What Are the Top Ethics Challenges, Skills and Deficiencies Facing Public Relations Professionals? Marlene Neill, PhD, APR

Joining me on this week’s episode of Ethical Voices is Marlene Neill, PhD, APR. She is an assistant professor at Baylor University and the AEJMC Media Ethics Division vice head and programming chair. She is one of, if not the, top communications and ethics researchers in the United States today.

In this week’s episode, Marlene discusses:

Please tell us a bit more about yourself.

I teach classes in advertising and public relations. For my research, I specialize in ethics, internal communication, and also public relations management issues. I’ve published 19 journal articles and a book on public relations ethics. Prior to entering the academic world, I worked in public relations in nonprofit and government public relations for 12 years.

Can you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you personally have ever confronted at work?

When I was working in nonprofit public relations, there was something that came up with one of my job responsibilities that actually conflicted with my faith. I raised the concern with my immediate supervisor and fortunately, he was willing to make accommodations. And so he was able to work with me so I didn’t have to compromise something that I was uncomfortable with from a faith perspective.

Do you have advice for young professionals that if they have that ethical conflict where it’s something with their faith…How do they approach their supervisor? What’s the recommendation for taking a stand and raising the issue?

It is challenging. For me, looking back on it, I think it is important to have the courage and just be honest about your concerns. One of the things that did come out of my study for the public relations ethics book is that sometimes you can approach your supervisors as a question. It’s not so much saying this is wrong and you’re wrong about this, but actually going to them with questions and having more of a dialogue. I think that’s less threatening for people than trying to confront someone and saying, you’re all wrong about this and just really kind of confronting them, making it more of a conversation. That was some of the best advice that I’ve had from some of the senior professionals that I’ve interviewed.

Please tell us a bit more about the paper you recently wrote where public relations professionals identify ethical issues, essential competencies and deficiencies.

I want to start off by talking about the foundation of that study. The Commission on Public Relations Education did a three-year study with employers identifying the competencies that are expected for people working in public relations today. What was really fascinating about it from an ethics standpoint is that they found that employers ranked ethics among the top three skills that they desired in public relations professionals.

But the study found that employers found this skill difficult to find. So on the one hand they said, this is something they highly desire. But on the other hand, they said that current employees are not meeting their expectations in this area. And so, the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State decided that they wanted to fund research looking into what are the gaps, what is it exactly that employers are looking for from a skill standpoint and which of those skills do they perceive to be missing.

That’s what the study has been focused on. We are actually going to be making recommendations for educators based on these findings and really trying to influence public relations education based on what we’re learning from working professionals about what are the core competencies, the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) that are essential for public relations position.

What we looked at in this study is what kind of issues are professionals facing when it comes to public relations, ethics and then what are the essential knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary to have a successful career in public relations. Which of those skills do they perceive as lacking?

What are some of those issues that the employers are facing or that PR professionals are facing?

Let me first talk a little bit about the method to set it up. We asked senior leaders within the public relations industry, people who are members of the PRSA College of Fellows, who are former leaders within PRSA, the National Board, current and former board members, as well as members of the Arthur W. Page Society open-ended questions.

Some of the things that they identified were:

  • Transparency
  • Disclosure
  • Selective truth telling.
  • Lack of ethics training in general in our profession
  • Deceptive practices or intentional lying
  • No consequences in an organization for unethical behavior.
  • Verifying facts and information (which can be difficult to do sometimes in public relations)
  • Confidentiality
  • Conflicts of interest.
  • Violation of company or the organization’s core values
  • Honesty/having a pressure to lie

And then a broad category that we kind of group several things together, it had to do with executive behavioral misconduct. That could include things such as cutting corners, a hostile work environment or issues that we’ve been hearing a lot about in the news such as sexual harassment.

Were there any surprises in terms of these ethical issues?

I think that as you look at the list, those are the kind of things that you would expect. We had a more exhaustive list that we started with and we kind of narrowed it down. But there were some, that was like the top 10. But there were some other things regarding issues such as dual standards for employees versus the C-suite retaliation. As you dive a little bit deeper into a list of about 20, 25 items that we identified through the Delphi study, then I think you may find some things that might not be quite as obvious. But obviously the top 10 are things that I think that we’re familiar with. It’s just good to see them in a top 10 list so we can kind of give priority to those issues.

How can PR professionals be better prepared?

Well, I think the issue that I’ve ran into with a previous study that I did on this topic is that a lot of times the employers are not providing ethics training internally. And so, you have to seek outside sources such as through professional associations like PRSA. And so, you have to kind of seek it out on your own. Yes, there’s opportunities out there but it has to be something that the practitioner or the professional makes a priority themselves. You can seek out a professional development training through professional associations, but you can also do some self-reading. One of the things that has come up previously in my research too is the importance of doing scenario training just like we do with crisis communication where you look through some scenarios and kind of think through them to help you kind of keep your ethical skills sharp and thinking through how you would handle this situation.

We have our students do case studies and go through the process of making a decision, but it’s important for professionals to take time to do that too. You might do it through a workshop and a PRSA meeting or something like that to encourage people to take time to do it. It is hard, we’re all busy, but it’s important to think through what would I do. And also, one of the things that you can do is if you actually do face an issue is reach out to a mentor for guidance.

And that’s one of the things that we’ve been talking to our participants in this study about is the importance of mentors and how they can help counsel you about how they have handled similar situations that they faced in their own careers. And so that’s another resource that people can use to help them when they actually are facing a specific issue in their organization.

It can be mentors both internally or externally to an organization, or as you get more advanced in your career, a trusted colleague, someone that’s on your level that also may have faced similar issue. So it doesn’t necessarily have to be someone older. It could also be a colleague. If you are more senior in the profession, you could reach out to someone who’s also had similar experiences and get their counsel.

What are some of the knowledge skills and abilities, KSAs related to ethics in public relations that are essential for successful career?

The ones that came out of our Delphi study included things such as having a personal code of conduct or your own ethics values system. So you have to know what you stand for yourself and that’s where things began. And so that made a lot of sense that that was the top knowledge, skill or ability that was ranked by our participants.

The next one had to do with your own personal behavior and integrity. And so, if you’re not doing the right things yourself, it’s going to be very difficult to counsel someone else about what they should be doing. And so you definitely do have to be living it yourself.

The next items that came up under that were things like awareness or knowledge of codes of ethics and being able to actually identify ethical issues and just having that discernment. So, knowing how to spot an ethical issue and understanding the standards in our profession. So that can come from reviewing industry codes of ethics as well as the codes of ethics for your own organization or your industry. But you need to have some sense of what’s considered acceptable behavior in order to identify issues when they do arise.

The next one included things like critical thinking and problem solving, which makes a lot of sense that you have to be able to think through and make good decisions. Other things had to do with honesty, transparency, truthfulness and candor. All very related terms. Courage, being willing to speak truth to power, which is a very difficult thing to do especially early on in your career. And then it was interesting that they also had some skills that are essential in public relations in general, things like strategic planning, your counseling abilities, the oral communication skills. Those are necessary for public relations success and your career in general, but definitely do apply to ethics as well. And I think that’s one of the encouraging things is that some of the skills that are core to public relations also translate to providing ethics counsel.

Are you finding that most senior public relations professionals that you’re talking to have that strong personal code already?

Well, a lot of people point to their personal upbringing. So, could be their faith, it could be their parents that kind of set that standard for them when it comes to a moral code. And people definitely still draw on that. But as they get more advanced in their career, becoming familiar with industry codes of ethics and what’s excepted in your own industry is very important. There’s some secondary socialization that happens later in your career, and that comes from being involved in a professional association, going to industry trainings, learning more about your field, that business literacy that you developed specific to your particular employer. And so, all of those things kind of play into helping you understand what should be acceptable behavior and what should not.

A lot of people think it just comes down to don’t lie, steal, cheat, all of those kind of principles that you learn a very young age. But I think it goes beyond that when it comes to some of the specific challenges that we face that might be industry specific.

And one of the things that I’ve been very passionate about in some of my research is the core values that companies have them and that they communicate about them regularly and that they live them out. And that can also be a guide for not just people in public relations but throughout your organization. And public relations does have a responsibility to help reinforce those core values in an organization as well.

We were talking about the ability to discern and identify the ethical challenges within the organization. Are you finding an increasing challenge a lot as we’re becoming more global?

It does become a challenge for multinational companies where you have different cultural standards and values across different countries where they may have offices. That is something that you need to be aware of. But, a lot of the organizations try to be consistent globally even if there are some variations. So, having higher standards that are required in one country and making sure that they’re living them throughout the organization. And especially when it comes to things like accepting bribes and that type of behavior. And so that especially is a challenge for multinational companies.

