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THE STATE OF THEORY BUILDING IN PUBLIC RELATIONS ETHICS: A
BENTON A. DANNER
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS IN MASS COMMUNICATION
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
My reflective views on ethics began as an undergraduate student at West Point
and continued through my work as a master's candidate in philosophy at Texas A&M
University. They were further challenged, defended, and modified as a result of many
conversations with both students and fellow faculty at the United States Military
Academy at West Point, New York. While I continue to explore, challenge, and modify
my views, I am always grateful to those who have helped me by challenging both
established notions and my own, sometimes unconventional, ideas.
I am grateful as well to the many fine graduate faculty in the Department of Public
Relations in the College of Journalism and Communication at the University of Florida.
They are a fine, reflective, and dedicated lot, all.
Finally, I am thankful to my family: My parents, for encouraging the kind of
reflective thinking that leads to an examined life and, perhaps most of all, my wife and
daughters. It is they who give meaning to all the things in life that are truly important.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
A C K N O W L E D G M E N T S ..................................................................... ....................ii
LIST OF TABLES ...................................................................... ..............
LIST OF FIGU RE S ....................................................... vi
ABSTRACT .............. ............. ............ ............ .............. vii
1 INTRODUCTION: WHY ETHICS IS IMPORTANT TO PUBLIC RELATIONS... 1
2 THE CALL FOR A PUBLIC RELATIONS ETHIC THAT RESTS FIRMLY ON
PHILOSOPHICAL ETHIC .................................. ................................. 5
3 IS WHAT HAS BEEN DONE SUFFICIENT TO ANSWER THE CALL?.......... 13
E dgett' s E thical Fram ew ork ............................................................... 13
B aker and M artinson: TA RE S ............................................................... ...... 16
Martinson and the Distributive Justice Argument ............................................... 18
Fitzpatrick and Gauthier's Professional Responsibility Theory ............................ 19
Haberm as, Pearson, and the Dialogic ..................................................... ..............21
Bowen, Kant, and the Decision-Making Model ............................................. 25
Applying Two M models: The Enron Scandal .......................................................... 32
Pearson's Dialogical Theory of Public Relations Ethics ...................... .............. 34
Bowen's Ethical Decision-m making M odel .............................................................. 38
W hat Are the W ays Ahead? ................ .......................................................... 44
4 THE VIRTUES OF VIRTUE ETHICS ..............................................46
W hat is V irtue Ethics? ................................ ........................... ........... ..... 46
The Virtues, Business, and Public Relations ....................................................... 53
Might a Virtue-Based Approach Prove Useful for Public Relations?..................... 56
Some Potential Virtues for Public Relations ..................................................... 57
V irtues A applied to Enron.. .......................................................... .............. 61
Im plications for Public R relations ........................................... ........................... 64
C O N C L U SIO N .......................................................................................... .......67
B IB L IO G R A P H Y ............ .... ...... .. .................. ..................................................... 7 0
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .......................................................... ... .. ......74
3-1 Edgett's Ten Criteria for Ethical Advocacy .................................................. 14
LIST OF FIGURES
2-1 The Branches of Philosophy ....................................................... .............. 6
3-1 T A R E S M odel ..................................................................... 17
3-2 Normative Model of Ethical Issues Management .............................................. 28
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree Master of Arts in Mass Communication
THE STATE OF THEORY-BUILDING IN PUBLIC RELATIONS ETHICS: A
Benton A. Danner
Chair: Michael Mitrook
Major Department: Mass Communications
An examination of the current state of theory building in public relations ethics
reveals that the quest for a public relations theory of ethics that is solidly grounded in
philosophical ethics has not been achieved. Several models and theories are considered
and two accounts of public relations ethics are examined in detail: Ron Pearson's
dialogical theory of public relations ethics and Shannon Bowen's Kantian based
deontological model of public relations ethics. Finally, an account of public relations
ethics based on an Aristotelian version of virtue ethics is explored. This type of model, I
suggest, has great potential to answer the call for a public relations theory of ethics that is
squarely grounded in philosophical ethics
INTRODUCTION: WHY ETHICS IS IMPORTANT TO PUBLIC RELATIONS
Public relations has been referred to as the "social conscience" of the organizations
they represent, even though the degree to which public relations professionals have been
able to impact the ethics programs of their organizations remains debatable (Fitzpatrick,
1996). Many seem clear, however, on the need for such impact (Baker & Martinson,
2001; Bivins, 1987; Bowen, 2000; Curtin & Boynton, 2001; Fitzpatrick & Gauthier,
2001; Harrison, 2004; Kent & Taylor, 2002; Leeper, 2001; Martinson, 2000; Pearson,
1989a). Grunig, Grunig, and Dozier (2002), for example, acknowledge ethics as the 10th
principle of public relations excellence. They note that while personal and professional
ethics are of great importance, what may be of greater importance is the role of public
relations in the ethical decision-making of an organization. That is, public relations, as
the ethical conscience of an organization, must be able to guide and influence the
decision-making process of the organization or public relations cannot function as an
ethical voice at all. In their own words, publiclc relations is the function that introduces
the values and problems of stakeholders into strategic decisions and that introduces a
moral element to those decisions" (555). Likewise, Bowen (2000) notes that "[a]s public
relations strives for inclusion in the dominant coalition, the study of ethics increases in
importance." (8). Under these conceptions, for public relations to function as public
relations ought to function, ethics will be an inherent part of the public relations function.
There are other reasons that ethics is important to public relations. Among them is
the necessity of ethics to any account of public relations as a profession (Boltan, 1997;
Edgett, 2002; Fitzpatrick & Gauthier, 2001). That is, for public relations to gain and, or,
maintain status as a profession, its ethical bases and practices must be sound. Second,
and tangentially related to status as a profession, is the necessity of a solid ethical base
for the reputation of public relations practice itself. As Baker and Martinson (2002) note,
thatht there is considerable distrust of public relations and public relations practitioners
is a reality that even those active in the field must acknowledge" (15). Finally, ethics is
important to public relations for a much more fundamental reason, a reason that has to do
with the nature of ethics itself: Perhaps most important of all, the best reason for acting
ethically may simply be the knowledge that one has acted in a morally appropriate
manner, that one has done the right thing, ethically speaking.1
There seems to be little doubt among public relations scholars and practitioners of
the importance of ethics to the profession and to the practice. Just as there is no
comprehensive and uncontested account of public relations, however, there is also no
unchallenged notion of just what public relations ethics entails or what it is to be ethical
in public relations. Grunig, Grunig & Dozier (2002) argue that public relations must
build its theories of ethical public relations on established philosophical theories of
ethics, though few have risen to this challenge. Two notable exceptions are Shannon
Bowen (2000) and Ron Pearson (1989a), each of whom have produced robust normative
accounts of a public relations ethic that are grounded in philosophical ethics. Bowen
1 There is considerable discussion in the philosophical literature concerning the issue: Why be moral? One
apparent paradox of morality is that while acting in an ethical manner ought to have some practical value
(that is, be goodfor something), morality itself is often taken to be an intrinsic good, a good in and of itself.
See, among others, Pojman (1999) and Smith (1995).
(2000) has developed a deontological theory of ethical decision-making in public
relations, one that she argues dovetails nicely with current public relations excellence
theory and the two-way symmetrical model. L. Grunig and J. Grunig (2002) note that
Bowen has made great progress towards establishing an ethical theory that helps balance
conflicting loyalties among publics, the corporation, the public relations profession, and
the individual professional while engaging in symmetrical communication.
Eleven years before Bowen (2000) proposed her theory, Pearson (1989a) argued,
in his 1989 dissertation entitled "A Theory of Public Relations Ethics," for a dialogic
theory of public relations ethics, one based on the theories of the German
communications scholar and philosopher Jirgen Habbermas. Pearson's theory is a
comprehensive normative theory of public relations ethics that incorporates Habbermas'
unique and not uncontroversial view of communication and what Habermas terms the
"ideal speech situation" (Habermas, 1984; Johannesen, 1983).
Others have hinted at normative accounts. Edgett (2002), for example, argues
that for public relations to be taken seriously as a profession, the profession must rest on
a solid ethical foundation, a foundation she thinks is possible by adhering to ten criteria
for ethical advocacy. Baker and Martinson (1999; 2002) propose a five-pronged test2 that
defines moral ends, establishes guidelines, and provides action-guiding principles.
Martinson himself has offered both that a distributive justice model (Martinson, 1998)
might fit the bill as the basis for a public relations ethic and that the answer might be
found by an appeal to Aristotelian ethics (Martinson, 2000). Fitzpatrick (2001) has
2 The test is termed the TARES test, and is discussed in more detail in the next section.
argued for a professional responsibility theory of public relations ethics. It is a thick
In what follows, I examine these accounts in terms of their suitability for
answering the call for a public relations ethic that is solidly grounded in philosophical
ethics. Before going there, however, I examine the issue of why we ought to want to
ground a public relations ethic in that manner in the first place. In considering previous
normative accounts, I examine Pearson's (1989a) and Bowen's (2000, 2004) models in
detail, looking at both the justification and internal consistency of the models themselves.
The theories and the models associated with them are applied to a specific scenario,
yielding observations of the strengths and weaknesses of each. Finally, in light of all
these observations and analyses, I examine the suitability of virtue ethics to answer the
call for a public relations ethic that is philosophically grounded, briefly outline what an
applied ethics of virtue might entail, consider the outline in light of the same scenario,
and briefly consider the implications for public relations of such an account.
THE CALL FOR A PUBLIC RELATIONS ETHIC THAT RESTS FIRMLY ON
The central goal of this project is to examine the state of theory-building in public
relations ethics, specifically whether there exists a public relations ethic that is grounded
firmly in a philosophical ethic. One might reasonably ask just what constitutes
philosophical grounding for an ethical theory and why such a grounding is a desirable
thing for a public relations ethic. This section attempts to answer those questions, both
because they are important to the task at hand and because answering them will provide
one measure against which to gauge the suitability of different accounts of public
Ethics is most formally the reflective or philosophical study of morality (Feezell,
1991; Pojman, Ethics : Discovering right andwrong, 1999). It is a sub-branch of
philosophy that is concerned with the nature of goodness and the study of right action,
taking as its substantive questions both what ends we, as rational beings, ought to choose,
and what moral principles should guide us in pursuing those choices (Deigh, 1997). It is
a rich, full, and complex area of philosophy and it is not the purpose of this paper to give
a detailed account of it or to consider in any specific manner its fundamental issues. It is
important, however, to note that I use the term ethics in its philosophical sense, and that I
use the terms moral and ethical interchangeably, as is one convention in philosophical
ethics (Pojman 1999, Harris 1992). It is also important, while avoiding any particularly
complex explanations, to offer a general account of just what philosophical ethics entails.
Philosophical ethics is a sub-branch of the major branch of philosophy called
axiology, or the study of worth or value.1 Within the discipline of ethics, there are
generally recognized three areas: normative ethics, meta-ethics, and applied ethics
(Darwall, 1998; Harris, 1992). Figure 2-1 below depicts these relationships. Normative
ethics is primarily concerned with the issues of how we, as rational beings, ought to act.
As such, it considers questions such as the nature of the good, providing answers justified
by reason and rationality and resulting in normative ethical theories that provide guidance
on both the ways in which we ought to live (if we want to be ethical) as well as the way
to go about living in this ethical manner. Figure 1 shows the relationship of these three
disciplines to the branches of philosophy. Normative ethics will be discussed in more
Figure 2-1: The Branches of Philosophy
1 The other sub-branch under axiology is aesthetics, or the study of beauty and artistic worth.
The Branches of Phlosophy
Meta-ethics is a field that is concerned with the nature of ethical claims. When I
make a moral claim, for example, that murder is wrong, just what kind of a statement am
I making? Is it a factual claim, describing some true state about the world? An emotive
claim, simply expressing a particular subjective emotion (i.e., "Murder makes me feel
bad;" or, "Murder: Boo!)? Or, perhaps, some other kind of claim? Meta-ethicists
consider these questions as well as questions such as whether or not there can be any
objective or absolute ethical values and what it means to say that something is good (in
the moral sense).
The third area, applied ethics, considers the rightness or wrongness of a particular
action, such as abortion, or a particular area, such as medicine, the environment, or
warfare, in light of particular normative ethical theories. Examples of applied ethics
include business ethics and medical ethics. A public relations ethic, then, is a kind of
applied ethics based (presumably) on some normative ethical theory.
Normative ethical theories are generally categorized by three different labels:
Deontological, teleological, and virtue-based (Barcalow, 1998; Harris, 1992; Pojman,
Ethics: Discovering right and wrong, 1999).2 Deontological (from the Greek Deon,
roughly "obligation") ethics describe a category of normative ethical theories that hold
that right actions are those that are performed in accordance with one's duty (to oneself,
someone else, or some other entity, such as a god). Examples of theories in this category
include Kantian ethics (named after the German philosopher Immanuel Kant) and
religious ethics such as divine command theory.
