Monday, March 08, 2004

Opposing Thought 

Trevor Cook, an Australian blogger has taken up the challenge and critiqued my paper on the Limits of PR. His critique is here. I won't attempt to summarize the entire paper. It is worth your time to read it all. But he makes two points that go to the heart of my argument. He challenges the proposition that "business is amoral." He writes:

Some people would like to think this is true, but it is not the view of the vast majority of citizens. As Horton strongly suggests in the second half of his essay, people apply moral judgments to corporations in the same way as they do to individuals. Legal constraints are perceived by most of us as moral limits in extremis, what we consider reasonable behaviour lies well within the boundaries set by laws and governments.

Later, he equates reputation and morality and writes:

In fact, reputation is a moral concept. Your reputation is the assessment your stakeholders make about the likelihood that you will meet acceptable moral standards in the future.

Business is indeed amoral for if it wasn't, how could organizations purveying pornography, prostitution, heroin and opium continue to exist, even in the face of governments trying to control or shut them down? Business has a simple ethic -- completion of economic transactions. In defense of Trevor's point of view, there are many businesses that choose not to engage in illicit activity and are deeply moral organizations that worry about their reputations. But this is a choice. It is not a fundamental requirement to complete economic transactions.

The hard part for PR practitioners to bear is that morality is relative. To a cocaine user, the ethic is that the street dealer delivers the product promised for the price agreed. To a company like Johnson & Johnson, the ethic goes to the welfare of the individual and society at large. But both are in business.

How relative is business? Here is an excerpt from a story from the March 8 Wall Street Journal about a radio "shock jock" called Howard Stern. Stern is well known for being offensive in his remarks on the air, and he was just silenced in several markets for a nasty and racially charged joke.

Wall Street Journal (March 8, 2004) Howard Stern is in hot water again, but the shock jock's advertisers are standing by their man.... Advertisers say they are sticking with Mr. Stern because his show attracts an important audience: young men...."Controversy exists on all programming -- it depends on what you consider controversial," says John Cowan, vice president of media for diet aid TrimSpa, which advertises regularly on Mr. Stern's show.

Not only that, the Public Relations Society of America has protested Federal Communications Commission fines against radio stations that allow offensive material onto the air.

One community's moral outrage is another's joke or acceptable behavior. Hence, I used the term "community standards" to define the relative moral situation in which business and PR works.

I want to thank Trevor for taking up the challenge, and I invite further argumentation on this topic. It is important.


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