Lesson 1: Mind the Gap: Key Ethical Principles for Ethical Literacy in Public Relations
Two college football stars pose at the bedside of a beaming young boy, the hastily signed football looming large in the child’s small hand. The beep of the heart monitor fades into the background as the three laugh in answer to a reporter’s question. After a few moments, the players maneuver around the hanging IVs and bulky medical equipment effortlessly as if tiptoeing down the sideline into the end zone. A wave goodbye, and the players move down the hall to the next room. It was a surprise visit from the local university football team, and the patients -- and staff -- loved it.
The university’s sports public relations director organized the impromptu visit yesterday following a heartbreaking loss to their state rival. The team had taken a beating on the field and in the press for a game that they had been favored to win. To quell the escalating negativity, the public relations director had arranged the visit to the children’s cancer ward for the head coach and a few star players, and had invited the media to come along. The tactic had been successful. The patients and staff were overjoyed at their visit, and positive stories were now flooding traditional news and social media outlets. The tide had turned.
Certainly, sports figures visiting sick children is good, but is it ethical? Often public relations professionals respond to a situation without considering the ethical ramifications of their actions. This lesson seeks to highlight the underlying ethics of our actions and reactions and to explain the various ethical orientations that guide these behaviors. It lays the foundation for ethical literacy.
ethical literacy- the ability to recognize the ethical choices that public relations professionals face and the ethical philosophies that guide these choices.
In essence, this lesson helps public relations professionals “mind the gap.”Next Page: Mind the Gap
Mind the Gap
“Mind the Gap,” it’s a common phrase for those on the northbound platform at the Embankment underground station. The recorded voice reminds London travelers to carefully cross the space between the train and the passenger platform. The message “mind the gap,” repeats as the train slows for passengers to embark or disembark at the station. No other words of wisdom follow. The message offers no advice on how to cross the gap. It simply alerts travelers to its presence, to “mind the gap.”
Public relations professionals are also being urged to “mind the gap” due to ethical organizational scandal. Practitioners have encouraged other professionals to reread PRSA’s code of ethics and consider its application, to create a chief ethics officer position in their organization, and to promote ethical behavior. In fact, “Mind the Gap” was the 2015 PRINZ conference theme that encouraged attendees to be aware of, eliminate, or minimize any gaps between clients and organizations in issues of transparency, trust and leadership. In her conference keynote address, Dr. Elspeth Tilley offered a similar message for public relations professionals, highlighting the need for ethics integration throughout the public relations process.
Each of these initiatives offer important advice and insight into the practice of ethics in public relations; however, they assume that public relations professionals recognize that an ethical gap exists. The London “mind the gap” message makes no assumption and neither should the public relations profession. Before practitioners can avoid the gap or close the gap, they must recognize the presence of an ethical gap. In an interview with the sports public relations director in the opening scenario, the sports public relations director did not consider the ethical dimension of his action. He did not “mind the gap,” because he did not recognize that a gap existed. He is not alone.
Many public relations professionals do not recognize an ethics gap in their personal practice; yet, they recognize the presence of an ethical gap in the behavior of others. According to a survey by Princeton Survey Research Associated International, 96 percent of Americans say it is important for companies to ensure employees behave ethically, but only 10 percent have confidence that major organizations will do what is right. In fact, only 7 percent of Americans think top-ranking organizational leaders are highly ethical. Clearly, the public identifies an ethical gap in their expectation of ethical action and in their confidence that ethical action will occur. But before considering the ethical gap collectively, let us develop a personal ethical literacy by first “minding the gap” from an individual perspective.
Public Relations Ethical Literacy
Ethical literacy is the ability to articulate a personal ethical viewpoint and to understand the ethical position of others. In psychology, the American Psychological Association (APA) defines ethical literacy as the ability to understand the codes of ethics/conduct relevant to psychology, to identify ethical issues, and to act ethically. Likewise, public relations ethical literacy allows professionals to:
- identify personal values as well as the values of others
- understand the ethical orientations that shape our perspectives
- critically analyze the appropriate ethical frameworks
- apply the ethical principles
- evaluate the ethical decision
This lesson considers the initial steps for ethical literacy: identifying ethical viewpoints and understanding the ethical orientations. Taken together, these beginning steps help public relations professionals “mind the gap.”
