Interview: The ethics model: Intentional, open cultures and servant leadership

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I recently had the opportunity to interview Mary Beth West, co-chair of the PRCA Ethics Council and co-host of the #MsInterPReted podcast at Fletcher Marketing PR in the US, writes Orla Clancy. She is a passionate advocate for ethics. 

“At its core, ethics is ‘golden rule-driven’ – doing right by others and placing care with their needs and hopes. Ethics also means taking a stand, in recognition that there is a great deal of misconduct out there. Remaining silent to it or pretending it isn’t there only gives license to bad actors and encourages those for whom misconduct is a way of life.”

PR is often described as the conscience of an organization. When asked why ethics is so important to the PR industry, and PR to ethics, West replied, “In PR, we are that final filter – that last-ditch opportunity for push-back – against what otherwise might be a horrible management decision or catastrophic policy stance, before it’s officially activated or announced to the world.”

“There is an urgent ethics mandate for our industry. We have to speak up. We must be compelling in our wisdom. We must be accountable. We must articulate the authoritative case for ethics in the cross-disciplinary languages most understood and appreciated by C-suite and boardroom leaders.

“In that vein, ethics is critically important in positioning PR workforces for strong economic success and competitiveness. Until we speak outside the confines of our own industry and with a brand of authority that commands respect across disciplines, we will stay on the same merry-go-rounds that have dogged the industry practically since its formation,” she said.

Why does West believe unethical practices exist within organizations? “Regardless of sector, locale or structure, organizations are human enterprises, replete with imperfection and potential for good and bad,” she said. “When humans foster cultures where unethical practices become the modus operandi, everyone can get swept up in that vortex.

“But let’s differentiate: Making mistakes is an element of human nature and part of the human experience. At some point in all our personal and/or professional lifetimes, we will have made decisions that we countenance later were bad choices… possibly some on ethical grounds. The critical differentiator is between those who make intermittent mistakes and those who choose to make misconduct and deceit their way of life.”

Then, what can organizations do to transcend these practices and be more ethical? West believes that “Organizations can best overcome bad practices from their human-driven flaws with honesty, self-awareness and humility. Maintaining intentional, open cultures with a servant-leadership mentality at the helm helps everyone embrace their better tendencies. To that end, the PRCA’s value systems can play a massive role in positive cultural development.”

In 2020, West joined the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) Ethics Council as co-chair to focus on how the PRCA can serve the global industry. She said that their singular, shared passion point on the PRCA Ethics Council is in, “dismantling systemic, management non-compliance of globally shared ethical standards, at root sources.” 

To that end, the council has announced a major collaboration with the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI) in the US “to measure specific PR industry ethics challenges and issues – including levels of observed misconduct and retaliation – occurring in diverse organizations worldwide.”

According to longitudinal data in ECI’s 2021 Global Business Ethics Report, “The State of Ethics and Compliance in the Workplace” (March 2021), “[global employee] pressure to compromise standards is the highest it has ever been.” According to West, “Worldwide, employees are reporting misconduct that they observe, but they also are facing ‘skyrocketing’ retaliation rates as a consequence, according to ECI’s data. Without question, these existing insights pose massive implications for PR industry practitioners on the front lines of defending their organizations in worldwide courts of public opinion. For example, PR teams can’t serve as an effective organizational ‘conscience’ if they fear for their jobs in doing so from their own management teams.

“This research initiative that the PRCA Ethics Council is spearheading with ECI as our partner will establish a quantitative ‘needle’ to measure where we stand as an industry right now in confronting a host of ethics challenges, and where we need to educate and advocate more, particularly across disciplines.”

The conversation then moved to disinformation and West said, “In any organization where employees and their management teams compromise standards or act in bad faith, PR crises inevitably will erupt to undermine brand credibility with the aggravated circumstance of PR teams being forced (essentially) to defend via communications an inherently compromised, corrupted enterprise. In so doing, PR practitioners automatically – and often, unwittingly – become actual parties to the unethical conduct themselves, in both public perception and reality.

“Furthermore, when disinformation is normalized from both a compromised organization and across global media channels, the PR industry’s ability to operate from a fundamental basis of ethical credibility is undermined which ultimately damages respect for the entire PR industry.”

She continued, “In turn, less respect for the PR industry yields economic damage to us all in the form of weakened market demand for PR employment-recruiting and contracting; poor workforce-pipeline recruitment inbound to the industry – including among diverse population segments who are urgently needed in the field; and more organizations operating with either no competent PR counsel or under-funded PR counsel, which perpetuates a vicious cycle effect. This systemic challenge is the very root source reality we in the PRCA wish to disrupt.”