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Public relations professionals encounter ethical problems as individuals who make decisions about their professional lives. They also serve as ethical counselors to organizations, a role in which they help organizations behave in ethical, responsible, and sustainable ways.

This introduction defines ethics and social responsibility and discusses the possibilities and obstacles that public relations professionals face in the role of ethical counselor. The introduction ends with a discussion of the need for ethical theories of public relations and describes several promising theories.

And, to be honest, a great deal of public relations practice is unethical. However, to public relations theorists, public relations is inherently about ethics, social responsibility, and sustainability. Budd, a highly respected public relations professional in the last half of the 20 th Century, maintained that public relations professionals could be the professional ethics counselors that former U. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren said business executives need to provide sophisticated guidance in ethical decision-making.

However, they also found that few practitioners had the educational background or theoretical tools needed to actually serve in this role.

In studying the ethics of public relations, therefore, it is important to distinguish between normative and positive theories of public relations--theories that explain how public relations should be practiced vs. Ethical theorists and researchers divide their field into two similar branches, which they call normative and descriptive ethics e.

There have been numerous descriptive studies of the ethical behavior of public relations people, and a number of theorists have developed normative theories of ethics and social responsibility in public relations. A normative theory is especially important if public relations is to be the management function primarily responsible for introducing moral values and social responsibility into organizational decisions. Descriptive studies, however, tell us how well public relations professionals actually are serving that normative role at the organizational level and the extent to which their individual behaviors as practitioners meet ethical guidelines.

Of the two terms, ethics is the broader one because the question of what is socially responsible or irresponsible for an organization is an ethical question. Not all ethical questions in public relations are related to social responsibility, however. The term ethics often is used interchangeably with morals and values --because ethical questions generally ask what is morally right or what should be valued. We study ethics to develop rules or principles that can be used to solve problems in which morals and values are in question. Values, then, are beliefs about what objects or ideas are important.

Thus, we study ethics to determine how to make moral judgments and value judgments. Public relations decisions are especially likely to involve ethics when practitioners are serving in the role of organizational conscience. These decisions generally involve the question of social responsibility. Theorists also have distinguished between social and public responsibility--the responsibility to society at large vs. Theorists have discussed essentially the same difference in distinguishing between social responsibility and social responsiveness --the obligation to better society in general vs.

Sustainability is the ability of an organization to endure as well as to preserve its natural and social environment. Organizational responsibility and sustainability, therefore, are an integral part of a strategic management role for public relations J. Grunig, Public relations professionals experience ethical problems when they embrace these roles, the most common of which are discussed next. Much of this literature has been written by professionals who discuss ethical problems without applying ethical theory or principles to the discussion.

To develop ethical principles, however, public relations theorists need to progress beyond examples and cases of ethical dilemmas and problems in public relations. The literature contains several recurring and central ethical questions in public relations, which I have classified in this section. My list of these problem areas undoubtedly is not exhaustive, nor are the issues included under each always mutually exclusive. However, this taxonomy of central ethical questions helps point toward ethical principles that can be applied to them and, eventually, toward theories of public relations ethics.

They may be tempted to do insider trading, to provide free passes for plays or sporting events to journalists, to take or receive gifts, or to accept or offer bribes. They may divulge confidential information to a competitor, pad an expense account, falsify a time report, conceal errors, lie, or selectively report research results. Ethical rules may help practitioners solve these problems, and professionals who are more ethical as individuals generally provide better ethical advice to their organizations as counselors.

In spite of the great attention paid to personal ethics in the public relations literature, however, these problems, although important, are not the most central ethical questions for the public relations profession. Such relationship problems appear in all codes of ethics in the profession and dominate much of the discussion about public relations ethics.

A ccountability is important in relationships between practitioners and their clients or employers. Professionals should hold themselves accountable for accomplishing what they say they will do for the people who pay them. Accountability can be established through evaluative research, which practitioners with a professional orientation may learn to conduct in their specialized, graduate education. A second aspect of accountability is fee for services. This is a special problem for the public relations consultant, because clients rarely understand what is fair to pay for public relations programs or counsel.

