This Week in Public Relations Ethics (2/11/21) – Is PR Unethical? How Do You Build a Speak Up Culture?

There were a wide variety of ethics topics this week – from a new roboethics advisor to how to build a speak up culture and which countries most commonly report unethical behavior. Then there were the meta-ethics questions about is PR inherently unethical and is it ethical to ask a reporter questions in advance.

  • A Roboethics advisor? – I love new tools and applications, so when I saw a tweet for an ethics advisor, I checked it out. Thought might be a tool, but then I realized it wanted me to type my ethical dilemma and is powered by a financial institution. I don’t like sharing data, particularly on ethics issues, but I had a blog to write…so I made up a hypothetical on an “easy” issue like determining who gets the COVID-19 vaccine first. It is not a replacement for good counsel and training, but it does take you through a good blended deontological and teleological methodology that looks at interests, rights, duties, character and outcomes.


  • Is PR unethical? – This month is the Ethics Month for the Global Alliance and the content is great. This week Dick Martin asked if ethical PR is an oxymoron. (It isn’t). Since I use his book in my ethics class at BU, I wanted to read it – and it is a good survey explaining why some people think PR in inherently unethical and what we can do about it.  It’s a good, quick and refreshing read.


  • Is it ethical to ask a reporter for questions in advance? – Jen Psaki and the Biden White House are asking reporters to submit questions in advance. The White House claims their goal is to make the daily briefing as useful and informative as possible for both reporters and the public. The counter argument is it’s a slippery slope. Any perception that a reporter and source are ‘working together’ can crush viewer-reader trust and be perceived as unethical. For me, I may ask reporters what they want to discuss prior to an interview so my client can be prepared with the data they need, but I know and expect reporters to ask questions that aren’t on any list.


  • How to build a speak-up culture – It is often difficult to get employees to speak up when they see something wrong. HBR provides seven strategies to encourage it – the REFRAME model. It is worth a read:
    1. Redesign reporting tools
    2. Embed a culture of safety
    3. Frame with positive messages
    4. Reward with non-monetary incentives 
    5. Amplify messenger voices
    6. Motivate with stories of courage
    7. Energize a conscience-based movement

The only thing I think it is missing is adding flexibility based on the country. As David Herrick pointed out in an EthicalVoices interview, a “speak up culture” in the US and Korea may manifest itself very differently.

  • Employees in which countries are most likely to speak up?Following up on the HBR story above, the Ethics & Compliance Initiative released an interesting infographic detailing the countries where employees were most and least likely to report every (potential) misconduct behavior. India and the US were the most likely and Russia and Spain were the least likely.
Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
Follow Me
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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *