Ethics should not be siloed as a specialisation in public relations
Isolating ethics teaching from being elements on all PR courses, teachings and on-the-job learning can make it appear as a side issue or potentially a public relations diversion.
If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the culture of public relations, it would be this: if you work in PR and you don’t think ethics is a big part of your role, what that means and how to practice it in reality, you’re not doing your job and at worse are bad at your job.
Magic aside, one of many steps that need to be taken toward this change is at the level of education and on-the-job learning — and whatever else we can do to ensure that no one is ‘just a communicator’ anymore.
However, the most common model in PR seems to be a stand-alone ethics class, often taught at the end of a degree programme after a student has already potentially spent years learning how to be a public relations specialist.
In addition, we are seeing other stand-a-lone PR ‘teachings’ on ethics. Research on ethics education in a variety of disciplines, outside of PR but including areas such as computer and data science and business management, suggests that ‘silo-ing’ is not a great model.
This is why PRs need to start with ethics from day one. Never make it a stand-a-lone. (If it was part of formal school age learning even better). It has to run through all PR courses and training and not just PR, but the other areas we study and learn such as business management, organisational development, sector specific areas such as technology development and innovation and so on.
I recently conducted an exploratory analysis of online PR courses and training programmes, to see whether they mention ethics as part of their training and/or coursework. The answer, in short, is almost never. But I think that any training in PR, whether in full degrees, diplomas, short on demand courses, online courses or reading, on-the-job, whether paid for or free should include real attention to the ethics or social implications of many areas we deal with including:
· Technologies, including artificial intelligence
· Climate change
· People opportunities and inclusion
· Law and justice
· Sector specific areas, across all industries
Teaching ethics to PRs outside the strategy and practical application context can result in people, students, seeing it as irrelevant to them.
Isolating ethics teaching from being elements on all PR courses and teachings can make it appear as a side issue or potentially a public relations diversion -something we should not be aiding as ethics must come first to aid the PR industry to elevate further its value to business and society.
And ‘silo-ing’ reinforces the idea that ethics is just a specialisation or, worse, not actually part of public relations at all, particularly as we are not capturing people on entry to the industry and building and embedding the vital area of ethics from day one.
It’s without a doubt, attitudes to ethics have shifted favourably in the past few years and particularly since events like Cambridge Analytica, as an example, but also as we now see controversies almost weekly.
The AI Incidents Database, an open-source repository of actual examples of the rewards and risks of AI, including when AI has gone ‘bad’ and is an ‘ethical mistake’ creating a potential reputation and trust risk for organisations and businesses shows there are plenty of professionals within PR and wider industries who see ethics as a side gig. This also alludes to PRs not being adequately armed to confidently advise on all AI builds and deployments. Welcome to the Artificial Intelligence Incident Database
The concern in PR is we now may be moving towards teams and set-ups where they should include someone who ‘does’ ethics really well and ethics is being set out as a specialism, aided by those who are providing one-off courses.
This can be seen as a move forward but I think ethics should be something that everyone in PR is obliged to think about, from day one, not many years and not when you reach senior levels and are advising and guiding organisations and businesses on issues of our times.
How might attitudes change if, from day one, we taught consideration for ethical and social implications as an integral part of PR practice. It is now time, and particularly with the onwards march of new and emerging technologies where bias and harm are our business, our ethics.
What if we taught students and those on-the-job from the first time, they started learning about PR models, theory, strategy and tactical execution that a fundamental component is thinking through the implications and that if you don’t do that, mindset of what if, what next, you’ve missed a vital step, an error just as damaging
When ethics only seems to come up in classes devoted to it, we reinforce the idea that ethics is an add-on. If we want public relations professionals to really think about ethics in their roles, big roles, often with societal impacts including responsibility in saving lives, keeping people well, services running, encouraging opportunities, consumers to buy products, take part in experiences and so on ethics should be from day one.
Another problem with silo-ing ethics in single classes is that those on traditional PR courses and learning might never be exposed to ethics frameworks. In my degree, post-grad degree and master’s degree, ethics was never a focus.
The AI courses, on building and deploying algorithms and AI for business, have similar issues but not the degree to which we see in PR.
In addition, those who have not come into PR through the formal education route and have learnt on the job and those who have switched careers from another sector may also not have been exposed to ethics and ethical frameworks.
After all, you don’t need to have a degree to do harm and often not deliberate harm but through lack of understanding, guiding principles and oversight.
Going back to Cambridge Analytica, many of the people involved would not have taken an ethics class and its questionable whether the PRs involved did either.
Aleksandr Kogan, who developed the app that the company ultimately used to cull data, is a psychology researcher. Christopher Wylie, the whistle blower, is a self-taught data scientist. Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard before completing his degree.
The proposal to have ethics running through all credible PR courses and on-the-job training comes with a huge set of challenges such as who is teaching this stuff?
We have to ask is it a really good idea to insist that a bunch of PR instructors, who themselves may not know much about ethics and who haven’t studied moral models and philosophy suddenly start classes or integrate it into their classes?
We should move towards a model of responsible PR and particularly as our roles now include overseeing tech development and innovation which has scope to cause harm, unintentional and deliberate, as we have already seen. We need to adjust all current PR training and on-the-job learning to integrate human-led and responsible ethics into the approaches and outcomes we are attempting to gain.
PRs must be able to examine hypotheticals, it helps us think through implications for our work, method/s application including behaviour change and technologies beyond what is right in front of us.
We should never approach PR as having a ‘net positive impact on the communities, customers and stakeholders and world’.
But when we do, we should always reflect on their impacts on the world — and, ideally, we should do what we can to mitigate negative effects. PRs should do that, not just ethicists or PR ethicists.
If, in PR, we’re still in the position when some truly do think that ethics is someone else’s job, someone more senior seen to be making decisions, then at the very least you must make sure is you’re actively engaging with them to learn and embed ethics into everything you do.
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Next in Kerry’s ethics blog series, to coincide with the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communications Management Ethics Month, ethical frameworks.