2 Ethical relativism, even when formulated under the guise of "normative ethical relativism," is actually a
meta-ethical issue, taking as its central tenet that there can be no universal, objective ethical principles.
Consequentialist describes a category of normative ethical theories that maintain
that right action is determined by appealing to the results that such an action is likely to
bring about. The most popular among consequentialist theories is utilitarianism, a
normative ethical theory that generally holds that the right action is the one that is likely
to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number affected by that action. Egoism is
another example of a consequentialist normative ethical theory, one that holds that right
action consists in maximizing happiness for the agent performing the action.
The third category, virtue ethics, describes a category of ethical theories that take as
a primary concern not so much what actions an agent should perform but what kind of
person that agent should be. Said another way, while deontological and consequentialist
theories are concerned with what to do, virtue ethics is concerned with what one should
be. Specifically, one ought to strive to be an excellent person. Just what constitutes an
excellent person and how one should go about becoming one is the specific subject
matter of virtue ethics.
These three categories, then, constitute three different kinds of normative ethical
theories. Why would we want a particular public relations ethic grounded in one of these
kinds of theories? The question is important one, though one seldom posed. Grunig,
Grunig & Dozier (2002), for example, argue that public relations must build its theories
of ethical public relations on established philosophical theories of ethics, adding that this
is "something rarely done in the literature on public relations ethics" (555). They fail,
however, to explain the justification for such a demand. In the same manner, Bowen
(2000) presents her theory of ethical issues management, grounded in philosophical
ethics, but never explains why grounding a theory of public relations ethics in this way is
desirable. Others have remained largely silent on this issue as well, with public relations
textbooks often explaining ethics by appeal to normative philosophical theory but not
explaining the rationale for such an appeal. The question remains, then, why we would
want to ground a theory of public relations ethics in philosophical theory in the first
The answers are both broad and nuanced. First and foremost, as mentioned above,
the reflective consideration of morality has been in the realm of philosophy for some
time, yielding a both rich tradition of works and a long history of development and
introspection. The critical introspection of philosophy is fueled by a standard of
evaluation based on reason and rationality.3 That is, philosophical theories that tend to
stand the scrutiny of reason, that do not run contrary to our established and most deep-
seated notions of reason and rationality, will be, ipsofacto, better than theories that do
not stand as well under such scrutiny. Established philosophical theories of normative
ethics fall exactly into this category of theories that have, to varying degrees, withstood
this type of scrutiny and emerged as a better, rather than worse, theory.4
Even so, public relations could-and has to some degree, as discussed in the next
section-develop its own theories of applied ethics without appealing to or relying on
philosophy. Somewhat ironically, depending on how fully and intricately such theories
3 Logic, or the study of the art of reasoning, is one of the four main branches of philosophy, as noted
earlier. While it is beyond the scope of this work to give an account of logic or critical reasoning, it is
worth noting that all of academia, science, and indeed our daily lives rely on notions of reason, notions that
the branch of philosophy takes as its primary function to identify, justify, and explain. Chief among these
is what Aristotle called the "First Principle," or the principle of non-contradiction. The principle roughly
states that a thing cannot be what it is and not what it is at the same time. Or, a thing cannot be both "A"
and "not-A" at the same time.
4 Harris (1992) suggests four criteria for evaluating a moral theory: consistency; justification; plausibility;
and usefulness (pp. 63-65). While I do not apply these criteria in a rote manner to the theories considered
here, the criteria are by no means unique to Harris, and all of them are considered implicitly in evaluating
the applied ethical theories that follow.
are developed, however, they may turn out to be philosophical nonetheless. That is,
theories of applied ethics that provide a justification for acting in a particular way just are
philosophical in nature. As Darwall (1998) points out, ethical propositions concern
justification, "and whether a thing is justified depends on whether it is supported by
/eI.'/\,u" (p. 7). Theories that offer reasons in this way inherently deal with the
fundamental question of ethics: What is the nature of the good and in what ways ought
we to pursue that good? Ethical theories that do not provide such justification, while they
may be internally consistent, will be inherently void (from an ethical standpoint) of
compelling reasons for accepting that particular theory in itself and will certainly be
lacking a compelling reason to accept that theory over another that does offer good
reasons. That is, for any theory of applied ethics that does not ultimately appeal to a
larger sense of the nature of goodness, its acceptance will be arbitrary, at least to some
degree, and it is better to accept a theory for a good reason rather than for no reason at all.
Codes of conduct, for example, provide normative guidance in the way one ought
to act but do not generally provide any justification or account of the nature of goodness.
As such, they provide no philosophical reasons for accepting those particular tenets over
some other set of tenets. The Nazis had codes of conduct and ethics, though one would
be hard pressed to offer a coherent philosophical ethical grounding for such codes.
While practical reasons might exist for accepting such codes or similar theories,
such as "theory Xwill improve our reputation" or "we are likely to be more successful in
our pursuits by accepting theory Y," accepting these practical reasons as justification
inherently moves the theory from the realm of normative or applied ethics to the realm of
the simply pragmatic. There may be compelling reasons to follow the rules of etiquette,
but that does not mean that the rules of etiquette are rules that are ethical in nature.5 Put
another way, applied theories of ethics that rely solely on such justifications (either
overtly or by omission) have only those justifications to rely on as an account of the
nature of goodness. What will be considered ethical under such accounts will simply be
what makes us "more successful in our pursuits" or "whatever improves our reputation."
To offer compelling reasons, based on rationality and reason, of why and how things are
(or ought to be) they way the argument proposes is what distinguishes better theories
from worse ones. In the realm of ethics this includes offering (or relying on) an account
of the nature of the good to ground one's ethical theory.
Grounding a theory of public relations ethics in a philosophical theory of ethics will
inherently provide some sort of grounding, most usually against the backdrop of the rich
tradition of philosophy itself and of philosophical ethics in particular. For a theory of
applied ethics, in particular, it will provide grounding in the form of a normative ethical
theory that has already provided some compelling answer to the questions of why we
should act in that particular way. Ethical theories that do not have such a grounding are
subject to being labeled arbitrary, or worse, inconsistent. As Bivins (1987) points out,
"[i]t is clear that codes alone are not enough. Unless all practitioners, professional and
nonprofessional alike, undertake to measure their actions against the various theories of
moral philosophy, these actions will continue to be formulated haphazardly with little of
no consideration for moral content" (200). If we want a theory of public relations ethics
that is much less likely to be arbitrary or inconsistent (and we ought to want that, for
5 There are interesting discussions in philosophy regarding what makes an ethical issue an ethical issue
(and not simply a matter of etiquette, law, or social custom). See, among other, Pojman (1999) and
obvious reasons), then seeking a theory that is grounded in philosophical ethics seems
like the best place to seek one.
Public relations theorists themselves often seem reluctant to embrace the normative
(Bivins, 1987; Bowen, 2004; Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 2002), but seeking a
philosophical grounding for an ethical model for public relations will, by its very nature,
involve embracing the normative quality of philosophical ethics and the overriding nature
of ethical considerations. If we are not willing to venture there, then perhaps we should
begin to seek a different discipline within which to ground our ethical theory, though I do
not know what that discipline would be. For now, however, the next section examines
several accounts of public relations ethics in terms of their suitability in answering the
call for a public relations ethic that is grounded solidly in philosophical ethics.
IS WHAT HAS BEEN DONE SUFFICIENT TO ANSWER THE CALL?
In this section I examine several accounts of public relations ethics and evaluate
their suitability in answering the call for a public relations ethic that is grounded solidly
in philosophical ethics. Specifically, I examine:
Edgett's Ethical Framework
Baker and Martinson: TARES
Martinson and the Distributive Justice Argument
Fitzpatrick and Professional Responsibility
Habermas, Pearson, and the Dialogic
Bowen, Kant, and the Decision-Making Model
I then apply the two models that have fared particularly well in this evaluation to a
specific scenario in order to see what else may be revealed in terms of their suitability.
To begin, then, is Edgett's (2002) suggestion for an ethical framework for advocacy in
Edgett's Ethical Framework
Edgett (2002) argues that it is possible to build a solid ethical foundation for public
relations that embraces its advocacy role, a foundation that rests upon ten criteria she
proposes. The argument, in essence, is this:
1. For public relations to advance as a profession, the profession must rest on a solid
2. Advocacy is a central function of public relations, though many practitioners are
not comfortable with that role.
2.1. As a necessary condition, then, to embracing a solid ethical foundation, the
profession must reconcile its role as facilitator for social communication with
its advocacy role.
2.2. The profession has not reconciled its roles.
2.2.1. There is discomfort arising from the notion that objectivity is distinct
from and morally superior to persuasiveness.
2.2.2. This notion is mistaken.
3. The salient characteristic of advocacy with respect to ethics is persuasion.
4. It is possible to practice persuasion, and therefore advocacy, in an ethical manner.
5. Therefore, it is possible to build a solid ethical foundation for public relations that
embraces its advocacy role Edgett's ten criteria.
Those ten criteria are depicted in Table 3-1 below.
Table 3-1: Edgett's Ten Criteria for Ethical Advocacy
1. Evaluation Detached or objective evaluation of the issue-client-organization
before determining whether it merits public relations advocacy.
2. Priority Once the public relations practitioner has assumed the role of
advocate, the interests of the client or organization are valued above
those of others involved in the public debate.
3. Sensitivity Balancing of client priority on the one hand with social
responsibility on the other.
4. Confidentiality Protection of the client's or organization's rights to confidentiality
and secrecy on matters for which secrets are morally justified.
5. Veracity Full truthfulness in all matters; deception or evasion can be
considered morally acceptable only under exceptional circumstances
when all truthful possibilities have been ruled out; this implies
6. Reversibility If the situation were reversed, the advocate-client-organization
would be satisfied that it had sufficient information to make an
7. Validity All communications on behalf of the client or organization are
defensible against attacks on their validity.
8. Visibility Clear identification of all communications on behalf of the client or
organization as originating from that source.
9. Respect Regard for audiences as autonomous individuals with rights to make
informed choices and to have informed participation in decisions
that affect them; willingness to promote dialogue over monologue.
10. Consent Communication on behalf of the client or organization is carried out
only under conditions to which it can be assumed all parties
Adapted from Edgett (2002, p. 22)
Edgett (2002) points out that "although [her] framework is consistent with codes
of professional practice, it attempts to go a step further by providing some philosophical
basis for determining the rightness or wrongness of actions" (23). In providing some
explanation of that philosophical basis, Edgett (2002) cites religion, Kantian ethics, and
Habermas, as well as a host of communication and public relations scholars. She
concludes that the research "has been sufficient to answer two basic questions in the
affirmative: a) whether persuasion is a legitimate public relations function, and b)
whether it can be performed to high ethical standards" (23).
Edgett (2002) presents an insightful and well-researched argument and it is not the
purpose of this work to evaluate her conclusions. It seems clear, however, that the work
does not answer the call for a public relations ethic that rests solidly on philosophical
grounds. This is so for several reasons. First, the argument is concerned solely with
public relations as advocacy, so that if one does not accept the notion that the primary
role of public relations is that of advocacy, one cannot accept the conclusions of the
argument. Second, and more importantly, even if one were willing to accept the notion
that public relations is primarily a function of advocacy, Edgett has not presented us a
philosophical basis for a public relations theory of ethics (nor was this her intention).
What she has presented are some philosophical justifications for some of the criteria that
constitute her framework. Further, she has presented several different and sometimes
mutually exclusive theories as philosophical support. While she has shown that, at any
particular point, one or several of the criteria may enjoy some level of philosophical
justification, the framework, as she has it, does not rest upon any single philosophically
justifiable ethical foundation. Indeed, it seems to rest on several conflicting
justifications, all of which cannot be true at the same time. Finally, as Edgett points out,
the framework is not meant to be a normative theory of public relations ethics in the first
place but rather a framework that, if followed, would lead to more ethical practices, much
like a code of conduct or a code of ethics.
Baker and Martinson: TARES
Baker and Martinson (2001; 2002) propose a five-pronged test that defines the
moral end of persuasion in public relations, establishes guidelines, and provides action-
guiding principles. The argument is that a moral framework of persuasive ends can help
dispel the illusion of public relations as morally inferior to other mass communication
endeavors. In one form (Baker and Martinson, 2001), the argument looks like this:
1. Most of the ethical issues of persuasion with regard to advertising and public
relations are either focused on the means employed or confuse the means with
2. This leads to the illusion that public relations and advertising are morally inferior
to other mass communication endeavors (such as journalism).
2.1 If this continues, public relations and advertising will likely continue to have
an increasingly dysfunctional role in communications.
