Here’s the pretext to this post:
You are a public relations professional for a housing developer. Your company’s next project is multi-family housing for middle-income families. In gathering information related to the project, you find that the land for the complex was the site of a landfill. An EPA report shows very low levels of contaminants that are not life-threatening hazards. You discuss this information with your supervising boss, who is not a public relations professional, and recommend ways to explain the landfill history in promotional materials. Your boss tells you the landfill information is not to be included in the materials. He does not want the issue proactively discussed. What do you do?
When reviewing this case study, it became clear that there was going to be one major conflict of interest. That conflict is between my own PR ethical practices and the demands and personal judgment of my supervisor. Though I’d try very hard to find a common ground first, overall I believe it is my duty as a PR professional to stick to my ethical practices and own moral compass.
There are numerous ethical issues and conflicts with this situation. In the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, one of their statements of professional values is Honesty. This value states that PR professionals adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those they represent and in communicating with the public. This housing situation also violates at least two of the PRSA Code Provisions such as Free Flow of Information and Disclosure of Information.
Core Principle Protecting and advancing the free flow of accurate and truthful information is essential to serving the public interest and contributing to informed decision making. The intent of this provision is to maintain the integrity of relationships with the media, government officials and the public. It is also to aid with informed decision-making. The guidelines of this provision state that a member shall preserve the integrity of the process of communication and be honest and accurate in all communications. If the supervisor advises the PR professional to not include the landfill information in the materials and does not what the information proactively discussed then that is not being honest or accurate in communicating to the public. Though the contaminants of the land fill are non life-threatening, the public still deserves the right to all of the information and should be able to make an informed decision based off of that information.
The Code Provision ‘Disclosure of Information’ is very similar in the fact that its intent is to build trust with the public by revealing all information needed for responsible decision making. The guidelines of this provision state that a member shall, yet again, be honest and accurate in all communications and to also avoid deceptive practices. Similar to the last provision, leaving out the information that the complex was the site of a landfill in which EPA reports show levels of contamination is deceptive and withholding information from the public. This leads to the failure of being honest and accurate in communications, therefore preventing the public from being able to make informed decisions.
There are numerous internal and external factors to consider in regards to this case study. I would have to take into consideration the fact that my supervisor is not a PR professional and therefore doesn’t have as good of an understanding about the ethical issues that arise when leaving out the information. I have to consider the fact that I would like to keep my job, though I could only do that by following my boss’s orders. Though it is my duty in my job to listen to my boss, it is also my duty to do my job to the best of my ability, and if I completely disregard the ethics that arise by following my boss’s instructions, then I’m completely ignoring my duty to the public. The fact that the company would be profiting from the multi-housing development also plays a roll in my decision to act ethically.
Since the clash is between my own PR ethical practices and my supervisor’s demands and personal judgment, what’s coming into conflict is my obligation to serve the company and my own personal beliefs. I do believe that my supervisor’s demands were not thought through clearly and I realize he probably fears that this information would bring harm to the success of this project, but there is a way to possibly satisfy my boss’s instructions and my moral compass, and possibly keep my job, by applying two different types of philosophies to the situation.
I plan to implement Aristotle’s ‘The Golden Mean’ philosophy to this situation because it’s in everyone’s best interest to find the happy medium in the situation. With this philosophy, I would find the common ground between not revealing anything, as my boss wants, and/or reveal everything and possibly harm the success of the project. The Golden Mean would allow me to reveal only certain things, or the specific things I wanted to reveal. When revealing the information to the public, I would inform them that the land being used is a landfill, though I think a better word such as ‘recycling station’ is necessary. Though I wouldn’t mention that low levels of contamination were found, I would inform them that we looked at the EPA reports of the area and found that they concluded that the site was safe and non life-threatening to live in because we want to ensure the safety of future residents. I believe this philosophy would help me feel okay about being honest with the public, because everything I said is accurate, but it would also satisfy my boss because I kept the information positive.
Another principle that could be really effective is the Utilitarianism philosophy of John Stuart Mill that states “ everyone should try to act in a way that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number.” Though it would upset my boss to disclose the information after being told not to, the public has the right to be informed before the information about contamination comes out from another source. That would damage our company’s credibility and therefore cause more harm than good to the company. By revealing the information, we’re letting the public know that we’ re interested in their safety and well-being, so if they found out we were withholding information, especially after they are giving us their money, it would do serious harm to the reputation of the company. I believe with this philosophy it would be our duty to reveal the history of the land to produce the greatest good and outcome.
I would not implement these strategies until after I discussed them with my boss. I would explain to him my concerns about withholding the information, and describe to him the reasons why these are our best options. I would hope that he’d see the thought and consideration I put into the situation, and would agree to follow through with one of my strategies, thus, keeping my job. (Woo!) If he still did not agree and decided to tell me to not disclose any of the information, I don’t believe I’d be able to continue working on the project. Obstructing the free flow and disclosure of information is not something I’m ethically comfortable with.