Categories: CSR reality check / PR issues

31 May 2013

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Getting to grips with corporate and PR ethics

This interview about corporate morals and ethics first appeared on Communication Director‘s website earlier this month. It records the conversation between the magazine’s leading editor, Dafydd Phillips, and me. Extracts from it were also quoted by Dafydd in the latest print version of Communication Director, in his piece Between Ethics and Morality (pages 52 -55).

I’d  like to thank to Dafydd and his team for allowing me to reproduce the interview in full here.

Why is it important to be an ethical communicator?

The word ethics derives from the Greek word ethos meaning character. Ethics governs how we ought to behave. To behave as one ought is to behave ethically. To fail to do so is to behave unethically. The problem is that leading PR professionals rarely possess a basic grasp of either ethical theory or the moral philosophical reasoning that underpins it.

The PR bosses and academics that dominate our industry have yet to acknowledge the extent of the problem. As a consequence our industry often remains powerless, and acts as a counterproductive influence, when it comes to addressing the issues that threaten the reputations of modern institutions.

Hence we sometimes make things worse by throwing fuel on the fire.

What would you say are the basic tenets of an ethical approach to communications?

Above all, we need to bring more rigour to decision-making and to justifying the moral choices business – actually any client – makes. We need to have a better understanding of what constitutes the difference between making right and wrong decisions when calibrated ethically. We also need to give more consideration to the meaning of the words amoral, moral and immoral.

Can you be more specific?

Yes. Let’s review some examples.

PR pros love to justify corporate social responsibility by arguing that it is good for the bottom line. However, to claim the moral high ground an institution must implement CSR “merely” because it is the right thing to do. That’s regardless of whether a firm gains or loses from doing so. Put another way, we shouldn’t save drowning people “just” because somebody offers us a reward, such as increased profit or a positive reputation, or improved staff morale.

Take stakeholder theory. As Martin Sandbu points out in Just Business, if managers should “maximize” the benefits of stakeholder groups – much as shareholding primacy says they should maximize the return for shareholders – then we must accept the inconvenient mathematical truth that it is impossible to maximize two or more objectives simultaneously.

Yet leading PR pros promote the notion that all stakeholders are equal. Indeed, it’s a message endorsed by the World Economic Forum. But it is a dangerous delusion, because if CEOs are accountable to everybody, they are not accountable to anybody. Paradoxically, it was this PR-promoted mantra that did most to create the sentiment that convinced CEOs that it was ok – or that they would get away with – being bonus-driven in pursuit of their own enrichment.

The UK campaign Engage for Success (EFS) claims that employee engagement is good for individuals, good for business and good for growth. Perhaps it is. But in moral philosophical terms it is not ethical to view employees, or any human beings in any relationship, as “merely” a means to an end. Ironically, EFS’s logic and list of benefits would justify slavery, which was also defended by it supporters as being good for society and for all the individuals involved. In other words, it is not ethical or morally acceptable to treat others, as EFS does, as objects to be engaged. The key point here is that it is wrong to treat other people as being anything but morally autonomous human beings.

But again and again, PR bosses and business leaders try to endow mundane instrumentalism with a non-existent moral value. Hence, PR pros celebrate the environmental benefits of energy efficiency as if that was the primary motivation. It’s as if the pressure to make energy usage more productive was fundamentally different to other forms of cost cutting. This type of impression management is popularly known as spin.

In ethical terms, only decisions that are intrinsically normative, relating to things we ought to do, have moral value. Meanwhile, the majority of the strategies and decisions we justify are instrumental to realizing our employers’ goals, such as enhancing reputation, as in most CSR, and in all efforts to take costs out of the business, for instance, by improving energy efficiency.

There’s another pressing moral problem I’d like to raise. PR-inspired employee codes of conduct have sent honesty underground. When words and certain opinions are banned, nobody gets to know who believes what. Instead, people are encouraged to fake their beliefs to keep their job. This generates an unethical culture of deception. This culture has developed to such an extent that one can rarely trust surveys that seek to measure employee opinions.

What would say are the biggest challenges to ethics in communications today?

We need to challenge the prejudices that dominate PR practice today. We need to interrogate every mantra, shibboleth and moral principle in the corporate PR arsenal in a rigorous and open debate.

My main point is not that business can’t behave ethically, morally or virtuously. Of course it can! Rather, I’m questioning some commonly held notions about what constitutes best practice and thinking. I’m also advocating an alternative approach. Take this example: we PR pros love to promote change management and sustainable development. But they contradict each other. Change is about progress, which is about disruption, which presupposes that nothing is sustainable.

I argue, that to seize the moral high ground legitimately, PR pros should popularise a culture that views everything as being transient. Certainly, my PR brain tells me that there’s nothing inspiring about promoting any vision that advocates eternalising the present.