2.2 This misconception should not continue.
3. A moral framework of persuasive ends can help relieve the confusion and dispel
4. The TARES test provides this framework.
4.1 Defines the moral end of persuasion
4.2 Establishes guidelines for persuasive practice
4.3 Provides action-guiding principles
The TARES Test, further, is depicted below in Figure 3-1.
Figure 3-1: TARES Model (From Baker and Martinson (2001, p. 160))
Taken together, the five principles of the TARES Test provide a framework of
persuasive ends to ensure that the end sought in a persuasive act is a moral one. Taking
into account a wide swath of ethical considerations, the test allows for a reflective
consideration of the ethical implications of the ends one seeks and steers one towards
what Baker and Martinson (2001) call legitimate and moral ends, noting that while
"professional persuasion is a means to an immediate instrumental end (such as increased
sales or enhanced corporate image), ethical persuasion must rest on or serve a deeper,
morally based final (or relative last) end" (172).
Though Baker and Martinson (2001; 2002) appeal to such ethical notions as
respect, genuineness of intent, truthfulness, and the common good, in the end the TARES
test is not (nor is it intended to be) a normative account of public relations ethics. It
serves, once again, as a framework or set of guidelines, the following of which is likely to
place one in a better, rather than worse, moral position. There is no accounting of why
these particular values and not others are morally superior, and thus, as discussed
previously, the ethical model is not itself philosophically grounded. TARES too, for all
its utility, will not answer the call for a public relations ethic that is solidly grounded in
Martinson and the Distributive Justice Argument
Distributive justice is a concept that concerns itself with the fairness of the
distribution of resources within a society (Rawls, 1978). Martinson (1998) uses this
concept, and in particular the Rawlsian version of it (from political philosopher John
Rawls' defining work A Theory of Justice (1971)), to frame the issue of public relations
practitioners justifying their actions by appealing to the notion of the marketplace of
ideas. The marketplace of ideas concept generally holds that free expression is justified
through analogy to the economic marketplace. In the competition of ideas, the better
ideas (or truth) will eventually prevail over the less good (or false) ideas.
While the idea of distributive justice is not formally a normative ethical theory, it
inherently appeals to the idea of justice (or, in Rawls case, justice as fairness), a concept
Aristotle held to be the greatest moral good (Aristotle, [c. 340 BCE] 1984). Justice is
linked to ethical conduct in the sense that justice is the greatest good, the good toward
which all other goods strive, and it is in this context that Martinson (1998) can be seen to
be making an ethical argument.
By making an appeal to a Rawlsian account of distributive social justice, Martinson
(1998) makes the point that those who would justify particular actions in public relations
by appealing to the marketplace of ideas concept incur themselves additional moral
obligations in terms of distributive social justice. In particular, even those who sincerely
believe in the marketplace of ideas and appeal to the notion in order to morally justify
advocacy for a particular client are required to consider not only the narrow view that, in
the marketplace of ideas, truth will eventually reign supreme, but also to consider
whether participation in such an endeavor is conducive to bringing about a general
situation in which all citizens have a reasonable chance of having their views heard and
perhaps acted upon. As Martinson (1998) puts it, "[t]he question is whether, in
contemporary America, an adherence to a narrow individualist marketplace model-
within a functional public relations context-demonstrates a level of respect for the
distributive and social justice rights to which all members of society are entitled" (150).
A strict adherence to the advocacy model of public relations is simply not morally
justified by an appeal to the marketplace of ideas, he suggests.
Martinson (1998) tackles some complicated material and his account is considered
here not so much as a normative model of ethics for public relations itself but rather as an
example of an ethical appeal within public relations that is grounded in a normative
account of what the "good" is, in this case in the Rawlsian notion of justice as fairness.
In the end, however, Martinson's (1998) argument, while important in itself, does not
quality as an action-guiding normative account of public relations ethics, though he has
certainly pointed the way for further exploration. The account is philosophically
grounded in an account of the good (justice as fairness); what is needed is a further
explication of the ways in which that grounding translates into guidance in terms of a
public relations ethic.
Fitzpatrick and Gauthier's Professional Responsibility Theory
In what is both a selectively comprehensive accounting of public relations theories
of ethics and a proposal for a normative theory of public relations itself, Fitzpatrick and
Gauthier (2001) argue the merits of what they call a "professional responsibility theory of
public relations ethics." After first surveying several categories of normative
justifications of public relations ethics (including enlightened self-interest, social
responsibility, advocacy, and two-way symmetry) and finding them lacking, the authors
go on to suggest three principles that could provide a basis for a professional
responsibility theory of public relations ethics. Ironically, these three separate principles
seem to clearly derive from: 1) some form of utilitarianism; 2) Kant's ( 1956)
second formulation of the categorical imperative; 3) a version of distributive justice that
is not unlike that of Rawls' notion of "justice as fairness" mentioned above. In the
authors' own words (Fitzpatrick and Gauthier, 2001, p. 207):
Three principles that could provide the foundation for a theory of professional
responsibility in public relations are:
1. The comparison of harms and benefits: Harms should be avoided or, at least,
minimized, and benefits promoted at the least possible cost in terms of harms.
2. Respect for Persons: Persons should be treated with respect and dignity.
3. Distributive Justice: The benefits and burdens of any action or policy should be
distributed as fairly as possible.
While borrowing principles from such divergent accounts may help to capture more
of the nuances of our commonsense notions of what is morally right while avoiding some
of the deficiencies of a particular ethical theory, it is a philosophically unsound method if
one is seeking to ground one's theory solidly in philosophical ethics. Borrowing
principles from three distinctly different theories of normative ethics may, as well, be of
great practical value in guiding the kind of ethical reflective introspection the authors
seem to be seeking from practitioners, though what is missing from this account is how
three different philosophical accounts of what the "good" is could ever be reconciled.
Indeed, Fitzpatrick and Gauthier (2001) seem to think, in their own words, that
"[t]he ethical principles that form the philosophical foundation for the professional
responsibility theory also may provide more concrete guidance than do other approaches
in resolving ethical dilemmas caused by conflicting obligations to a variety of competing
interests" (210). It is hard to fathom how this could be so from a standpoint of grounding
the ethical principles themselves. And, as we have seen, ethical principles without
grounding, or, in this case, with contradictory grounding, are no more philosophically
sound than arbitrarily written rules drawn out of a hat. While this professional
responsibility theory of public relations ethics may have practical value as noted above,
as presented it (or other such normative mish-mashes of theories) cannot provide the
solid grounding in moral philosophy that is at issue here.
Habermas, Pearson, and the Dialogic
Jirgen Habermas (1929-present) is a German philosopher, social critic, and
communications scholar who has written extensively on many topics. Through the
1970's and 1980's he developed a comprehensive theory of "communicative
competence" that explains how language, as a uniquely human capacity, functions to
foster mutual trust and understanding, shared knowledge, and interpersonal relationship
(Habermas, 1984; Johannesen, 1983; Pearson, 1989b). His aim in this regard has been to
develop a descriptive social theory that also functions as a normative moral framework, a
framework that is both inclusive and non-oppressive.
Habermas identifies four assumptions that underlie all normal human
communication. For ordinary communication to even function, he argues, each
participant in a communicative act inherently assumes that the communicative acts of the
other participants meet these four conditions (adapted from Habermas, 1984):
1. All statements made are capable of being comprehended and are in a
grammatical and syntactical form that is capable of being understood by
2. All statements are made are true representations of agreed upon, factual states
3. All statements sincerely and accurately reflect the true intentions of the
4. The statements are appropriate in terms of shared social values and rules.
Without these implicit assumptions, he argues, ordinary communication would not be
possible. Furthermore, these four assumptions form the basis for ethical communication.
That is, ethical communication that aims at mutual understanding is inherently
communication that is comprehensible, true, sincere, and appropriate.
Using these four conditions as a backdrop, Habermas (1984) goes on to argue that
there is such a thing as an "ideal speech situation" (182), a situation that, whether the
speech is public or private, can be approximated only when four conditions are met.
These conditions are (adapted from Habermas 1984, 185-7):
1. All participants must have equal opportunity to both initiate and to
continue the communicative act.
2. All participants must have equal opportunity to present arguments,
interpretations, representations, explanations, and corrections as well as
equal opportunity to criticize the views of others.
3. All participants must have equal opportunity to express personal
intentions, feelings and attitudes.
4. Finally, all participants must have equal opportunity to express directive
statements and must have equal opportunity to criticize or refuse the
orders of others.
As Pearson (1989a) notes with respect to these conditions, Habermas views them
not simply as an ideal, but as "a type of scientific, reconstructive process" (246), without
which "it is not possible to make sense out of communication and argumentation aimed at
reaching understanding" (246-7).
Pearson (1989a), in his dissertation "A Theory of Public Relations Ethics,"
proposes a dialogical account of public relations ethics that relies heavily on the ideas
presented by Habermas. Indeed, Pearson defines public relations itself specifically as
"the management of the dialectical interaction among interorganizational discourses"
(177), the dialectical being a specific kind of communicative act that allows two-way
Pearson (1989a) sets out early in his work to link ideas of postmodern philosophy
and postmodern rhetorical theory with ideas of public relations. Exploring the nature of
dialogical relationships, Pearson concludes that a dialogical relationship is genuine (by
which he means genuinely dialogical) only to the degree to which its influence is
symmetrical or balanced. From there, he poses the proposition that the practice of public
relations is ethical only to the degree that it is dialogical. Or, combining his earlier
definitions1, public relations (the management of the dialectical interaction among
interorganizational discourses) is ethical only to the degree to which the two-way
influence inherent in relationships of this kind is symmetrical.
From here, Pearson (1989a) invokes Habermas in order to show how dialogical
communication is related to ethics and to develop a theoretical definition of dialogue.
Invoking Habermas' ideal speech situation (as explained above), Pearson (1989a) argues
that it provides a theoretical definition of dialogue, a definition that, combined with
previous arguments, yields two ethical imperatives of public relations (adapted from
Pearson, 1989a, 329-30):
1. It is an ethical obligation to establish and maintain communication
relationships with all publics affected by organizational action.
2. It is an ethical obligation "to work to improve the quality of these
communications relationships such that they incorporate elements of an
ideal public relations situation" (329).
SThis is my combination of Pearson's definitions, not his own, though I suspect that I remain true to his
Furthermore, under (2) above, no topic should be excluded from discussion except as
agreed to by all parties involved. Or as Pearson (1989a) says, decisionsos regarding all
agenda-related issues are to be decided within the communication system, and not outside
of it" (329). Likewise, decisions about particular modes or types of communication must
be mutually agreed upon. Finally, and what Pearson (1989a) calls most importantly, all
communicators must have the option of changing the structure of the communicative act.
This final caveat is important, Pearson (1989a) argues, because "inter-
organizational communication systems cannot be structured perfectly and .. the need to
challenge their efficacy in producing legitimate outcomes is a constant requirement"
(330). That is, since the conditions of Habermas's "ideal speech situation" are not likely
to be met, each participant in the public relations dialogue must have the opportunity to
criticize the characteristics of the dialogue situation itself, and must have that opportunity
from ii i/hi/ the system in use.
Pearson's theory, then, allows for a rich account of what it is to practice ethical
public relations. The theory relies on a very specific definition of public relations-the
management of the dialectical interaction among interorganizational discourses. It
further relies on a postmodern, dialogical explanation of communication and in the end it
is from this basis that the normative force of his theory must be derived.2 In these
aspects, it meets the screening criteria to be further considered as a theory of public
relations ethics that is grounded solidly in philosophical ethics. In the next section, I
apply Pearson's ethical imperatives to a specific situation in order to see what else may
2 The theory is postmodern primarily in the epistemic sense, as I see it. Pearson's theory relies on a
consensus account of epistemic truth. That is, the only objective epistemic truths are those that, in this
case, are arrived at through dialogical consensus. The concept is analogous to the postmodern concept of
establishing shared meaning through dialogue. I discuss this concept more in the a following section.
be revealed about the theory itself. Before that, however, I present Bowen's
deontological model of ethical decision-making.
Bowen, Kant, and the Decision-Making Model
Bowen (2000, 2004) presents a thought-provoking account in which she attempts to
combine Kantian ethics and public relations excellence theory in order to provide a
normative model of ethics for public relations decision-making. I offer below an
overview of her account along with a brief description of the path that led her to it. I
assume a general knowledge of the theory of public relations excellence and two-way
symmetrical public relations as espoused by Grunig et al.
Bowen (2004) latches on what she considers a weak spot in excellence theory noted
by J. Grunig and L. Grunig above: Namely, that while ethics is the tenth principle of
public relations excellence, there is no coherent account of ethics to accompany that
principle. The result is that not only is there is hole in our current public relations theory,
but there is no informed and coherent normative account to which practitioners can turn
when an issue of ethics enters in the decision-making process. We are left potentially
floundering, or, perhaps worse, making arbitrary, uninformed and inconsistent decisions.
