedYet and reporters waited to interview her at the airport in South Africa. Needless to say, she was embarrassed and ashamed. It didn’t take her long to post an apology, but her name now carries the weight of her costly mistake.

As one of “The Five” on Fox said, “We are all one tweet away from being fired.”

Note that Sacco was never arrested or fined by the government for what she tweeted. The First Amendment protected her rights to free speech, but just because there was no legal action involved doesn’t mean there were no consequences. In addition, she was a PR professional, which should imply an expertise in reputation management. When she landed in South Africa she had to some reputation management of her own to handle.

The First Amendment allows U.S. citizens:

  • Freedom of religion
  • Freedom of speech
  • Freedom of the press
  • Freedom of assembly
  • Right to petition

These are all beautiful rights to have and we are fortunate to be entitled to our own opinions, practice whatever religions we choose and protest. In the case above, Sacco was allowed to tweet essentially whatever she wanted, but obviously suffered consequences.

This freedom is not the same in every country. In the UK, social media users can be prosecuted for what they say online. According to The Daily Beast, for example, a Staffordshire man was arrested and had his computer confiscated for a tasteless Mandela joke. (I’ll let you look that one up.) Furthermore, the article states that, “In the United Kingdom, it is now the police’s remit to protect communities and individuals from “alarm,” “distress,” and “offense.”” Is this method of enforcement taking things a step too far? Possibly, but it can be argued that our current world is one where what is said on social media is amplified in a way that has a broader impact than just sticks and stones.

Take Paul Chambers, for example. Brian Solis explains in a blog post how this 27-year-old Twitter user got into some legal trouble with a recent tweet in 2010 that essentially threatened to blow up the airport. Whether or not his tweet was taken out of context, it isn’t okay to even hint at taking action that might threaten the lives of others. This is no different than yelling about a bomb at an airport or yelling, “fire” in a movie theater. We have freedom of speech and “Freedom of Tweet” as Solis calls it, but when what we say might infer a risk to someone’s life, there’s a good chance legal action will be taken. He was fined, faced conviction and also lost his job.

Our First Amendment rights should be celebrated, but with rights come great responsibility, especially as a public relations professional or organization. As PR pros we are expected to value ethical use of advocacy, honesty, expertise, fairness, independence, loyalty and fairness, according to the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Tweeting anything that might be racist, unfair or dishonest most likely reflects poorly on your company, not just you. And besides, what can you gain by saying something that might be hurtful to someone else?

It all comes down to professionalism and respect. No one wants to hire a PR person that can’t even maintain their own image, much less, their client’s.

Know your resources

work hard and be nice

Image from behance.net

Know the PRSA Code of Ethics and stay current with industry news because with the nature of social media it can be easy to forget the impact words can have on others. In addition, many companies have values or specific Code of Ethics for employees to know and practice. Some companies even have a social media policy, which can be helpful.

Value diversity

Many of the people called out for what they’ve tweeted have been accused of being racist or ignorant. It’s so important to value diversity because diversity is everywhere. It’s not wrong to be different and although no one can possibly agree with everything, it’s still important to be respectful and objective, even on personal social media accounts.

ALWAYS think before you post

It seems silly to remind people to think before using social media, but everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes on Twitter are now more costly than ever. Always think about what you say and how it can impact others before tweeting or posting online.

Although we are each one tweet away from losing our jobs, it’s important not to see this as a limitation, but instead a protection for our employers, our profession and even our own credibility.

PR Needs Better PR

One morning as I was walking to class I noticed I was walking the same pace as a young man headed in the same direction. We smiled awkwardly and continued on. Finally he looked over my way, laughed and introduced himself. After I introduced myself to him he asked what my major is. I was not expecting what happened next.

 “Public relations? People like you are the reason the government and media are so corrupt,” he yelled. “I hope you have fun making the world a worse place someday,” and he stormed off (After throwing in a few expletives).

 The rest of the day I sat at my desk wrestling with his harsh words. Although there’s a chance he had no idea what he was talking about, he has a point. Ironically, pubic relations needs better public relations.

Why Ethics?

The reason PR is lacking a positive reputation boils down to one word: Ethics.

