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To the question of whistle blowing



"More and more, companies will be held to the same standards of behavior that people are, and more and more this will mean people answering for companies. The ceo will be expected to articulate his or her position on all these issues, and to the senior pr person will fall the duty of analyzing public opinion and advising on such positions.... Again, it is the public relations professional who will be responsible for monitoring... controversial issues and ensuring that the company responds to the expectations of its consumers, acting almost as the corporate conscience."

Some practitioners have been arbitrarily fired for refusing to write news releases they felt would be false and misleading. One practitioner worked for a company that wanted him to prepare and distribute a release listing company clients before the companies had signed a contract for services. The practitioner refused, believing that to comply would violate the PRSA code. He was fired, and he subsequently sued the company for unlawful dismissal, receiving almost $ 100 000 in an out-of-court settlement.

The question of whistle blowing has become significant in recent years. What is the correct response for an ethical practitioner when an employer or client refuses to exercise public responsibility? The PRSA Code of Ethics says he or she should quit. Some practitioners, however, believe more good can be accomplished by staying on to argue for more responsible action. Realistically, few practitioners can afford to quit, and therefore, choose to stay in the face of questionable activities. Out of frustration, they become whistle-blowers. That is they secretly inform the media about an irresponsible action in order to bring public pressure on the organization. Although whistle blowing can stop the unethical practice, it usually costs the person involved his or her job in the long run. Thus, the decision to quit is a more direct means to the same end.

Another public relations professional resigned after initially participating in several ethically questionable practices with a multinational fruit conglomerate. He charged the company with the manipulation of press coverage as well as with political and military action involving a Latin American country where it was operating. The increased attention that many corporations are paying to the ethical dimensions of their businesses can be traced back to Watergate and Koreagate. These major national scandals were followed in 1975 by an investigation that revealed dozens of United States companies had made payments to government officials in foreign countries in order to gain lucrative contracts. The Lockheed Aircraft Corporation was the most publicized among more than four hundred firms eventually admitting such practices. Opinion polls soon after the scandal revealed that Americans felt only about 20 percent of business executives had high ethical standards. Most observers believe that these revelations were significantly related to the erosion of public confidence in American business and its leaders.

A 1986 study conducted by one of the authors requested copies of the ethics policies of each of the Fortune 500 companies. Four hundred twenty-one organizations responded with ethics procedures ranging from one to forty-seven pages in length. Most not only affirmed the corporation's intent to do business in an ethical manner but also provided for dismissal of employees who violated the policy. However, closer examination of these documents revealed a tendency to rely on legal rather than ethical standards. Some Fortune 500 companies and other firms are providing ethics training for their managers and other employees. Companies increasingly are using outside consultants or panels to systematically examine the social and ethical implications of impending decisions. Some also use an internal expert or ethics committee to review major decisions.

One recent study indicates that public relations professionals who are willing to take an ethical position are more likely to participate in top-level management decisions. 52% of the practitioners in the study who made frequent recommendations for socially responsible actions were also frequent participants in policy decisions in their organizations. In a speech given at the Arthur W. Page Hall of Fame Lecture in 1989, W. Howard Chase predicted ‘‘the next important stage in public relations service - its edge of the new unused - will be the management of values, the disciplines inherited in ethical corporate conduct.”

When public relations practitioners participate in organisational decisions, they carry a heavy ethical responsibility. Their responsibilities are not only to themselves and their organizations, but also to their profession and the public. All these considerations must be weighed when helping make organisational decisions and communicating decisions once they are made.

Ethical behavior is ultimately an individual decision. Professional codes, corporate policy, and even law are unable to ensure the ethical practicce of any profession. Only the application of sound personal values can guarantee ethical behavior, but professional codes, sound business policies, and appropriate legislation can serve as valuable guidelines for public relations practitioners who desire to maintain a high ethical standard.

Perhaps the most critical relationships to be managed by public retations practitioners are those with the news media. Here, anything less than total honesty will destroy credibility and with it, the practitioner’s usefullness to an employer or client. All news media depend on public relations sources for much of the information they convey to viewers, readers, and listeners.

Although public relations releases are sometimes used simply as leads from which to develop stories, other times, reporters and editors rely on the accuracy and thoroughness of public relations copy and use it with little change.

Trust is the f'oundation of all public relations practice and is achieved only through ethical performance. Theref'ore, providing junkets for the press that have doubtfull news value, throwing extravagant parties, giving epensive gifts, and doing personal favors will ultimately destroy a practitioner’s effectiveness. Even if journalists ask for favors, the ethical public relations professional must find a way to tactfully decline. In the long run, establishing a reputation for honesty and integrity will yield dividents in media relations.

Some practitioners are tempted to regard themselves as mere employees or contractors hired to do a job. This technician mentality cannot be used to excuse unethical behavior like that reported in the Wall Street Journal on September 13, 1984. The story described how a well-known public relations firm distributed a press packet to the media on behalf of Jartran, Inx. Included in the packet was letter oferring information about wheels falling off trucks owned by a rival company. A reporter questioned the ethics of this technique and was told by an account executive for the firm, “It was their idea. We’re merely the PR firm that represents them.” Such shortsighted and misguided practices harm the credibility of the entire profession.

Although several studies have consistently shown that public relations practitioners and journalists have similar professional values and make similar news judgements, the same studies show that journalists strongly believe public relations practitioners do not have proff'essional values. The unwillingness of a few practitioners to uphold ethical standards could be the reason these misconceptions persist.

 

Ethics and Law

 

Ethical and legal issues frequently evolve from similar circumstances, but the public relations professional must understand the difference. Keeping to the letter of the law does not guarantee ethical action. Many unethical claims and promotions have been structured to stay whithin legal limits, even though their intent was to trick or deceive someone. While an understanding of the law is important, a professional must rely on a higher standard for decision-making.

Public relations practitioner working for publicly held companies have both an ethiical and a legal obligation to promptly release news about divvidents, earnings, new products, mergers, and other developments that might affect the value of securities. A delay in releasing such news could allow insiders to derive unfair financial benefits. The Securities and Exchange Commission and the individual stock exchanges strictly enforce these regulations.

Corporations are also prohibited f'ron using public relations techniques in connection with the sale of new issues of securities. Public retations personnel must be thoroughly aware of Federal Tnade Commission and Food and Drug Administrantion regulations regarfding the promotion of a product or service. Such practices as unsubstantiated claims, fraudulent testimonials, deceptive pricing, so-caIled independent surveys and. rigged contests are regulated through these agencies.

 





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