Bowen's (2004) basic argument is:
1. Public relations excellence theory should have a model for ethical
2. None of the current models is sufficient.
3. A Kantian version of ethical theory can provide the base for a model that
dovetails nicely with current public relations excellence theory and the
two-way symmetry model.
For the argument to work, then, Bowen must show that none of the current accounts fit
the bill. She must also show why a deontological (and in particular, a Kantian version of
deontology) not only fits the bill, but fits it most appropriately.
That public relations excellence needs a model for ethical decision-making is not a
controversial claim and Bowen (2000, 2004) cites many advocates of this view, including
Grunig, Grunig and Dozier. A more interesting claim is number two above, the claim
that none of the current models is sufficient to inform public affairs decision-making.
Bowen (2004) considers four models and finds them all lacking, noting that a model must
be consistent, relevant and "defensible."3 She first rejects industry codes (such as
PRSA's Code of Ethics). They are good, she maintains, only as general guidelines.
Furthermore, she notes, they are not enforceable (and, she makes a nice argument,
perhaps should not be).4 Situational ethics will not fit the bill either, since they
acknowledge no universal moral code and therefore are not particularly action-guiding.
The "Potter Box," a sort of four-step model requiring consideration of facts, values,
principles, and loyalties, fails on several accounts, according to Bowen (2004). While it
provides a "systematic analysis of ethics" (Bowen, 2004, 77), it yields no universal
norms. Since one chooses the relevant principles, any analysis using this method is
inherently biased, Bowen (2004) argues. Additionally, Bowen points out, the Potter Box
ignores intentionality and the morally good will.5 Finally, the Potter Box "requires the
decision maker to choose loyalties to the stakeholders" (Bowen, 2004, 77), a situation
that could lead one to compromise on larger ethical issues.
Last, Bowen (2004) considers and rejects an advanced model proposed by Bivins
(1993). Though it is an "excellent overview" and is based on a "deontological
3 It is unclear whether by "defensible" Bowen means that a model must be grounded in a justifiable ethical
theory or simply pragmatically justified.
4 It is interesting that Bowen does not mention that none of the codes have grounding in a particular
ethical theory. One would think this a more damaging reason to reject them.
5 Though it need not. Presumably, one could choose these as the relevant principles.
perspective," in the end it merely advises practitioners to "compare obligations and weigh
the 'competing values for each stakeholder'" (Bowen, 2004, 77). It fails, then, to provide
a method or model for analysis of ethical issues.
Having rejected several current models as candidates for informing public affairs
decision-making, Bowen (2004) must now find a philosophical ethical theory that can
provide a grounding for her own model. Among the leading candidates of ethical theory
that she considers might inform public relations theory are situational ethics (a theory
similar to moral relativism), consequentialist theory, and deontological theory.6 Bowen
(2004) dismisses situational ethics for the reasons listed above. She then considers
consequentialist ethics and deontology, noting that Grunig has stated that these types of
theories are best suited as candidates for an account of ethics for public relations. While
not outright dismissing utilitarian theories, Bowen (2000, 2004) notes that deontology is
better suited to public relations ethics because of its inherent similarities with pubic
relations theory and the fact that one need not predict the consequences of a particular
course of action. The moral autonomy of deontology, she notes, is "similar to the
autonomy and freedom from encroachment that public relations seeks to be considered
excellent" (Bowen, 2004, 70)7. A deontological approach, therefore, provides Bowen's
(2000, 2004) theory with "a solid theoretical foundation with the practice of public
relations as well as normative theory of the function" (Bowen, 2004). Kant, she further
notes, provides the best deontological account.
6 It is not clear why Bowen does not consider another leading normative account of ethics: virtue ethics.
It may be, as she herself notes, that Grunig and Grunig offer consequentialist and deontological normative
accounts as best suited to public relations. If this is so, it is not clear why Grunig and Grunig do not
mention virtue ethics as a candidate to inform public affairs decision-making.
7 See also Bowen, 2000, 194-5.
Bowen's answer, then, is to combine a deontological account of ethics and the
symmetrical model of public relations. From Kant we get rationality and moral
autonomy to frame the model. From public relations theory we get Grunig and Hunt's
symmetrical model of public relations. The model of ethical issues management that
emerges starts with values and identification of issues, passes through a quasi-Kantian
model of moral reflection, is imposed on by the symmetrical model and finally yields a
framework for ethical issues management. The model, adapted from Bowen (2000,
2004), looks something like this (adapted from Bowen, 2000, 196 & 416):
Bowen's Normative Model of Ethical Issues
g--- ----- --- -- -------
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IUtiitarnarnim issue Materialim
(Do what servc the neret Dcision Making iD wht s be:
of the greatest nur.,er) r h r the decision nrrm er)
iD.o whA*. duty indsatexS is
eth aIly eight mad univcrsll
Ingae La. of Autoinrany
PoFc CatcgonrKi Impcravc
Dignity and Duty Intentlim:
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Figure 3-2: Normative Model of Ethical Issues Management
The model begins with values simply as a reminder that organizational and
individual values will have an impact on not only the way managers identify issues, but
on what (and whether, I might add) issues are identified. It is against the backdrop of
these values that issues will come to light as issues (or not).
The next stage of Bowen's model is issue identification. In this stage, issues have
come to light as a result of symmetrical communication, environmental scanning,
lawsuits, media inquiries, or other traditional methods of issue identification. As Bowen
(2000) notes, the decision-maker handles many issues of smaller importance or impact
immediately, as the issue arises as an issue. We are concerned, in this model, with the
complex issues requiring in-depth analysis.
From issue identification, we enter the issue decision-making portion of the model.
In this phase, issues managers meet to discuss the issue. For Bowen's model, they are
asked to choose an ethical framework from among deontology, utilitarianism, or what she
labels materialism. For groups or issues managers who choose utilitarianism or
materialism, the model can provide no further guidance. For those who choose a
deontological approach, however, there is more to come. Bowen (2004) notes, I should
say, that independent research "found that a deontological framework was naturally used
in organizations concerned with the ethical implications of their decisions" (80).
For those who have already chosen a deontological framework to guide their
ethical decision-making, the next stage is to engage Bowen's version of the law of
autonomy, a version based on Kantian principles. For Bowen, this involves all
participants being both able and willing to discuss their interests "without feeling
constrained by their organizational position or roles" (81). Moreover, each member of
the group must implicitly acknowledge this autonomy to "encourage an atmosphere of
respect in which all ideas can be discussed without trepidation" (81). Once this
autonomous input is gained, the model moves to the next step: pose the categorical
The categorical imperative is a complex notion of Kantian moral philosophy. It
involves the notion that every rational being is bound by reason to make decisions based
only on their universal duty. It is categorical in that it applies to all rational beings in all
situations everywhere; it is an imperative in that all rational beings are obligated by it in
virtue of the fact that they are rational beings (Kant,  1956). While there are
several formulations of the categorical imperative, for this model Bowen (2000, 2004)
chooses Kant's ( 1956) first formulation: [A]ct only in accordance with that
maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should
become a universal law" (Kant  1956, p. 88). Or, as she more practically poses it
for purposes of the model: "Could we obligate everyone else who is ever in a similar
situation to do the same thing we are considering?" (Bowen, 2004, p. 80). Posed and
discussed in this way, the categorical imperative serves as an aid in decision-making by
exposing subjectivity among proposed alternatives. The most ethical alternatives, then,
are those which seem to pass Bowen's (2000, 2004) formulation of the imperative.
The model's fifth phase involves three parallel areas that roughly approximate
other formulations of the categorical imperative. These areas involve the notions of
dignity and respect; duty (in the moral sense); and intention in the form of the morally
good will. In application, issues managers should consider (questions in quoted text are
Bowen's (2004); other text is mine):
1. Treat others with dignity and respect: "Does this decision convey to our
publics that we have seriously considered their view on the issue?" (83).
2. Moral duty: Does this decision fulfill my moral duty to myself and to
other parties who may be affected?
3. Intention and the morally good will: "Does this decision make us worth of
earning trust, respect, and support from our publics? (83).
Considering these parallel areas, again, gives insight to the issues manager and allows a
level and perspective of moral reflection that might not otherwise be afforded.
The final step in the model involves using the two-way symmetrical model of
public relations to communicate with publics. This step overlaps with the previous step.
That is, issues managers should have ongoing communication with their publics both
informing the decision-making and discussion process of step five and communicating
with publics when a decision has been reached. Hence, the two-way arrows connecting
the three areas of phase five with phase six indicate that symmetrical communication is
ongoing in both of these phases.
The result of following this model, according to Bowen (2004), is ethical issues
management that "can lead to a more credible reputation for the organization and the
field of public relations as a whole" (p. 84).
Bowen provides a thought-provoking account. Any theory of public relations
management (or any theory, for that matter) that includes an ethical element must ensure
that the ethical theory upon which the management theory rests is itself on solid ground.
Additionally, an ethical theory as part of a public relations management theory ought to
be action guiding or it is simply not of much use. As others have pointed out, public
relations excellence theory has yet to yield one and Bowen makes some nice progress in
this area. There are, however, some issues. These, as well as some issues with respect to
Pearson's theory of public relations ethics, are discussed next.
Applying Two Models: The Enron Scandal
In order to better get at the nuances of Bowen's (2000) and Pearson's (1989a)
theories, each will be applied to a specific scenario to determine what is revealed in the
way of strengths and weaknesses. The general situation I have chosen is the Enron
scandal of 2000-2001. I begin, then, with an explanation of the situation and the specific
Enron began in 1985 as the merger of two pipeline companies.8 It struggled until
1988 when, after deregulation of the electrical power markets, it redefined its business
from energy delivery to energy broker. Enron began trading natural gas commodities,
eventually becoming the largest natural gas merchant in North America and the United
Kingdom. The scandal that eventually emerged was the result of a number of factors,
some more complicated than others. Relevant to the discussion here, Enron had
continued to grow and acquire, merge with, and create other companies. In the winter of
2001, Enron's own auditor, Arthur Anderson, began to question some of these mergers
and how they were represented in terms of public disclosure and accounting. In the
spring of 2001, Enron repurchased one of its own subsidiary's investments in yet another
of Enron's subsidiaries. In the meantime, several top executives of Enron had profited
nicely from the sale and repurchase of stocks in these subsidiaries. By normal
accounting, however, the company was in trouble.
8 For detailed internet accounts of the history of the company and scandal, see, for example:
http://www.brainyencyclopedia.com/encyclopedia/t/ti/timeline of the enron_scandal.html;
It is against this backdrop that Enron announced to its investors, in April of 2001, a
first quarter profit of $536 million. In reality, this bottom line figure failed to account for
a number of failing subsidiaries. Several things then happened over the spring and
summer of 2001. Enron top executives began dumping stock; Enron stock shares
continued to drop in price; at least one employee began to question, directly to the CEO,
Enron's accounting practices; and, significantly, the company executives continued to
assure investors and employees (many of whose retirement accounts were significantly
comprised of Enron stock) that everything was fine. In fact, as late as September 26,
2001, CEO Kenneth Lay, in an online forum, told Enron employees that Enron's
accounting practices were "legal and totally appropriate" and that "the third quarter is
looking great" (Brainy-Encyclopedia, 2005). Less than three weeks later, Enron
announced a third quarter loss of $618 million. The next day, Enron's shareholder equity
was reduced by $1.01 billion to correct an accounting error and the Enron 401(k)
retirement plan was frozen. The next week, the Securities and Exchange Commission
began an inquiry into Enron's accounting practices with its partnerships. The company
filed for bankruptcy December 2, 2001, its stock virtually worthless.
Business ethicists point out that part of the irony of the Enron ethics scandal was
that, prior to the scandal, Enron looked like a model corporate citizen, with all the right
business ethics tools, codes, and programs in place. Against that backdrop, however,
executives "in practice created an organizational culture that put the bottom line ahead of
ethical behavior and doing what's right" (Sims, 2003, p. 243). Enron failed in its
obligations to communicate with its publics, both internal and external. At its core,
however, Enron demonstrated first and foremost "a violation of an essential requirement
for the functioning of a market economy: public disclosure" (Leeds, 2003, p. 78). They
failed to communicate not only effectively, but failed in a way that violates law, ethics,
and violates the principles of the very enterprise that allowed the company the successes
it had heretofore seen: the market economy. Their actions in the end were, ironically,
Pearson's Dialogical Theory of Public Relations Ethics
The issue with respect to Enron and Pearson's theory is whether and in what ways
Enron violated either of the ethical imperatives Pearson (1989a) derives from his theory.
