The Gray Areas of Ethical Decision-making:
The Emergence of an Ethical Action Continuum Among Public Relations
Lois A. Boynton
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Submitted to the Public Relations Division for the AEJMC Conference, August
Lois A. Boynton
School of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
CB #3365, 397 Carroll Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3365
Office Phone: (919) 843-8342
Home Phone: (919) 960-6093
e-mail: [log in to unmask]
The Gray Areas of Ethical Decision-making:
The Emergence of an Ethical Action Continuum Among Public Relations
This paper explores the action taken by public relations practitioners when
confronted with ethical situations. In-depth interviews were conducted to
ascertain actions taken by public relations practitioners within a
decision-making process. Findings indicate that each practitioner made
decisions within the context of a decision-making role. Additionally, the
analysis reveals an ethical action continuum that addresses not only the
extremes of acting in ethically or unethically, but also intermediary
stages of consensus, compromise and opting out.
By definition, public relations practitioners have been charged with
balancing the interests of the organizations that employ them and the
stakeholders affecting or affected by the organizations' actions. This
duty often places practitioners in an ethical quagmire; satisfying the
interests of two or more entities that have incongruent agendas is, at
minimum, a challenging proposition. Yet, despite this century-old
conundrum, scant literature tackles the ethical decision-making process of
the public relations practitioner.
A plethora of articles have discussed other vital topics, including
professionalism, social responsibility, ethics codes, and how practitioners
perceive and academics present public relations ethics. Some authors
also have tackled factors that influence how decisions get made. The few
decision-making models and processes discussed in public relations texts
represent other disciplines, namely, marketing and journalism. For
example, public relations scholar Mark McElreath examined an ethical
process for public relations practitioners utilizing modified journalism
and marketing decision-making models that incorporate internal and external
influences, and the language of the public relations profession.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the action taken by public
relations practitioners when confronted with ethical situations. In-depth
interviews were conducted to ascertain actions taken by public relations
practitioners within a decision-making process.
The primary study addressing public relations decision making was developed
by public relations researcher Mark McElreath in 1997 based on research
among public relations practitioners. McElreath's contingency model of
ethical decision making in public relations is a modification of Scott
Vitell's marketing ethics model and incorporates a public relations
framework and terminology suitable for this profession. To practice
public relations ethically, he found, practitioners should examine
contingencies such as stakeholder loyalties, guiding principles, and
consequences before deciding a course of action. McElreath's model also
expanded the popular Potter Box used to prioritize values and
stakeholder interests and produced a model describing situation ethics,
which reflects high levels of moral reasoning.
A number of other disciplines examine ethical decision-making processes,
including business management, administration, marketing, finance,
accounting, public administration, social work, health professions, and, to
a lesser degree, communication. These studies fall into two general
categories. First, influential factors models describe agents contributing
to an individual's decision-making prowess, including personal
characteristics such as gender, education, and level of moral development;
organizational environment; and cultural norms. Second, how-to models
describe the processes used by individuals when making decisions. These
processes may be normative or reality-based; that is, some models explain
how professionals ought to make decisions and others explicate how people
have made ethical decisions. Most of the models are in developmental
and proposal stages; few have been tested empirically.
This broad focus does not rule out the applicability of existing models as
frameworks for public relations practitioners. In fact, the profession
often draws successfully from related disciplines. Some public relations
researchers focused on journalism for ethics discussions, because of the
relationship between the two disciplines. Many of today's public relations
practitioners have roots in journalism, either as journalism school
graduates or reporters. Additionally, practitioners work in for-profit
and nonprofit organizations and may use the processes and procedures of the
businesses and disciplines in which they are involved.
Even though both journalism ethics and business ethics have an impact on
public relations ethics, their practitioners may face different issues and
dilemmas. Marketers attend to specific groups who contribute directly to
company profitability. Marketing goals are asymmetrical; the ultimate aim
is to make money, whether it is business profit or charitable
donations. Journalists serve a broader public but they check government
activity and inform society about newsworthy events. In the name of
objectivity and to avoid conflicts of interest, reporters distance
themselves from subjects, sources, and readers.
This is not to say that marketers and reporters do not hit ethical snags;
on the contrary. They are less likely to face the breadth of stakeholders
that public relations practitioners do, however, including employees,
community, and advocacy groups, in deciding what to do in ethical
situations. Since public relations should go beyond product positioning and
media relations, its decision-making processes also may differ from those
of marketing and reporting. But common ethical roots exist; ethical theory
presents practitioners with useful principles for decision-making. These
principles fall into two primary categories - teleology and deontology.
First, teleology instructs individuals to consider potential outcomes in
the decision-making process. That is, the most ethical action leads to
good results for a greater number of people and produces greater good than
other alternatives, according to nineteenth century philosopher John Stuart
Mill. Hence, both the quality and quantity of good should be assessed
before decisions are made. Cost-benefit analyses of various
consequences help determine the proper course of action in various situations.
The second philosophical principle is deontology, a duty-based approach
that does not assess the role of consequences of decisions. Instead,
certain normative principles or rules must be obeyed at all cost,
regardless of circumstances. Nineteenth century philosopher Immanuel
Kant indicated categorical imperatives must be strictly adhered to; what is
morally correct for one is morally correct for all people. He defined two
categories of moral directives that all persons should agree on. Strict
duties identify wrong actions such as causing harm or lying, and
meritorious duties define valuable actions such as providing assistance and
expressing gratitude. In professionalism, for example, acting socially
responsible is an important obligation; certain duties ought to be done.
Harris found many professions word ethics codes as categorical imperatives.
Ethical Decision-Making Models: Several ethics models of varying
complexities have emerged from numerous professions, and a growing number
of ethics consultants have developed ubiquitous guidelines used across
disciplines. Whether generic or tailored models provide the most assistance
to their users is not inherently clear, perhaps because the majority of
these models have not been empirically tested. Similarities exist among the
decision-making processes, however, which can be grouped into four stages.
Generally, individuals (1) identify the ethical problem, (2) investigate
options and develop a plan of action, (3) make a decision and act on it,
and (4) evaluate the results. This paper focuses on the action step,
which follows the investigation of the problem and its options.
Studies maintain that, once a plan has been decided, action should be
taken based on the information gathered and moral assessments made.
Researchers and consultants noted the importance of moving from
hypothetical discussion to concrete action. That is, according to McDonald,
"The object is to make a good choice with the information available, not
make a perfect choice."
Although credible research has shown a link between attitudes and
behavior, the intent to act ethically does not guarantee that the most
ethical action is taken. Cultural, professional, organizational, and
personal factors could lead individuals to actions incongruous with
intent. This issue emerges in times of crisis when individuals might
regress morally or when a "groupthink" mentality suppresses objections that
individuals might have. Because intent and action might differ, the
process and results of the decision should be analyzed.
Additionally, a number of the decision-making models dichotomize a decision
as "ethical" or "unethical" only, without weighing some decisions as being
weightier than others. Other scholars have taken a more flexible
stance, indicating that individuals may select "more ethical" or "less
ethical" alternatives rather than simply make "right" or "wrong" choices.
An assessment of the extant literature leads to the posing of the
following research question: Within the context of a decision-making
process, what does the action step entail for public relations practitioners?
Qualitative research methods, which allow keener exploration of concepts
than quantitative methods do, were employed to explore of how public
relations practitioners perceive their ethical decision-making action.
Qualitative methods permit a more comprehensive understanding of a
particular group, such as public relations practitioners, and its use of
language, perceptions, and motivation. Specifically, the analytic
induction method of qualitative analysis was used to examine and explain
how public relations practitioners make ethical decisions. This method
tests theoretical concepts one case at a time, and the theory emerges from
Data were collected using in-depth interviews, which are among the most
frequently used qualitative research tools, particularly in public
relations. This data-collection method permits delving into subjects'
perceptions and contexts of key terminology and processes. For this study,
a purposeful sample was used, including public relations practitioners at
various job levels (i.e., technicians and managers), with varying
experience and training, and representing different industries and
businesses (i.e., nonprofit and for-profit, public and private sectors). A
snowball sampling technique helped identify a pool of potential
participants. The researcher asked respondents to identify other public
relations practitioners who might willingly inform the study.
Once the interviews are transcribed, the text is examined using qualitative
content analysis coding procedures defined by Barney Glaser and Anselm
Strauss and refined by Strauss and Juliet Corbin. The coding process
involves scanning the text, identifying similarities and differences, and
forming categories that move from the particular to the general.
Of the fifteen practitioners interviewed, two-thirds are women and only one
is a minority. The least experienced and youngest participant had been on
the job three months when the interview took place. The most experienced
and oldest public relations practitioner has worked in the profession for
more than twenty years. The average years of experience is 8.5 years.
Several participants had worked in non-public relations jobs in their
careers, including marketing, sales, journalism, and education.
Six participants work in the agency environment; four are employed by
for-profit businesses; four work at nonprofit organizations or
universities; and one is a self-employed public relations consultant. The
majority–ten participants–have worked in more than one of these areas. For
example, a respondent may have started his career within a corporation and
then moved to an agency job. Because these participants discussed ethical
issues that arose throughout their careers, differences in decision-making
techniques did not emerge from interviews based on organizational environment.
The Decision-maker Role
The data reveal that participants assume different approaches to making
ethical decisions, often based on what they defined as their "personality"
or "the person's identity." The differences that emerged during open coding
identified a framework within which participants tackled ethical issues.
Subsequently, these property distinctions were categorized as
decision-making roles during open coding, reflecting the participants'
definitions of roles as not only activities but also techniques that
"played a role" in or affected end results. Four categories of
decision-makers emerged from the interviews: absolutist, debater, loyalist,
Absolutist: The absolutists are definitive about what is "right" and what
is "wrong," often taking a judgmental stance against those who might
disagree with their assessments. In addition, these participants often
rationalize or justify their behavior based on personal principles.
Evidence suggests that this approach is based on the participant's own set
of standards, and they rarely feel compelled to weigh outside views. As an
owner of a small agency, said, "As long as I think I'm right, I don't care
what they [other people] think, to a fault." An agency vice president also
said that he does not need assistance in determining what is ethical.
"There's a way . . . to do it right and do it wrong," he said.
Three of the five men interviewed fall into this category, but none of the
ten women interviewed assume an absolutist position. It remains unclear
whether this finding is a gender issue or whether other factors, such as
experience, position in the company, or public relations area play a
role. For example, all three men work at high levels in agencies–a
senior-level counselor, a vice president of relationship development, and
an agency owner.
Debater: The second category of decision-maker emerging from interviews is
the debater, one who assesses all sides of an issue equally and
incorporates counter-arguments in the assessments. In the course of
discussing how she works through ethical problems, one manager shared that
she was a member of her college debate team. "I was a debater, can't you
tell? I can argue both sides of an issue." The three participants
categorized as debaters–two women and one man–said they consider the
effects of their actions on various constituents. Unlike the absolutists
who are emotionally attached to their views, the debaters consider an issue
from an objective or practical perspective and avoid personal involvement.
"There are very few things . . . that are so personal that I can take a
hard-and-fast stand on," said a corporate communications manager for a
high- technology company. Debaters believe decision making requires
balance and weighing of multiple factors; there are gray areas that defy
clear-cut answers, and right-versus-right dilemmas emerged from data. A
development director for a university explained: "It's not that one value
is detrimental to society and the other isn't. Both people have a
legitimate, reasonable ethical stand but just don't agree . . . . I'm
trying to see it from their point of view . . . . I admire their
convictions. I'm not sure I agree with all of them but I admire them." The
data reveal that debaters seek compromise and try to accommodate other
Loyalist: The third decision-maker category to emerge from this study is
the loyalist, who is ruled more by the heart than the head. The two
participants who fall in this category –both women–have a strong concern
for the feelings and views of others. "I think about how the issue affects
people," explained a public relations/communications manager for a
nonprofit organization. "You know, how it would affect those people in
immediate circles, how it would affect beyond that." These participants
said they often struggle to determine which loyalty should take precedence.
In fact, their breadth of loyalties emerged as quite extensive, as one
manager's list reveals: "I felt a loyalty to her [an employee], I felt a
loyalty to my boss, to her boss. I felt a loyalty to the company and
possibly also to the employees." Loyalists consider relationships to be
crucial but feel personal responsibility for the success or failure of
those relationships. The difficulty, one manager found, is that a public
relations practitioner's duty to the company can interfere with
relationships with individuals inside or outside the corporate structure.
Avoider: The final–and largest–category of decision making to emerge is the
avoider. Seven respondents are included in this category, six of whom have
five or fewer years of public relations experience. All but one of the
avoiders is female. Reasons they gave for avoidance range from fear of
disapproval to lack of job responsibility for making ethical
decisions. Evidence emerged, however, that their indecision reflects a
lack of experience in public relations and/or ethical decision making but
not a lack of moral conviction.
Some avoiders said they have strayed from personal beliefs and have acted
uncharacteristically unethically. The data reveal that a need for
acceptance and advancement could cause adverse results. "I think when
you're a young PR professional, you'll do just about anything," said a
senior account executive for a mid-sized agency. "I shouldn't say that as a
catch-all but . . . I've worked with people who'll do just about anything
to get their client placed somewhere." Evidence also suggests that lack of
experience and a dearth of decision-making responsibility contribute to
avoidance among the participants. Younger participants believe that their
behind-the-scenes role removes the decision-making action from their hands.
For example, a junior account executive explained, "I don't feel like I
deal with it as much because I don't see them face to face." Comments by a
special events coordinator concur: "I'm kind of at the bottom of the list.
The ethical dilemmas are there for me, too, but I'm not responsible for
them. You know, the upper-level people are responsible for them."
One participant used avoidance to rationalize inaction. The media relations
consultant believes avoidance helps her justify her involvement in a
tobacco account that conflicts with her beliefs. "I kinda had a set
response, which was that I'm not promoting that product. I can tell you
about [the sport] but I really don't know anything about tobacco. But
here's someone who can answer those questions. So it was basically to not
deal with the issue at all."
"I Did It"–Taking Action
The data reveal that these practitioners make decision based on a series of
steps in a process. They first engaged in a "discovery process" to examine
and identify the ethical nature of a situation. Next, they employed a
"hashing it out" step, during which confrontation and negotiation take
place. The negotiation leads each participant toward action that can
reinforce their intention to act ethically or violate ethical principles.
This is the point at which participants said they do something, whether
ethical or not. "I did it," one public relations assistant noted about
following agency policy to avoid identifying her agency affiliation.
Participants also believe that taking action can entail telling a client or
supervisor, "no," and refusing to do what they feel is unethical, such as
altering official company records.
"What's right"–Reinforce intent: Generally, participants said they try to
act in ways that reflect their ethical intentions without violating their
principles. Evidence emerged that respondents are idealistic about
resolving conflicts ethically, regardless of their age or experience level.
It is not surprising that the younger participants admit their idealism.
What is less expected, however, is that experienced participants maintain a
sense of idealism that values conflict may be avoided. They expressed this
view through words such as "hope" and "luck." In fact, three participants,
each with more than ten years of professional experience, expressed their
optimism about reaching ethical solutions. For example, an agency vice
president stated, "Hopefully, in the Camelot of public relations and
marketing, all of those come together and we all have the same values." One
corporate communications director believes public relations practitioners
have a responsibility to defend ethical behavior or remove themselves from
unethical surroundings. "Hopefully, professionals today would be strong
enough in their position where if they were faced with an ethical
situation–a company was pushing them to say something that they didn't
think was right–you know, there would be some type of out."
A few participants discussed incidents in which they refused to acquiesce
to outside pressures to violate their principles. A publications/promotions
director quit her job when she believed unethical behavior was expected of
her, and an agency owner said he had turned down profitable business
opportunities that he deemed unethical. In other instances, a supervisor or
client acquiesced, which respondents contended would reaffirm their ethical
intentions. For example, a vice president of relationship development said
he declined a request by the agency president to pursue unsavory clients.
Although the president was surprised by his objection, she did not require
that he act against his principles, he said. A junior AE believes that
group objection helped her agency team change training guidelines for a
media campaign. "I think the guy was probably pretty shocked, and said,
'OK, you're the one that's got to pitch it on the phone. How do you want to
do it?' And we said, 'Well, we want to mention who we are up front.' So it
was fine." The junior account executive said she probably would not have
confronted the trainer on her own but found strength in numbers.
Violate principles: Participants presented more examples of reinforcing
their values than those instances in which they behaved unethically. Those
participants who acted unethically said the violation would be a temporary
lapse in judgment. "Every time I have done something that I later
regretted, it was when I violated just my gut sense of right," said a
corporate communications manager for a pharmaceutical company. In another
example, an "uncomfortable" feeling that a publications/promotions director
felt dissipated after she spoke to the nonprofit agency manager about her
The participants believe that when they commit unethical actions, it is to
ensure that they do not compromise fundamentals, such as job security and
fitting in. Several examples of the link between needs and violation of
principles emerge from the data. A junior AE who said she is uncomfortable
working on a tobacco account, is concerned about having a job and paying
her bills. "I'll work in pig manure as long as I can get this job," she
said. A comment by an account director sums up the allure of job success:
"People can't see it because they're enamoured with their position, their
power, their organization, their new car. It happens." Similarly, some
participants feel burdened by the need for approval and to fit in. A
special events coordinator said she does not want to do anything that make
people think she is "stupid." A public relations assistant indicated, "I
have a soft spot for people who are nice to me."
