The unethical consequences of professional communication codes of ethics: A postmodern analysis of ethical decision-making in communication practiceby Derina R. Holtzhausen

Public Relations Review

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Year
2015
DOI
10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.06.008
Subject
Marketing / Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management / Communication

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Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

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Derina R

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This article reviews the role of professional communication codes of ethics through a postmodern lens. It argues that codes of ethics interfere with individual ethical decision-making and move ethical responsibility away from the individual to that of the group. While recognizing the power of human agency in ethical decision-making, the article argues that in professional environments human agents also are bound by laws and contracts, which hamper unencumbered ethical decision-making in public relations practice. It critiques the role of public relations in promoting the ethical standards and ideologies of the powerful people they serve. They do this by presenting these ideologies and ethical standards as rational and objective. It argues for the rejection of universal codes of ethics of professional organizations in favor of individual, responsible ethical decision-making, which will be determined by the specific environment and situation of the practitioner. The moral impulse to the Other then becomes the guiding principle and the purest form of ethical decision-making in the workplace. © 2015 Published by Elsevier Inc. ction ethics seem to be a major concern for professional public relations membership organizations all over the globe. as and is being devoted to developing and publishing guidelines that are aimed at governing practitioners’ ethical pointing them to expected ethical behavior, apparently with little results or consequences for practitioners. This theme for the World Public Relations Forum’s (WPRF) 2014 colloquium titled Communication with conscience. ting with conscience is defined as “full awareness and responsibility in decision-making, communication and ganizations” (Global Alliance, 2014b). rly relevant to this event were two documents generated from the two previous World Public Relations Forum nts, namely, The Stockholm Accords (Global Alliance, 2010) and The Melbourne Mandate (Global Alliance, 2012). documents refer extensively to expectations for ethical behavior of public relations professionals. Both set out s for expected conduct (or roles), which confuses rather than enhances the purpose of these documents. What e water even further is that both these documents go into great detail of what public relations professionals so setting out clear guidelines for professionals. They also use organization and professional interchangeably as or papers for the WPRF colloquium, where professionals and organizations are urged to take responsibility for dence to: College of Fine Arts and Communication, Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas, USA. ress: derina.holtzhausen@okstate.edu rg/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.06.008 2015 Published by Elsevier Inc.

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Furthermore, in a summary of the enforcement of national codes of ethics and conduct, the Global Alliance reported that very few complaints were received or acted on over a period of three years. Of these, four cases involved legal action. Several of the natio relations, th (Global Alli and why, d professiona

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A postmodern analysis of ethical decision-making in communication practice. Public Relations Review (2015), doi.org/10.1016/j.pubrev.2015.06.008 nal organizations remarked that since their organizations do not govern non-members who practice public ere is little benefit to enforcing ethical principles. They now focus more on education and scenario-building ance, 2014a). One thus has to ask why professional organizations continue the endless pursuit of codes of ethics espite the availability of university degrees in public relations taught by educated and qualified academics, l organizations continue to spend years of their time on defining the practice. cle examines the role of power as a motivation for these continued pursuits and their potential to bring harm to ns’ stakeholders. Its starting-point is the postmodern interrogation of power, which in this instance focuses on e sources of moral power, how these codes of conduct are shaped, how ethical decisions are made, who decided des, and who they benefit. orms, and the law he problems in discussion on ethical decision-making is the confusion of terminology. The concepts of morality often are linked and interdependent. Morality is “a set of values and rules of action that are recommended to through the intermediary of various prescriptive agencies” (Foucault, 1985, p. 25). Ethics is the extent to which ual supports the moral code through conduct. Thus a code of ethics describes the morally acceptable conduct om individuals, in this case public relations professionals. rality and ethics often are confused with the law. What is unethical might not be illegal. Similarly, what is s unethical and immoral might be legal. Illegal actions can be pursued through legal channels, as the Global eport on enforcement of national codes of ethics and conduct showed (Global Alliance, 2014a). For this reason n tension between ethics and the law, which explains the tension that often exists between legal advisers and ions practitioners. While there seldom is a channel for pursuing unethical conduct there are many channels for gal conduct. in particular argued that ethics and justice are two incommensurable “language games” (Lyotard & Thébaud, ). While both are prescriptive, laws are contractual agreements between citizens and the state or contractual between organizations and other entities, such as employees, clients, and service providers. In contrast, ethics tive language game based on other criteria such as membership of specific institutions or adherence to different eworks and therefore hard to enforce. her factor that compounds the problems public relations practitioners face in ethical decision-making is the agency. Philosophical perspectives on agency deal with the concept of personal power, i.e., the ability of an o make personal decisions and be objective and rational. Much of modernist philosophy was driven by the belief orld. . .is a wholly knowable system governed by a finite number of universal laws that man can grasp and irect to his own benefit” (Havel, 1992, as cited in Ermarth, 2001, p. 56). Ermarth refers to this as the “One World ” (p. 202). ast, postmodern agency is viewed as fragmented, with the agent facing different positions requiring different a continuous basis. As a result there is no longer a unified agent because there is no unified and objectified can be explained and understood rationally. The postmodern agent exists in a “discursive condition” (p. 206) rse always is in a state of flux. This does not mean that human agency is powerless. In fact, one can argue odern agency is more powerful and complex than modernist agency because there are more opportunities for