Are any of these top 10 KSA where organizations are saying PR pros are lacking?

Yes. While we talked about ethical awareness, that is actually one of the skills that they perceive to be lacking. There is a need for a young professionals and professionals in general to just be aware of the codes of ethics for their industry, for their field, and be able to identify those issues, especially as we’re all busy, and it can be very easy not to take time to think and deliberate about your decisions. And so, I think that time constraint can be a challenge in that we’re so busy that you’re not taking time to think things through. So that can be a challenge too when it comes to awareness. And then we talked earlier about the courage. That was listed as number one. Having that competence and willingness to speak up, especially to people who outrank you. And that can be something that can be quite intimidating, especially early on in your career, is having that courage to raise a concern and ask the questions when something doesn’t seem right.

Other types of skills were the critical thinking and problem solving skills. I think we can definitely see where that would be something you would need to develop early on in your career. Leadership also comes over time. And then that personal accountability, that was kind of interesting that that came up on the list because you would think that people naturally would be accountable. But, that was one of the concerns is that they have that personal integrity as well.

What were some of the other areas you found that were lacking among PR professionals?

They talked to about the moral compass, having that personal values decision making that’s guiding your behavior. Strategic planning, research and measurement, again, those core skills in public relations are also considered essential when it comes to ethics. As we mentioned earlier, some of the core skills that we need in public relations in general do translate to ethics. And I thought it was interesting, I’ve been asking the participants in our interview phase, one of the skills that they listed in the longer list included business literacy.

And so I’ve been asking, what does that mean in the context of ethics? We know that people need to have that business literacy in general but how does that translate to ethics? And that’s what they spoke about how it can help you identify industry specific issues and understand the implications of the counseling that you’re providing and how it can impact the business that you’re working for. It just gives you a little bit better understanding about how to make your arguments and make a stronger case. And I thought that was really an interesting skill that was listed that we typically think about in public relations in general, but then applying it in an ethics context.

How can we address professionals lacking the courage and confidence to speak up?

I think it definitely comes from several sources. At colleges and universities, we need to make sure that our ethics curriculum is addressing these skills that industry has identified as essential and those, especially giving attention to those that they perceive to be deficiencies among young professionals and just professionals in general in our field. Then I think too it would be helpful if professional associations would address some of these core skills that we’ve identified. And then for the practitioner themselves, they need to figure out what areas that they may be deficient and make it a committed effort to enhancing their own skills where they may be lacking.

Some of that may come through working with a mentor or someone that they trust that’s more senior that can help them develop their skills in these areas. But I think it involves universities, professional associations and then personal initiative. It may require with the case of business literacy, seeking a master’s degree or advanced education as well as some self-study, reading up on some of the topics where they are not as strong.

What are some of your recommendations around doing regular ethics training? What can companies be doing or what can associations be doing to make this more common?

Well, I like the method that I was presented with back as a graduate student and that was a curriculum called giving voice to values. We have a lot of focus on going through and making a decision. You have to identify the issue, you identify the principles at play, the values at play, and then you think about the implications, your loyalties, all of those steps. And then you figure out what the right thing is to do. A lot of times we stop there once you analyze the issue and figure out what the right thing to do is, but don’t develop an action plan. And that’s what I’ve really liked about the giving voice to values approach is they then have you think about, okay, what kind of obstacles might you face as far as other colleagues and their resistance to your counsel and how can you overcome them through things like research, case studies, and what kind of approaches can you use to make your case?

And I think it’s important that we go a step further and think through, okay, now what. I know what the right thing is to do, but how do I actually convince other people that this is the right action? And so, in the book that I did previously, we have a whole list of techniques. It’s called Public Relations Ethics: Senior PR Pros Tell Us How to Speak Up and Keep Your Job. And in that book, we have all the different approaches that senior executives have identified that they’ve used in their careers. So some people might use case studies or research to back up the recommendations. Other people might prefer what’s called the legitimacy uphill, where you show how this fits with your core values and why that’s important to the organization.

Other times, people may prefer to engage more of a dialogue and ask questions and try to understand where that person’s coming from. And then sometimes people need to seek out allies to go with them or actually if they’re more powerful, a position in an organization, they may be the ones that may need to carry that message forward.