Personal Values: The Foundation of Ethical Literacy
Personal values are the bedrock of ethics as they guide what a person considers good/bad or desirable/undesirable. Values create the foundation for personal and societal judgment and action.6 It is important then before discussing ethics to have a clear understanding of the personal values that guide us.
Personal values are what a person believes to be important. They help prioritize life’s demands and often serve as a compass or guide in decision making and behavior. Yet, many people are unable to verbalize the values that guide them. This omission does not suggest an absence of values. Rather values are often so ingrained in personal beliefs and worldview that they become “invisible.” People often do not recognize the value that is guiding their decision. Yet, to establish ethical literacy, public relations professionals need to be cognizant of the values that guide their judgments and behavior.
Parsons divides personal values into two types: terminal values and instrumental values. Terminal values are life-long personal goals and include freedom and salvation or inner harmony. Instrumental values are behaviors that help people achieve their lifelong goals and include independence, ambition, and obedience. There are several online tools available to help people identify and understand the values that guide them. The Barrett Values Centre offers a free, comprehensive personal values assessment that leads individuals through self-development exercises. This tool orders values into three categories: self-interest, transformation, and common good. Self-interest focuses on the personal needs for security, for love/belonging, and for self-esteem. Transformation establishes a sense of personal independence and an authenticity of who we are and how we choose to live. The final stage, common good, seeks to identify a meaning or purpose that leads to a recognition of others. According to the Barrett Values Centre, the key is to have a balanced values approach.9 Individuals with values rooted in personal interest are most focused on their own personal needs, but those who focus exclusively on the greater good may also lack the skills to meet their basic needs.
Foundational to ethical literacy is to know the values that are guiding ethical reasoning. Values can lead us to protect personal security or encourage us to make a positive difference. In the opening scenario, the sports public relations director may have been motivated to protect the organization’s image, the self-interest value of security, or the director may have been motivated by a belief that athletes should make a positive difference, a common good value. Ethical literacy does not seek to determine which value should have guided ethical reasoning. Rather, the operationalization of a value alerts us to a public relations ethical issue and the value that is guiding the ethical reasoning. By developing values awareness, public relations professionals not only identify a personal ethical viewpoint but can better understand the ethical viewpoint of others.
Ethical Orientations: Guiding Ethical Literacy
Ethical literacy also requires a clear understanding of the ethical orientation commonly used to understand and guide ethical action. While several approaches exist, this lesson will consider four common orientations: axiology, deontology, teleology, and situational ethics.
Ethical Orientations: Axiology
Axiology is derived from the Greek to mean “value or worth,” and is primarily concerned with classifying things as good and how good they are.
Often called the theory of value, axiology is the philosophical study of goodness or the worth of something. This approach is often guided by the question, “if I were a “good” person, what would I do?” Key to this ethical orientation is the identification of ethical virtues. Aristotle, one of the earliest proponents of this orientation, identified justice, moderation, and eudemonia, or happiness, as key virtues. His ethical philosophy focused on personal character rather than on universal rules or consequences. Core virtues, such as courage, compassion, and loyalty guide ethical action and are instrumental in the art of living well. He further advocated that these virtues could only be developed through consistent practice.
Aristotle sought to identify virtue ethics through the Golden Mean. He believed every situation has two extremes of action, one extreme (vice) of defect and a vice of excess. The ethical action or the virtue ethic was the mean of the two extremes. For example, the vice defect of confidence would be cowardice, or too little confidence, while the vice excess of confidence would be rashness or too much confidence. The ethical virtue between the two would be courage, the mean between cowardice and rashness.
Aristotle further believed that the identification of the Golden Mean is based on a person’s character, or virtue, which is engrained by habitual action. For example, an honest person will not lie because telling the truth is a personal value and a personal habit. The key to virtue ethics is that the ethical action is based on the individual.
Thomas H. Bivins:
“A person of strong character developed through habitual right action will make the right decisions, most of the time. A person of weak character will not. It’s as simple as that.”
The Greeks also believed that virtue ethics were not only habitual, but consistent. A truly virtuous person would act the same publicly as in private. A person’s character and the associated values are constant and the consistency of the person’s action illuminates the person’s virtue. Based on this idea, in the opening scenario, the sports public relations director’s value of making a difference would be considered an ethical virtue if it was a personal habit and a consistent value that the director espoused in both public and private life.
Ethical Orientations: Deontology
Americans are familiar with the unalienable rights espoused in The Declaration of Independence. Through this document, America’s founding fathers established the basic rights of all humanity.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
The belief that all humans deserve respect because of their humanity is based on deontological thinking. Deontology respects the integrity of all humans and does not treat people as a means to an end. Rather, people are believed to be deserving of respect because of their humanity.
Deontology derives from the Greek word “deon,” meaning duty or obligation. This ethical orientation uses processes and rules to guide ethical decisions. These rules are considered absolute, meaning that the acts must be done regardless of the consequences. For example, notable deontologist Immanuel Kant proposed that truth must always be told, no matter the consequence. If someone must tell a lie in order to save a person’s life, Kant would categorize the lie as unethical because the lie violates the rule to always tell the truth. He believed that each person has a categorical imperative to tell the truth. Actions can be judged as ethical if they can be translated into an acceptable “universal law” that would apply to everyone faced with the same situation, creating an acceptable standard of human behavior.
Further, deontology believes that the intention of the action is as important as the action. If an individual performs an action that results in a good outcome, but does so with a negative intention, then the action is unethical. As a result, a good consequence does not guarantee that the action is ethical. In the opening example, the visit of the university football players resulted in a good outcome for the patients and hospital staff. However, if the action was performed with an intent to minimize negative press, a deontologist would consider the action unethical, despite its positive outcome.
Ethical Orientations: Teleology
In contrast to the deontological approach, the teleology ethical orientation emphasizes outcomes over the process. It is a results-oriented approach that defines ethical behavior by good or bad consequences. Ethical decisions are those that create the greatest good. The most common teleology approach is utilitarianism, which stresses the greatest good for the greatest number of individuals. Jeremy Bentham, an influential proponent of utilitarianism, believed a good or moral act would result in the “greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.”
In the 2002 Spiderman blockbuster film, Spiderman faces an utilitarian ethical quandary when the Green Goblin forces him to choose between saving a cable car full of young children or his girlfriend Mary Jane. The teleology ethicist believes Spiderman should save the children. After all, the tram car is full of children whose lives are in jeopardy. Unable to save both, the greater good of saving the children justifies the means of sacrificing Mary Jane. Of course, in Hollywood reality, Spiderman manages to save both, but public relations professionals rarely have “save both” as an option. In reality, it is often unclear which outcome will be good or bad prior to the action. Public relations practitioners are left to their best guess on the nature of the outcome.
Teleology’s focus on outcomes is further problematic as unethical behavior could be justified if the result is good. To offset utilitarianism’s shortcomings, John Stuart Mill suggested that both the quality of good and the long-term consequences of an outcome should be considered. He defined good as including “higher” and “lower” pleasures. Higher pleasures were positive and included intelligence, mental pleasure, and health while lower pleasures were negative and included ignorance, stupidity, selfishness, and physical pleasures. Later friendship, loyalty, and fairness were believed to have positive, intrinsic worth. Mill believed that a person must consider all potential consequences of a particular action. The risks and benefits of an action must be weighed in order to maximize benefit and minimize harm. In the opening example, the benefit of increased goodwill among patients, staff, news media, and fans would be a positive outcome that might outweigh the harm, or the means, of using children’s sickness and football stars’ notoriety as a platform for the activity.
Ethical Orientations: Situational Ethics
The final ethical orientation considered here is situational ethics. Popularized by Joseph Fletcher in the late 1960s, this approach believes that ethical laws or rules are applied based on the context. As communities vary over time, so do the ethical laws that best direct human action. Situational ethics asserts that love, human welfare, and individual happiness should always be upheld; however, the orientation does not provide guidelines or absolutes for application.
Situational ethics is the most common ethical orientation used by public relations professionals. Wright found that professionals rely most often on situational ethics, but not the classical situational ethics orientation described above. Yes, professionals make consequence-based choices that vary based on the situation, but they do so using subjectivism, meaning that public relations professionals respond differently to the same ethical situation.
