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How To Be A Truly Trusted Strategic Ethics Advisor – Part I

Ethics, Strengthening Our Core

Featured in the September edition of PRSA Public Relations Tactics

When the subject is ethics, I’m always drawn to a simple statement made by Will Durant, who with his wife, Ariel, spent several decades writing an amazing series of books called The Story of Philosophy. His definition (a philosopher’s I grant you) of ethics is “the search for perfect behavior.” Some translations say “the search for ideal behavior.” You get the idea.

As someone who has been on the ethics scene for several decades myself, the more you’re around, the more you get the same pattern of questions. One of the most frequent questions asked of me and I think of most senior practitioners is, “I work for a person I respect. They are honorable, practical and generally helpful. The problem is there are some things I believe in my bones that they should be doing but refuse to or ignore my recommendations. How do YOU get these people to take the actions you are suggesting?”

My response may seem a little frivolous but it’s really quite sensible. I have a ten-day rule – if bosses won’t or don’t take a suggestion from me and act on it within ten days, the likelihood of their acting on it at any time in the future, no matter how many times I suggest it, is very small.

So, rather than be a pest who they will see coming and avoid, I drop it and move on to something else.

However, there is an important exception to the ten-day rule: If the issue your boss is facing or engaged in is unethical, immoral, illegal, monumentally stupid, inappropriate or hurtful, apply the ten-day rule in reverse. Plan to get out of there as soon as you possibly can.

The reality is, leaders get to do what they want to do. When it falls into this questionable realm, you will never change them. The answer is, for you, to move along.

Over the years, I have helped many others as well as myself develop a personal core values system that enabled us to make decisions and give useful advice very promptly in tough, touchy, sensitive and ethically challenging situations.

A personal core value, in this context, is a “personal, protective belief.” It is a belief that protects you and those you advise from bad decisions. It is also a tummy squeezing early warning system of the possibility that your advice, if you even give it, will fail. Working in ethics and giving ethical advice is among the most challenging tasks we have as practitioners and advisers. Having a personal core value approach which you can talk about and teach to others is an essential part of having impact.

Core Value #1. Define Your Personal Core Ethical Values

Identify the principles that guide your practice and your life. Over the years, having to defend my practices as well as my advice, I have had to think through those guidelines, principles and boundaries that keep me focused on who I am, what I’m about and what I stand for. Here is my own set of practice principles. It’s how I behave, make decisions, give advice every day and maintain an ethical focus:

Principles That Guide Jim’s Practice

  1. Act ethically, promptly and urgently.
  2. Ask better questions than anyone else.
  3. Be 15 minutes early.
  4. Consistently challenge the standard assumptions and practices of our profession, build its importance and enhance the ability of all practitioners to better serve others from their perspective.
  5. Do the doable; know the knowable; get the getable; arrange the arrangeable.
  6. Expect to be helpful and useful.
  7. Focus on what really matters.
  8. Go beyond what those you work with already know.
  9. Intend to make a constructive difference every day.
  10. Intentionally look at every situation and circumstance from different perspectives.
  11. Look out for the real victims.
  12. Remember, it’s your boss’/client’s “bus.” They get to drive it wherever they want. If you don’t like it or can’t deal with it, hop off and go to somebody else’s “bus” or drive your own.
  13. Remember that every issue, question, concern or problem is a management and leadership issue, question, concern or problem before it is any other kind of issue, question, concern or problem.
  14. Start where leadership or management is or you will always arrive at different destinations.
  15. Strive to provide sensible, simple, honorable and ethical options every time

Define your own core values. Overlay the concept of ideal behavior and you can begin every day and every decision by asking yourself:

  • Is this ideal behavior?
  • Is this what I truly believe in?
  • Is it the truth?
  • How do we get to ideal behavior?
  • What if we can’t?

Use Fitzpatrick’s Ethical Decision-making Guide[1] to Resolve Ethical DilemmasEthical dilemmas arise when responsibilities and loyalties conflict and a decision about the appropriate – i.e., ethical – course of action must be made. Often a choice is required among actions that meet competing obligations. For example, when might the obligation to serve the public interest override loyalty to clients? When does a particular stakeholder’s interest take priority over an employer’s interest? Applying these questions will help sort things out:

  1. Define the specific ethical issue/conflict.
  2. Identify internal/external factors (i.e., legal, political, social, economic) that may influence the decision.
  3. Identify key values.
  4. Identify the parties who will be affected by the decision and define the public relations professional’s obligation to each.
  5. Select ethical principles to guide the decision-making process.
  6. Decide and justify it.

[1] Dr. Kathy Fitzpatrick, APR – Professor, School of Communication, American University in Washington, DC

Editor’s Note: This blog is a two part series. Read Part 2, “Four More Personal Core Values of the Trusted Strategic Ethics Advisor”

By: James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, BEPS Emeritus, America’s Crisis Guru®.

*Lukaszewski served on the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) for 22 years. In 2016, he was the first BEPS member to be given Member Emeritus status by the PRSA Board. Among other activities, Jim was co-chair of the PRSA BEPS Code of Ethics redrafting effort lead by Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA, of Seattle, WA. The revised code was approved unanimously by the PRSA Assembly in the fall of 2000. Since then, 19 Ethics Standard Advisories have been published and approved by the PRSA Board of Directors that supplement and amend PRSA Code provisions.


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