Oral Histories

Don Wright

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Don Wright Biography

Don Wright is the Harold Burson Professor and Chair in Public Relations at Boston University. His areas of specialization include crisis management, employee communications/internal relations, reputation management and social responsibility. Professor Wright has worked full-time in corporate, agency and university public relations, and has been a corporate communications consultant for three decades.


INTERVIEWER: You’ve done quite a bit of research yourself in the area of social media, was Marshall McLuhan right? Is the medium the message?

WRIGHT: I’ve never thought Marshall McLuhan was right, although I’m an admirer of what he did to basically get information about communication, and communications research introduced to a wider audience. I don’t think that the medium ever has become the message. I think what’s crucial is what you put in the medium that becomes the message regardless of whether it was the television situations that McLuhan wrote about or the social media situations that we have today, or anything in between.

INTERVIEWER: Most of the ethical issues in communication focus on the responsibilities of the sender of the message, but you said that the receivers and users of the messages have ethical responsibilities too. Tell us a little bit about that.

WRIGHT: Well if you turn back the clock to the time before we had what we now call new or emerging media, that the senders really controlled the message. There was very little opportunity for a receiver to provide feedback. The receiver could do things, like possibly write a letter to the editor, or when talk radio came along, call in to a station and talk about the topic, but the topic was always decided by the sender, not by the receiver. If you take a look at the traditional models of communication, the who says what to whom, through which channel, with what effect, that famous Lasswell paradigm, or any of the writings of the earliest communications scholars—Wilbur Schramm, the work of Lazarsfeld and a number of other political science and sociologists of the 1930s and 1940s who kind of became the first scholars of what we call today, communication theory. If you look at any of that work, the sender directed those messages. All of the models focused on the sender. And the only exceptions for that were as some of the research progressed, and particularly the Erie county, voting studies and so forth and so on in the 1940s, that we started to look at what the academic term ‘opinion leaders’—the practitioner term would be ‘influentials.’ And we started to look at how opinion leaders or influentials were passing messages along to receivers and looking at the two-step flow of communications or multi-step flow of communication theories. Now we’re in a situation where the receiver can, if he or she wishes to do so, basically decide what to look for. Thirty years ago, if you were a sports fan, you would pick up the sports page of your newspaper and the sports editors would determine what you would read. So there would be many more stories on that sports page about men playing football, or men playing basketball, than there would be about high school girls involved in gymnastics. And if you were a parent of a high school girl who is on the gymnastics team, you would probably have to be satisfied with only a small paragraph here or there. Today, you can go through the web, and we all know today—I think the sports example is a great one because we all know of situations where a young woman is on a college gymnastics team, or the swimming team, or what have you, and the parent really doesn’t care how that institution’s football team did, but they really do care about how the women’s swimming team did, and they can go to websites and not only get results, but in many cases, particularly with what are called the so-called ‘minor sports,’ particularly with sports such as soccer and so forth and so on, you can sometimes get play-by-play television of them. It’s not going to be done by the same crew that’s going to be broadcasting the Rose Bowl or Monday Night Football, but you can get that information and so I think that this has played a very significant role in elevating the significance of the receiver in the communication models.

INTERVIEWER: And parenthetically, it sure has made life harder for sports information directors, at small colleges.

WRIGHT: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: Parents want to read the results of the softball game five minutes after it’s over.

WRIGHT: Of course, exactly. Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: What education or previous professional experience best prepares a person for the rigors of ethical decision making as regards to communication?

WRIGHT: Theoretically, to be properly trained to be a public relations practitioner, you should graduate from high school and then go to a college or a university for 10 or 15 years. Nobody’s going to do that, I don’t even think the best trained specialists in nuclear medicine and so forth and so on, add that much education to their own learning portfolios. One of the things about ethics is while there’s a lot of value in certainly incorporating ethics into both the undergraduate and the graduate curriculum—perhaps an overview class in a philosophy department and then an applied class in a communications school or in a business school. There’s an awful lot that a person can do to become aware of ethics and ethical issues outside of the classroom. Those who are inclined to be religious—it doesn’t matter what the religion, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Christianity or Judaism or Islam or Buddhism or anything—there are tremendous aspects of learning about ethics in the religious literature. There’s just other things that people can read, and you know we can talk about this all we want, but basically, most people—certainly 95%+ of the people in this country, know what ethical behavior is, and know what unethical behavior is, and at some point, will make decisions to function as an ethical person or as an unethical person. We could spend an hour talking about ways that people could better prepare themselves to do that, but through not just traditional learning but through other aspects of learning, I think there’s many things people can do to be a little bit more ethical, or moral than they are today.