Ethics Every Day: An Ethics Q & A With Public Relations Professionals

Ethics month is a great time to learn about ethics, but how are you going to use them when you graduate? Why does PRSSA and PRSA put so much emphasis on ethics? Here are two professionals to help answer questions related to using ethics in public relations.  

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Cole Buergi (CB) is the vice president of business development at a small public relations firm, Leonard & Finco, in Green Bay, Wisc. and Amanda Brooker (AB) is the public relations and content management director at Imaginasium, a communications firm in Green Bay.  

Where did you first learn about the PRSA Code of Ethics?

CB: During college, I had coursework in public relations ethics. When I joined PRSA, they also provided the PRSA Code of Ethics. In addition, we regularly discuss ethical behavior in the office and require that not only we as public relations professionals set the highest standards of ethics, but also that we don’t represent clients that aren’t willing to abide by them.

How do you use ethics every day?

CB: Leonard & Finco public relations has built a reputation by setting the bar in public relations excellence. Our clients trust that we do what we say we will accomplish and that we meet and exceed their needs. Often times, they trust us with private company information. This level of information allows us to take the best approach to help their situation.

AB: I think every action we take is guided by ethics. We have to do good for our company, our stakeholders, the media and our community. On the personal level we have to meet the expectations of our family, friends and all the people we interact with. We get one shot on this earth, and every decision I make is based on how I want to be treated while I’m here and remembered when I’m gone.

Which values do you use the most?

CB: Confidentiality is key to our business. We use it every day as our clients share confidential information about their companies. Community responsibility is another. We have an obligation to be honest and accurate when sharing information with the public.

AB: All of them. But honesty is a big value for me. Liars get caught. Always.

Have you ever had to use ethics in a crisis?

CB: Many times. One example was I helped with the strategy and implementation of a communication plan to assist a large company with an announcement of layoffs. The goal was to minimize negative news coverage and to reassure employees not impacted by the layoff that their jobs were safe. I had several close friends that worked there and I knew that they would be losing their jobs. Of course, they found out about the losing the jobs the same way everyone else did. It’s not easy to deal with situations like these but I have a responsibility to the PRSA Code of Ethics and to the company I work for to maintain the highest levels of ethics. In another instance, I was offered money, on the side, to guarantee an outcome of how a local government vote impacted a large housing development. I immediately declined the offer. It’s not often that we have clients ask us to do something unethical but when it does happen, it’s up to us to say no.

AB: Always—and I’ve dealt with a lot of crisis situations. Often people want to sweep negative information under the rug. You can’t. It’s important to own what’s happened, and what people care about is how you’re going to handle it moving forward. A crisis is an opportunity to fix something that was broken.

Why do you believe ethics are important to our profession?

CB:  As in any profession, it’s important to maintain the highest standards of ethics and I would argue even more so in the public relations industry. We often communicate with the public and it’s our responsibility to make sure what we communicate is true. At times throughout history, some in the public relations industry have abused that responsibility and purposefully deceived the public for their gain or the benefit of the company they work for. These few instances have tarnished the profession as a whole. It’s up to all public relations professionals to ensure that doesn’t continue to happen.

AB: Ethics are important not only in our profession, but every profession. And in life. It levels the playing ground and eliminates deception. I’m at the end of binge watching the Borgia’s on Netflix—a great example of a whole family with a lack of ethics. Ceasere Borgia is the basis of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” There are people who will do anything for power or money—and it becomes all-consuming. They don’t care who they step on to get there. The best companies and their leaders are high in ethics and transparency—look at Chipotle, Warby-Parker, Google. Today’s consumers expect companies to be ethical.

These professionals demonstrated how important their ethics training has been for them as they make daily and strategic decisions.While ethics may not seem relevant now, they are a great base for your career. Always remember to fall back on your training in ethics when you’re in difficult situation.

How have you used ethics in your classes, internships and/or Chapter?

Ashley Vickney is a senior at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. She is the founding president of the PRSSA Chapter there and is currently the immediate past president. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn. When she isn’t at work or in class, you can find her guzzling coffee and reading travel blogs.

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