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How do you sort through ethical decisions? Do you use some sort of decision-making framework or do you base it on a gut feeling?

The uneasy stomach is typically the first indication that we are facing an ethical dilemma, but perhaps it can also be a good guide to making a decision about that dilemma.

Some ethical decisions are clear-cut – there are obvious rights and wrongs. But ethical dilemmas are dilemmas because they are hard. They occur because we need to choose between two rights or two non-preferred positions often producing conflicts in values such as honesty and loyalty.

For Charles Prentiss (Stephen Fry) in the BBC Comedy Absolute Power (see video here), the “ecky” feeling was pushed aside for the money. But what can we mere mortals do when hit by that feeling?

Rather than pushing aside the “ecky-ness” of the situation, perhaps consider these quick questions when you and your organisation are deciding on a particular course of action:

  1. What would happen if everyone did it?
  2. Would I/we be happy if it were done to me?
  3. Could I justify it to my Mum – or could we justify it on a national news broadcast?
  4. How will it impact on my individual reputation as a PR professional or that of the organisation?

More complex ethical decision-making models exist, such the PRSA’s Short Guide to Ethical Decision-making, These are valuable too and can assist us in reflecting on the relevancy of our organisation’s values and principles in each situation.

But don’t forget to listen to the “ecky-ness” of ethics – and put it to good use.

Hold your breath and jump in.  The water is warm and not nearly as scary as you first imagined.

Well done, to the students who braved their first professional networking event last week, thanks to Adelaide’s PRIA New and Emerging Practitioners’ Group (Intercomm).  The committee put together an engaging, frank and experienced panel that had us all thoroughly enthralled.

But getting there was not easy for some networking newbees. It can be fairly intimidating for someone straight out of school – usually due to the fear of the unknown.  But now that they have seen what it is all about, I’m convinced that they will all be back for more.

Maybe some tips on ‘starting to network’ will help others join in too.  I offer the following thoughts but experienced networkers, young and old, can add to this list.

  1. Dress professionally. Professional networking needs professional dress standards.  You do not need to go and buy a suit, but your jeans are not appropriate and your cocktail dress is not quite right either.  Professionals come straight from work, so a neat and tidy shirt/blouse with skirt/trousers is more than acceptable.
  2. Bring a friend.  Find someone in your class that you can drag along with you.  You will get to know them better and not feel so alone as you walk in the door.
  3. Find a friend.  If you can’t bring one, then find one there. Sidle up to one of your lecturers or tutors, they will always introduce you to someone.  Or spot a familiar face in the crowd from your lecture group.
  4. Find a new friend.  The beauty about working in the public relations profession is that everyone is relaxed, friendly and able to make small talk.  So be bold and go up to an individual or small group of strangers and introduce yourself.  Ask them questions to break the ice – people always like to talk about themselves.  So ask how they got into the industry, where do they work, what do they like about it….
  5. Ask questions in question time.  Easier said than done, right?  In this environment, everyone is relaxed and no-one is testing your knowledge.  The panel is there because they are experts – they will always know more than you, so pull out as much information as possible.  There is no such thing as a ‘silly’ question.
  6. Speak to the speakers. Introduce yourself after the formalities are over and ask more questions. Make sure you address them by name, introduce yourself and perhaps even follow up by connecting on LinkedIn or engaging them through other social media.
  7. Behave professionally.  Not that I have ever seen an incidence of inappropriate behaviour, but just watch the amount you drink and always watch your manners.

Now what was all the fuss about?  Easy isn’t it…..?

So will I see you at the next function?

At last night’s PRIA session in Adelaide, Clipsal 500 media spokesman Mike Drewer made an important point about the responsibility of a PR person to be highly aware of the world around them and what is going on at any moment in time.  This week, as the first year students look at the concepts of systems theory and boundary spanning, we are reminded of that point again.

Mike said that when he started in the media industry, he was expected to have read three newspapers before he started work. So how do you stay in touch with what is happening in the world around you?

