Marlene Neill
Marlene Neill

When raising an ethical concern to a company’s senior executives, female public relations executives are more likely to recruit allies and form alliances first, while men typically rely on presenting research and case studies, according to a study by Baylor University.

The study, which is published in the Journal of Media Ethics, suggests that many PR pros don’t feel adequate in their abilities to provide ethics training or counsel, and highlights the need for PR practitioners to build internal coalitions among colleagues in the course of exerting influence and speaking out on ethics problems within an organization.

The study also found that Millennials were unlikely to speak up when ethics issues arise.

Women seek allies, men prefer info sources

PR practitioners interviewed for the study discussed possible ways to exert influence and whether they feel senior leaders value and respect their counsel.

Among those surveyed, PR women were said to be more likely than men to seek allies and form coalitions before they give ethics counsel to senior leaders. Success depended on building relationships with colleagues in other departments so that they have backup when ethical issues arise.

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One woman said that “Going in force can help your case. But sometimes it can backfire ... you know, if somebody wants to kill the messenger. But if several people come to you with the same messaging, I think you take notice.”

Another woman said that she was “reprimanded for being so forthright. So, I didn’t do it that way anymore.”

Some women were wary of using emotional appeals because of stereotypes about women being emotional in the workplace. “I probably erred in the other direction,” one woman said.

Men, meanwhile, are more likely to prefer informational sources of power such as research and case studies. But both genders said they ask questions, discuss, listen, share alternatives or solutions and make recommendations.

A few men and women used more confrontational descriptions, such as saying, “We absolutely put our foot down” and “Tell them it’s wrong.”  But in the case of women, “some of these more confrontational accounts were used in connection with allies or coalitions,”  said study lead author Marlene Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor University.

Senior execs prefer “rational approaches”

The study found that senior PR executives rely on “rational approaches” when an ethical concern arises, including research, case studies and appeals to what they feel is right and lawful.

“While our study was focused on identifying effective ways to raise ethical concerns, it was quite disheartening to hear multiple stories from the senior executives about times when they faced retaliation after raising ethical concerns through official reporting channels such as ethics committees and hotlines,” Neill told O’Dwyer’s.

Neill said survey results also indicated that Millennials “did not feel prepared to provide ethics counsel, were unlikely to speak up, and did not even expect to face ethical dilemmas.” Neill said the study was conducted, in part, to help instruct them on how to do this effectively “based on the experiences of senior executives working in our industry.”

Info-leaking may result

The study suggests that building relationships is critical for PR practitioners to ensure other executives would listen to and respect their counsel.

Another benefit of this is the fact that many PR practitioners feel they should be an “organizational conscience” in cases where they think company actions might pose an ethical dilemma with troubling consequences, and having coalitions that allow straightforward tactics within an organization dissuades them from turning outside the company to more extreme measures: whistleblowing or leaking information to stakeholders or the media, or resigning accounts outright if they decided that client’s business isn’t worth the ethical cost.

Neill said the research also “found companies that invested heavily in ethics training and resources and then followed through by terminating employees engaging in unethical behavior and rewarding employees who were living their core values. Based on the second group, we identified best practices for building an ethical culture.”

Page Center, PRSA funded study

Research for the study, which is titled “The Use of Influence Tactics by Senior Public Relations Executives to Provide Ethics Counsel,” was conducted through interviews with 55 PR pros representing nearly 20 industries, many of them Fortune 500 companies. Combined sample averaged of individuals polled was 33 years in PR.

It was funded by the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication and supported by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and PRSA College of Fellows.

Co-author is Amy Barnes, associate professor in the School of Mass Communications, University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“What inspired us to conduct this research were findings from a study I conducted in 2016 with Millennials working in public relations,” Neill said. “When it comes to differences in how genders approach the role of ethics counselor, one reason women may recruit allies is that they tend to be outnumbered by men in the boardroom.”