Lesson 1: Contestation of Ethics in a Global Context

“An ethically defensible decision is one that you can live with and for which you are able to provide a reasonable, ethics-based rationale to observers.”

An ethical decision is one that we can defend with justification, that is, being able to explain how we reach the decision (i.e., the process) and why it is the most optimal decision (i.e., the principles). In public relations, ethics is a precursor to long-term organization-public relationships that ultimately contribute to organizational effectiveness. But the increasingly global, interdisciplinary and collaborative environment increases the unknowns associated with the ethical practice of public relations.

In a 2008 Bloomberg article written by Professor Bill George of Harvard University, he argued that “To build a truly great, global business, business leaders need to adopt a global standard of ethical practices.” As globalization expands the challenge of ethical conflicts, the adoption of one global standard of ethical practices could help organizations justify the decisions they make without having to attend to the differences among various markets. On the other hand, there are problems associated with adopting one standard when there are “multiple and competing constructions of the good.” There could be ethical problems associated with the construction of a global standard of ethical decisions. For example, what principles and processes do we construct this standard?

Ethics are commonly known as “rules or principles that can be used to solve problems in which morals and values are in question.” Ethics guides us in determining what is right and wrong (i.e., morals) and helps us decide what is important (i.e., values). Because public relations practitioners are the boundary spanners between organizations and their publics, they are entrusted with the authority to make decisions about how to go about co-orienting between organizations and their publics to best build and maintain mutually beneficial relationships between the two. Yet, when practicing public relations in a global context, our understanding and application of ethics also ought to be put in the global context. “Public relations practice has globalized; it is time that we globalize our conceptualizations and reflect on the evidence and use our knowledge to ensure that public relations practice contributes even more toward the development of the world.”

Next Page: Challenges for Ethics in a Global Context