Friday, August 26, 2011

The Right Answer

Anyone who’s been abroad knows the problems of bribes, cheating, favoritism and kickbacks – baksheesh – that go with local cultures and officials. Airport customs agents grumble about something in your suitcase until the tourist places, say, a $20 bill on the counter. Suddenly, the problem disappears along with the bill. Traveler and luggage get waived through. A friend who lived in Mexico City for years says the police department routinely assigns cops to beats according to their ability to separate money from the public.

We often gloss over this sort of thing as just “part of the local culture.” But often we forget how stressful and disheartening all of this must be to the locals who deal with it every day. Things can reach a boiling point and people finally take action, as we see currently in India. Social activist Anna Hazare began a hunger strike that caught the imagination of the fed-up masses. The backlash has been big and many Indians now realize something must be done if India wants to become the First World power it could be. Successful nations, businesses and organizations usually attain high rank because of squeaky clean reputations.

Thus it’s disheartening when Americans dismiss ethical problems as just part of our culture. They aren’t – and should not be. Public relations faces the problem as surely as any profession and we must all work to assure practitioners aren’t dismissed as less than honest.

PRSA San Antonio will hear an excellent presentation on ethics at its Sept. 1 luncheon by Dr. Linda Specht from Trinity University. Her topic – Going Beyond Codes of Ethics: What do you really stand for? – will approach ethics in the big picture: Who are you? What are your institutional values and how do you communicate them to others? What do your relationship with employees, clients and competitors say about you? Is a commitment to “social responsibility” part of your organizational identity?

Ethics and honesty cannot be simply some oft-ignored policy that can be changed as needed. You and your organization are either ethical, or you are not. It’s a problem mankind faces everywhere and the right answer, wherever and whoever you are, is always the same.

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