Without entering the debate as to whether our lives today are any busier than those of the working professionals 20 or 30 years ago, what has changed in our favour is access to information.  It is faster, more varied and more available than ever before.

We should all be reading, watching, listening and absorbing as much news as possible – and from a variety of sources too.

We need the local news, so the Messenger, Advertiser and the Independent Weekly are a good start. We don’t even need to pick up the paper from the newsagent anymore.  For online access go to http://www.adelaidenow.com.au  and get In Daily in your email box every day by registering at http://www.indaily.com.au.  But we also need national and international news, so try varying your reading by looking at The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, the Financial Review  just to name a few. Then go international and try out http://www.guardian.co.uk/ , http://www.nytimes.com/, or http://www.aljazeera.com/ for a change every now and then.

Radio is a great way to catch up on the snippets of news while driving to and from uni and work.  And stations like ABC891 will give you some more in-depth analysis at various times of the day.  Get to know the programs and the type of material they cover – you may need to get your story on their station one day.

And TV is fine too, but again vary your sources.  Look at local, national and international news and current affairs.  Compare the news coverage on the commercial stations with that on ABC and SBS. Understand the different styles and how they are pitching to different audiences.

But above all, become aware of what is happening in the world around you.  How much time do you spend each day on helping you become a more effective PR boundary spanner?

Week 3 of first year uni and your knowledge of public relations is very fresh. So why do I have you blogging already? What could you possibly gain from the experience this early in your study? Rather than just see it as an assignment, here are six additional outcomes that you could achieve.

1. Improved writing skills.

A professional athlete hones his skills by practice, practice and more practice. And so it is with writing skills too. Without exercising the pen (or should I say keyboard), the technical and creative muscles have little chance of developing strength. Writers have often been encouraged to keep a journal. I’m just asking you to make it public. Which leads to …

2. Increased confidence in sharing your writing publicly.

Is your writing good enough? Does it reach out and engage with its audience? You’ll never know if you don’t put it out there for comment. When blogging as a student, your audience isn’t expecting the skills of a professional so your blog provides a safe space for experimentation. Your confidence in your writing skills will develop, as will your…

3. Technical skills in running a blog.

Even if you don’t keep your blog going when it is no longer part of your assessment, the experience of setting up and maintaining a blog will be beneficial. Your understanding of the blogosphere will be much more developed and you can add the skills to your list when promoting your talents to a prospective employer.  Your knowledge will also develop as a result of…

4.  Deeper understanding of the course content.

Reading your text-book and other references is a passive form of learning. But writing down your thoughts about what you are reading is an active form of learning, deepening your understanding of the material and increasing the chances of you retaining that information over a longer period of time. This can also be achieved through…

5. Engagement with other students, staff and industry.

Having people comment on your blog, and by commenting on others, you will start to see differences in interpretations of the course content, reaffirming or altering your own perspective. This discussion and debate is also a form of active learning which will help strengthen your body of knowledge as well as begin the process of building….

6. A professional online presence

Blogging may result in the building of a following and a profile amongst those who enjoy reading your work. This will build your personal brand and increase your links with fellow students who will be the industry professionals of the future. But if you are confident enough and start promoting your own blog, you could also build your reputation amongst the teaching staff and today’s professionals.  For the more adventurous, this could be the beginning of an online portfolio giving you a point of difference when searching for that first position following grad.

So do you still see the blogging task as just another assignment?

In a truly strategic public relations plan, the selection of publics provides a crucial focus for the rest of the activities that follow.  Too wide a selection can result in the need to spread valuable resources too thinly. Too narrow a selection can result in missed opportunities. 

So where does the media fit in this?  Should it be considered a key public?

The problem in doing so is that the media could be seen as an end in itself, rather than a means to an end.  In this way, the goal becomes the achievement of media coverage and success is measured in terms of column inches, minutes in the news coverage or hits on a social media site.

But if the media is seen simply as a channel for relaying messages to other key publics, then the receipt and interpretation of those messages and the impact that they have would be of overriding importance. 