Based on the data, however, it is naïve and unfair to dichotomize the
participants' behaviors as simply ethical or unethical. Instead, the
actions taken by these respondents emerged during open coding along an
ethical continuum of right and wrong. At one end of the spectrum, these
participants reinforce their ethical standards or values, what they define
as the most ethical action. At the other end of the spectrum, these
participants act in ways that violate their principles, which they define
as unethical. But the bulk of the actions taken by these fifteen
participants fall within the two extremes of "right" and "wrong."
"Wiggle Room"-Respondents may bend the rules: Data reveal the respondents'
belief that determining the "rightness" and "wrongness" of ethical actions
is not a simple task. They stated "it depends" when discussing how they
applied their values in real-world situations. A representative term
discovered in open coding that they all applied is that decisions are
clouded by shades of "gray." Coding of properties revealed that
participants allow themselves leeway in applying their beliefs, something
that a corporate communications manager described as "some wiggle room." A
manager of public relations/communications explained that she evaluates
situations to determine "where I can lean a bit." This "wiggle room,"
however, does not result in complete disregard of values, they explained,
and some actions are "pretty good" or "good enough" but not unethical.
Participants examine whether their actions fall within their "wiggle room"
distinction. Coding of properties revealed five issues surrounding the
wiggle room concept: severity of the offense, frequency of occurrence,
motive, level of the offender's authority, and public perception.
First, data reveal that these participants look at the severity of the
action taken. The participants believe there is a difference between
illegal and unethical behavior, for example, and public relations
practitioners should obey the law. "It's within the letter of the law,"
said the communications manager, "but it's a little bit distasteful."
Second, participants believe the frequency of an ethical offense helps
distinguish between minor and major offenses. A "one-time incident" is not
as serious as patterns of abuse, a public relations/communications manager
stated. According to a senior AE, "It's one thing to have . . . a dilemma
to come up once and you have to work through it. I mean, that's just part
of the learning process. But if you're . . . finding that you question the
direction of your company, you question some of the things you're being
told to do . . . my feeling is you have to make a change." Additionally,
participants believe motive should be assessed because accidents are less
severe than intentional offenses. Motive relates to the purpose of positive
behavior as well, according to a development director. She believes that
when legitimate companies do good things to benefit society, it is
acceptable, but those who try to buy a positive image through superfluous
activities act unethically.
Third, four participants said they consider the level of authority held by
the offender. An agency managing director said he asked himself, "'Is it a
bunch of underlings or is it some real muckety-mucks who know what's going
on?'" The greater the clout, the greater the violation, he believes. A
public relations director also believes practitioners in low-level
positions or who have less professional experience receive more leeway if
they violate ethical tenets. "We expect more from people who've been around
the block," she said.
Finally, some participants believe the general public dictates what is
acceptable or unacceptable, and, as a result, public relations
practitioners should consider community ethical standards when deciding
what action to take. An agency owner said he considers the effect his
actions may have on public interests. He said he has asked himself, "'Is
that something that the public or I should be involved in, period?'"
Similarly, an agency director said it is important to consider public
perceptions. "As communicators, one of the things we have to deal with is,
are these actions generally accepted by the culture?"
The emergence of the "wiggle room" reflects the participants' views of the
"gray" nature of ethical decision-making. That is, between the extremes of
reinforcing their ethical intentions and violating principles is a "gray"
area where decisions are neither wholly ethical nor wholly unethical. Three
sub-categories emerged that depicted the "shades of gray" within the
practitioners' ethical decision-making process: consensus, compromise, and
"Shades of Gray" - Coding revealed that the participants defined most of
their actions along a continuum of right and wrong. They believe that,
although their standards are most important, ultimately they have to
balance the need to maintain their own ethical standards with the needs of
others. The data reveal three categories of a gray-area continuum between
the extremes of right and wrong. Consensus emerged as closest to
reinforcing intent, followed by compromise, which involves concessions. The
third category is "opting out," which emerged as closest to violating
Consensus: Nine participants described decision-making actions as what a
public relations director calls "consensus style," which involves balance,
cooperation, and mutual benefit. According to an agency managing director,
"You need to operate your business in a mutually beneficial way to people
other than your immediate customers. You're in this constant balancing
process." Respondents believe it is important to balance interests for the
greatest good. "It would be a win-win type of thing," said a
publications/promotions director for a nonprofit organization. "It's
overused but anything you do to show and be sincere, we care about this . .
. these are some ways that we might be able to help." Several managers
believe in cooperation and greater good. "The needs of the company are all
based on meeting the needs of the client," a senior vice president stated.
"So whatever you can do to best meet the needs of the client should best
serve the needs of the company."
An integral element of consensus emerging from the data is the
participants' interaction with other decision-makers. As a
publications/promotions director stated, "We need to work together." Most
participants said they do not make decisions unilaterally, particularly
when multiple interests are at stake. A public relations director for a
media company explained, "On the really tough ones, you need other people .
. . . in a lot of ways it's a recognition that people think and respond
differently to different situations."
