Ethics is a bedrock of contemporary public relations, whether it's avoiding conflicts of interest or resisting the temptation to give a pair of your client's racing skis to a sports magazine columnist.
So a warning light is flashing in the form of a recent study showing that most millennial PR pros are shying away from roles as a conscience within their organization.
The study, "Silent & unprepared: Most millennial practitioners have not embraced role as ethical conscience," found significant differences in preparedness to offer ethical counseling between generations. Only a third agreed or strongly agreed that they feel prepared to offer ethics counsel, the article states.
The good news is that the availability of a mentor makes a difference, as does ethics training in college, at work or through a professional association.
The joint scholar-practitioner project was written by Marlene S. Neill, assistant professor at Baylor University, and Nancy Weaver, internal communications manager for the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. The two serve together on the Public Relations Society of America's Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. The Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State College of Communications funded the study.
The two undertook the project last fall after Neill's prior research largely drew from an older group of respondents, she says. The average age of the 2015 study was 47, with an average of 21 years' experience in the field.
"We realized we really were missing the view of younger generation," Neill said in an interview.
Not expecting ethical dilemmas
The recent study polled members of PRSA with fewer than five years' experience. What they found raised concerns for the future as millennials increasingly move into the upper echelons of PR.
"A lot of them did not expect the ethical dilemmas that they had," Neill said.
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Greater numbers of millennials were unaware of resources, the study indicates. Fewer than 41 percent of the millennial respondents were familiar or very familiar with the PRSA code of ethics, and only 47 percent said they were likely or very likely to consult it.
This compares with nearly 71 percent of the general membership, who reported they were mostly or extremely familiar with the code.
In recent years, PR leaders have increasingly called for a heightened awareness of ethics in the industry, as when Edelman chief executive Richard Edelman called for PR to be the "the corporate conscience."
Neill found evidence for this in her 2015 study. She and Weaver write that of the older cohort, "most practitioners and educators believe it is their role to serve as an ethical conscience within their organization and/or for their clients."
Avoiding the issue
Yet millennials have said they are unsure what to do about perceived unethical business practices in public relations agencies related to client billing, media relations and client presentations, Neill and Weaver state. One study found when that when millennials were presented with three ethical dilemmas, they preferred "to avoid an issue rather than taking a stand."
Neill and Weaver's new study offers implications for in educating younger PR pros in ethics.
- Mentoring works. "The test revealed that practitioners who have a mentor were significantly more likely to report that they felt prepared to offer ethics counsel . . . compared to those who do not have a mentor," the authors write.
- College counts. Those who take an ethics course in college feel better prepared to act as an institutional conscience.
- Employers should train. The study states that "ethics education should be offered in the workplace as this study provided evidence of the connection between employer ethics training and perceptions of preparedness."
For example, want to avoid having your employee change jobs and use confidential information in a new position to your detriment? Maybe it's time for some in-house training. That practice would be a no-no on PRSA's member code of ethics.
- Use the resources of professional organizations. Neill and Weaver suggest that ethics study materials include industry codes of ethics, including those from PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Society of Professional Journalists.
Respondents who were familiar with the ethics resources of groups such as PRSA were more likely to support the role of ethics counsel.
Neill says she and Weaver have a further survey in the works that polls senior practitioners on the topic of ethics and training. "There's more coming," she says.
The current study adds, "While most millennials received ethics training in college, they do not feel prepared to offer ethics counsel and even appear to be overly optimistic as they do not expect to face ethical dilemmas at work."
If they don't learn quickly, they may be in for a rude awakening.