Such diversity of ethical approaches heightens the need for ethical literacy. Public relations professionals need to be able to assess a situation, identify the personal values at play, and consider the most appropriate ethical orientation. Further, a public relations professional must be ethically literate in order to understand the diverse behaviors and the ethical orientations that guide others. Only through ethical literacy can public relations professionals successfully “mind the ethical gap.”
Self-Check Questions for Lesson 1
- How do personal values guide ethical behavior?
- The axiology ethical orientation believes values are habitual and consistent. How might this approach impact public relations practice?
- Using the deontology ethical orientation, explain the importance of intention to ethical action.
- Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of utilitarianism in public relations practice.
- How might the prevalence of subjectivism impact the perception of public relations as an ethical profession?
- Why might ethical literacy be important to a public relations professional?
Case Study: Responding to a Pandemic: WHO and CDC’s Response to the Zika Virus
Brazilian maternity wards were in chaos. Nurses had never seen so many newborns with microcephaly-like symptoms. Babies were being born with enlarged heads that resembled a wizened old man rather than a newborn. Some babies were unable to move their arms or legs; others cried inconsolably. Some were deaf; others were blind. All were born to mothers who had contracted doenca misteriosa, or mystery disease, months earlier.
Today, the mystery disease known as the Zika virus derived its name from the Zika forest of Uganda where it was first discovered in 1947. The disease migrated to the Yap Islands in the Pacific before disappearing. Zika reappeared in the French Polynesia Islands and then arrived in Brazil, brought to the country by the FIFA Confederation Cup soccer games. From there, the Zika virus reached a pandemic state that led the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to declare a world health emergency. This case study details the emergence of the Zika pandemic crisis and the response of the world’s health organizations to the crisis.
For most, Zika is a benign virus. When the mystery disease was first identified as the Zika virus, doctors breathed a sigh of relief. For most adults, Zika is not serious. The virus includes a rash, headache, and fever, leaving many adults to believe they have a cold rather than the virus. Zika does carry the possibility of serious health risk, such as Guillain-Barre. This syndrome is a slow-moving paralysis of the body and can be fatal if not treated immediately. Those cases are rare, and 99 percent of Zika cases for adults are classified as mild.
The Zika virus, however, is a serious threat for unborn babies, attacking the neurological functions of a fetus at any point during the pregnancy. Babies who appear perfectly healthy on the ultrasound can suddenly become unresponsive in the womb. The virus can cause serious malformation and even death. The attack stems from the virus’ presence in the mother’s body that is passed to the fetus. From there, the virus attacks the fetus’ neurological system, severely debilitating its development or prohibiting its development at all.
Like most viruses, the Zika virus was originally assumed to spread through a bite from an infected Aedes aegypti mosquito. Later medical studies revealed that the Zika virus can also be transmitted sexually, the first mosquito-borne virus to do so.
Initially, the WHO and the CDC were slow to respond. Unwilling to disrupt tourism and the upcoming 2016 Olympic games in Brazil, the organizations offered little information about the Zika virus beyond the standard advice to avoid mosquito bites. Travelers were cautioned to wear mosquito repellent, especially those who were pregnant or who may become pregnant. No information was issued for residents of Zika-infected areas, and Zika’s connection to microcephaly was not mentioned.
Despite the preliminary precautions, the Zika virus continued to spread, leading the WHO to make another announcement. On February 1, 2016, the WHO declared a world health emergency, but they were reluctant to establish a link between Zika and microcephaly. Rumors and misinformation circulated on the “true” cause of the Brazilian microcephaly outbreak, further minimizing the connection between the Zika virus and micro cephalic newborns. As a result, the dangers of Zika to pregnant women were unclear.
Not everyone was silent about the dangers of Zika. New York Times science and health investigative reporter Donald McNeil, Jr. spent much of 2015 and 2016 describing the Zika virus and debunking the myths surrounding it. Previously, a rumor had circulated that Brazil had over-counted the cases of microcephaly, reducing the possible connection of Zika and micro cephalic newborns. McNeil proved differently. In December 2015, Brazil changed the definition of microcephaly, reducing the head measurements of newborns with microcephaly from less than 33 centimeters to less than 32 centimeters. Thus, McNeil reasoned, Brazil should have had far fewer microcephaly cases, not more.
