Ethics Is Not Optional (JOUR 4470)

Before taking the Ethics, Law and Diversity in Strategic Communications course at UNT I had a basic understanding of ethics. But little did I know, there are numerous concepts, details, legal aspects and previous events that define modern-day ethics and how they apply to strategic communications.

Always Use Good Ethics

The most important thing I’ve learned is professionals need to practice good ethics as best they can in every situation, especially when their decisions will affect others. Thinking twice is a great rule of thumb. Examining case studies in which CEOs or employees made horrible, unethical decisions reinforced this statement every week. Case studies about professionals who were successful always included lessons about how to correctly use ethics.

I now have a thorough understanding of ethical mega-theories (deontological ethics, teleological ethics and subjective ethics) and sub-theories (virtue ethics, cultural relativism, subjectivism, religious morality, egoism, utilitarian ethics, machiavellian ethics, situation ethics, social contract theory, communitarianism and antinomian ethics). These theories are guidelines to making good decisions. While the main theories encompass a broad range of situations, the sub-theories apply in more specific situations. In other words, they are not one-size-fit-all.

Blurred Lines

Instinctive, admirable ethics do not come naturally. Training and understanding are required. No one is born knowing what is right and wrong. Morals, beliefs and acceptable social behavior are learned. And everyone’s definition of good ethics is different, therefore there is no universal rule-book for ethical decision making. Another added difficulty includes what is considered socially acceptable changes over the years. Even five or ten years can make a difference. In the 1960s, America was shocked by this commercial:

Is it shocking now? Not compared to what we see in mainstream media on a daily basis.

So when faced with a choice that involves ethics (most choices), how are we supposed to make the right decision?

1. Apply ethical theories

2. Review codes of ethics

3. Review legal aspects

4. Look at your own morals and values

5. Decide what the greater truth is

6. Review what decisions were made in similar, past situations

7. Think about possible public reactions

Knowledge of these tools, beliefs and events are extremely helpful when a decision must be made quickly. We must remember that instinctual decisions are not always best.

If everyone had the exact same ethical behavior and way of thinking, the world would be a peaceful place. But of course this is not reality. Therefore, ethics education is vital to communicators (and people) around the world.

Taking It With Me

I believe that public relations and advertising case studies were the most important aspect of the course. As a future public relations professional, it’s extremely important to remember what decisions were successful and what decisions burned companies to the ground.
One unethical decision can have an extremely detrimental impact on integrity, credibility and reputation. Whether it is a small, daily decision or a choice that will alter the path of an entire campaign, I will take this knowledge and apply it throughout my career.
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Is the Internet Creating a More Honest Society? (JOUR 4470)

There is no doubt the Internet, social media and 24-hour news cycle have completely changed our society. Has it changed in a negative or positive way? Although I’ve never known a world without the Internet, I must argue it has changed for the better. There are downsides to every transition, but overall the Internet had created a more transparent, connected and honest society.

Because we are all tuned into our smart phones and tablets, it is almost impossible to be unaware of current events and social issues. The constant news cycle allows everyone to be informed, with every available detail, and form an educated opinion in a timely manner. More and more people are getting involved with politics and social causes than ever before because news spreads like wild fire online. Every individual’s thoughts can be heard and considered. Activist groups, political groups and cultural groups clearly explain what they stand for and what they are against, especially through social media. With all of the information out there, we have the ability to decide what we as individuals stand for and consider right and wrong.

A counter argument could be that some people can not control themselves or keep rude and ignorant opinions to themselves. But isn’t that fundamentally being honest? In a perfect world, everyone would abide by an online code of ethics like the NPR social media code of ethics, but this is the real world. Even if the Internet did not exist, people would still have and express those opinions, but with a smaller reach. A smaller reach equals less controversy.

It is difficult to hide racism, sexism, homophobia or any type of ignorance online and on social media. But that is a good thing. It means our society has become more honest and transparent. No one wants to see their mistakes or biases go public, but those mistakes reveal what the majority of society does and does not consider ethical and/or moral. Take the recent Oklahoma University racism chant scandal for example. It is so important for people who are in the wrong to be exposed. In order to end any type of bigotry, our society must learn that you don’t have to agree with everyone’s opinions and beliefs, you must respect and accept them. The only exception is if those beliefs and opinions are resulting in self-inflicted pain.

The fact that everything online inevitably stays online and turns into public information should make every user think twice before they post. You don’t want to make a mistake and ruin your career (or life) like Justine Sacco did:

Everyone must to be careful on social media. On a positive note social media and online forums are the perfect tool to give voice to the voiceless. It is impossible to silence a minority or activist group on the Internet because it would be considered unethical. The Constitution protects our freedom of speech. Therefore, in this case what is legal is also ethical. In 2014 alone, there were countless social media movements that provided awareness and brought change. A few were #BringBackOurGirls after the terrorist kidnapping of 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, #IceBucketChallenge to raise awareness for ALS, and #Ferguson in light of the Michael Brown shooting. Without the Internet, our society would not be as educated, connected, honest or advanced as it is today.

All We See is Processed Food: No Wonder America is Fat (JOUR 4470)

There is no question that America is dealing with a widespread obesity problem. Who is to blame? Americans of course. Consumers choose what food to put into their body and choose whether or not to exercise.

But how are American consumers really supposed to know what is good for them and what is bad for them? The average American has no training in nutrition and are exposed to thousands of food advertisements everyday. I believe advertisers are being unethical by creating the perception that consumers do not need to eat food other than what’s advertised. The number of households that cook has decreased by about 15% in the last 30 years and more consumers eat out for most or all of their meals. And I bet even households that do cook eat packaged, prepared and frozen meals. That food is killing consumers. What ever happened to fresh fruit and vegetables, homemade bread, beef that’s not dripping in vegetable grease and sautéing fresh seafood?

Do a Google image search for “food advertisement” and most of the results are photos of pizza, greasy tacos, hamburgers, breadsticks, cereal, soft drinks, juice, candy, Twinkies and cheese. The occasional piece of fruit, glass of milk or chicken sandwich appears, but not nearly as often as junk food ads. Watch TV for an hour and count the number of fast food commercials. American consumers can’t escape these ads because they’re everywhere! Do advertisers not care about the health of their audiences?

Take a second look at that last ad. Do you really think Heidi Klum is thin and beautiful because she eats huge, juicy burgers all the time? Of course not. But by using celebrity endorsements, advertisers put the idea in consumers’ heads that they too can look like her if they buy and eat that food. When society is constantly throwing ideals at its consumers, they’re eventually going to adopt and follow those ideals.

What’s worse is a large part of the target audience is children. American childhood obesity has tripled in the last 25 years. Childhood obesity can lead to obesity in adulthood, which increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. These statistics are directly related to the time that children spend consuming media! This exert from the American Psychological Association describes exactly why the exposure to hundreds of food advertisements a day is so detrimental to the health of children:

“Most children under age 6 cannot distinguish between programming and advertising and children under age 8 do not understand the persuasive intent of advertising. Advertising directed at children this young is by its very nature exploitative. Children have a remarkable ability to recall content from the ads to which they have been exposed. Product preference has been shown to occur with as little as a single commercial exposure and to strengthen with repeated exposures. Product preferences affect children’s product purchase requests and these requests influence parents’ purchasing decisions” (American Psychological Association).

So how do we fix this ethical problem? Without encroaching on the first amendment, I believe the government should regulate junk and fast food advertising. To solve such a widespread health problem like obesity, the federal government needs to take action. Believe or not, advertisements have a huge impact on consumers’ perception! Before something even more detrimental than obesity happens to our society, fast food advertisers need to re-think the importance of ethics and the effect advertisements have on consumers.

Sources

Ferdman, Roberto A. (March 5, 2014). The Slow Death of the home-cooked meal. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/05/the-slow-death-of-the-home-cooked-meal/

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Overweight and Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

Newman, Cathy. (2015). Why Are We So Fat? National Geographic. Retrieved from http://science.nationalgeographic.com/science/health-and-human-body/human-body/fat-costs/#page=5

Google. (2015). Home page. Retrieved from https://www.google.com

Clarke, Suzan. (March 21, 2013). Heidi Klum Sizzles in New Burger Ad for Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/entertainment/2013/03/heidi-klum-sizzles-in-new-burger-ad-for-hardees-carls-jr/

American Psychology Association. (2015). The Impact of Food Advertising on Childhood Obesity. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/topics/kids-media/food.aspx

Harris, Jennifer L. & Graff, Samantha K. (February 2012). Protecting Young People From Junk Food Advertising: Implications of Psychological Research for First Amendment Law. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3483979/

Cueva, Maya. (June 14, 2011). This Is Your Brain on Ads: An Internal ‘Battle’. NPR: Youth Radio. Retrieved from   http://www.npr.org/2011/06/14/137175622/this-is-your-brain-on-ads-an-internal-battle

Blogspot. Retrieved from https://kathrynroses.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/65b37-reese.png’S+MASTER.png

The West Virginia Surf Report. Retrieved from http://www.thewvsr.com/locostaco.jpg

Blogspot. Retrieved from https://kathrynroses.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/438b9-cinnamontoastcrunhad231.png

New York Daily News. Retrieved from http://assets.nydailynews.com/polopoly_fs/1.1293927.1411076963!/img/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/gallery_1200/heidi-klum-carl-jr.jpg

Ethics in Business and Media (JOUR 4470)

Professionals in every field have a responsibility to be ethical. This always has been and always will be true. Ethics guide us in the decision-making process along with personal interests, company interests and societal norms. Essentially, “ethics is the study of what we ought to do,” (Merrill).

The need for more ethical thinking in media and business is obvious because of the countless examples in which professionals did not act ethically. One of the most well-known examples is the Enron fallout in the early 2000s.

Professionals represent themselves, their employers and their families. They must also consider organizational, societal and legal constraints along with codes of ethics and their audience members when making decisions. Below are some reasons why professionals in the media and business world must be ethical and holds their colleagues and competition to the same standard.

Trust

“Trust, after all, results in increased business, stronger customer loyalty, better employee morale, reduced turnover, and higher profit margins,” (Sonnenberg).

The majority of workers believe that management should uphold ethical standards, but unfortunately only 39% believe that it does (Industry Week). In 2005, more than half of 3,000 U.S. workers surveys said they witnessed some type of misconduct by management (Industry Week). In order for a business or a media outlet to be successful, their publics must trust them. The management must trust the staff and vice versa. In order to gain trust, the organization and its individuals must act ethically. This means always tell the whole truth, be open, uphold integrity, be consistent and treat everyone equally.

Maintaining the public’s trust is an ongoing effort because it can be shattered quickly with one bad decision. For example, NBC’s Brian Williams has lost any trust that viewers had for him after exaggerating his part in an Iraq war news story. His credibility is shot and he will no longer be viewed as a successful and trusted news anchor. His life is most likely in disarray all because he did not tell the whole truth.

Reputation and Credibility 

“Consumers prefer to deal with a company they trust and employees prefer to work at a company they are proud of,” (ERC).

An organization’s reputation and credibility usually parallels the trust the public has for it. According to the trust barometer survey from Global PR firm Edelman, the majority of consumers avoid doing business with an organization they do not trust (ERC). Reputations can be affected by crises, public trust and general everyday ethical decisions. It is built over time and can be ruined, like trust, very quickly.

A great example of a company’s reputation being ruined because of the unethical handling of a crisis is the BP oil spill in 2010. The CEO at the time made remarks like “there’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.” And in 2012, the company pleaded guilty to environmental crimes, lying to Congress and manslaughter from its actions connected with the oil spill. BP’s reputation today is still suffering from the crisis. The company’s lack of ethical decisions and actions by leaders and engineers ruined its reputation.

Objectivity and Fairness

“Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair,” (SPJ).

Although journalism is beginning to lean more toward advocacy journalism, objectivity and fairness should not be thrown out the window. Technically, journalists are supposed to discuss both sides of a conflict or story in their reporting.

So is advocacy journalism unethical? According to the SPJ code of ethics, it is. The code also states that journalists should label advocacy. Aside from editorials, journalists and media entities do not always abide. Of course, ethics are not always black and white and independent media companies can decide what code of ethics to follow.

Fox News has the reputation advocating the conservative side of political news. Its reporters also have the reputation for advocating their personal beliefs that coincide with Fox executives’ views.

Networks that are not completely objective reveal the need for a more concrete and parallel ethical standards.

The Bottom Line and Quotas

“Organizations that institutionalize the value and the importance of lifelong customer relationships over immediate sales know that winning the immediate sale is not as important as exceeding customer expectations over time” (Sonnenberg).

All businesses have quotas to reach and a bottom line to speak to. But violating ethics to get there is wrong. Just as Sonnenberg states, ethical organizations know that long-term relationships are more important than short-term profits.

Social Responsibility

“Social responsibility is an ethical theory, in which individuals are accountable for fulfilling their civic duty; the actions of an individual must benefit the whole of society,” (Pachamama).

Every organization has at least one social responsibility to consider when making decisions, creating products or implementing new ideas. For example, because BP was drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, it had environmental health considerations. Coca-Cola has human health considerations because it produces products for consumption. But the Coca-Cola Company goes deeper and even considers energy consumption, climate protection, water management and sustainable packaging.

Ethics applies in every situation that individuals face. Every individual has their own beliefs, religion, loyalties, morals and values that they want to follow. And what is legal is not always ethical. This is why it’s so difficult to create one code of ethics that applies to every business and every professional.

Now with the increased use of social media by media and businesses and the instant accessibility of news, there are even more ethical dilemmas and questions to face. Because everyone can access the Internet and nothing ever truly disappears online, the precision and meaning of articles, comments, videos, photos and anything else posted online is of the utmost importance. Individuals and organizations must be very careful about actions and comments they make because of the 24/7 news cycle. This is why following a reliable, personal or written code of ethics is so important.