Recall that Pearson's (1989a) theory is a dialogical theory of ethics that forms as its
moral basis the idea that public relations is a practice that is inherently communicative in
nature. Against the backdrop of Habermas' ideal speech situation, Pearson (1989a)
proposes two ethical imperatives for pubic relations:
1. It is an ethical obligation to establish and maintain communication
relationships with all publics affected by organizational action.
2. It is an ethical obligation "to work to improve the quality of these
communications relationships such that they incorporate elements of an
ideal public relations situation" (329).
At issue, then, is whether Enron violated either of these imperatives in its actions as
Enron faced many issues in the period 1989 to 2000 and no doubt our
understanding of these issues might benefit from an application of Pearson's imperatives.
Let us assume, however, for the sake of this analysis, that the issue at hand concerns the
period 2000-2001 and involves Enron not being forthright with its investors and its
employees about the financial state of the company. Many ethical issues should no doubt
have arisen before this one, but this one seems to capture the essence of what was to
become the scandal and seems a good fit for applying the theory and its imperatives.
The first imperative tells us that Enron had an ethical obligation to establish and
maintain communication with all publics affected by its actions. The two most obvious
publics in this scenario are Enron employees and Enron stockholders. The two groups
are not mutually exclusive, though they can easily be viewed as distinct publics with at
least some mutually exclusive concerns and needs. Did Enron meet the demands of this
There is no doubt that Enron was passing information to its employees and its
shareholders. Indeed, as pointed out above, Enron's CEO assured employees in August
of 2001 that everything was fine with respect to the company and its financial accounting
practices. Its quarterly financial reports to investors were likewise reassuring. Did this
kind of communication meet the criteria of what Pearson calls a "communication
relationship"? Hardly. In fact, what was going on might be descriptively termed a
dysfunctional communication relationship.
The CEO and other top executives were using this dysfunctional communication
relationship in order to deceive both employees and shareholders about the company's
true financial position. Moreover, they were doing so, at least in part, to further their own
financial positions at the cost of ruining the financial position of others involved in the
relationship. It seems clear that the actions of Enron leadership violate Pearson's first
imperative of maintaining a communication relationship. As such, we can count the
actions described as normatively prohibited under Pearson's theory. Let's see, however,
how the second imperative might be applied.
The second imperative maintains that it is an ethical obligation "to work to
improve the quality of these communication relationships such that they incorporate
elements of an ideal public relations situation" (Pearson 1989a, 329). This includes
making all decisions regarding the communication agenda within the communication
system as well as arriving at a consensus about particular modes or types of
communication. It seems obvious from what we already know about the scenario that
neither employees nor other shareholders were intimately involved in the ways described
above. Indeed, to involve them in this way might have functionally precluded the
leadership of the corporation from successfully deceiving these publics for as long as
they did. To allow the kind of openness and two-way communication implied by this
imperative would have likely resulted in the suspect accounting practices and subsequent
inquiries and reports becoming well known long before the leadership had the
opportunity to systematically deceive these publics. It seems clear, then, that the second
imperative is violated as well in Enron's public relations with its employees and
shareholders. What does this tell us about the theory itself, however?
First, as noted previously, Pearson's (1989a) theory relies on a particular
conception of public relations. He defines public relations as "the management of
dialectical interaction among interorganizational discourses" (177) and concludes that it
is ethical only to the extent that the influence in the discourses is symmetrical. It is from
this premise that the ethical imperatives he posits are derived. But this seems inherently
circular when applied to the Enron scenario.
As applied to Enron, the theory seems to say simply that Enron's public relations
with their employees and shareholders were not ethical primarily because they were not
dialogically symmetrical. But notice that if we ask the question: What is it about
dialogically symmetrical communication that makes it a condition for ethical public
relations, we are left with only the answer that dialogically symmetrical communication
is the most ethical communication. In short, we are left with the notion that Enron's
pubic relations with these publics were not ethical because Enron's communications were
not ethical. Or, the pubic relations were not ethical because they were unethical. In
logic, this is called begging the question, or circular reasoning.
To be fair, Pearson (1989a) goes to some lengths to explain why Habermas and
consequently Pearson consider this type of symmetry essential to ethical communication.
In the end, however, the explanations rest on a postmodern account of epistemic truth that
itself rests on notions of consensus. Put simply, the argument is that in the grand,
epistemic sense, truth is whatever we decide that it is. The trouble with this kind of
epistemic account as the basis for an ethical theory, however, is at least twofold.
First, we need only decide (through consensus) that the account of truth presented
above is not indeed true to render that account of truth paradoxically void i/ i/hi its own
system of truth validation. Or, in another way, we can only accept such an account of
truth if we already accept such an account of truth. The second problem may be more
damaging. If truth is simply a dialogic construct validated through consensus, then the
very foundation of any ethical theory that rests upon such an account is at risk as
consensus changes. The ethical theory will have a philosophically sound foundation
only as long as people are willing to accept the consensus account of truth and accept
"truths" derived from that consensus account. In short, such a theory will always be only
contingently sound: sound as long as we are willing to accept it; not sound otherwise.
There is no higher power to appeal to because under a theory such as this, both truth and
consequently rationality are contingent in this same way.
Positing a theory of ethics that relies on a consensus version of epistemic truth
forces one to either accept a consensus version of epistemic truth-and all the baggage
that comes along with it-or to reject both the account of epistemic truth and all the
theories that are derived from it. And the application of such a theory, while illuminating
in its own right, can only lead us to the insight in the end that Enron practiced unethical
public relations with their employees and shareholders because they used unethical
communication. Alas, it seems, the theory requires, at a minimum, more explanation to
achieve the philosophical grounding we seek.
Next, I consider Bowen's model using the same Enron scenario.
Bowen's Ethical Decision-making Model
One might easily conclude based on the general facts and some well-placed
intuition that Enron, as a company, likely did not practice excellent public relations. The
question for this analysis, however, is what Bowen's normative model of ethical issues
management might have had to offer whether Enron practiced excellent public relations
or not. I assume simply for the sake of ease in applying the model that Enron had a
public relations manager who was a member of the dominant coalition and had input in
the decision-making process. In considering several courses of action and applying the
model, I also consider what is revealed about the model itself.
Recall that Bowen's model begins by mentioning values, since they are the
backdrop against which issues managers and others identify ethical issues and bring them
to light. Recall also that Enron, by many accounts, had created a corporate culture under
which the bottom line mattered more than ethical considerations. To borrow a phrase
from Bowen, it is difficult to conceive of more "complex issues requiring in-depth
analysis" than the issues facing Enron in 2000 and 2001. For the sake of consistency in
analysis, I assume once again that the issue that arose was that Enron was not being
forthright with its investors and its employees about the financial state of the company.
Identifying the issue satisfies the first stage of the model.
From issues identification the model next takes us to issue decision-making, where
we must choose from among utilitarianism, deontology, and materialism as ethical
frameworks for our decision-making. Bowen's "materialism" appears to be a version of
egoism or enlightened self-interest that Bowen briefly explains as doing what is best for
the decision maker. We can easily imagine Enron choosing this framework and the
results of many of the decisions they did make as a company seem to fit within this
framework. If we choose this as a framework, however, the model can no longer help us.
Although the model Bowen (2000, 2004) presents can indeed be normative (in the
action-guiding sense), it is, Bowen says, only action-guiding for organizations that
already "use a deontological approach to ethics and problem solving" (80). Kantian
principles of ethics, however, are both universal and immutable (Kant,  1956), as
Bowen herself points out (Bowen 2000). It follows under Kantian moral theory that they
provide a normative model for all rational beings. Bowen, however, stops short of the
obvious conclusion she sets up: For Kant (Kant,  1956), her model ought to be
action guiding for all organizations, whether they already embrace a deontological
approach or not. Indeed, as Pojman (Ethics: Discovering right and wrong, 1999) points
out, Kant developed his moral theory partly as a reaction to claims that desires and
consequences ought to play a role in grounding morality. That is, Kant (Kant, 
1956) clearly rejects both utilitarianism and materialism. It is unclear why a normative
model based on Kantian ethics, then, would allow a decision maker to "opt out" for a
utilitarian or other consequentialist approach.
To be fair, Bowen's point is that if an organization does not embrace a
deontological approach to decision-making, then the model will not be of much use to
them. But why let an organization off the hook so easily? The argument she sets up
leads us right to the conclusion that, if we accept the argument up to that point, we must
conclude that all public relations organizations should follow a Kantian deontological
approach. Bowen stops short of stating this point. She instead qualifies the normativity
of her model by excluding certain types of organizations. In doing so, she seems to
embrace the very thing she finds lacking in situational ethics and the "Potter Box."
Namely, that one gets to choose one's own values or principles depending (in this case)
on the organization. To reject these models on that basis and then include the same
option in her model seems prima facie contradictory. It is a problem that is easily fixed,
however, simply by removing the option to choose from competing value systems.
Leaving the option to choose among competing ethical frameworks jeopardizes the entire
model by compromising its Kantian grounding, contrary to the goal of grounding a theory
of ethical public relations on an established philosophical theory of ethics.
Our Enron manager, then, will be obligated to choose a deontological framework
for issues decision-making. This brings us to the next step in the model: engage the law
of autonomy. Engaging the law of autonomy in this case will involve soliciting candid
input from each issues manager. The issues managers talk freely and openly, each
respecting the moral agency of the others, and each speaking without empowerment or
constraint by virtue of their organizational position. We have already noted that the
organizational climate of Enron ran contrary to this notion, but that is not damaging for
Bowen's theory. It merely shows that if one does not follow this model, then there may
be no real certainty that one will arrive at a decision that is ethical. That is hardly
surprising, however, and hardly a mark against the model itself.
The next step is a parallel one that involves proposing the categorical imperative in
three of its formulations while simultaneously engaging in symmetrical communication
with publics in order to inform the decision-making process and discussion. In the case
of Enron, this involves posing questions such as:
What is our duty to ourselves and to our publics with respect to disclosing
our financial status?
Could we make it a universal maxim that whenever a company is in the same
position we are, that the company would withhold information from its
Does withholding information about the financial status of the company from
our stockholders treat them merely as a means to an end and not as an end in
Does a decision to withhold information from our stockholders convey to
them that we have seriously considered their interests?
Does withholding information about the financial status of the company from
our employees treat them merely as a means to an end? Does it convey to
them that we have seriously considered their interests?
Does withholding information from our publics make us worthy of their trust,
respect, and support?
These questions are not simply tools for use in the decision-making boardroom but are
part of the ongoing symmetrical communication with publics. Employing the
symmetrical model of public relations communications with publics may even reveal new
issues that, if identified as ethical issues, are then subjected once again to the normative
model of ethical issues management.
Notice, however, that for this particular step, engaging in two-way symmetrical
communication with publics using the questions as formulated above is tantamount to
asking someone outright if it would be okay to lie to them about a specific issue. The
mere asking of the question will preclude one from ever being successful at the lie. In the
same way, engaging in dialogue with stockholders over whether the company should
withhold or misrepresent information about its earnings would preclude one from
actually doing so because, if the stockholders believe the company will actually do it,
they will likely take steps to prevent it from happening or expose it when it does happen.
This situation may actually highlight an advantage of the model, for it may show that
sometimes, merely employing the model forces one towards the more ethical course of
Unfortunately, it does not always force the decision maker to the ethical course of
action. After completing the steps of the model, including iterations involving the
embedded symmetrical model, decision makers are autonomously free to make whatever
decisions they choose. This is problematic from a couple of standpoints.
The very nature of ethics requires that ethical considerations be overriding, and this
is especially true for Kant ( 1956). Pojman (1999) points out that ethical principles
"are not the only principles, but they take precedence over other considerations, including
aesthetic, prudential, and legal ones" (8). While Bowen does not understate the
importance of integrating an ethical decision-making model as a generic principle of
excellence in public relations management, neither does the model acknowledge the
supremacy of the ethical component. That is, Bowen (2004) seems to consider the
normative model of ethical issues management as one tool among many in the kit bag of
decision makers. Strictly following the model will result in a more reflective and
informed decision maker as well as a more informative issues management process, but
there is no requirement in the model to choose the most ethical course of action.
In fact, there is nothing in the normative model that requires a decision maker to do
anything more than consider and discuss. Important as these considerations are to the
ethical decision-making process, for the model to truly be normative, it must tell us what
we ought to do, what we are morally required to do. That is the very nature of
normativity and it is the natural result of applying Kantian ( 1956) moral theory.
Bowen's model does not do this, and as a result, it is logically possible, using her model
as part of an overall model that includes symmetry and excellence, to arrive at decisions
which are unethical by Kantian standards but still in line with the normative model of
ethical issues management. This seems primafacie contradictory and particularly
troubling if the intention of the model is in part to ground public relations ethics on a
solid theory of philosophical ethics.
