Ethics: Know Your Value(s)

    By Lynn Perez-Hewitt, APR, PRSA member

    September is Ethics Month at PRSA, and while it is a good reminder to all PR pros of the importance ethics plays in our profession, for me, the month is an annual reminder of the various times in my 30-plus years in PR when my communication practices and my responsibilities as a professional would collide. Sometimes, the dilemmas were trivial and easy to manage, but one time — during my first job after graduating from college — the ethical decision I made would impact my career forever.

    I was just starting out in communications working in a corporate environment in a hospital system. My supervisor took me under her wing and helped me learn valuable marketing and PR skills as well as effective teamwork practices necessary to thrive in a large department. She also taught me that leadership relied on our department to serve both as the voice and the conscience of the hospital.

    After two years, my boss left for a new position and I was suddenly jettisoned into an interim director role, a position I had hoped would lead to career advancement.

    Instead, I quickly discovered that a CEO’s conflict of interest would become a conflict for me as well.

    It was time to produce our annual report for which I had been working on — collecting stories, editing information, designing layouts. For reasons that were unclear to me at the time, the CEO had decided to go outside of our department and pay a freelancer to create and manage our annual report.  That freelancer, I later learned, was the CEO’s girlfriend, but her fee would come from my budget. The CEO did not go through the proper procurement channels and there was no official contract.

    How could we control our brand and messaging and were we putting our corporate reputation at risk? Who would provide proper oversight of the content? Were we serving the public’s interest responsibly? Was this even legal?

    The issue was not only a concern about communication ethics, but after consulting with an attorney, I learned I may have had a legal predicament on my hands. He told me I could sue my employer. I was young and not in a position to pursue legal action against the hospital. Besides, this hospital was in the town where I grew up and challenging a “respected” employer in court was not what I had imagined at the tender age of 23.

    I decided to step down over ethical concerns.

    Years later, as I reflect on this time, I realize my decision was justified. In fact, not too long after I resigned, a vice president to whom I reported, resigned over similar concerns.

    Today, as a PRSA member, I know that the values, detailed in the Member Code of Ethics including advocacy, honesty, expertise, independence, fairness and loyalty inform the principles that help guide the decisions I make in my practice and for my clients.

    September is an annual reminder to me that ethics in communication is at the heart of what we do as practitioners and advisers.

    For more information about Ethics Month and the schedule of activities in our chapter and across the organization, contact Ethics Officer Teresa Dougherty, APR.


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