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.

Ethics in PR: Six questions to consider when offered an unpaid internship

September is Ethics Month for the PR community. To celebrate, I wanted to touch on a major topic affecting public relations students and employers today: unpaid internships.

Unpaid internships received a lot of buzz this summer after two unpaid production interns that worked on the movie “Black Swan” sued 20th Century Fox for giving them the workload similar to the that of their salaried full-time coworkers. Sure enough, they won.

Read more details of the ruling from The Atlantic Wire.

Are unpaid internships lawful?

The Fair Labor Standards Act released six criteria employers must follow in order to offer lawful unpaid internships. In summary;

  •  Lawful unpaid internships should not advance the employer’s company financially nor should interns fill the role of a salaried employee.
  •  Lawful unpaid internships must be oriented for the benefit of the intern, with direct supervision and an educational environment.
  •  Lawful unpaid internships must not entitle interns to a job after completion.
  • Lawful unpaid internships must be offered with honesty, disclosing upfront that the position is unpaid.

Expanding on the criteria above, a notable point is that the internship must be beneficial for the intern. This is very important because the overall benefit of accepting internships is to learn and grow as a future professional.

As you weigh your options, consider asking employers about opportunities to expand your professional network, add to your portfolio or participate in training or a mentoring program while
interning with a company. If none of these opportunities are available, it might be best to keep looking.

Are unpaid internships ethical?

As the maxim goes, just because something is lawful, does not always mean it’s ethical.

A survey by the Public Relations Consultants Association found that out of about 150 new public relations professionals, approximately 23 percent held an internship with no pay and only 28 percent of the professionals in the research group were paid at or above minimum wage. The others were either paid a stipend or had some expenses covered by the employer.

Among many concerns expressed in response to this data, researchers found that diversity was compromised. The reality of the situation is that economically challenged applicants had to turn down the opportunity because they could not afford accepting an unpaid internship. In addition, graduates lacking internship experience have lower chances of receiving a job in a competitive market, which is often difficult for students of lower income families. Paid internships are much less prevalent, according to data from the survey, making it difficult for students to gain experience. These issues have called to question the ethics of unpaid internships.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) issued a Professional Standards Advisory in February 2011 about the ethical use of interns. This document makes a case for interns and adds perspective for employers who may not understand that course credit is often costly for the student, as well as travel expenses such as gasoline and car maintenance.

Lastly, the document specifically names code provisions and professional values in the PRSA Member Code of Ethics that are often overlooked in decisions involving unpaid internships.

Is an unpaid internship for you?

There will be unpaid internships as long as students are willing to accept them. However, sometimes taking an unpaid internship is worth it in the long run.

First of all, no matter what your pay is at an internship, recognize and value the time and/or money the company invests in you as an intern. However, as you pursue opportunities, don’t sell yourself short by accepting an opportunity that will not ultimately help you succeed and accomplish your goals in public relations. It might take time, but develop a keen eye for opportunities that will shape your future.

If you’re ever offered an unpaid internship you’d hate to turn down, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Does this internship abide by the Fair Labor Standards Act?
  2. Will this internship give you opportunities to add to your resume and portfolio?
  3. Can you get the same opportunities elsewhere? (Note: volunteering at a nonprofit organization or helping with the communications tasks at your part time job can be great alternatives)
  4.   Is this internship feasible for your budget?
  5.  Is there a way you can divide your time between a part time job and your internship?
  6. Are you motivated to do well at this internship despite the fact you won’t be receiving a paycheck?

PR Daily recently published an article about the things employers should expect from an unpaid intern. Overall the article ensures that unpaid interns will undoubtedly slack off at work and anything more shouldn’t be expected. Unpaid internships are often challenging, but if you accept an unpaid position and are aware of what you signed up for from the start (which you should, by law), there is nothing more detrimental for your career than performing poorly on the job. The world of public relations is interconnected and the chance you’ll be known as a slacker — at least in the area — is likely. If you don’t think you’ll be able to work with integrity at an unpaid internship, don’t accept one.

It all boils down to one simple question: does the benefit outweigh the cost?

As a Millennial, I’ve heard my fair share of accusations about entitlement of my generation. Yes, work is work, but it’s important to remember that we were never owed an internship and any opportunities we take should be received with gratefulness.

Whether you’re paid or not, internships cost companies money, and if you develop a keen eye for selecting lawful and ethical internships and the employer holds up their end, you will benefit greatly in the long run.

 What do you think about unpaid internships? Comment in the box below.