Among the things we see in applying the model to the Enron case is that the model
is wonderfully powerful for discovering various ethical nuances inherent in the issue at
hand. Seeing things from another's perspective; raising issues under the guise of a
disinterested, autonomous decision maker; considering whether a particular decision will
use someone or some group simply as a means and without considering them as an
autonomous moral agent themselves these are all illuminating questions in the process
of moral reflection and the model does a nice job in bringing them to the forefront. In the
case of Enron, we see as well that Enron could not have steadfastly applied the model and
continued to do business the way history has documented they did. This should be a
primafacie indicator that the model captures some particular notions about ethics and
decision-making within an ethical context in a way that is both useful and appropriate.
What remains to be seen is whether the model indeed provides a solid philosophical
grounding for a public relations theory of ethics. I consider this issue for both Pearson's
theory and Bowen's model.
What Are the Ways Ahead?
As others have pointed out, public relations has yet to yield an ethical model that
rests solidly on philosophical ethics. Both Pearson (1989a) and Bowen (2000) make
some nice progress in this area. Any theory of applied ethics (or any theory, for that
matter that includes an ethical component) must ensure that the ethical theory upon which
the public relations theory rests is itself on solid ground. And, if one's intent is to ground
the applied ethical theory, one must remain true to the normative theory upon which the
applied ethical theory rests. Finally, a theory of public relations ethics ought to be action
guiding or it is simply not of much use.
Pearson's (1989a) theory of public relations ethics rests on a dialogical account of
ethical communication espoused by the German social commentator and philosopher
Habermas. Habermas' account, in turn, rests on a consensus theory of epistemic truth, an
account that carries with it certain philosophical baggage, so to speak. If one is willing to
embrace an ethical theory that itself relies on a consensus theory of epistemic truth, then
one must be prepared to jettison the entire project as conceptions of the "truth" change.
One must be prepared, as well, to accept the views of those who reject the theory because
their own view of the consensus-derived "truth" is not in accordance with that of the
theory. In the end, it is a heavy load of baggage and the degree to which it damages the
practical application of Pearson's (1989a) theory may yet remain to be seen. I have
admittedly applied the theory in only a limited scenario but with what I would
nonetheless call good practical results for the theory itself. In the end, if one accepts
Pearson's (1989a) definition of public relations, the theory displays a great degree of
parsimony in that it covers the gambit of what Pearson (1989a) considers public relations
and does so in a way that is both action-guiding and relatively simple in its application.
To accept, however, both Pearson's (1989a) definition of public relations as well as a
consensus-derived version of epistemic truth seems, in the end, a bridge too far.
In terms of Bowen's model, choosing a deontological, and in particular a Kantian
( 1956), theoretical grounding for a public relations model of ethical issues
management is a decision that is not without its own philosophical baggage. Kantian
moral theory is intricate enough that one must borrow it in its entirety or face loosing the
philosophical grounding upon which Kantian ethics itself rests. Put another way, you can
borrow only a little bit of Kant in the same way you can be only a little bit pregnant:
There is an all-or-nothing threshold quality to the endeavor. If the intention in going to
Kant ( 1956) is to find a solid theoretical grounding for a public relations model of
ethics-and there is little doubt among philosophers that Kant ( 1956) can indeed
provide that-then it will be self-defeating to sacrifice the philosophical grounding of
Kantian theory in the process. For the normative model of ethical issues management, as
we have seen, some revisions may be helpful in saving this philosophical grounding. The
question will be whether public relations theorists are willing to accept the "baggage"
that will arrive with these revisions. As it stands, however, the model loses its
philosophical grounding in the transition from Kant to issues management.
There may, however, be another way.
THE VIRTUES OF VIRTUE ETHICS
In this section I give an account of Aristotelian virtue ethics; consider what others
have said with respect to applied virtue ethics in business and public relations; show how
a virtue ethics account might be useful for a public relations ethic; offer a glimpse at the
framework for a such an account; and consider how such framework have affected the
previous Enron scenario. Finally, I consider the implications of such an account for
What is Virtue Ethics?
Virtue ethics has a rich and full history of its own, dating back to at least the time
of pre-Aristotelian philosophy (Liszka, 2002). Whereas deontological and
consequentialist accounts of ethics focus on what actions or acts an agent is morally
justified in performing (and, indeed, why they are justified), virtue accounts of ethics
instead focus on the agent who is performing (or not performing) those actions. Put
another way, deontological and consequentialist accounts of ethics focus on what to do,
whereas virtue accounts of ethics focus on what to be. Specifically, in the Aristotelian
account of virtue ethics, one ought to strive to be an excellent (or virtuous) person. The
way in which one becomes an excellent person is by practicing the virtues.
Though there are several accounts of virtue ethics nowadays,1 they all share some
strong basis in Aristotle. In what follows, then, I give a basic account of Aristotelian
virtue ethics, with some emphasis on its philosophical grounding. My goal is that the
reader should have a basic grasp of both virtue ethics and the general manner in which it
is philosophically grounded.
Aristotle's writings on ethics survive primarily in three works: Nicomachean
Ethics, Eudemonian Ethics, and Magna Moralia (Barnes, 1995), the Magna Moralia
being the more fragmentary (and disputed, in terms of authorship) work. Although there
are differences (both in method and content) in Aristotle's account of the human good and
his account of the virtues as described in these works, there are enough similarities to
form a coherent picture of the human good. Here I concentrate on the Eudemonian
Ethics and the Nicomachean Ethics (hereafter EE and EN, respectively).2 The EE begins
with the notion of happiness, and then goes on to discuss the nature of goodness. The EN
begins with the supreme good as subject, and goes on to argue that eudaimonia
(translated as "happiness" or "flourishing") is the best answer to the question "What is
the supreme human good?" Happiness (eudaimonia) is the good at which all human
action (praxis) aims. Aristotle establishes this in the first book of EN (primarily iv-xii)
and asserts the supremacy of happiness again in Book X (vi-viii). Happiness is the
1 See, among others, MacIntyre's (1984) After Virtue, a work many credit as a driving force in the
reemergence of virtue ethics in the late twentieth century; and Swanson's (2' 11 i') account of a pluralistic
2 This and subsequent references to Aristotle use a common method of Aristotelian reference: The Bekker
method. Works are cited by one standard abbreviation for the work in question and then the Bekker code
for page number, column number, and line number: For example: EN 1097b14-21. This method was
chosen in order to allow reference to different translations and editions of Aristotle, as most modern
translations, whatever their format, utilize this reference system. My particular source is the Barnes (1984)
The Complete Works ofAristotle.
ultimate object of pursuit, for it includes all the goods worth pursuing for their own sake
(EN 1097b14-21). It is also the goal of all rational activity (EN 1094al8-22; EE 1214b6-
11). Rational actions are the ones we perform because we think they will contribute to
our happiness, and our rational desires are for objects we want because we think they will
contribute to our happiness. Although we may be mistaken about what this particular
happiness consists in, we nonetheless pursue what we think will make us happy when we
act on rational desires. Furthermore, this happiness (or flourishing) is not a fleeting,
momentary phenomenon which we may enjoy one day and lose the next, but a general
condition which encompasses the whole of a man's life, inasmuch as that life displays
activities in conformity with virtue (EN 1100b10). Thus happiness, as the human good,
the good at which all human action aims, a good in and of itself, is a state of living well
or acting well.
The method one uses to live in this manner is to live and act in accordance with
virtue (arete, also translated as "excellence"). Virtue in this sense denotes a teleological
excellence; that is, a set of qualities, the display of which allows a man to fulfill his
function as a man properly and well. Ethical or moral virtue is a deliberately cultivated
disposition which is characterized by attaining a certain kind of mean which lies between
excess and deficiency as these pertain to emotion and action. This mean is discovered
through the use of reason such as it is exercised by a prudent person (EN 1106b36-07a2).
Moral virtue consistently possesses the character of the mean, at least with respect to
substance. With respect to doing well and achieving the best, moral virtue is an extreme
While Aristotle identifies several character traits as virtues (temperance,
magnanimity (or generosity), a sense of humor, wittiness, good temper, modesty,
courage, being, and justice) he does not claim that these are the only virtues. They are
virtues, however, in light of the fact that they contribute to the flourishing of those who
practice them. Virtues are tendencies or dispositions to act in a certain way under certain
circumstances, and that includes having certain attitudes or desires. That is, the virtuous
person has the proper attitudes and desires with respect to any particular virtue, not
simply performs actions that demonstrate that virtue. (Recall that virtue ethics is
primarily concerned with what to be, not what to do. While being the right kind of
person leads one to perform certain actions, the emphasis in on becoming or being that
kind of person, not on the resultant actions that flow from such manifestations of
With respect to the virtue of temperance, for example, a temperate person's desire
for physical pleasures (such as food, drink, and sexual activity) are moderate. It is not
simply that their behavior with respect to such pleasures is moderate; the virtuous person
(with respect to temperance) has actually cultivated their desires to the point that they
delight in this moderation, and act with moderation out of habit. If you resist the
temptation to overindulge yet regret resisting it, you are not actually displaying
temperance. Likewise, if a person feels fear that is inappropriately intense, such as terror
at the sight of a gecko, yet nevertheless stands their ground (though they hate every
second of it), that person does not display the virtue of courage. As Aristotle posits it
(EN 1140b 5-10) :
The man who abstains from bodily pleasures and delights in this very fact is
temperate, while the man who is annoyed at it is self-indulgent, and he who stands
his ground against things that are terrible and delights in this or least is not pained
is brave, while the man who is pained is a coward.
Additionally, Aristotle finds those who do not display an appropriate desire for
physical pleasures on a par with those whose desires are towards overindulgence. That
is, to be virtuous with respect to temperance is to desire neither too little nor too much (or
too few or too many) of the physical pleasures. This concept, mentioned above, is often
referred to as Aristotle's doctrine of the mean. This mean, however, is not the same for
every person. It is dependent on a person's situation and circumstances. An appropriate
appetite for food, for example, will be different for an NFL lineman than it will be for a
child. Moreover, while Aristotle emphasizes that most virtues represent a mean between
two extremes-one extreme being a deficit and the other extreme being a vice-he does
not say that all virtues are of this ilk.
In fact, it should be clear now that just what counts as a virtue is not the same for
every person at every time. As Barcalow (1998) points out, "Each trait that is a virtue or
vice is a tendency or disposition to behave and feel in certain characteristic ways under
certain characteristic circumstances. Thus, if we know what traits are beneficial and help
their possessor flourish, we know what traits are virtues" (p. 116). More will be said on
this later, particularly with respect to public relations.
The moral virtues and their corresponding vices are part of the voluntary and, as
such, belong to the range of things that fall within our power (EN 1114al 1-31). Among
these things is included the development of our character. While we cannot control all
the aspects of our character development (for example, we might be born with a defect of
some sort), to the extent which we are not born with some sort of defective character and
have received some kind of decent upbringing, the shaping of our character is, in a
significant way, in our own hands. It follows then that we are also responsible for what
we perceive as the good to be pursued in action, since this too is a function of the
character we have developed.3
The human good, then, is happiness, and this can only be achieved through a life
which exhibits the moral virtues, moral virtue being an expression of character, formed
by habits reflecting repeated choices. Moral responsibility, moreover, has to do with not
only character and the virtues, but a distinction between voluntary and involuntary action.
Voluntariness is significant for Aristotle because it is a condition of moral
responsibility and hence of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness. From EE:
And since excellence and badness and the acts that spring from them are
respectively praised or blamed--for we do not give praise or blame for what is due
to necessity, or chance, or nature, but only for what we ourselves are causes of; for
what another is the cause of, for that he bears the blame or praise--it is clear that
excellence and badness have to do with matters where the man himself is the cause
and source of his acts. (1223a10-14)
And, from EN:
Since excellence is concerned with passions and actions, and on voluntary passions
and actions praise and blame are bestowed, on those that are involuntary
forgiveness, and sometimes also pity, to distinguish the voluntary and the
involuntary is presumably necessary for those who are studying excellence.
Similarly, as alluded to above, involuntariness will be a condition of pity or forgiveness.
Further, on the basis of whether one feels remorse at appropriate times, Aristotle makes a
distinction between the involuntary and non-voluntary.
3 For an interesting account of the extent to which we are responsible for our character and for character
change, see Bondeson (1974). For a refutation of the view that one is responsible for one's actions only to
the extent that one is responsible for one's character, see Curren (1989).
