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Making Decisions - Ethically

By Andrea Simrell, SCPRSA Ethics Chair

As PR practitioners, and as individuals, we make hundreds of decisions every day. Some are easy; some take more time; and some require detailed lists of pros and cons, the identification of potential outcomes, analysis of the possible impact ― and maybe some soul searching ― before we move forward.

These more complicated decisions could involve ethical considerations. Making good ethical choices is not straightforward but developing a framework to follow can help. A framework can be a way to explore the problem, gain perspectives, and determine the ethical course of action.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California is a great resource for ethics-related content. They’ve developed a Framework for Ethical Decision Making that can be foundational in building a process that works for you.

The five primary steps in The Markkula Center’s framework are

  1. Recognize an Ethical Issue
  2. Get the Facts
  3. Evaluate Alternative Actions
  4. Make a Decision and Test It
  5. Act and Reflect on the Outcome

Taking this structure, I’ve paired insights from The Markkula Center’s framework with variations and additions pertinent to PR professionals.

Recognize an Ethical Issue

Ask these questions:

  • How could the situation or decision negatively impact a public?
  • Is there a legal implication or just a decision between alternatives?
  • Is the choice between “good” options, “bad” options, or a combination?

Get the Facts

Take these steps:

  • Write down everything you know about the situation
  • Determine if there are gaps to fill or if you know enough to make a decision
  • Assess the involved publics and their varying degrees of impact and concern
  • Consult relevant groups or representatives from those groups to gather their input
  • Map out options for taking action, including creative ideas


Evaluate Alternative Actions

When reviewing the various options, consider the following:

  • Which will do the most good? Which would do the least harm?
  • Which best respects the rights of those involved?
  • Which treats people equally or proportionally?
  • Which is the best for the community as a whole?
  • Which option allows you to act virtuously? Which adhere to the PRSA Code of Ethics?


Make a Decision and Test It

Using the information you’ve gathered and the analysis in the previous step, it’s time to make a decision.

Once you make that choice ― how do you feel? Are you confident in explaining how you reached that decision? Could you effectively communicate it to impacted publics?

If not, consider reworking the steps and conducting a deeper evaluation.

Act and Reflect on the Outcome

Lastly, it’s time to get to work. Be thoughtful in how you implement this decision and how it is communicated to stakeholders. It’s important to also conduct analysis after the fact, assessing how the decision turned out and what you learned that can be applied to your next ethical decision.

According to The Markkula Center, “when practiced regularly, the method becomes so familiar that we work through it automatically without consulting the specific steps.” It can become like muscle memory for your brain.

Do you have an ethical decision to make that could benefit from this framework? Give it a try and let us know if the process was useful.

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