|Today, we'll learn about my philosophical Jerk Store
I often have Jerk Store moments. You know those. When George Costanza came up with what he thought was the perfect thing to say in a conversation long after the conversation is over. I’m sometimes like this with classes that I take. When I was in my undergrad, I took a third-level course on Aristotle in my second year, which focussed on his concepts of technology, purpose, and human nature. But I didn’t figure out the concept Dr. Scott was trying to communicate until I took his second-level course on philosophy of technology more generally the following year.
The same thing happened to me with an idea I had the other day about a discussion that came up in the early days of the PR ethics course of my Communications program. We were talking about the listeriosis contamination of a major Maple Leaf Foods plant, which my program’s coordinator thought was a solid example of counter-intuitively effective approach to public relations.
The key concept presented to understand the situation was the difference between the company’s actual public response and the advice of its legal advisors. The class itself was designed to teach us the skills of handling a public apology on behalf of your employer. Because while situations of the scale and intensity of the Maple Leaf scandal will probably never happen to us, how to handle the public image of a product recall or similar controversy will be important.
Yet I thought of a more instructive lesson to take from this narrative. And it only came three months after the fact.
I was thinking about the narrative’s contrast between the Maple Leaf CEO and PR department with its legal advisors. We can always learn positive things about ourselves from our contrast with lawyers.* The law is, in an ethical sense, about settling responsibility and arranging the terms to exercise responsibilities. And the exercise of responsibilities usually comes with a price tag. So the job of a company’s lawyers is to avoid or at least minimize the costs of exercising responsibility. A company lawyer’s purpose is to shift blame and elide responsibility.
* Unless you’re a lawyer. My condolences.
But a public relations person is simply supposed to be the voice of the company itself, literally the corporate communicator. Now, this does mean that a company’s public relations person can end up doing very unethical or slimy things in the course of his job. Corporate culture institutionally tends to maximize profit and profitability in the short term. It’s easy to go along with this flow, instrumentalizing employees in the context of their corporate role alone, and not trying to create a genuine corporate community, or integrate the corporation with the communities that it affects.
We’re moving away from this tendency now. A lot of what I’ve learned about how many of the best companies run today has shown me that they put a lot of emphasis on community-building inside and out. At least this is true for the smaller, more regional businesses, newer corporations, and companies outside sectors that openly involve ethically problematic practices like monoculture mass agriculture, pesticides, mining and oil extraction, or high finance. But hey, progress.
A public relations person need only express the company’s wishes clearly and accurately. It helps to do so in a positive light, but this is a weirdly human aspect of what’s typically thought of as a corporate gig. As individuals, we always try to present ourselves in the best possible light, and no one really considers this in itself an immoral thing as long as we aren’t being hypocritical or covering up a lie or misdeed.
So when we teach public relations practitioners the ethical principles of the profession, all we really need to do is behave just as we do as individuals. Institutionally, a PR person is the vocal organ of a network entity that should behave with transparency, honesty, and fairness externally and internally, presenting that network entity in the best way possible without duplicity. If you're part of a company that can present itself as such without lying, then you won't have to worry about whether your actions are unethical.
The ethics of public relations is essentially the ethics of being a decent individual at a corporate level of existence. Just don’t be a dick.