Aristotle's account of the virtues, then, is grounded in a teleological conception of
the ultimate purpose of a rational being. The ultimate end towards which rational beings
strive is eudaimonia, or happiness. To achieve this type of happiness, a flourishing that
comprises the whole of one's life, one must lead an excellent life. Leading an excellent
life requires that one habitually practice the virtues, often designated as the mean between
two extremes. One must actively and consciously practice the virtues, and the person
who has done so and acts virtuously because they have conditioned themselves to act in
this way, is worthy of moral praise. Motivations, as well, play a part for Aristotle. The
person who refrains from stealing because they are afraid of being exposed and
subsequently punished as a thief is not as morally praiseworthy as the person who has
conditioned their self not to steal because stealing is wrong. Likewise, remorse can play
in a part in one's moral worth. The person who has accidentally caused the death of
another but feels no remorse is not as morally praiseworthy as the person who has
committed the same act but feels remorseful.4 The virtues serve as a means to an end, the
intermediate end of which is to become an excellent person. It is only by being an
excellent person that one can achieve eudaimonia, the rational goal of all human beings.
Just how, then, are the virtues to be practiced, and how do we identify what
virtues are appropriate for our particular circumstances?
4 It is in these cases that Aristotle's distinction between the involuntary and the non-voluntary comes into
play. Aristotle holds that voluntary and non-voluntary actions are worthy of praise or condemnation,
whereas involuntary acts are not. For the person who feels no remorse at having accidentally caused
another's death, however, Aristotle would classify their action as non-voluntary and therefore subject to
praise or (in this case) condemnation. The action is non-voluntary for Aristotle in the sense that, had that
person chosen to practice the virtues in the appropriate way, they would be a person who would feel
remorse at the appropriate times. Since, through a choice of their own, they have not practiced the virtues,
we can thus judge their particular actions on the basis of things they have voluntarily chosen not to do: To
wit, practice the virtues. There are many subtle nuances to Aristotle's account of the voluntary, the non-
voluntary, and the involuntary, but what is important for this particular project is simply to recognize that
remorse can play a role in whether or not one is appropriately virtuous.
The Virtues, Business, and Public Relations
Virtue ethics as applied ethics is certainly not a new idea. As Harrison (2004)
points out, "Since the publication of MacIntyre's After Virtue in 1984, Aristotle has
become a major, if not the major, influence on applied ethics among academics and
practitioners who are working to foster integrity and ethical conduct in organizations and
professions" (p. 1).
Arjoon (2000), for example, has developed a theory of applied virtue ethics for use
as a dynamic theory of business. Her theory links the ideas of virtues, the common good,
and the economy "into a unifying and comprehensive theory of business" (p. 159).
Likewise, Dobson (2005) advocates the application of virtue ethics to business,
embracing the idea that virtue ethics would allow a professional to "evaluate an ethically
charged decision from within" the role of the profession itself (p. 2). He goes on to argue
that virtue ethics "dovetails rather neatly with the increasing focus among financial
economists on the motivations of agents in business" (p. 2). Whetstone (2001) advocates
a position that virtue ethics can form one leg of a tripartite ethical approach to business
ethics that also includes a deontological component and a consequentialist component.5
Brewer (1997) advocates a position that views management as a "practice" (in the
MacIntyre sense and against the notion that management is not a "practice," as MacIntyre
has argued) and therefore subject to be viewed in light of a virtue-based evaluation.
Dawson and Bartholomew (2003) examine potential barriers to employing a virtue-based
approach to ethics in a business management environment and argue that such are
obstacles are not only surmountable, but that it is desirable to do so and adopt a virtue-
5 Such an approach is ill-advised, I believe, if one seeks to ground an applied ethic in a normative
philosophical theory, primarily for reasons stated earlier.
ethics approach. Seeger and Ulmer (2001) propose "a set of post-crisis virtues grounded
in values of corporate social responsibility and entrepreneurial ethics" (p. 369). Sommers
(1997) has argued that an Aristotelian notion of friendship, one that functions through
expectation of moral behavior, provides "both motive and context for the performance of
acts of virtue in a business setting" (p. 1453). Hartman and Beck-Dudley (1999) have
proposed virtue ethics as a basis for a marketing ethic for "analyzing the ethical
implications of their own [marketers] character along with their marketing decisions and
strategies" (p. 249). Injournalism, Adam, Craft, and Cohen (2004) have produced a
series of articles on journalism and virtue.
A few in public relations (Harrison, 2004; Leeper, 2001; Martinson, 2000) have
hinted at a virtue-based account of ethics for public relations as well, though no one has
as yet produced a working version of such an account. David Martinson (2000), for
example, suggests that Aristotle might offer some help for practitioners "faced with at
least a perceived conflict between what he or she sees as the demands of a client and
requests from the news media" (p. 19). Martinson (2000) invokes Aristotle's doctrine of
the mean to suggest that the appropriate ethical course of action would be "one which
balances the practitioner's ethical obligations to each party" (p. 20). Such a route
application of Aristotle's doctrine of the mean, however, belies a fundamental
misunderstanding of the way in which Aristotle conceives both the virtues and the
doctrine of the mean. Martinson (2000) rightly relates that virtue is a state of character
and rightly identifies the virtuous person as acting between the means of excess and
deficit. To act between the means of excess and deficit, however, is quite different than
selecting a balance between competing obligations. Monica Walle (2003), citing
Martinson (2000), picks up on this thread and belies the same kind of misunderstanding
when she echoes that for "Aristotle, then, the ethical practitioner would be the one who
balances between the welfare of the public and the welfare of the client" (p. 2). As we
have seen, Aristotle's notion of virtue ethics is concerned with cultivating good habits (or
dispositions) of character. With Aristotle, we are not particularly concerned with duties
(in the deontological sense). As Harrison (2004) puts it, "Aristotle was not concerned
with resolving conflicts between competing duties, such as duty to society versus duty to
client...Aristotle's whole ethic of virtue transcends duty-based (or deontological)
approaches to ethics" (p. 1). That is, while Martinson (2000) and Walle (2003) are
essentially correct in their accounts of the virtues, they commit a fundamental error when
interpreting the doctrine of the mean.
Harrison (2004) provides a fuller but still limited picture of a public relations
ethic based in the virtues. Alluding to MacIntyre (1984), Harrison (2004) explains the
nature of the virtues and also offers some critique of Walle (2003). Because his work is
not intended to present an outline of what a virtue-based public relations ethic might look
like, however, he stops at this point and offers critiques of several public relations codes
of conduct by applying the codes to a specific historical case.6 He concludes by arguing
that the institutionalization of ethics, and, in particular, codes of ethics, have fallen short
of their aim of promoting and enforcing ethical behavior among practitioners. We need,
he says, "an approach [to ethics] that genuinely fosters habits of good character in
practitioners" (p. 6). He rightly notes that it "is not a direction easily pursued" (p. 6).
Are there advantages to such an approach?
6 The case is the Timberlands case from New Zealand. See Harrison (2004).
Might a Virtue-Based Approach Prove Useful for Public Relations?
There are several potential advantages to be gained from a virtue-based approach to
public relations ethics. First and perhaps foremost, there would be a shift in focus.
Traditional deontological and consequential ethical theories are most often seen as
constraints on what one is allowed (ethically) to do. Kantian ethics, for example,
prohibits telling a lie, even a "small" one. Under an act utilitarian moral theory, one is
prohibited from any action that is not likely to result in the greatest benefit for the
greatest number. Virtue ethics, however, is different, focusing on the person and not the
act. The focus of virtue ethics is the achievement of eudaimonia by becoming an
excellent person and leading an excellent life. In this way, ethics can be seen as a
liberating rather than a constraining force, one that depends on the individual's ability to
pursue excellence through his or her own choices.
The second potential advantage has to do again with the nature of virtue as
compared to a deontological or consequentialist approach. Since one is never "through"
becoming and excellent person, and since one is required to cultivate and habituate the
virtues as a matter of living well, there is a constant focus on the moral aspect of the
profession (or field) that is inherent in a virtue approach but lacking in the other
approaches. Moral education and practicing being excellent just are part of being an
excellent person. Ethics is not relegated to a class or seminar once or a quarter or twice a
year but is ingrained in the very fabric of what one does and how one lives.
Third, the fact that our motivations play a part in determining our moral worth
captures nicely some of our commonsense notions about ethics and morality in way that
is just not possible under deontological or consequentialist approaches. Our
commonsense notions of morality tell us that the person who does the right thing for the
wrong reason is not on par (ethically) with the person who does the right thing for the
right reason, and virtue ethics inherently accounts for this notion, even stressing that we
ought to want the right thingsfor the right reasons.
Finally, because the virtues themselves are defined with respect to what "being an
excellent one of those" entails, where "those" is specific to a situation against the
backdrop of a particular culture and time, a virtue-based ethic is much more likely to
allow for the many nuanced and significant differences of culture, regions, and practices,
while still retaining its normative quality. Katayama (2003), for example, argues that a
virtue approach to moral education is not only viable in a pluralistic society (and, one can
reasonably extrapolate, in a pluralistic, global environment) but it is, in fact desirable.
One of the major obstacles, of course, would involve coming to some consensus on just
what shared virtues would constitute the base for a public relations ethic. The problem is
not insurmountable, however. Swanton (2003), in Virtue Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach,
makes an extended argument that such an endeavor is both possible and worthwhile,
while Leeper and Leeper (2001) offer "harmony and the development and maintenance of
community" as a goal of public relations. Using this goal as definitive of flourishing for
a corporation or agency with respect to public relations might readily yield an initial set
of virtues with which to begin the task.
Some Potential Virtues for Public Relations
The task of determining just what shared virtues should constitute a pluralistic,
global virtue-based public relations ethic is both enormous and complex and is well
beyond the scope of this work. Still, below I offer five virtues, as both a starting point
and as a vehicle with which to examine the application of a virtue-based model to the
previous Enron scenario. The selection of these particular virtues, while not entirely
arbitrary, is offered with scant explanation and no in-depth justification, as justifying a
particular set of virtues for public relations is a work in its own right. In the end, my
selection of these particular virtues should not be terribly controversial. Further, simply
having a set of virtues (whether, to some degree, arbitrary or not) while not inherently
necessary, will help in discussing how an ethics of virtue might work with respect to the
Recall that virtues are cultivated dispositions, the possession of which will allow
the possessor to flourish. They must be practiced and habituated over a lifetime, and
reflected upon regularly. In the instance of public relations (for the purposes of
illustration), I have chosen five. While a complete list of essential virtues for a public
relations manager would likely contain more than five virtues, the virtues below will do
nicely to give some idea of the kind of a model a virtue-based public relations model
would be. The five virtues, then, for the purpose of example, are:7
Honesty is a virtue that involves several areas, including truthfulness, cheating, and
stealing. Barcalow (1998) considers honesty as strongly tied to fair-mindedness, seeing
truthfulness as fairness with regard to information. In a similar way, cheating can be seen
as fairness with regard to the particular rules of a practice, and stealing as fairness with
7 A longer list of virtues considered includes perseverance, prudence (which Aristotle considers an
intellectual virtue and not a virtue of character), loyalty, courage, justice, industry, respect, tolerance, fair-
mindedness, honesty, and generosity.
regard to the rules of property relations. One can be dishonest by omission
(nondisclosure) as well as dishonest by simply lying. The person who displays an excess
of honesty may always tells people what she is thinking, without regard for the feelings
of others. An excess of honesty might be displayed as well in the case of a person who
informs a murderer of the whereabouts of his potential victim when lying might save the
victim's life. A deficit in this area, of course, involves habitual deception in terms of
lying, cheating, or stealing. Honesty as a virtue is directly applicable to public relations
practice, where neither always speaking one's mind nor always revealing everything one
knows would constitute an excellent practice. In a similar way, engaging in deceptions,
or covering up the deceptions of one's employer, can be seen as a deficit with respect to
the virtue of honesty.
Respect in this instance involves the tendency to regard others as having some
worth, as rational beings, and to therefore treat them with civility. Barcalow (1998)
maintains that respect viewed in this way is a form of fairness, since in recognizing
someone's worth you are, in effect, giving them their due. Some are deserving of more
respect than others, and to consistently give others (or a particular other) more respect
than they deserve counts as an excess (or vice) with respect to this virtue. To give others
(or another) less respect than they deserve is to demonstrate a deficit with respect to this
virtue. In public relations, respect can be manifested by treating all publics (and
individuals within those publics) with the respect they deserve, and never treating any
person or group as not worthy of at least some degree of civility.
Tolerance involves the cultivated propensity to allow others to lead a life based on
beliefs contrary to one's own. To have a deficit in this virtue would involve having too
little tolerance for those with whom one fundamentally disagrees and perhaps interfering
in their lives to attempt to change their beliefs or to keep them from acting on those
beliefs. In a public relations context, one can imagine, say, an organization attempting to
prevent an antagonistic public from staging a legal protest. To have an excess of
tolerance could lead one to accept the actions of mass murderers or child molesters as just
"another" way of life. For public relations, it could involve not standing up for the rights
of abused employees (or members of a public or other interest group) because one sees
the side of the abuser as equally worthy of tolerance.