We might begin by taking on pessimistic campaigners who fear the future. They hate the products and technologies produced by business, which make up most of our clients. And they loathe the masses who love to consume the new things our clients produce.

However, so far the dominant advice from PR pros has been for business to pander to the campaigners. Firms have been advised to indulge in, admittedly less extreme, self-denigration and self-abnegation the way BP did with Beyond Petroleum. To me, that’s a dead end.

In contrast, I say that in the interest of human progress, PR pros should embody the authentic ethos that’s required to take on the arguments that oppose it. How else will our economies escape the miseries of pessimism and recession? Now, that’s a moral agenda worth pursuing ethically.

How useful do you think are codes of conduct in practice?

Mostly, codes of conduct are used as formulistic substitutes for critical thinking about practical ethical and moral challenges. Though, I’m not arguing that codes of practice serve no purpose at all.

Do you think ethics can be taught as part of PR degrees, or can ethics only be developed experientially?

Yes, abstract ethical and moral philosophical theory can, and should, be taught in universities. But to learn to ride a horse, you need to sit on it.

Character is formed through collective action within both corporations and society. And the Kantian morals and ethics I admire are a priori, which means they are derived from self-evident propositions that are presupposed by experience.

Ethical and moral choices pose radical existential challenges that can rarely be resolved fully and which are always shifting anyway. In short, real life is not a seminar, but an ongoing struggle to do the right thing.

To what extent does the new globalised world of business means that companies have to adjust their morality to align with other cultures?

Any multinational company that claims it operates in Africa the way it does in Amsterdam is telling untruths. Ethically, it would be better to talk candidly about managing difficult problems in challenging environments. Though unrealistic cross-border and domestic regulations sometimes makes honesty too costly and risky to contemplate. Hence, telling untruths sometimes strikes communicators as being a necessary evil.

The solution has to be to expose how poor regulations and laws have unintended consequences.

But how should corporations approach ethical issues in the third world?

I find the thinking of Donaldson and Dunfree compelling. They’ve explored the need for “moral free space” and “micro-social” contracts to function based on established norms in different cultures. For instance, if Google wants to operate in China, it has to accept that free speech is not allowed there. In Nigeria corruption is an unavoidable fact of life, even for oil and pharmaceutical companies that sometimes like to pretend otherwise.

But some moral beliefs are certainly better than others. I long for, though I might not live to see, a globalised world that shares universal values. Modern institutions too – if they want a solid ethical culture – can share my goals, while remaining uncomfortably, but honestly, pragmatic in the present.

On your website, you engage with the legacy of philosophers and other thinkers and their bearing on communication ethics, from Aristotle to Kant, Isocrates to Cicero. Which figure do you think has the greatest bearing on contemporary communications, and who would you recommend our readers to read for a deeper grasp of this subject?

The study of ethics as a discipline begins with the masterful Aristotle. However, as far as I can fathom, the majority of PR lecturers in our universities are inspired by Jim Grunig’s thinking, which has led them to denigrate Aristotle’s relevance and ethical credentials.

They seem to miss the human essence of Aristotle’s key insight. According to him, ethical-practice does not depend upon mechanistic bureaucratic procedures or on a theory of rhetorical practice, as it does for Grunig and co, but on a person’s character (ethos). According to Aristotle, like any weapon, rhetoric (read PR) is a neutral tool without a viewpoint.

That’s an issue I’ve addressed on 21st Century PR Issues in my critique of University of Kansas professor of journalism Charles W. Marsh Jr’s understanding of Aristotle.

Cicero is important for many reasons. Not least because of his views on consensus gentium (agreement of the people) and his advocacy of the republican principle Salus Populi Est Suprema Lex: the welfare of the people is the ultimate law.

I also admire Machiavelli. As the sociologist Frank Furedi says, he warned his fellows, as I warn mine, not to be seduced by the temptation to professionalise people’s sense of public duty. In other words, he warns us against making it jobsworth to fake commitment for the sake of appearances. Why? Well, things fall apart easily if you make such mistakes. And it is not what we ought to do, full stop.

But whom do you recommend as being most useful today? 

However superficially I’ve grasped them, besides Aristotle, Immanuel Kant’s insights have impressed me most.

Kant does not offer a menu or model. Rather, he provides the methodology for approaching ethical dilemmas afresh with an open mind. In essence, Kant shows us how to resolve ethical challenges practically in a communicable and convincing manner using moral reasoning to make the best choices.

Two places to start understanding Kant’s relevance to PR are Martin Sandbu’s excellent Just Business, Arguments in Business Ethics; and Roger Scruton’s brilliant lecture on Emmanuel Kant and purity of the subjective experience. Thirdly, I recommend my essay New Moral Agenda for PR on 21st Century PR Issues, though I don’t pretend to be remotely on the same level as the other two.

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