When ethics collide: The boss vs. the profession

I'm the queen, you wanker, do as I command ...

I’m the queen, you wanker, do as I command …

I spoke to a capstone public relations class at a local university last week. The future of PR is extremely bright if these men and women are a fair cross-section. They asked some great questions and made some astute observations. Today, I want to delve into one question about ethics worth sharing.

Question: Where do we draw the line between advocating for transparency and simply doing what our bosses tell us because, well, we work for them? Especially when that boss is a client or a manager who views concepts like credibility and integrity as ephemeral or “nice to have, but neither here nor there in the grand result.”

That was a question (paraphrased – almost entirely – but you get the gist) posed by a Clinton scholar in the back row, by a window, which represents a genuine concern and possible – if not entirely likely – scenario for all practitioners, novice and veteran.

This is a scenario my writing partner Brandon and I have flirted with on many occasions, made more disconcerting by the fact that we were also in the military and were required to obey orders. Though unlawful orders could be challenged, it was never a small thing to push back in the thick of the moment (we referred to them as “But, sirs” and, depending on the commander, you might get one but, rarely more than that.)

I recall only once being “asked” to flat-out lie to the media, very early in my career, but never had to execute that order – to this day I can’t say with any certainty whether I would have carried it out. Of course, most of the time these ethical dilemmas fall into grey areas – it’s not uncommon to be asked to communicate in a less-than-forthright manner that, while it may not be a lie, somehow makes you feel all icky inside.

Those in our profession must also accept that we are advisors and counsel to our clients or principals; very rarely are we the decision makers. This means we can advocate for transparency and truth but can’t enforce it. If we don’t like the ethics of a final decision and we’re expected to be part of its implementation, we essentially have three options:

  1. Quit.
  2. Carry out and support the decision but start looking for another job that aligns more closely with our professional values.
  3. Leave our values at the door and do whatever it takes to earn the paycheck.

Even the most talented, well-known, established public relations professional will only be as good as her level of credibility and her reputation with media and her networks. Intentionally lying or misleading because the client told us to is a choice that may keep us employed for a while, but ultimately leads to the erosion – if not flat-out obliteration – of credibility; in which case, never mind looking for a new job – time to find a different line of work altogether.

The choice to adhere to the values and principles of the profession and maintain your credibility as an honest broker of information may result in temporary unemployment, or an unexpected job search, but we’ll still be in our chosen profession, which is good, because it needs people like us.

3 thoughts on “When ethics collide: The boss vs. the profession

  1. The “advisor” position is an especially important role to discuss with new people in our field. They are hard chargers for transparency, but sometimes lack big picture perspective and don’t have the experience to put it all together in productive form. (i remember being there)

    We are the specialist and hopefully were hired for faith in our expertise in communicating, but it is on behalf of our boss or company who holds the ultimate responsibility and has the last word. It’s helpful to understand that when you are asked or told to do something “minor” that does’t jive. It also helps prove one important reason you should know your entity inside and out, know your job and know what you stand for and where your line is.

    To maintain our integrity and credibility, you have to be able to fight with knowledge and experience against the natural inclination some leaders have to be quiet or to tell half truths in complicated situations.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well put. One of the keys to survival in our profession is knowing what are, and are not, ‘fall on your sword’ moments, and, knowing the difference between bad decision making and unethical behavior. I’m first to admit that in the ‘fog of war’ it can be difficult to know.
    Integrity is key to having a ‘true North’ for your advice and actions. If I can’t walk a client back from the ledge, and I know I’ve done my best to do so, so long as I don’t have to do anything that compromises my integrity or ethics, then I have to accept the situation and move on to the next. I too have been pressed to take actions that either were unethical or would have compromised my integrity, and I’ve been successful in telling my bosses I’d do neither. I admit that my credibility with some journalists has been damaged by the heavy-handed tactics of people I’ve had to answer to in my career, but those with whom I’ve had good working relationships knew that I didn’t have the maneuvering space to act differently, and they still know I’m a good source for them, but only because I didn’t compromise my ethics or integrity.

    Liked by 1 person

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