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Leading with Ethics: 6 Insights from PRSA Leaders

By Andrea Simrell, SCPRSA Ethics Chair

PRSA Ethics Month is here! Although we set aside this month to mark the important role of ethics, ethics needs to be a consideration for PR practitioners every day.

So how do we lead with ethics? How can we serve as trusted advisors to our businesses and clients?

The recent PRSA webinar, Leading with Ethics, offered valuable advice and lessons from experienced professionals, as well as some interesting takeaways.

Thank you to the following leaders for sharing their tips and experiences:

  • Michelle Egan, APR, Fellow PRSA, chief communications officer, Alyeska Pipeline Service Co.
  • Nance Larsen, APR, Fellow PRSA, Vice President Integrated Marketing Communications, The Strive Group
  • Karen Swim, APR, president and CEO, Words For Hire
  • BJ Whitman, APR, Fellow PRSA, president, BJW Public Relations


Here are six insights from the webinar

1. The PRSA Code of Ethics is a great foundational resource.

Speakers mentioned how the Code of Ethics helps us break down ethical issues or dilemmas and gives insight on when to speak up. Although it is a specific code for PR professionals, it can be mentioned to clients as something you adhere to, discussed with your larger team, and used as a reference when discussing codes of ethics with colleagues in other professions.

2. Ethical standards in the real world are not one-size-fits-all.

Attendees were asked if they have experienced business circumstances in which their colleagues were not held to the same ethical standards as others and/or not held accountable to actions that went against the organization’s core values.

About 73% of those on the webinar said “yes,” indicating there is still a lot of work to do in the area of ethics.

3. Ethics has far-reaching impact.

Panelist Karen Swim, APR, shared how ethics affects the three Rs: recruitment, retention, and revenue. These factors matter to leadership and underscore the importance of ethics to the core foundation of a company.

4. Ethics education should go beyond formal exercises.

Another in-webinar poll asked if attendees lead their teams through informal ethical exercises and/or conversations on a regular basis to challenge their thinking and discuss difficult situations that may face their organization.

About 60% said never; 30% said occasionally and 10% said that there is an open schedule for the group outside of formal ethics-related exercises.

Speakers encouraged discussing current events and how similar situations could apply to your company as an informal learning exercise.

5. Leading with ethics encompasses many facets of our roles.

One of the slides of the webinar included a list of ways to lead with ethics:

  • Know your own personal core ethical values
  • Ask the uncomfortable questions
  • Be the person who mends fences
  • Be a confidant
  • Walk the talk
  • Recommend public relations be involved in all matters of executive communication
  • Training

Panelists elaborated on several of these points. BJ Whitman, APR, talked about asking questions. If you’re not ready to ask the uncomfortable ones, start with easier ones like “Does this represent our company’s core values?” She also encourages recording your questions over time to use as a resource for future discussions.

Michelle Egan, APR, unpacked “walk the talk” and emphasized the importance of continually demonstrating your dedication to core values. For example, if your company expresses a high commitment to safety, you should follow the same protocols that are expected from other team members.

6. Ethics is a group effort.

Attendees were asked if they have a personal ethics circle, a "go-to" individual, or a set of individuals with whom they can discuss ethical challenges.

It was great to see that about 80% selected “yes.” If you don’t have a group to discuss ethics with, please reach out to SCPRSA ― we would be happy to be a resource.

Expanding your ethical insights

If you missed this PRSA webinar and are interested in learning more about ethics, there’s good news!

Karen Swim, APR, and Mark Dvorak will be our guests for an upcoming SC PRSA webinar on ethics. Check out the details below and make plans to join us for this upcoming event.

Real-Time Ethics: How to Evaluate and Execute Ethical Decision Making

Wednesday, September 23rd
12 – 1 p.m. via Zoom

Register here: https://scprsa.org/meetinginfo.php?id=17&ts=1600287866 

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