Ethics are capable of building up someone’s identity in a positive way or capsizing it, drowning any hopes of a successful future.  Poor ethical choices can tear away a person’s privacy and swap a tailored Armani suit for an orange jumpsuit. Even if the poor decision never comes to the surface, the guilty person or party will suffer a clouded conscience and live in fear of being found out. Misguided ethics can lead to joblessness and in some cases, infamy. There is tremendous power in choices.

PR crises are a dime a dozen and many ex-professionals (or current pros who have managed to salvage what’s left of their reputation) are victims of their own poor ethical choices. Identity is a delicate thing.

I admit…many of the real-life ethical breaches brought up in my ethics and media law class happened well before my time. I was not as familiar with some of them as I knew I should be. I decided to research more about each case. As I began, I noticed something interesting. Before the name of the company/person was fully spelled out in the Google search bar, I knew almost exactly what area of ethics had been violated.

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When an individual makes unethical choices that are brought to light, they weave new words into their identity. Personal branding is a real thing and when someone’s identity is paired with words such as “scandal,” and “plagiarism,” I think it’s safe to say that the outcome isn’t good.

Ethical practice not only helps businesses stay out of trouble, but it also allows for peace of mind that comes with a clear conscience. Pubic relations can only be properly practiced with credibility, which is reinforced by good ethics. If there’s no credibility, there’s no business.

Proceed With Caution

Although there are situations where ethics are black and white, oftentimes there’s a grey area between what is ethical and unethical.

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Just because something is legal does not mean that it is ethical, and just because something is ethical does not mean it’s also credible.

The diagram to the right illustrates that what is ethical, credible and legal are connected but separate. Just because something is legal does not mean that it is ethical, and just because something is ethical does not mean it’s also credible. It is not uncommon for PR practitioners to be asked to do something questionable by persons of authority. It’s important to have a plan for these situations to ensure that the ethical, legal and credible decision will be made.  Sometimes this can involve standing up for what is right—maybe even at the expense of your job.

A decision-making model from Trust, Inc. advises the following steps when confronting an ethical dilemma:

L- Learn everything you can

  • What are the key facts and data?
  • What outcome is important?
  • Which laws/policies/codes apply? (Always keep the PRSA Code of Ethics handy)
  • What raises an ethical red flag?
  • Who are the stakeholders?

E- Evaluate your options

  • Level 1: If all stakeholders agree, move ahead
  • Level 2: When it’ s not that simple…
  • Consult a mentor for a fresh perspective
  • Identify key consequences

A-  Access your intuition

  • Can you sleep at night knowing you made a certain decision?
  • What would your mother think about said decision?
  • As my professor says, “how would you feel if your decisions today were tomorrow’s headlines?”

P- Put your decision into action

  • Time to act
  • Evaluate

No matter what decision you make, always:

  • Be honest
  • Be respectful
  • Be transparent

It’s important to be educated on ethics because a snap decision during a crisis can have negative consequences. Stay up to date on current issues and put yourself in the shoes of professionals in crisis. In addition, it’s important to be educated on the code of ethics for your company or industry to have an idea of, and prepare for, issues that could arise.

With my college graduation on the horizon, I am working hard to be prepared to face anything that might come my way during my professional career. I know PR has a long way to go when it comes to having a positive reputation in the public eye, but I fully intend to do my part in reversing the stigma. This might be a challenge, but in the end I hope I can say I’ve left a positive mark on the profession.

Seeing the Bigger Picture

The view from Weber Shandwick's Dallas office.

The view from Weber Shandwick’s Dallas office.

Last Friday I attended “Diversity Day” at Weber Shandwick in Dallas, which is an annual event hosted to help college students learn more about agency life. I love visiting PR agencies because there is an incredible amount of talent and creativity in many different disciplines. We heard from new and seasoned professionals, social media managers, human resource managers, vice presidents and general managers. Each member of an agency has a niche and working together as a team allows them to accomplish big things for their clients. Each professional serves as a piece of a larger puzzle.

