PR professionals may sometimes work with corporate executives, clients, colleagues or others who commit unsavory, unethical, or illegal actions. They may even give instructions for PR staff to commit unethical or legally questionable tasks. How many PR people would consider resigning in such situations?
In a recent brouhaha, three federal prosecutors working on the case against longtime Donald Trump confidant Roger Stone withdrew from the case and one resigned after the US Justice Department over-ruled their recommendation for a seven-to-nine sentence for Stone. The Justice Department’s unusual action immediately raised questions if Trump had urged it shield Stone, his longtime confident who was as convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering, and obstructing a congressional probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election. In a tweet, the President criticized the length of the recommended sentence. Attorney General William Barr may have understood what the President wanted without the President saying anything directly to him – and carried out the President’s implied wishes. Trump then congratulated Barr on interceding in the case. Trump and Barr evidently see no ethical qualms in their actions. Many others do. Maybe the judge will too. In any event, it’s likely to play out in the press for weeks.
A controversy involving Papa John’s founder and former CEO John Schnatter raised a dilemma that PR pros face, says Paul Raab, managing partner at Linhart PR. Schnatter made offensive racial remarks during a media training call. (He later resigned as company chairman.)
Should PR pros leak such comments to the media? Or keep client malfeasance secret? Raba poses. Business standards deem client information confidential, and the PRSA ethics calls for protection of clients ‘privacy and their confidential information’.
But PR people can still meet the PRSA code of ethics and their own principles, Raab says. They can:
- End the client relationship as quickly as possible while honoring contractual notice requirements.
- Raise the issue to the company’s chief communications officer.
- Inform the company’s lead independent director or chair of the audit committee, if it’s a public company.
- Avoid working with controversial companies or clients in the first place.
Many Ethical Gray Areas
Ethics are often unclear. There are typically gray areas where you’re not sure if something is unethical or how to respond. In addition, employees see colleagues committing morally questionable actions more often than company leaders, say James Detert, a management professor at Cornell University, and Mary Gentile, author of Giving Voice to Values and director of a program by the same name at Babson College.
They offer these recommendations in a Harvard Business Review article:
- Seek to understand your colleague’s perspective and motivation. They may have an understandable, if not defensible, motivati0n.
- Weigh the pros and cons of speaking up against the potential consequences. What’s really at stake? Speaking up may make you feel better about yourself. Research has shown that people regret inaction more than they do actions that didn’t go well.
- Rehearse what you’re going to say before calling out unethical behavior. If you build confidence by rehearsing, you’ll have more energy to engage in the conversation.
- Beware of rationalizing questionable behavior because you’re afraid of a difficult conversation
- Talk to the perpetrator first. Don’t go straight to your boss or HR unless the situation is severe.
- Ask questions, don’t accuse. Treat the initial conversation as information gathering with questions like: “Can you help me understand why …” The person may not have realized what they did. You can find if they’re open to resolving the issue or if you need to pursue another avenue.
“We live in a society where most of us are dependent on employers for salary and benefits and we don’t have the power that allows us to be free moral agents,” Detert says. “None of us will be able to speak up about every problematic ethical issue. We are all compromisers in that regard.”
Legal Doesn’t Equal Ethical
It’s important to remember that what is legal is not always ethical, says Garland Stansell, chief communications officer for Children’s of Alabama Hospital and Health Care and 2020 National Chair of PRSA.
During construction of its expanded facility, the medical facility learned that one of the subcontractors on the site had a reputation for hiring undocumented workers. The hospital’s board, leadership pondered how to respond. Legal counsel advised doing nothing. The hospital had done nothing wrong, they said. The issue was up to the general contractor and subcontractor allegedly employing undocumented workers.
The PR team argued that the subcontractor should verify work papers of their employees and employ only properly documented workers. They won the debate.
“That was an ethical dilemma as legally we had not done anything wrong,” Stansell said. “It was something that one of the subcontractors had done in the past, but you’re guilty by association, and need to consider what that looks like for your brand and your organization and your values as a company.”
Maintaining strict ethics in business and always doing what’s right avoids potentially serious problems and forms the foundation of good reputation management. PR can function in all ethical matters as the organization’s ethics lighthouse.
Bottom Line: PR pros sometimes witness ethically or legally questionable actions. Responding to them can raise a professional and personal dilemma. The best response depends on the situation. Carefully and politely questioning the transgressor, evaluating the ethical implications and repercussions of the wrongdoing, and then weighing pros and cons of speaking out usually leads to the right resolution.
William J. Comcowich founded and served as CEO of CyberAlert LLC, the predecessor of Glean.info. He is currently serving as Interim CEO and member of the Board of Directors. Glean.info provides customized media monitoring, media measurement and analytics solutions across all types of traditional and social media.