This Week in PR Ethics (8/20/20): Was pardoning Susan B. Anthony the ethical thing to do? Advocacy and technology ethics failures

This week, there were a number of profound and eminently debatable ethics issues including a number of articles looking at ethical issues in advocacy and technology. The most fascinating discussion for me though deals with potential virtue-based ethics failings around the pardon of Susan B. Anthony.

  • Was pardoning Susan B Anthony the ethical thing to do? – This week the president pardoned Susan B. Anthony on the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment for her casting a ballot, when it was not legal to do so. When I first read it, I saw it as one of those symbolic things a government official would do on a big anniversary. But there is a lot there to unpack. Would she want to be pardoned? Looking at virtue-based ethics approach is pardoning someone who doesn’t want to be pardoned, never paid the fine and saw the civil disobedience a mark of honor the right thing to do? Particularly when you don’t know what motivates that person’s actions or understand them? Does it undermine the virtue of her actions? When the person doing the pardoning has a troubled history with women, is it authentic? I think this may be one of the first discussions in my ethics class next month….


  • How ethical were attacks on Canada’s health care system? – This is one of the more fascinating articles I have read in a while and it begins by saying “In my prior life as an insurance executive, it was my job to deceive Americans about their health care. I misled people to protect profits.” It goes on to claim the use of skewed, unsourced data and attack a PR firm for their work in advocacy. We are responsible advocates for those we represent, but the question is where should people draw the line? It is a great topic for discussion.


  • When ads look like OpEds – This week Mediaite took The Hill to task for publishing campaign ads that look like OpEds without clear disclosure. This is like when advertorials were not clearly marked in digital and print. Now it is not clear to me these were paid ads, but it reinforces the findings from the USC Annenberg study on how paid and earned are blending and people won’t be able to tell the difference or care.


  • The ethics of wildlife photography – I am including this article just because I found it very interesting. FStoppers looks at ethics of technology usage (aka drones) in wildlife photography. At its most simplistic, this is an issue communication professionals can face as they look to go beyond using stock footage. But this also ties into a larger discussion around what are the ethical issues of new technology. From pixel tracking and AI to biometrics and facial recognition – technology can help communication professionals and the organizations they represent be more effective – but we always need to ask, what are the ethics considerations?


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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