Eight of the nine participants who discussed consensus decision-making are
in management positions within their organizations. The exception is a
junior account executive who works on an account team. She said she is
involved with group consensus within a team environment. All four
categories of decision-makers–absolutists, debaters, loyalists, and
Compromise: Six participants described their actions as "giving in" or
"compromise." Whereas they consider consensus a give-and-take process,
those participants who apply compromise believe it involves more "give"
than "take," particularly on their parts. A publications/promotions
director described negotiations that result in any conciliation on her part
as compromise. "There were times certainly where you sorta had to go, you
know, 'round and 'round, and sometimes, compromise what you wanted to put
[in a publication]." Similarly, a public relations director noted, "You're
torn . . . between different interests . . . and you end up having to
compromise. You know, something that you both kind of grudgingly give." A
director of development indicated that compromise often follows a
stalemate, in which individuals finally decided to "agree to disagree."
Participants also believe compromise has a negative connotation. For
example, a corporate communications manager indicated compromise is similar
to conceding what she considers to be right and ethical. Likewise, a
special events coordinator explained that a compromise could involve
"stepping outside what I believe to be right."
The data reveal three types of decision-makers use compromise–avoiders,
debaters, and loyalists. None of the absolutists discussed compromise as an
option. This may result from findings that absolutists are unwilling to
concede their views.
Opting Out: Twelve of the fifteen participants indicated that they have
evaded or sidestepped an ethical conflict or problem, something that an
agency managing director referred to as "opting out." Evidence suggests
that evading ethical issues relates to the participants' desire to maintain
their personal values, but it does not constitute perpetrating unethical
behavior. Rather, a participant might "look away" from something he
witnesses and not consider inaction to be unethical. For example, an
account director said he steered clear of an agribusiness client pitch
because he considered the industry ethically suspect. "As a public
relations agent, I would not have participated in that proposal. I would
have opted out of it," he said. "Other people in our company participated
in that. I did not participate in that." Similarly, an agency vice
president said he shunned a request to pitch to potential clients whom he
considered unethical. "I would prefer not to be the one who does that," he
said. Several participants believe their responsibilities are limited to
calling attention to potential or existing ethical problems with public
relations implications. Clients or higher-level decision-makers have
ultimate responsibility. As a facilitator, for example, a
publications/promotions director said she has an obligation to report her
concerns to the nonprofit organization's manager only, and she "let it go
Participants believe opting out can be questionable but not wholly
unethical. For example, a corporate communications manager said she also
had opted out of full disclosure about certain company activities. "It's
almost like lying because we weren't telling anybody that we were doing
this," she said, adding, "Would my Momma be proud if she know I was doing
this? No, but it's business."
Several interesting issues emerged from these findings. First, their use
of "wiggle room" delineates between a wholly unethical action and one that
involves opting out. Participants use statements such as "almost like
lying" and "not a totally honest thing to do" to acknowledge that they may
have overlooked but not violated values. Other participants also referred
to smaller offenses. For example, when the president of the nonprofit
organization where one participant works was fired, the public statement
indicated he had resigned to pursue other interests. "[It was] easy to say
that," the public relations/communications manager noted. "That wasn't a
big dilemma." A corporate communications manager said that she weighs the
significance of her action and asks herself: "Is it something important
enough to walk away? Or is it on a scale of importance that you can live
Second, data show that certain types of decision-makers are more apt to
opt out than other respondents are. All seven avoiders indicated that they
have opted out when making some decisions regarding ethical issues. This
finding is consistent with characteristics of the avoider category.
Avoiders believe they are victims who are "taken advantage of," but would
"suck it up and do it anyways," as a public relations assistant, described
it. A less-expected finding is the use of opting out by two of the three
participants who are categorized as absolutists. The data reveal that when
absolutists dodge a problem, they present it as a positive choice made to
refrain from unethical behavior. For example, two agency executives said
they abstain from client or organizational activities that do not meet
their standards of right and wrong.
Third, evidence reveals that most participants act in multiple areas along
the decision-making continuum. Six participants said they have employed
consensus and opting out when reaching decisions, four participants have
applied both compromise and opting out, and one participant has used
compromise and consensus. All individuals in the study indicated they have
acted in ways that reinforce their personal values, but very few admit
violating their principles. Only one participant–an agency owner–presented
his actions within one category on the continuum. He believes his actions
are wholly ethical, and he did not describe any actions that could be
categorized within the shades of gray areas of consensus, compromise, or
opting out. This anomaly may reflect his absolutist approach to decision
making and his contention that he has few of the unmet needs described
In summary, the data show that participants' define behavior along an
ethical action continuum ranging from reinforcement of values to unethical
behavior. They believe most of their actions fall between the two extremes
and involve consensus, compromise, and opting out. Participants act within
the two extremes of "right" and "wrong" when multiple values conflict or
when more than one "right" course of action emerges. They believe that
violating one value in deference to another does not necessarily constitute
The decision-making roles emerging from this study support elements of
existing theory, notably, the application of teleology and deontology.
First, absolutists approach ethical decision making from a deontological
perspective, evident by their clear notions of right and wrong. Contrary to
the absolutists, the debaters practice teleological approaches to ethical
decision making. The participants recognize that moral viewpoints may
conflict and weigh pros and cons of potential solutions to determine the
fairest resolution to ethical issues. Like debaters, the loyalists approach
ethics teleologically and believe that the most ethically sound action
shows concern for others. The participants categorized as avoiders also
espouse strong ethical convictions–that is, the intention to act
ethically–but the move from intent to action often is impaired or evaded.
These individuals often believe that rules and loyalties both deserve
attention, which reflects elements of both deontology and teleology.
Taking Action: Participants in this study do not perceive their ethical
actions in a black-and-white fashion. Instead, degrees of rightness and
wrongness emerge, as determined by the range of behavior allowed by the
scope of their "wiggle-room" standard. The use of an ethical continuum–that
is, a range of ethical actions–does not support decision-making models that
dichotomize a decision as "ethical" or "unethical" without permitting
shades of gray inherent in ethical situations. Rather, the range of
actions within the respondents' "wiggle-room" standard supports research
that shows individuals may select "more ethical" or "less ethical"
alternatives rather than simply make "right" and "wrong" choices.
Several participants indicated that many conflicts involve
right-versus-right dilemmas, in which two or more principles clash and
cannot be employed simultaneously. For instance, these participants face
situations in which honesty conflicts with compassion or privacy collides
with the public's right to know. Actions that favor one value would result
in the violation of the second value.
Participants believe it would be inaccurate to dichotomize their actions as
"ethical" or "unethical." Rather, evidence emerged that participants act
along an ethical continuum from least ethical to most ethical action.
Between the extremes, participants employ consensus building, compromise,
or evade action altogether. These degrees of ethical behavior support the
general view that ethics relates to "gray" areas of decision making and the
tendency to identify the best solution for the circumstance at hand.
Influence of Roles: The participants' decision-making roles influence the
type of action taken along the continuum, which supports a conflict
management model developed twenty-five
years ago by researcher Kenneth W. Thomas. The predominant conflict
management modes model for decision making identifies the degree of
desire for self-satisfaction or satisfaction of others (See Figure 1).
Absolutists pursue a high degree of self-satisfaction and have a lower
desire to satisfy the needs of others. Their actions do not always
reinforce their ethical intentions, despite their strong declaration of
ethical standards. This approach supports the competition mode of conflict
management, in which individuals are interested in meeting their own needs.
The debaters build consensus among publics to optimize satisfaction for all
parties. This approach supports the collaboration mode of conflict
management, in which individuals desire a high degree of self-satisfaction
and satisfaction of others. Loyalists struggle to balance the needs of self
and others but typically place the desires of others ahead of themselves,
in actions emerging as compromise or opting out. This approach supports the
accommodation mode of conflict management, in which individuals place the
needs of others ahead of themselves to minimize loss. The loyalists and
debaters also compromise when they cannot resolve conflicts via
accommodation or collaboration. This approach supports the compromise mode
of conflict management, a mid-range strategy used as a practical
alternative when time limitations exist. Avoiders often opt out of decision
making; they are unwilling or unable to take action. This approach supports
the avoidance mode of conflict management, in which individuals have low
desires to satisfy the needs of self and others.
This paper has examined how a small group of public relations
practitioners took action when confronted with ethical issues on the job.
Findings indicate that each practitioner assumed a decision-making role -
absolutist, debater, loyalist, or avoider - and made decisions within the
context of that role. Additionally, the analysis of in-depth interviews
support an ethical action continuum that addresses not only the extremes of
acting in accordance with ones standards (ethically) or violating ones
principles (unethically), but also intermediary stages of consensus,
compromise and opting out. These findings support literature that indicates
individuals tend to consider their decisions as more or less ethical rather
than in a black-and-white form.
This study was limited to the interviews of a small group of practitioners
and hence cannot be generalized across the entire profession. Further
research is needed to ascertain how these findings apply to the profession
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 Scott M. Cutlip, Allen H. Center, and Glen M. Broom, Effective Public
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 See, for example, James H. Bissland and Terry Lynn Rentner,
"Education's Role in Professionalizing Public Relations: A Progress
Report," Journal of Mass Media Ethics 4, no. 1 (1989): 92-105; Thomas H.
Bivins, "Public Relations, Professionalism and the Public Interest,"
Journal of Business Ethics 12 (1993): 117-126;
Robert L. Heath and Michael Ryan, "Public Relations' Role in Defining
Corporate Social Responsibility," Journal of Mass Media Ethics 4, no. 1
(1989): 21-38; Larry R. Judd, "Credibility, Public Relations, and Social
Responsibility," Public Relations Review 15, no. 2 (Summer 1989): 34-40;
Jacquie L'Etang, "Public Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility:
Some Issues Arising," Journal of Business Ethics 13 (1993): 111-123; David
L. Martinson, "Enlightened Self-Interest Fails as an Ethical Baseline in
Public Relations," Journal of Mass Media Ethics 9, no. 2 (1994): 100-108;
Theodore Peterson, "Social Responsibility Theory of the Press," in Four
Theories of the Press, ed. Fred S. Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur
Schramm (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 73-103; Donald K.
Wright, "Social Responsibility in Public Relations: A Multi-step Theory,"
Public Relations Review 2, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 24-36.
 Sherry Baker, "Applying Kidder's Ethical Decision-making Checklist to
Media Ethics," Journal of Mass Media Ethics 12, no. 4 (1997): 197-210;
James E. Grunig, "Collectivism, Collaboration, and Societal Corporatism as
Core Professional Values in Public Relations" Journal of Public Relations
Research 12, no. 1 (2000): 23-48; Rushworth Kidder, How Good People Make
Tough Choices (New York: Morrow, 1995); Mark P. McElreath, Managing
Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns, 2nd ed. (Boston: McGraw
Hill, 1997), 57-58, 76; Christopher Spicer, Organizational Public
Relations: A Political Perspective (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum
Associates, 1997), 287; Gabriel M. Vasquez and Maureen Taylor, "What
Cultural Values Influence American Public Relations Practitioners?" Public
Relations Review 25, no. 4 (Winter 1999): 433-449.
 McElreath, Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns,
 McElreath, Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns, 76.
 Amanda E. Cancel, Glen T. Cameron, Lynne M. Sallot, and Michael A.
Mitrook, "It Depends: A Contingency Theory of Accommodation in Public
Relations," Journal of Public Relations Research 9, no. 1 (1997): 36-63;
Greg Leichty and Jeff Springston, "Reconsidering Public Relations Models,"
Public Relations Review 19 (1993): 327-339.
 The four-panel Potter Box is an ethical decision-making process used
in media ethics texts. Potter described four stages–define the problem,
identify values, select guiding principles, and determine which loyalties
take precedence. McElreath, Managing Systematic and Ethical Public
Relations Campaigns, 57-58.
 In situation ethics, ethical decisions are made following in-depth
analysis of the ethical problem, and a combination of rules-based and
consequence-based considerations. The process falls within the highest
stage of Lawrence Kohlberg's moral development. Situation ethics differs
from situational ethics, which has erroneously been used to refer to
ethical relativism or an "anything goes" approach to resolving problems.
Ethical relativism is considered the least-ethical approach. See Robert E.
Denton Jr., Ethical Dimensions of Political Communication (New York:
Praeger, 1991), 60-61; Gabriel M. Vasquez, "Public Relations as
Negotiation: An Issue Development Perspective," Journal of Public Relations
Research 8, no. 1 (1996): 57-77.
 See, for example, Marcia Hill, Kristin Glaser, and Judy Harden, "A
Feminist Model for Ethical Decision Making," Women & Therapy 21, no. 3
(1998): 101-121; Michael McDonald, A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making,
published on the Centre for Applied Ethics web site,
http://www.ethics.ubc.ca/mcdonald/decisions.html (December 1999); David B.
Paradice and Roy M. Dejoie, "The Ethical Decision-Making Processes of
Information System Workers," Journal of Business Ethics 10 (1991): 1-12;
Michael W. Singletary, Susan Caudill, Edward Caudill, and Allen White,
"Motives for Ethical Decision-Making," Journalism Quarterly 64, no. 4
(Winter 1990): 964-972; Linda Klebe Trevino and Stuart A. Youngblood, "Bad
Apples in Bad Barrels: A Causal Analysis of Ethical Decision-Making
Behavior," Journal of Applied Psychology 75, no. 4 (1990): 378-385; Vasquez
and Taylor, "What Cultural Values Influence American Public Relations
 See, for example, Sandra L. Bordon, "Choice Processes in a Newspaper
Ethics Case," Communication Monographs 64, no. 1 (March 1997): 65-81; Louie
V. Larimer, "How Employees Decide Which Way to Go," Workforce 76, no. 12
(December 1997): 109-111; Singletary, Caudill, Caudill, and White, "Motives
for Ethical Decision-Making," 964; Linda Trevino, "Ethical Decision Making
in Organizations: A Person-Situation Interactionist Model," Academy of
Management Review 11, no. 3 (1986): 601-617; Linda Klebe Trevino and Stuart
A. Youngblood, "Bad Apples in Bad Barrels," Journal of Applied Psychology
75, no 4 (1990): 378; Vasquez and Taylor, "What Cultural Values Influence
American Public Relations Practitioners?" 444-446; Scott J. Vitell, Saviour
L. Nwachukwu, and James H. Barnes, "The Effects of Culture on Ethical
Decision-Making: An Application of Hofstede's Typology," Journal of
Business Ethics 12 (1993): 753-760.
 See, for example, Patricia L. Brousseau, "Ethical Dilemmas: Right vs.
Right," Spectrum 68, no. 1 (Winter 1995): 16-22; Hill, Glaser, and Harden,
"A Feminist Model for Ethical Decision Making," 101-121; Naresh K. Malhotra
and Gina L. Miller, "An Integrated Model for Ethical Decisions in Marketing
Research," Journal of Business Ethics 17 (1998): 263-280; McDonald, "A
Framework for Ethical Decision-Making," web site.
 Social work ethicist Frederic G. Reamer explained that the resources
available to determine how to make ethical decisions is still relatively
new, with a wave of publications regarding professional ethics starting in
the 1970s. Frederic G. Reamer, Social Work Values and Ethics (New York:
Columbia University Press, 1995), 8.
 Donald K. Wright, "Social Responsibility in Public Relations: A
Multi-Step Theory," Public Relations Review 2, no. 3 (Fall 1976): 24-23;
John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton, Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn
Lies, and the Public Relations Industry (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press,
 McElreath, Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations
Campaigns, 175-176. McElreath also delineated public relations from
advertising, which targets specific audiences. Lu and colleagues indicated
the stakeholders considered by marketers are self, the employing
organization, clients/customers, and fellow employees. Other stakeholders
such as the organization's community, non-client supporters, dissenters, or
competitors, were not considered. Long-Chuan Lu, Gregory M. Rose, and
Jeffrey G. Blodgett, "The Effects of Cultural Dimensions on Ethical
Decision Making in Marketing: An Exploratory Study," Journal of Business
Ethics 18 (1999): 95.
 Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese, Mediating the Message:
Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content (White Plains, NY: Longman
Publishers, 1996). See also John C. Merrill, "Is Ethical Journalism Simply
Objective Reporting?" Journalism Quarterly 62 (1985): 391-393.
 Philip Patterson and Lee Wilkins, Media Ethics: Issues and Cases
(Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991): 9-10; Philip Sieb and Kathy
Fitzpatrick, Public Relations Ethics (Ft. Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace &
Company, 1995): 29-30.
 Mill extended the earlier definition of utilitarianism espoused by
British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. While Bentham focused solely on the
amount of good–or pleasure–derived from a decision, Mill argued that the
quality of the outcome held equal relevance. See Mill, On Liberty; John
Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett Publishing, 1979).
See also Theodore C. Denise, Sheldon P. Peterfreund, and Nicholas P. White,
Great Traditions in Ethics, 8th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing
Company, 1996), 199-218; Sieb and Fitzpatrick, Public Relations Ethics, 30-31.
 Gene R. Laczniak and Patrick E. Murphy, Ethical Marketing Decisions:
The Higher Road (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1993): 34; McElreath, Managing
Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns, 54; Patterson and
Wilkins, Media Ethics, 8.
 Patterson and Wilkins, Media Ethics, 8-9.
