This Week in PR Ethics: 2/13/2020 – The downside of trying to appear ethical, ethical double standards and what happens when you stand up for ethics

Ethics never rests, and neither do great posts and discussion topics. Following are a few of the more interesting article of the week that look at everything from the downside of trying to appear ethical, ethical double standards, and what happens when you stand up for ethics at work.

  • The downside of trying to appear ethical – There was a fascinating Harvard Business Review article, “Research: The Downsides of Trying to Appear Ethical,” that came out this week. The tl;dr recap is that working to maintain the appearance of doing what is morally right can lead people to engage in wrongs. Specifically: Concern with honest reputation increases lying; concern with appearing impartial leads to bias against friends; and concern with appearing to be unfair leads to wasted resources
  • What happens when you stand up for ethics at work? – The upside of blogging and podcasting about ethics, is occasionally your friends send you interesting articles. In this case Bob Reed flagged this story from Fast Company “This is what happened when I stood up for ethics at work,” that ran Tuesday. The short read discusses what happened when the company the author, Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza, worked for, “told me to inflate numbers and mislead customers and outright lie about the work we’d done.” It was an interesting piece, but what stood out at me was a data nugget, “Workplace retaliation is the most frequently filed charge with the EEOC and has been for the past 10 years. In the 2019 fiscal year, a record 3% of all claims included a complaint of retaliation.”

  • What are the most common ethics issues worldwide? – The Fast Company piece made me think and I found an interesting study from Ethics and Compliance initiative released in January that looked at the most common types of ethical misconduct by country last year. In the US, 24% of the claims were either abusive behavior or ethical misconduct.

  • Ethical double standards – This ironic example jumped out at me. There is a lot of outrage over Huawei having backdoor access to global mobile networks, with the company allegedly having close ties with the Chinese government. Yet earlier this week, the Washington Post wrote a story about how the CIA secretly bought an encryption company that sold its devices across the world, and then sat back and listened. Interesting double standard.

  • Double standards with hackers – Speaking of hackers, last week TechCrunch reported how Red Team hackers had ethical double standards as well. A student in my class alerted me to this story last night. It shows that offensive security researchers who are hired by companies to find vulnerabilities and use unethical methods (phishing, social engineering) are “more likely to find it ethically acceptable to conduct certain kinds of hacking activities on other people than they are with having those activities run against themselves.”

  • Codes of Ethics in other countries: Most professional PR organizations have a code of ethics. From PRSA and Page, to PRCA, IPRA and the Global Alliance. The PRCA is probably the most active in enforcing their code. But what impressed me this week was a PR ethics chat and hearing from the head of the Council of Public Relations, Pakistan who was highlighting the work they are doing, and to make the code more accessible including translating it into Urdu to make it accessible to all members. This is a discussion my students and I are having more and more – how do you enforce voluntary codes? Should there be licensing? What else can we do to raise awareness of the codes and make them more accessible?

Until next week. Let me know what you think or if you see any interesting ethics in communication stories.



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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