No Good Deed: Can ethics be taught?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession.   Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Dilemma du jour: I am the general manager for a branch office of a global PR firm.  Recently, one of our biggest local clients hired a Compliance & Ethics Officer and launched training programs for their employees about ethical issues, whistle-blowing, business practices and so on.  At a lunch with the new Compliance person (a lawyer by training), she asked me a lot of probing questions about how we provide our own staff with training about ethics.  Frankly, I was a bit stumped.  I pay their CPRS dues and expect my staff to abide by the CPRS Code of Ethics, but beyond that we don’t have any formal ethics PD.  How do I go about that?  Is it something I should ask head office for?  I thought I was modeling good ethical behavior for my staff, they know my expectations of them and that should be enough.

What our panel says:

It seems that many people are talking about ethics these days whether personal, professional or corporate.  Although we each carry our personal ethics that in turn inform how we may bring ethics into the workplace, it's probably less often that we put our ethical positions on the line.

Can ethics be taught? Outside of the academic world, personally I don't think so. That's not to say that courses, seminars and reading about ethics and case studies that address ethical issues are not important. We should uncover and publicly state our ethical position on a variety of concerns. We can – and should -- talk, debate and ask questions about work situations that keep us awake at night.  

Holding ethics in the forefront for our colleagues and employees is not only commendable, but also important. As a manager, it is your responsibility to establish and support ethical practice and the CPRS Code of Ethics. So keeping conversations about issues open with your staff is key. Ways this can be transferred into your work with clients should be discussed openly, too. One way to actualize this important and often silent principle (before it's too late, as is often the case!) is to identify the potential ethical issues in the work at hand and if there are any, how they will be addressed. Make it a part of the plan for every client. 

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant

Prioritizing ethics management systems must meet the expectations of the 21st century, which should reflect integrity, accountability, responsibility and leadership. Work directly with your head office to determine ethical compliance strategies, such as:

  • Create a “Compliance & Ethics Officer” position for each branch. Those positions become the members of your firm’s global “Ethics Committee.”

  • Appoint a senior manager or an accredited (APR) manager.

  • Support a qualified person to obtain his/her APR (Accredited in Public Relations) as part of the succession strategy.

  • Provide regular ethics training/reinforcement by qualified personnel. Start with contacting CPRS Vancouver.

  • Insert a standing agenda item for internal reporting on ethical issues arising from campaigns, clients, industry, issues, etc.

  • Add a boilerplate into all job descriptions (and job-search ads) requiring staff to follow the CPRS Code of Ethics.

  • Include a one-page declaration of the code in materials for all new hires to sign.

 These are only a few suggestions out of hundreds of choices and you can immediately implement some of your recommendations at the local level. Document your accomplishments in your annual report to advise stakeholders of the leadership role your branch is adopting.

~ Ange Frymire Fleming FCPRS, APR, president-Vocal Point Communications & KPU professor in Applied Communications

I wonder if the client’s Compliance and Ethics Officer is trying to sell you her services as a program designer and trainer! At the risk of giving her the impression you would like to engage her services, have you asked her what she would suggest and recommend as a program?Then you could, indeed, fly that past your head office and see if it wants to pursue it.

At the same time, ask yourself if ‘modeling good ethical behavior’ in the office is really enough for your staff. Have you been explicit? Have you actually discussed the CPRS Code of Professional Conduct with them, with examples of ethical challenges and judgments? Or have you merely said something to the effect of ‘Here’s the Code; please follow it.” I do think (having been an ethics rep with CPRS some years ago) that PR agencies need to do more than simply post the code for staff.They would almost certainly benefit from spending some time with you dissecting and discussing the code. Then (assuming your head office agrees) you can prep and post your own code.

 ~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver 


About the Author

Deborah Folka is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.