Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Writing about ethics again

I was saddened (literally) to hear about the Federal Emergency Management Agency's fake news conference last Tuesday. For anyone unfamiliar with the situation, here's a little background.

In the midst of last week's devastating fires in Southern California FEMA decided to call a press conference/media briefing. The problem with this was that they called the briefing 15 minutes before it was scheduled to start, and thus, most reporters were unable to attend. One could easily dismiss this as oversight or lack of planning ahead on FEMA's part, but it gets worse.

According to the Washington Post's story on the incident, reporters unable to attend the briefing were provided an 800 number which, surprisingly, was "listen only." In other words, reporters could listen in, but couldn't ask any questions. Seem bad? It gets worse.

After some brief remarks by Harvey E. Johnson, FEMA Vice Adm., the "reporters" in the room were able to ask questions. The news conference proceeded as normal, but the Washington Post notes that none of the reporters were asking really tough questions. The reason? The so-called reporters in the room were merely FEMA employees! Ridiculous.

How in the world could this have happened? How could any of the FEMA PR staff have let this slide by. Was no one courageous enough to stand up and say a fake news conference is a bad idea?

PRSA responded to the FEMA debacle in a release on its Web site yesterday, but from a quick scan of the reader comments, it's easy to see that people think PRSA should have been a little more harsh on FEMA for its actions.

We as PR people struggle enough to maintain credibility, and actions like this do nothing more than to destroy all the good things we do. This action by FEMA further demonstrates that there are PR people out there that either don't know what they're doing or are just completely lacking in ethics.

Part of PRSA's mission is to to help advance the profession of public relations, but I think this is a responsibility that lies with every public relations practitioner out there. It is imperative that we have the courage to speak up when something goes against what we know to be right. I could be altruistic and say that good will always prevail in these situations, but the sad fact of the matter is that it may not. Jobs may be lost, promotions may be denied, but unless someone stands up and takes the bullet, stuff like FEMA's fake news conference will continue to happen.

I'm not saying we should sacrifice jobs and careers to make PR look good, we should make these sacrifices simply because it is the right thing to do.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

1 a.m. Ethics

Yesterday I read an excellent article in PRSA Tactics, titled "1 a.m. ethics." The article, written by Susan Walton, a professor in the best public relations program in the world (slightly biased here!), makes some really interesting points about "wrestling with those small, everyday choices that we face."

She begins her article by talking about a job interview she had in which she was asked to describe an experience she'd had when an employer asked her to do something unethical. She replied that she had never been asked to do anything she considered to be unethical. She then adds:

"However...I have often made personal, individual choices to behave ethically. Most often these choices have revolved around my day-to-day work rather than around highly visible or significant events. And, in most cases, the outcome of my choices was not known by anyone other than me."

She calls these choices "1 a.m. ethics."

I think I've often been guily of thinking of ethics only in terms of cases like Enron, Tyco or WorldCom, the very poster children of ethical breaches. When it really comes down to it, however, ethics is a personal matter and rarely involves anyone but yourself. Ethical decisions we make may never be known to anyone but ourselves. "Sometimes we make our our most important ethical decisions at night when the only voice of persuasion is the whisper of our own conscience," Walton writes.

In an advanced media ethics class I took at BYU, we talked about a number of ethical theories, but the one that stood out to me was the principle of virtue ethics. Louis Pojman defined virtue ethics this way:

"Rather than seeing the heart of ethics in actions or duties, virtue ethics centers in the heart of the agent--in his or her character. Virtue ethics emphasizes being a certain type of person" (Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong, p. 161, emphasis added).

I could not agree more with Pojman's statement. Ethical decision making comes from within. We have to decide now how we will act when faced with any ethical decision. We must live by ethical principles, and by so doing, we will be prepared for any challenge to ethics that may come along.

If we are truly ethical, making that tough decision at 1 a.m. won't be so hard.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Online News Conference

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (disclosure: I'm a member of this church) hosted an online news conference yesterday as a test to see whether or not such a news conference is a good way to communicate with journalists around the country. The news conference opened with some comments from two individuals from the Church's public affairs department and the rest of the time was devoted to answering journalists' questions (both from call-ins and e-mails).

In addition to answering questions, there were also a few video clips from M. Russell Ballard, an apostle in the Church. It was really cool to see the Church getting involved more in online public relations efforts. The Church's online newsroom is another great online tool for members of the media and others interested in news from the Church.