· Education Essays

Science & Morality in PR

A Critique Of The Interaction of Science & Morality In The Practice of Public Relations

Knowledge based on the hard science of falsifiable theories and findings, demonstrable between subjects, is useful to public relations practitioners. Scientific research and theory, however, are not the only holders of the “truth”, less holders of morality; rather they have the power of formalization, and proof. The interaction between theory and practice is lucrative for both sides, in so far as morality and good judgment are held in high regards with “truth” given the utmost importance. In the following paragraphs, a critique of current models of public relations will be outlined, as well as an abstract of a possible solution, which argues for a dialogic and cooperative use and definition of public relations.

Scientific knowledge may often be too complicated or theoretical too be used in day-to-day practice of public relations. Therefore, the texts are generally interpreted in ways which could be argued as prudent for the specific project. Trough translation, and by adding and omitting particular parts, the theoretical model may in the end only bare little similarity to the original theory. In the words of Cornelissens, “The premise of this model is that scientific knowledge is seldom used in an unaltered form in practice.” (Cornelissen 315) Such mismatch of theory and practice may lead to confusion.

The confusion about to what ends public relations should be used as well as insufficient comprehension of its exact philosophical nature, are common. Poor understanding is augmented by the lack of a proper definition. For example, “Honesty and openness are frequently stressed as important to performance, but neither is identified as a part of the descriptive definitions of what public relations is.” (Sharpe 345) For students going into the field, such degree of uncertainty may become cause of uneasiness and suspicion towards their ability to grasp the true meaning of their future profession.

In addition to the lack of a definition, uncertainty in what is “ethical” as well as the breaking down of traditional models of “truth” such as religion and tradition, in public relations there may be contributions to morally questionable usages of intelligence. In so far as no one’s actions may be judged worse than those of another, or morality wrong, unless judged illegal or in variance with the law, public relations practitioners may invent or translate (as in the mentioned translational model) their own variant of PR. In the public relations practice of Chinese Taiwan, Huang has highlighted the Gao guanxi[1] as a traditional Confucian idea of morally questionable use of communal and social intelligence. Drawing from 1000 year old tradition, the Chinese communal values are nonetheless being reshuffled by the realities of modern enterprise. In order to account for such evolutions in ethics, Leeper proposes a contemporary model of moral objectivity, the Discourse Ethics of Jurgen Habermas, which “holds out the potential of a new, more objective grounding for ethical theory and for the practice of public relations.” (Leeper 133)

In a combination of Habermas’ and Kent and Taylor’s ideas emerges a view of an organization that engages in public relations trough an interactive objectivity, in essence a dialogue formed in itself by acceptance and affirmation of actions undertaken by each stakeholder. A distinctive display of transparency in effect may “change the nature of the organization–public relationship by placing emphasis on the relationship.” (Kent and Taylor 24) Emphasis on relationships among stakeholders may bring about a new way of seeing public relations, which may have been best characterized by the five features outlined by Kent and Taylor: mutuality, propinquity, empathy, risk, and commitment. In their own words:

Dialogue as an orientation includes five features: mutuality, or the recognition of organization– public relationships; propinquity, or the temporality and spontaneity of interactions with publics; empathy, or the supportiveness and confirmation of public goals and interests; risk, or the willingness to interact with individuals and publics on their own terms; and finally, commitment, or the extent to which an organization gives itself over to dialogue, interpretation, and understanding in its interactions with publics.

The relationship of science, morality and practice in public relations is one of complexity and evolution. An unbroken play of three powers, public relations is defined by scientists, moralists and finally – practitioners. With a rediscovering (or reinvention?) of secular morality in a dialogical system, the particular democracy of dialogical dynamism is highlighted. Baring similarities to the discovery of market theories, dialogues bring about a natural morality in communication. Accordingly, the use of dialogue in public relations may lead to more elegance as well as more knowledge in organizations.

Works Cited

Cornelissen, Joep P. "Toward an Understanding of the Use of Academic Theories in Public Relations Practice." Public Relations Review 26 (2000): 315–326.
Huang, Yi-Hui. "The Personal Influence Model and Gao Guanxi in Taiwan Chinese Public Relations." Public Relations Review 26 (2000): 219–236.
Kent, Michael L and Maureen Taylor. "Toward a dialogic theory of public relations." Public Relations Review 28 (2002): 21-37.
Leeper, Roy V. "Moral Objectivity, Jurgen Habermas’s Discourse Ethics, and Public Relations." Public Relations Review 22 (1996): 133-150.
Sharpe, Melvin L. "Developing a Behavioral Paradigm for the Performance of Public Relations." Public Relations Review 26 (2000): 345–361.

[1] Gao guanxi. „The exploitation of personal relations or human networks” (Huang 227)

For Semester 1 Public Relations Class with Kaja Tampere. The Baltic Film & Media School Of Tallinn University

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