 Nigel G. E. Harris, "Professional Codes and Kantian Duties," in
Ethics and the Professions (Ruth F. Chadwick, ed.), pp. 104-115
(Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 1994): 105. See also Jenneth
Parker, "Moral Philosophy–Another 'Disabling Profession?'" in Ethics and
the Professions, ed. Ruth F. Chadwick (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Publishing
Company, 1994), 33.
 Thomas M. Jones, "Ethical Decision Making by Individuals in
Organizations: An Issue-Contingent Model," Journal of Management Review 16,
no. 2 (1991): 366-395; James R. Rest, Moral Development: Advances in
Research and Theory (New York: Praeger, 1986); Ronald R. Sims, Ethics and
Organizational Decision-making: A Call for Renewal (Westport, CT: Quorum
Books, 1994): 40. The four-step problem-solving process is a common means
of addressing general public relations issues as well. See, for example,
Cutlip, Center, and Broom, Effective Public Relations, 339-456.
 Baker, "Applying Kidder's Ethical Decision-Making Checklist to Media
Ethics," 204; Hill, Glaser, and Harden, "A Feminist Model for Ethical
Decision Making," 114; Shelby D. Hunt and Scott Vitell, "A General Theory
of Marketing Ethics," Journal of Macromarketing 8 (1986): 5-16; Rushworth
M. Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices (New York: Morrow, 1995):
186; McElreath, Managing Systematic and Ethical Public Relations Campaigns, 57.
McDonald, A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making.
Scholars have maintained that a person's attitude toward a subject can
predict his or her action on it; however, intervening factors such as
social norms, value systems, and habits could interfere. See generally Icek
Ajzen and Martin Fishbein, Understanding Attitudes and Predicting Social
Behavior (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1980); Paul C. Stern, Thomas
Dietz, Linda Kalof, and Gregory.A. Guagnano, "Values, Beliefs, and
Proenvironmental Action: Attitude Formation Toward Emergent Attitude
Objects," Journal of Applied Social Psychology 28, no. 18 (1995): 1611-1636.
Malhotra and Miller, "An Integrated Model for Ethical Decisions in
Marketing Research," 276; Frank Navran, "The Big PLUS in Ethical Decision
Making," in Book of Proceedings, 5th Annual National Conference on Ethics
in America (1994): 514.
 John M. Darley, "How Organizations Socialize Individuals into
Evildoing," in Codes of Conduct: Behavioral Research into Business Ethics,
ed. David M. Messick and Ann E. Tenbrunsel, pp. 13-43 (New York: Russell
Sage Foundation, 1996); "Ethical Lapses Blamed on Corporate Cultures,"
Communication World 5, no. 4 (March 1988): 12-13; Marc D. Street, Chris
Robertson, and Scott W. Geiger, "Ethical Decision Making: The Effects of
Escalating Commitment," Journal of Business Ethics 16 (1997): 1153-1161.
 See, for example, Neil C. Herndon, "A New Context for Ethics
Education Objectives in a College of Business: Ethical Decision-Making
Models," Journal of Business Ethics 15, no. 5 (1996): 505; Malhotra and
Miller, "An Integrated Model for Ethical Decisions in Marketing Research," 272.
 See, for example, Ralph Dolgoff and Louise Skolnic, "Ethical Decision
Making in Social Work with Groups: An Empirical Study," Social Work with
Groups 19, no. 2 (1996): 60; Hunt and Vitell, "A General Theory of
Marketing Ethics," 10.
 Glen M. Broom and David M. Dozier, Using Research in Public
Relations: Applications to Program Management (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 1990): 143-145; Hy Mariampolski, "The Resurgence of
Qualitative Research," in Precision Public Relations, ed. Robert E. Hiebert
(White Plains, NY: Longman Inc., 1988), 168.
Larry R. Judd, "The Importance and Use of Formal Research and
Evaluation," Public Relations Review 16, no. 4 (Winter 1990): 17. See also
Broom and Dozier, Using Research in Public Relations, 143-151; J. W. Heyink
and T. J. Tymstra, "The Function of Qualitative Research," Social
Indicators Research 29, no. 3 (1993): 294.
 Michael Quinn Patton, Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods,
2nd ed. (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1990): 182.
 See generally, Barney G. Glaser and Anselm Strauss, The Discovery of
Grounded Theory: Strategies for Qualitative Research (Chicago: Aldine
Publishing Company, 1967); Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin, Basics of
Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded
Theory, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc., 1998).
 Thomas R. Lindlof, Qualitative Communication Research Methods,
Current Communication: Advanced Text Series, vol. 3 (Thousand Oaks, CA:
Sage Publications, 1995), 224; Grant McCracken, The Long Interview (Newbury
Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1988): 42.
 See, for example, Neil C. Herndon, "A New Context for Ethics
Education Objectives in a College of Business: Ethical Decision-Making
Models," Journal of Business Ethics 15, no. 5 (1996): 505; Malhotra and
Miller, "An Integrated Model for Ethical Decisions in Marketing Research," 272.
 See, for example, Dolgoff and Skolnic, "Ethical Decision Making in
Social Work with Groups: An Empirical Study," 60; Hunt and Vitell, "A
General Theory of Marketing Ethics," 10.
 See, for example, Sherry Baker, "Applying Kidder's Ethical
Decision-Making Checklist to Media Ethics," Journal of Mass Media Ethics
12, no. 4 (1997): 205; Kidder, How Good People Make Tough Choices;
McDonald, A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making; Frederic G. Reamer,
Social Work Ethics and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).
 Kenneth W. Thomas, "Conflict and Conflict Management," in Handbook of
Industrial and Organizational Psychology, ed. Marvin M. Dunnette (Chicago:
Rand McNally, 1976), 900. Public relations scholar Christopher Spicer also
discussed Thomas' conflict management modes for use in public relations,
but not specifically as they related to public relations ethics. Spicer,
Organizational Public Relations: A Political Perspective, 249-252.