The PRSA defines public relations as, “… a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” Public relations have become nearly irreplaceable making a business, cause or person standout and successful in the increasingly dense media world. Undoubtedly, ethical questions will arise in the course of conducting business, running a campaign or championing a cause. As a result, it’s imperative for public relations specialist to remain the conscience of the entity for which they work for. By understanding ethical theories and applying them to situations which arise in a career, PR specialist can promise themselves a long-term and successful career. By looking a specific case, we can see how ethical theories were (or weren’t) applied. As French author, journalist and philosopher Albert Camus once said, “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.” In order to protect not only the business or person from public scrutiny, but the profession as a whole, ethics need to be exercised every day.
Egoism, the first ethical theory we will visit, states that the most ethical act comes from acting in one’s own best interest. Several problems arise in this ethical situation because the perceived best interest of an organization might not actually be the most ethical approach. There exists no better example than the case of Patrick J. Witt, the former quarterback for Yale University. Witt, a 3.91 GPA student as well as star quarterback for the football team, was set to go before the Rhodes Trust in Atlanta for the Rhodes scholarship. On November 13 of this past year, Witt announced he was withdrawing his application because the game against Harvard happened to conflict with the day he would interview. Around the university and in several major news stations, including ESPN, the record-setting quarterback was hailed as a hero, despite the fact that Yale would be routed by Harvard. It’s a story with a good-feeling ending. Except that it’s not.
The Rhodes Trust suspended Witt’s application because of an all alleged sexual assault complaint against Witt. Though the girl never filed a complaint with either the university or the police, it was enough to merit Witt’s suspension. To make matter worse, Yale University and Witt knowingly withheld this information from the media and public, instead fabricating a story claiming the reason for withdrawing his application was conflict with Yale-Harvard game. This instance shows the flaws associated with egoism. Witt and Yale both acted ethically according to egoism; they acted in their own best interest in order to protect their images. If Witt and Yale were determined to apply egoism, then they should have at least applied enlightened self-interest. According to Mixed Media, enlightened self-interest acknowledges that businesses do well financially by acting ethically. Therefore acting ethically is in the best interest of the individual and organization. Had Yale and Witt applied this ethical system, Witt would have suffered some minor scrutiny but in America, athletic feats make the American people generally forgiving. Instead, now Yale has its image and integrity questioned, and while its prestige will always boost Yale’s image, the university suffered a black eye of publicity it didn’t have to take.
Besides applying egoism to this case, we can see how it affected the outcome of the situation. If Yale had media relations specialists on the case, they failed ethically to promote the interests of the public, which includes Yale alumni, sports fans and the American public in general. How different would the situation had been if another ethical situation was applied? As Immanuel Kant would argue, the only ethical act is determined by intent. Yale and Witt probably knew that by lying they would cover their own butts despite deceiving the public, which is exactly what they did. Instead of acting this way, Yale should have held a press conference for Witt to explain the reason behind removing his application for the Rhodes scholarship.
Even when one applies utilitarianism, Witt and Yale’s media relations failed ethically. Utilitarianism defines ethical action as when one must do whatever benefits the largest number of people. Witt and Yale were obviously the only benefactors from their acts.
As shown above, public relations specialists and communicators must act ethically not only for their organization but for public relations professionals as well. In today’s business and political worlds, profit margins and winning seem to hold the highest throne in the minds of Americans. It is imperative that not only as PR professionals but as functioning members of society, we hold ethics in the highest regard. Although an ethical approach might not benefit us, our businesses or our campaigns in the short-term, it’s the long-term that really matters.