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Ethics: where do you stand?

Ethics: Where Do You Stand?

Two communicators approach the subject of ethics by asking a series of questions.

On the following pages you'll read examples of situations that put communicators into potentially compromising positions. Most aren't illegal. The cases aren't black and white. They aren't easy to decide. But, big ethical problems begin with little ones. The question you really need to answer is: Where is that fine line between putting facts in the best light and outright lying--either by omission or commission? Is inflating your qualifications on a resume ethical--or concealing the fact you were fired from a job you had for a short period? When you start to hear that little voice saying, "But everybody does it," then you know you're heading for trouble. Answers aren't simple, but perhaps this article will suggest some guidelines. You may wish to refer to the IABC Code of Ethics on page 26A of The 1989 IABC WorldBook of Communicators.

A Report on Ethics in College and University PR ... Success Story or Major Concern?

To a great extent, college and university public relations offices speak for higher education, and the future of our institutions can be seriously diminished if they do not speak, or are not perceived as speaking, in an ethical manner.

In a recent survey involving college PR people, their presidents, and the media, the vast majority did not report ethical problems, but some did.

The data was compiled from three interrelated mail surveys of 200 college or university public relations directors, 100 of their presidents, and the media whom the PR people identified as their primary newspapers. Selection was done by using random numbers and the Higher Education Directory (1988) to select respondents from the US western area: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and Utah. So, what we report is what the public relations (PR) people and presidents said about themselves and what the media said about the PR people. The response rates were: 32 percent for PR, 34 percent for presidents, and 53 percent for media.

The survey asked what unethical things these PR people were asked to do, and who asked them to do so. Those who reported ethical problems, mentioned these: Leak a story (president) ... support an inaccurate report about university planning and budgeting (chair of the senate) ... release inflated enrollment figures (president) ... withhold increased enrollment figures (president) ... withhold information, lie, twist data (administrative VP, chair, faculty) ... decline to admit facts (president) offer a printer a bonus to give priority to a pet project (dean) ... demand that news of faculty association president be deleted from newsletter (administrative VP) ... lie to press and faculty (president) ... release technically accurate but puffed up stories on pet projects (dean, faculty). These are the typical pressures that the PR project reports.

The PR people also report that: 53 percent of them have been asked to put out material that is not newsworthy ... 15 percent have been asked to release inaccurate information ... 21 percent have been asked to intervene with the student newspaper. In contrast, 72 percent state that they have not been asked to do anything unethical by people on campus ... and 87 percent state that they have not been asked to do anything unethical by media people.

However, they have been asked by media people to: not write a letter to an editor regarding serious factual errors ... take out ads if they want their release to run ... release legally confidential information on donors and students.

The responses from the PR people indicate rather clearly that they have varying degrees of confidence in information provided by various campus offices. The indicated "complete confidence" areas are: enrollment data 72 percent, fund raising 61 percent, athletics 55 percent.

More than 25 percent of the PR people worked to kill a legitimate news story which would have adversely affected their university, and 52 percent see this as common practice in college PR. Twenty-six percent have represented competing interests and 49 percent see this as common practice. Seventy-one percent have played an active role in demanding a correction of factual errors, 78 percent see this as common practice.

Eighty-three percent have safeguarded the confidence of past, present and prospective clients and 76 percent see this as common practice.

The college and university presidents thoroughly endorse the current state and level of public relations. Eighty-eight percent believe the news releases from their institution are newsworthy, and only 19 percent have asked the PR person to distribute something which was not newsworthy. All the presidents indicated that nothing from their universities had carried misleading or inaccurate information. Only seven percent of the presidents state that they have asked the PR person to try and kill a legitimate news story. Ninety-four percent indicate no knowledge of any unethical behavior on the part of their PR person, and none of the presidents has asked the PR person to distribute a story which was "inaccurate, misleading or false."

Whatever college and university PR people are doing, they appear to have the full faith and support of their presidents, at least as it applies to this study of ethics.

Profession's Ethics Compared As part of the study, PR people, their primary newspaper media, and the college/university presidents were asked to compare the ethics of educational public relations with the ethics of other groups.

Assuming that PR people work closely with presidents and media, it is interesting to note the differences of opinion on some of the above.

Other media responses are of interest. Sixty-five percent of the media reported that the news releases (from the colleges and universities in their area) were newsworthy. Thirty-five percent of the media thought the releases were not newsworthy. Can colleges and universities condone such a margin of error?

Media comments also tend to diminish enthusiasm: "Mostly stuff about classes ... nothing heavy duty" ... "Most of news releases from community colleges rarely stray beyond new classes and registration ... other releases from state universities were few and far between."

Eighty-six percent of the media stated that the colleges and universities in their area had not communicated false or misleading information.

Media comments: "Aside from an occasional factual error, information is generally accurate ... one-sided."

"Do you have confidence in the data which is provided by the college and university public relations offices in your area?" A strong 88 percent answered affirmatively.

Media comment: "The majority of releases contain information that is relevant only to narrow segments of the faculty or administration. __ is by far the worst in our area and I don't ask anonymity."

Seventy-four percent of the media indicated that the college and university people in their area had not attempted to kill a legitimate news story. The correlation is excellent: only 25 percent of the PR people claimed they had done this.

"During the last year has any college or university PR person asked you to do anything unethical?" Ninety-six percent of the media answered "No."
COPYRIGHT 1989 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes a questionnaire on communication scruples
Author:Langham, Barbara D.
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1989
Previous Article:EXCEL award winner John H. Johnson communicates success.
Next Article:Publishing in-house: too much to handle?

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