Ethics goes missing in training of young PR professionals


Your PR team needs to get confident about ethics, particularly the younger members who haven’t yet witnessed ethical crises in their career.

This finding may not be surprising on the face of it. A recent study of Millennial-age public relations practitioners found them to be earnest, eager, and…naive.

The study, funded by the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State and sponsored by the PRSA Board of Ethics & Professional Standards was administered during September of 2016 to newer members of the Public Relations Society of America.

The majority of respondents said they felt ill-prepared to advise their clients or employers about ethical issues related to their work, and in fact, did not even expect to face ethical dilemmas during their careers.

Yes, this is a facepalm cue for us older more experienced members of the communications world but should we be surprised? These talented, young pros learned the craft from us.

Ethics education is missing in action

Unsurprisingly, those who had mentors and had completed adequate ethics training felt more prepared and were more likely to speak up when faced with an ethical dilemma.

Four factors were found to significantly impact Millennials’ confidence in discussing ethical concerns with supervisors and clients.:

  • Mentors
  • College ethics courses
  • Employee training
  • Professional association training

While the majority of millennials in this study had completed an ethics course in college, most were not receiving ethics training at work or through an association. This critical lack is not just debilitating to these young professionals but also hampers their ability to contribute fully to their firm’s mission.

Even good people do really lousy things

Several years back, researchers at the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin (particularly Dr. Robert Prentice) realized that many universities and professional organizations lacked the tools to understand and explain ethics from a behavioral perspective.

Behavioral ethics is a science-based explanation of why human beings (even so-called “good” ones) often engage in slimy behavior that is harmful to others. This psychological, behavioral approach to thinking about ethics is not in conflict with moral codes from society or religion, but rather gives us a way to discuss ethics across all cultures and backgrounds, including in the rough and tumble world of public relations.

The school invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the development of Ethics Unwrapped, an extensive series of brief, easily shared videos with teaching notes that explain the human nature causes of bad behavior. Recently, they added Ethics Defined, over 50 bite-sized videos that will amaze viewers who never imagined so many complex (and at times, horrifying) ways humans can go astray.

Gather in a room, show a video, and talk

Your PR team needs to get confident about ethics, particularly the younger members who haven’t yet witnessed ethical crises in their career.

You needn’t wait for the HR director (if you have one) to take charge. Gather your team, crank up your computer, watch a few of these videos, and begin the discussion.

  • Do we recognize these behaviors in ourselves or others?
  • In what situations might we encounter these ethical lapses in our work?
  • What should our response be if we see an ethical dilemma ahead?
  • Do we have a sufficiently robust organizational philosophy about ethical practices?
  • What are the best-practice approaches for advising our clients on ethical issues?
  • Who has the authority to speak up when an unethical situation arises? (Hint: should be anyone on the team.)

You get the idea. Build the discussion around the needs of your workgroup and the specifics of your organization and key stakeholders. These videos are short enough to briefly share in a weekly staff meeting, or as a tip-of-the-week in an email or e-newsletter.

Screen Shot 2018-11-30 at 8.05.38 PM