The organisation’s mission and aims should drive the communication activities, and most organisations probably seek some form of engagement with publics such as the community, the consumer, the government or employees.  Engagement with the media is also important, but only in terms of assisting in the delivery of messages to the others.

So while some short-term communication objectives may be to achieve media coverage, the selection of other publics gives the public relations plan a more strategic direction and purpose.

Online debates often talk about the need for a code of ethics for bloggers.  Some groups have made up their own, and some individuals outline the ethical principles they follow.  But do we really need another code?

If you belong to a “society of bloggers” then maybe there is a suitable body that could oversee such a code, but from the perspective of a public relations practitioner, surely our existing professional codes are sufficient.  The Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) for example has a code of ethics that covers all activities of the public relations professional, including the many writing duties within the discipline.  We don’t have a code for media release writing and a code for brochure writing, so we shouldn’t need a code for blogging.

I acknowledge that there may be issues that are different in each form of writing, but there are also many similarities.  In looking at online discussions about blogging ethics, some of the issues raised include:

  • the accuracy and reliability of information
  • the use of other people’s content, particularly images
  • defamation
  • disclosure of conflicting interests and who is behind the blog, and
  • the question of payment for blogging.

All of these factors are directly relevant to other forms of public relations writing and are easily covered in the PRIA code.  Even the last point about payment is relevant if considered in the context of the PRIA code that says:

“Members shall be prepared to identify the source of funding of any public communication they initiate or for which they act as a conduit.”

Yes, these codes only apply to members of the PRIA.  But if the blogger is a “professional” then maybe they could adhere to their own industry codes.  If the blogger is an individual, then there really is no body to impose, monitor and call people to account anyway – so what would be the value of a code?

As a public relations practitioner, there is probably a tendency to run from the word rhetoric due to its negative connotations and links with ideas of manipulation and falsehoods.  How many times are organisations and politicians (in particular) accused of spruiking ‘empty’  rhetoric?

But for the public relations theorist, rhetoric takes on a whole new light. It can be used to analyse the way organisations (and politicians) speak about their issues – trying to understand their intended meanings from the symbols they use. In effect it is a study of effective communication.

But communication can work in more than one direction, so we can also see it as a tool also for those with whom they are communicating. In this way, rhetoric is the issuing of statement and counter-statements – a ‘to and fro’ that is not necessarily manipulative.

 So when and why does it become ‘empty’?

One view takes into account the power of big business or government and their access to media to get their message across, forcing their messages on a passive public.  But why do they have this power?  Could the public, in a sense, create some of its own powerlessness?

When messages are presented in sound bites on television news, or headlines in newspapers, the messages are often distorted and the consumers of those media do not pick up on the intended meaning.  That is not necessarily a fault of the media.  They would argue that they are giving the readers/audience what they want – bite size information in a busy world.  And the organisation, keen to get any of its messages out through that media, conveniently shortens it and provides the sound bite that will pass through the editorial gatekeeper.

The danger of course is that a passive audience, perhaps encouraged by media keen to exploit the newsworthiness of conflict and disagreement, obtains and retains a distorted view of the issue.

While newspapers have always had the advantage of being able to give more space to discussion of any one issue, are we starting to see a new form of debate in which the previously passive public is ‘filling up’ on rhetoric themselves to balance out what was seen as ‘empty’ rhetoric from those in power?  Newspapers online are accepting comments from readers in a timeframe and quantity that was not possible previously.  Television news and current affairs programs are increasing in number and changing formats.  Examples such as Channel Ten’s 7pm project present a more detailed coverage of an issue, often including a debate can comment.  And the ABC’s Q&A program is allowing the audience to talk directly, and in real-time to those making the news.

The rise of social media and corporate and government use of it is also opening up the opportunities for the statements and counter-statements of rhetoric.  But does 140 characters really count?

While there may be an increase in the quantity of discussion coming from an audience that was largely passive in the past, the question of quality still remains.  Is it time to measure the rhetoric of the public also, and whether this is really adding anything to the debate?