And so there’s all kinds of approaches that you can use when raising your concern, but we have to think that through and we also have to think about what kind of resistance we might face and how to overcome that. So I was going through and coming up with an action plan, not just figuring out what the right thing to do is, but actually figuring out what your next step should be.

What is some of the advice you have for young professionals as they’re looking at developing their ethical skills and looking to determine their action plans? Is it, look at these, read your book, or just get more involved in PRSA? What should young professionals be keeping in mind?

Well, I think all of those things are important. And sometimes it may be seeking an advanced degree like a master’s degree, an MBA or a master’s in public relations. I especially prefer the MBA because you can improve your business literacy. One of the things that came up in a previous interview I did is there was someone who came across financial issues in an organization and didn’t know how to read the financial reports early on in her career. And then later on, after she received her MBA, she knew how to read the financials and she was able to identify an issue where there’d been somebody kind of cooking the books and she was able to identify that issue because she could read the financials. And so there are going to be times where that business literacy is going to be critical in being able to identify an issue and be able to address it. So that was just a good example of someone that later on in her career because she had beefed up her skills when it came to business and financial literacy, she was able to identify an issue when it arose.

So I think that’s one of the things they should consider is maybe a more advanced degree if they’re looking to go into management careers. Also, I’m a big fan and proponent of the APR. And a lot of the people I interviewed for the book as well as other studies have said that that was a key point in their careers that helped them kind of connect everything. The fact that the APR involves studying the PR state code of ethics in depth and being familiar with it is another reason why it’s a great way to improve your ethic skills. And of course seeking out a mentor early on in your career that can be there to provide counsel and that you feel confident going to if you have an issue arise in your own career. It can be so important as well.

Taking a step back, beyond just the research, and from talking to your students from all the conversations you’ve had, what do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think just awareness of the challenges that they will face when they get into management. A lot of students didn’t realize because of course, we know that the majority of our profession tends to be female, that once they go into the boardroom, there may be more men and they will likely be out numbered once they get in the boardroom. And that can be something new for young women to navigate. I’m doing a separate study on that topic now. But I think that’s one of the things that our young women need to realize and focus on how they can improve their business literacy skills so they can speak the language and have the credibility that when they’re providing counsel, that people are going to listen to them.

So, it’s not just about being female, but also, as you can into the profession, just really being business literate enough to be able to talk the language so that you can understand the implications of the council that you’re providing and also have the respect and the credibility. And I think that’s important for our profession for all of us to be able to carry our own in a board room and be able to communicate intelligently with others that come from other disciplines.

I love hearing about, I mean, my mantra when I was PR to the national chair was, one of the things PR people need to stop doing is saying is I got into PR because I hate math. Cuts you off at the knees and the language of business and math

Yes. And that that involves sometimes seeking out mentors, colleagues within your own organization that have the expertise in those areas and showing a willingness to learn and a desire to learn about those other areas of your operations.

Are there new areas about what your concern regarding ethics?

Even though we have some general idea of the list of skills, I think it’s so important to have a firm list like this to guide educators when we’re developing our curriculum. One of the outcomes from this study will be making recommendations for educators and how to address this in the classroom with sample syllabi, sample assignments. That was part of the call and the focus of the Page Center is actually developing recommendations for educators so that we are addressing some of these deficiencies that employers have identified. We knew they were unsatisfied with the status quo, but being able to identify a specific list of, okay, this is what we need to be teaching, I think is so important. Not just from the perspective of other educators but this time from the perspective of working professionals.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I’d really liked to quote and I won’t get the verbatim without it in front of me, but I’m going to my best to summarize it. And that was someone talking about how important it is to protect our credibility because it’s something that once you damage it, it’s very difficult to ever regain that trust and credibility. And she talked about how if you were to leave an employer and you damaged your credibility, it’s very difficult to find a job somewhere else. And so that’s something that you always want to protect as your own credibility and never compromise it.

What’s the next step in terms of the study?

Well, we completed the Delphi study and a focus group, and now I’m in the process of doing in-depth interviews. We want to do 45 interviews with a mix of young professionals, mid-career and senior level executives that all work in public relations. I’ve had about 21 interviews, so I need to do 45. We are still actively recruiting, especially those that are beginning professionals and mid-career. I have quite a few senior executives that have participated. But I’m definitely needing more from those other categories.

If they’re interested in being a part of the study, what should they do?

They can contact me directly through email I can send them more information about the study and then work out a time that they can do a phone interview.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here:

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA, drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of


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