Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Teaching Ethics

I am continually frustrated by how the national media portray--or fail to recognize--public relations.

Take today's article (subscription required) in the Wall Street Journal about teaching ethics in business school. The essence of the article is that ethics should be taught in all business courses, from marketing to accounting, so that students become aware of social and environmental implications of business activities.

I'm not against that. But I feel like going into a period of personal head slapping for once again seeing concepts that are fundamental public relations expressed as a unique concept in the business world. Here's what I mean:

First, public relations is about mutually beneficial relationships. A student who studies PR should learn about the "two-way symmetrical" model. If they practice PR according to that relationship perspective, PR is INHERENTLY ethical. It will be natural to consider social and environmental impacts.

Also, people sometimes tell me PR should be taught in a business school. This article is one of several good reasons why it should not be. Not only is PR a communication discipline that can be practiced in non-business settings, it has a refreshingly "outside the box" perspective. Those trained in business are, perhaps appropriately, told to get bottom line results. Profit is king. They see everyone as a "customer." PR people are more broad-minded, see people as having relationships with an organization that may not be characterized as a simple financial exchange. Thus, the PR person at the table offers the kind of unique thinking that managers often say they want. That unique thinking often has ethical components to it (if the PR person took a PR class and/or is APR and understands that PR is about relationships, not publicity).

I've actually written WSJ about this sort of thing before. Got a lovely note--no change in editorial perspective though. The same is true of other national and local media, and even PR trades like PR Week. Getting people to understand that PR is not about spin but in fact about honest relationship building is a long-term process. Journalists and business leaders are too comfortable in their conceptions of the PR profession. We are a convenient whipping boy to make them feel smugly superior. Changing it will take persistent examples of ethical practice. That's why the PRSA Code of Ethics includes the provision "enhance the profession"--so make sure all your practice exemplifies the fundamental ethics that the business schools are still grappling with. People are watching. One of these days, they may actually understand.

No comments: