Oral Histories

James Grunig

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

James Grunig Biography


INTERVIEWER: Have you thought much about the ethical challenges that are raised for public relations practitioners as a result of the rise of new media?

GRUNIG: I’ve said many times that the symmetrical model is inherently ethical. An asymmetrical model is not necessarily inherently unethical, as I’ve been accused of saying many times. But to practice an asymmetrical model, you have to be able to prove to yourself or to others that what you are trying to persuade someone else to do is actually in their best interest. And it may not always be in their interest because I think there are oftentimes efforts—I’ve talked about convincing people to smoke, to use guns, to do all sorts of things that are not in their best interest—but the person who’s doing the message really thinks it is. So with the symmetrical model, you leave it open to dialogue and you don’t try to decide for the other person what is in his or her best interest. It’s what theorist Ron Pearson, several years ago, called the obligation of dialogue. Ethically, you have an obligation to engage in dialogue with your publics whenever the organization that you represent has some kind of consequence on the publics. So there are two versions of ethics. Consequentialist ethics or utilitarian ethics says that whenever you have negative consequences on someone then you should examine whether that behavior is good for the other person. The problem with consequentialist ethics is that sometimes a behavior has good effects on one party but not on the other ones. So how do you decide which one gets precedence over the other one? That was always the problem with utilitarian ethics, the greater good for the greater number and so on. But I believe in utilitarian ethics because of the concept of consequences. I think that’s the most important term in public relations. A public comes into existence when an organization behaves in a way that has consequences on the public. And when a public recognizes those consequences, then it begins to think about them and to communicate about them. This comes from my studies of John Dewey when I was a graduate student many years ago. But then there are the limitations of consequentialist ethics. So I add deontological ethics to consequentialist ethics, which basically says, what are the rules that you could follow that would make—if you follow those rules—your behavior or your actions to be ethical. For me, the rule is the obligation of dialogue, which doesn’t mean that you make decisions for others or you always do what is probably the best thing or the thing that’s best for everyone.   But you leave it up to dialogue and people can come together. And the way you behave may or may not be the most ethical thing but at least you listened to the other party and you’ve engaged in dialogue with it. So, anyway, my theory of ethics is essentially whenever an organization behaves or is thinking of behaving in a way that will have consequences on a public and the consequences bring about the public, then you have the obligation to engage in dialogue with it. So then the question is what do you do after the dialogue? Do you do what they want you to do or what you think is what you would like to do or what is right? And that’s never easy to decide. But then one has to engage in some kind of social reason to think through, ‘now I’ve listened to the other side, I’ve thought through our side and I’ve made a decision based on the best information I have available.’ The other party, the public, may not always agree that this is most ethical but at least the other party will have had a part in that decision. So it is going to be more ethical than if you didn’t make that decision. So now if you apply that to social media you can find out what kind of consequences you’re having by doing environmental scanning. By looking at what people are saying on the social media, the digital media, about the effects of your company or your organization’s behavior on them and then you can engage in dialogue. Either by joining into blogs of which they may be a part or setting up your own blog or your own Facebook page or any way in which you can engage in dialogue with those publics. I think that the biggest ethical challenge comes with the concept of lurking; when can you listen in on people when they don’t know you are listening in to them. I’m not sure if anybody has an easy answer for that except that I think that you need to reveal yourself. Making it known that you were listening, that you’re present, that you’re part of the conversation, is an important part of that ethical challenge. I think there are times when we simply want to listen in to what publics are saying without actually saying, ‘well, I’m here from XYZ Company and I’m listening to what you’re saying.’ I think there are times when we can gain information in that way and take it to management and so on. But before we ever quote them or do anything with that information I think we have the obligation to reveal to those parties that we’ve been listening in and we’ve taken part in the conversation.

INTERVIEWER: Something else that strikes me that social media raises in terms of ethical challenges in the model that you’ve talked about, is this idea that the dialogue that you’re listening to is much more public. Everybody can listen to it right?

GRUNIG: Right.

INTERVIEWER: And so then the decisions that are made after you’ve listened can be viewed by everybody through that prism. Does that ratchet up the ethical stakes?

GRUNIG: Well, a good friend and former colleague, Mark McElreath, who taught originally at the University of Maryland with me, and then at Towson University, wrote a book on ethics. His first rule of ethics was ‘if you make this decision, are you willing to go on national television and announce it to everyone?’ That’s, I think, a very good rule. Because if you cannot make what you’re doing known to those that are going to be affected, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. Or if you try to engage in a behavior without saying you’re doing it, somebody’s probably going to find out and they’re going to reveal it on digital media. It’s going to come out whether you like it to or not. So the question is, with social responsibility, if I’m making a decision, if management is making a decision that carries a great deal of risk for a public and I can’t announce that risk to the public, then I probably shouldn’t be making that decision. I think the social media then give us two things there. It really makes everything transparent whether we want to or not and if we try to withhold information from people, it’s probably going to come out. But then it also gives us the means for talking about potential decisions before they’re made and then making the decision with the best information. I stop here for just a minute because something happened at the University of Maryland just in the last couple of weeks. Maryland decided to join the Big 10 Conference. And the entire decision was made in private. Now all of my theories would say this is a terrible mistake. And from what I read about this decision it wasn’t totally in private. The Washington Post ran a very lengthy article about it this weekend and the president of the university consulted with the lawyers, of course, but also with primary, major donors, with some regents but not all of the board of regents, and with coaches; many people who would be affected by that decision before he made that decision. So in a sense he was gathering information. Now, there was a nondisclosure agreement made with the Big 10 conference that they couldn’t say anything about this before the decision was made. What would have happened ideally is that the whole thing would have been vetted on the internet and discussed and there would have been hearings. There would have been discussion of all of this. But, I suppose there’s a competitive advantage involved here. So this gets into a very difficult kind of area. How open can you be when a decision might be adversely affected and it might not be possible to make that decision if it’s going to be made in the open. I’m not quite sure whether that decision was made properly. It has even been argued that it violated Maryland’s public, open meetings law because the vote was taken without having an open meeting and so on. I think that’s a very interesting, ethical, question here that people should think about. I can see both aspects of it. On the one hand I think it should have been much more open and much more dialogued. Then on the other hand, it might have not have been possible to make the decision if that had actually been done.

INTERVIEWER: Sounds to me as though the Maryland case will make a great case study at some point.

GRUNIG: At some point, I think.