Course of action
With the connection established, health ministers in the affected countries of Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Jamaica, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic were convinced of the danger and asked women to consider delaying pregnancy if possible. Their request for universal delayed pregnancy was unprecedented, and the backlash against the request was immediate. Women’s reproductive rights groups protested, saying that the government cannot tell women what to do with their bodies. A spokesperson from Amnesty International said that such advice placed women, “in an impossible position by asking them to put the sole responsibility for public health on their shoulders by not getting pregnant when over half don’t have that choice.” A spokeswoman from the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York called the health ministers’ announcement “irresponsible,” noting that they “were not issuing any recommendation for the men to use condoms, which is very unfair.” The news media also protested with headlines such as "Zika Virus and the Hypocrisy of Telling Women to Delay Pregnancy." The WHO and the CDC agreed, stating that pregnancy was a personal issue not a health issue.
McNeil was also outraged, but at the reluctance of the health organizations to communicate the dangers of pregnancy in Zika-infected areas. He reasoned that the only true way to avoid Zika-induced microcephaly in babies was to avoid becoming pregnant. He argued that the issue had been “hijacked,” and the public’s response was a result of the health organizations’ “terrible job explaining why they were asking women to wait.”
McNeil further charged the WHO and the CDC with doing a disservice to women exposed to the Zika virus. McNeil expressed his frustration with the CDC’s response in an exchange with Dr. Denise Jamieson, the leader of the CDC’s women’s health and fertility branch.
“Why,” McNeil asks, “will the CDC not advise women to wait?”
“I think the government getting involved in highly personal decisions about when to have a baby is not likely to be very effective,” Jamieson explained.
“Suppose you were in your job in 1964,” McNeil said, “and you knew that huge rubella outbreak was starting. There was no vaccine. You knew the consequences. Babies would suffer. What would your advice have been then?”
“I’d say,” Jamieson answered, “‘This is an extraordinarily risky time to get pregnant.’”
“But you won’t give the same advice now?”
“This is different,” she said. “There was no vaccine then. Highly motivated women can avoid mosquito bites.”
“For nine months, 24 hours a day?” McNeil asked. “Is that realistic?”
Realistic – probably not – and as the communication lagged, Zika continued to spread.
The Brazilian epidemic peaked at 8,000 new Zika cases a week. The virus then moved to Puerto Rico where it was predicted that 25 percent of the population would be infected. In late 2016, the Zika virus arrived on the mainland of the United States. Current estimates believe the virus will circulate in the U.S. for at least three years. In the wake of these predictions, the WHO issued an advisory in June 2016 asking women to consider delaying pregnancy. The CDC did not issue similar advice. Rather, they continued to urge women who are pregnant or trying to become pregnant to avoid Zika-infected areas, and for those in Zika-infected areas, to take proper mosquito precaution.
Moral of the Story
McNeil believes that the CDC’s lack of a response is the real disservice for women. ‘The debate had been hijacked,” said McNeil. “Millions of poor women were being denied life-saving advice because it has become politically incorrect.” Others disagree, believing that advocacy of a universal plan for pregnancy avoidance was equally unethical.
- What values can you identify that guided McNeil’s response and the WHO and CDC’s response to the Zika virus? How do their values compare?
- Which ethical orientation(s) best describes the health organizations’ response to the Zika virus?
- Using the different ethical orientations (axiology, deontology teleology, situational ethics), how would you approach this situation? How would you counsel the WHO and the CDC in their response to the Zika pandemic?
- Using three of your identified values from the Barrett personal values assessment, how would you respond to the Zika pandemic crisis? Explain how your values guide your response.
Fox, M. (2016, February 1). WHO declares Zika a public health emergency. NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com
McNeil, D.G. (2016). Zika: The emerging epidemic. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
McNeil, D.G. & Cobb, J.S. (2016, October 31). Columbia is hit hard by Zika but not by microcephaly. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com
Zika virus: What we need to know. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/zika/prevention/index.html