Courage is the fourth virtue chosen for the sake of this example. While courage
can involve bravery, the two are not synonymous in this case. Courage involves
performing some noble action despite being afraid of the inherent danger of the action.
Thus, the man who jumps a motorcycle over 50 cars in hopes of winning a cash award
may be seen as brave, since he recognizes and confronts the dangerous nature of the task,
but may not be considered to display the virtue of courage, since he is performing the
action primarily for his own benefit. To possess too little courage is to be cowardly; to
display an excess in this area is to be foolhardy. With respect to pubic relations, we can
imagine courage being displayed by a public relations manager who advocates for the
rights of oppressed or abused stakeholders, though he knows by doing so he may lose his
job. Cowardice might be found to be displayed by the public relations manager who
refuses to perform such a role through fear of losing his job.
Justice is the highest virtue of all for Aristotle (EN 1130a10), involving (as a
moral virtue) the idea that an individual possesses a fair-mindedness in relation to others.
The demonstration of justice as a virtue may require someone to do without something
she would otherwise have (such as material goods or money) or to endure some hardship
she might otherwise not have to endure (to go hungry, for example, so that others might
be fed). The practice of justice often requires one to demonstrate other virtues, such as
honesty or courage. The person who has cultivated and habituated the virtue of justice is
in possession of virtue in the most complete sense, Aristotle tell us, because she can
demonstrate her virtue both to herself and towards others (EN 1129b30-35). A person
might demonstrate a deficit in the virtue of justice if, for example, she deliberately fails to
pay her taxes but routinely enjoys the benefits (such as traveling on roads or police
protection) that are incurred as the result of taxation. In the arena of public relations, a
deficiency with respect to justice could result in the view that a corporation ought to
perform actions to the detriment of its employees or other stakeholders, particularly in
violation of some rule or law, as long as the corporation benefits and there is good chance
that the corporation will not be caught.
These virtues, then, while not offered as a complete account of virtues for public
relations, at least give some idea of the way in which the virtues might be defined and
referenced in a public relations context. It is important to remember that the virtues are
not a set of principles against which we are to evaluate the actions of individuals.
Instead, they are excellences of character, the inculcation and practice of which allow one
to lead a flourishing life, or (in this instance) allow one to perform as a public relations
manager in a flourishing way. How, then, might some of these virtues have been
displayed in the Enron case discussed previously?
Virtues Applied to Enron
The first thing to note in the application of a virtue-based applied ethic to the Enron
scenario is the nature of this approach as compared to other normative approaches. We
are more concerned here with agents than with actions. That is, as virtue ethics is
primarily concerned with what to be and not what to do, both the approach and the kind
of results one gets are likely to be different than those of theories of applied ethics. For
the sake of analysis, as before, the assumption is made that the public relations manager
is a member of the dominant coalition
Recall that the Enron scenario, as previously described, involved (among other
things) Enron top executives deceiving both their employees and other shareholders
about the nature of the company's financial well-being. The primary action-guiding
question to ask in light of virtue theory is "What would the virtuous person-top
manager, public relations officer, etc.-have done in these circumstances?" The answer
seems obvious, even without consulting the five virtues offered above, that the virtuous
CEO (or other top managers) would not have deceived his shareholders in a way that
apparently Enron top executives did. It seems likewise obvious that a public relations
manager who practiced the virtues would not have allowed shareholders, employees, and
other key publics to have been deceived if he could have avoided it somehow.
Consider, for example, the virtue of honesty, involving truthfulness and fairness
with regard to information. Embracing and practicing the virtue of honesty, either as a
corporate virtue or as a habituated character trait displayed by the top public relations
practitioners of Enron, would naturally preclude the corporation from engaging in
deceptive practices and from passing information to its shareholders and employees that
was not truthful. Likewise, practicing the virtue of honesty would preclude these same
people both from stealing and from covering up for those who they knew to be stealing.
Likewise, having habituated the virtue of courage, the courageous practitioner of public
relations would be one who would stand ready to expose such corruption and goings-on,
despite potential resistance to such activity. These results, while rather trivially intuitive,
show something important about the virtue-ethics approach.
Enron, in creating a corporate culture where the bottom line mattered more than
ethical considerations8, was, defacto, acting contrary to the very notion of demonstrating
and habituating the virtues. While this may not seem particularly insightful at first
glance, it does serve to show that, in a corporation where the virtues are embraced
(whatever those virtues turn out to be, and because virtue is a notion based on flourishing
for a particular circumstance in a particular cultural context, the virtues may be different
for a corporation in one culture or country at one particular time than for another at
another time), a situation such as Enron found itself in would not have developed. And it
will not do here to say that Enron did the things they considered to be in the interest of
their own personal and, or corporation's flourishing the nature of the virtues of honesty,
courage, and justice, as briefly explained above, run contrary to such a notion of
flourishing. The responsibility to know better, to know that such actions were not in the
best interest of the flourishing of the company or its individuals, as well, is captured in a
virtue-based model. Additionally captured is the idea that even when Enron top
executives may have been doing things that appeared to be ethical, such as creating all
the "right" business ethics tools, codes, and programs, their motivations were not in
accordance with the virtues of honest, respect, tolerance, courage, or justice. It is a
unique feature of virtue ethics to consider motivations in this way and a unique result of
8 It should be noted here that the bottom financial line can itself be an ethical consideration, inasmuch as
pubic corporations have a moral obligation to their shareholders to, within certain bounds, maximize
profits. Enron, it seems, did not recognize particular boundaries and, in the end and somewhat ironically,
their actions initially aimed at making profits ultimately caused the entire corporation to fail.
applying a virtue-based ethic that such motivations count as a factor in the character of
In a corporation where the virtues are embraced, practiced, and habituated,
situations such as Enron's do not arise. Granted, corporations such as this may be few
and far between, but that is not a knock on a virtue-based approach to ethics. What it
may show is that a corporate change in the very way we think about ethics may be
promising in terms of ensuring ethical outcomes in the many and complicated situations
that corporations face. Even if such an applied ethic isprimafacie plausible, however,
what would it mean for public relations?
Implications for Public Relations
Accepting a virtue-based account of public relations ethics leads to several
implications for public relations. The most obvious (and immediate) would be a change
in the way we conceive of ethics and ethical issues. As I have stressed previously, virtue
ethics is concerned with what to be, what kind of person to be. Its focus is on character,
and as such, it is less concerned with generic principles of action (such as codes of
conduct) and much more concerned with the development of one's character through the
habitual practice of the virtues. Accepting a virtue-based account of public relations
would represent a fundamental shift in thought away from commandment-based thinking
about right and wrong and towards thought about what it is to be an excellent person, a
person of character. This advantage, however, can also be seen as a limitation. As
Maclntyre (1984) has pointed out, changing the way in which people view ethics is no
easy task and is certainly not one that is quickly performed. As it involves a fundamental
change in the way in which many people conceive ethics, much education is required
over the course of a long period of time. Public relations practitioners, as communicators
and relationship builders, and as the ethical conscious of an organization, may be in a
uniquely advantageous position to begin such an endeavor.
This shift in thought would naturally entail a new emphasis on moral development
and education. For, as we have seen, to live the virtuous life is not to practice the virtues
for a day or a week, but to cultivate habits of excellence over the course of one's
lifetime. Integral to an account of the virtues is the idea of consistent and daily emphasis
on excellence. To paraphrase Aristotle from the Nicomachean Ethics: One swallow does
not a spring day make, nor does one sunny day. It is only by inculcating the virtues and
practicing them habitually that one becomes virtuous, and this kind of moral development
requires emphasis, education, and reflection in a way that other outlooks on ethics do not.
While this type of constant emphasis is no doubt a challenge as well as an advantage,
keeping ethics in the forefront of thought and inherently integrated in the daily activities
of public relations practitioners and corporations not only would reap its own benefits,
but synergistically serves to habituate such virtues.
A final implication to mention here is that no matter what theory of public relations
one subscribes to, it will likely be compatible with a virtue-based approach to ethics. For
this kind of general approach is not dependent upon any particular conception of what
public relations is. Granted, just what counts as a virtue, or what virtues are emphasized
the most, may change slightly according to which theory of public relations one
subscribes to, but the theory in its essence will not change. Thus, there would be the
potential for greater flexibility in talking cross culturally, indeed globally, about both
ethics and ethical issues. Such an approach would meet Kim's (2005) call for
universalism in public relations ethics while recognizing and accounting for differences
of culture and situation.
In the end, the shift in emphasis from action-centered theories of applied ethics to
a virtue-based theory has many advantages. Whether public relations managers and
corporations themselves would be willing to accept such a radical shift in emphasis
remains to be seen. It is the nature of the normative, however, to show what ought to be
and not simply what is likely to be accepted, and the nature of this work, for now at least,
remains in the realm of the normative.
Ethics is important to public relations for a number of reasons, including
maintaining (or establishing) the reputation of the profession and, perhaps more
importantly, for guidance in doing the right (ethically speaking) thing for the sake of
doing the right thing. The call for an applied ethic in public relations that is grounded
firmly in a philosophical ethic is a sound one. Ethics that are not grounded in this way
are inherently arbitrary or, worse, contradictory.
This work represents a critical examination of the state of theory building in public
relations ethics. Among the forays into an applied ethic for public relations, two attempts
notably stand out: Ronald Pearson's (1989a) dialogical account of public relations ethics
and Shannon Bowen's (2000, 2001) deontological model of ethical decision-making.
While each of these models makes much progress toward establishing an applied ethic
that is grounded in philosophy, in the end each falls short. Pearson's theory relies on a
consensus version of epistemic truth, and in doing so requires one to subscribe to the
same version of truth or to reject the model. Further, in application, Pearson's theory can
yield results that lie on dubious philosophical ground: specifically, that an action is wrong
because it is wrong. Bowen's model, on the other hand, loses its philosophical grounding
in the transition from issues management to the categorical imperative. When the model
strays from Kant, it loses its philosophical grounding in the process. Finally, as
presented, Bowen's (2000, 2004) model applies only in light of an excellence model of
public relations; other theoretical underpinnings for public relations are not considered or
It is important to keep in mind just what kind of thing we are seeking if we are
indeed seeking a public relations ethic that is firmly grounded in philosophy. We are
seeking a kind of applied ethic, one that has its basis in some normative theory of
philosophy. While the possible candidates and varieties are as numerous as the many
scores of variations on traditional and non-traditional normative ethical theories, some
will be a better fit than others. Whether the fit is better or worse may, in large part,
depend on one's conception of public relations in the first place. Virtue ethics, I have
tried to argue here, can provide one variety of normative ethical grounding for a theory of
public relations ethics that can not only accommodate many different conceptions of
public relations, but do so across many different geographic and cultural boundaries.
Under such a model, agents are required to become virtuous persons by practicing the
virtues, a process that itself requires conscious and continuous development and practice.
One advantage of such a model is that it can allow for a plurality of virtues, making such
a model much more likely to enjoy global application while still retaining its normative
philosophical grounding. There are challenges and limitations to such an approach, to be
sure, and much hard work and commitment would be required of those who seek to
employ such an approach. It remains to be seen whether such an approach would be
practical in the current global environment. I believe that it is, at the very minimum,
Further research might expand the outline of a model presented here to explore in
much more detail just how the model would work for private corporations, charities, the
government, and multinational corporations. Concurrently, one could actually explore
the compatibility (i.e., the plausibility) of a virtue-based public relations ethic within a
particular organization. Another important area for further exploration would be to
attempt a description of the virtues in terms of the various practices within which public
relations takes place. One might, for example, describe the particular set of virtues
unique to practicing public relations for private industry in China, and the way, within the
particular cultural context of that situation, one would go about inculcating and
habituating those virtues. With enough such accounts, the job of determining what
shared virtues ought to account for the basis of a pluralistic, global, virtue-based public
relations ethic could begin. There is much work left to be done.
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Benton Danner is an 18-year active-duty Army officer commissioned into the
Armor Branch from the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in
1987. He has served as a tank platoon leader; scout platoon leader; tank company
executive officer; Battalion Logistics Officer; Squadron Maintenance Officer;
commander of an M1A1 tank company; an Assistant and then Associate Professor of
English at West Point; a Public Affairs Officer for the 11-nation Multinational Force and
Observers in the Sinai, Egypt; and most recently as the Public Affairs Officer for U.S.
Army Alaska. He has also seen duty in Germany, Southwest Asia, and stateside
assignments including Kentucky and Kansas. A native Texan, he holds a Bachelor of
Science degree in general engineering from West Point and a master's degree in
Philosophy from Texas A&M University. He currently resides in Gainesville, Florida,
with his wife of 16 years, Susan, and their two daughters, Annie and Molly.