My day at Weber Shandwick gave me inspiration, fueled my passion for PR and my desire to work in an international agency someday. Here are a few keys to success we discussed for future agency professionals:

Pay attention to brands:

  • Read about industry trends in multiple areas, such as tech, consumer, government, digital, etc.
  • Watch brands during a crisis and think of what you would do as a member of the brand’s crisis communications team.
  • Observe good storytelling and look for key elements such as a villain, drama, tension and romance.
  • Pay attention to campaigns and understand the process behind them.
  • Know how brands are spending money.

Learn from your class work and internships: 

  • Build a better understanding of the business approach, social media, economics and research.
  • Learn how to be a good salesman because everyone in business is selling something.
  • If there are things you don’t enjoy doing, at least learn from them.

 Improve your character and outlook on life:

  • Develop a can-do attitude.
  • Be a person of initiative and resourcefulness.
  • Know how to work with a team.
  • Be open to challenges.

Diversity Day helped me develop goals for my last months as a college student and put things into perspective.  Sometimes I’ve had to do work during my internships that wasn’t exactly glamorous. During the panel discussion on transitioning from a student to professional, one of the assistant account executives said that even though what we’re doing might feel like grunt work, the end result will help someone else do their job more effectively and efficiently. Similarly, a press release might seem small, but it’s a piece of a larger puzzle that symbolizes a bigger story that a brand is trying to tell.

I’m at a place in life where I honestly don’t know what’s next, but I’m excited about completing the overall puzzle of my career ahead of me one piece at a time.

PRSSA and NAHJ students from UNT, Baylor and UTA at Diversity Day

PRSSA students from UNT, Baylor and UTA at Diversity Day

PR Lessons from the Ice Cream Parlor

IMG_5452Last weekend I had the opportunity to work at an ice cream parlor for a day to help raise money for my university’s PRSSA Chapter. We had a lot of fun making sundaes and serving customers, but I couldn’t help but notice the public relations lessons to learn during our time behind the counter.

 1. It’s all about teamwork

Every time we had a wave of customers it was hard not to run into each other as we scrambled to prepare each order in a timely manner. After the first couple waves of customers had passed, we realized it was much easier to help each other out. One person would handle each order, but the order was filled by an effort from each of us. In public relations, a lot of what is done is not possible without teamwork. Usually if one person tried to do all of the work, the overall product would not be as high quality than if there were a group effort.

2. Give people exactly what they want (Unless they’re in danger)

One of the first things we learned as servers for the day was to give people exactly what they want. People often come in with a specific craving and are not interested in substitutes. The exception, however, is when we see potential danger. For instance, a young child can ask to sample something, but when they might not realize it has nuts and they have an allergy, there can be a big problem at hand.

In PR it’s important to excel at client service. Be available, attentive and helpful, and when you see potential danger ahead, work with your client to proceed with caution, taking necessary steps to avoid crisis. This should all be done in an ethical manner, openly and transparently and taking blame where blame is due.

3. Communication is key

With four of us behind the counter, it was hard, at times, to remember which customers had been helped. When there was a problem, it often took a lot of backtracking to find out which cone or toppings the customer ordered.

In PR it’s so important to dedicate one spokesperson to handle an issue with a client so others aren’t attempting to reestablish what’s already been stated. Communication between employees is important as well to ensure that efficiency is mastered.

4. Be prepared for messes

With more than one hundred ice cream flavors, a blender, a shelf of glassware, more that ten different toppings and four amateurs scooping ice cream, a mess was bound to happen. We designated a clean up person to sweep the floors every so often and kept everything where it belonged to avoid catastrophe and after a few errors and chose specific roles for each person to make sure everything was being done correctly, leaving no room for confusion.

In public relations it’s not about “if” a crisis happens, but “when.” It’s important to be proactive, keep everything in order and always plan ahead because you never know when you’ll be faced with a crisis where every minute counts.

 5. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

The 45-minute training session was helpful, but in the heat of the moment, it was easy to forget small details such as how much the ice cream weighed, if the customer wanted a to-go container and which flavor belonged in which cup or cone. We found out very quickly that it’s better to present the customer with exactly what they ordered without making them wait rather than messing up a few times before getting it right.

Public relations work is no different. One question can be the difference between a high-quality end product and having to completely start over and waste the resources put into the first try. Be efficient, ask questions, and be transparent to make sure your end result is acceptable.

How will you apply lessons from the ice cream parlor in your client work this week?