The unscrupulous practitioner could take advantage of the naive client. They suggest, either overtly or subtly, that they themselves will be handling the account. Once the business is secured, the account work is handed over to far more junior employees. For example, practitioners compete with other practitioners for clients, yet professional codes of ethics prohibit them from intentionally damaging the reputations of other practitioners. Professional codes also point out that professionals damage the reputation of other public relations people when they are unethical.

Some codes also mandate that practitioners report the ethical shortcomings of others to review boards. Many practitioners also face ethical dilemmas when they interact with their superiors and colleagues in their own organizations. Finally, the problems of discrimination against women and minorities in public relations fit into this category. Although these first two sets of problems affect public relations practice, they do not address the fundamental question of how public relations can be an ethical conscience for an organization nor how public relations can overcome the stigma that most people attach to the profession.

The next problems pertain to these fundamental questions. Grunig, J. The question of whether public relations people should practice their profession symmetrically or asymmetrically hinges to a large extent on the question of loyalty. Must professionals be loyal only to the client or organization that employs them? Or do they have loyalties to others as well? Public relations practitioners, as well as theorists like van der Meiden , often equate a pragmatic concern for the interests of a client or employer with undivided loyalty to whatever the client or employer asks them to do.

Most codes of ethics of public relations societies, however, state that public relations professionals have loyalties not only to their clients but also to publics, the media, the public relations profession, and themselves. Likewise, Parsons said practitioners have a responsibility to themselves, the profession, and to society, as well as to the organization that employs them. Two concepts, the social roles and the values of public relations, help to clarify the problem. When faced with conflicting loyalties, public relations practitioners generally turn to their basic set of beliefs and assumptions about the world in which they live--their world view --to make sense of moral questions of right and wrong.

Practitioners who view their work in terms of a pragmatic social role generally pay little attention to the social responsibility or ethics of their client organization. They believe that every client deserves representation in what they consider to be a free marketplace of ideas. Typically, conservative practitioners see their role as protecting the capitalistic system from attack by activists, unions, government, and socialists. Practitioners who take a radical social role generally represent organizations that want change in society. Public relations contributes to social change by asymmetrically providing information for use in public debate, by establishing links among groups in society, and by bringing resources together that can be brought to bear on the solution of social problems.

It should not be surprising that practitioners taking conservative and radical social roles often campaign against each other in a supposed battle for public opinion. It presupposes that public relations serves the interests of publics as well as organizational interests, contributes to informed debate about issues in society, and facilitates a dialogue between organizations and their publics. Whereas the radical social role sees public relations as a way of directing social change in ways it prefers, the idealistic world view sees society as emerging from dialogue and the resolution of conflict between groups in society.

With the pragmatic social role, the question of ethics is left to the client organization.

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Ethical issues in global health

In the dissertation, Pearson identified Albert J. Sullivan distinguished between technical and partisan values. Ethical problems arise instead around the conflict between partisan values and mutual values. These mutual values are human rights, which belong to people simply because they are human and no one may take them away.

Sullivan concluded by saying that technical values and partisan values are not enough in public relations. Public relations work must be idealistic as well as pragmatic. It must conform to mutual values as well as partisan values. These concepts, then, have great value for theorists who develop theories of ethical public relations.

At the same time, they have been involved in great social reform movements that have helped eliminate slavery, reduced the oppression of women and minorities, and improved the health and safety of millions of people. If practitioners approach the question of whom to represent from an asymmetrical world view, the choice generally depends on how they perceive their social role, first, and then their values.

Such practitioners easily could switch sides or represent both sides.

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Asymmetrical practitioners who see their social role as conservative or radical typically choose organizations whose partisan values are similar to their own. Such practitioners then can passionately defend or promote the interests and values of their client organizations. As Sullivan pointed out, however, practitioners who defend partisan values often make unethical decisions because of too much commitment and obedience.

These practitioners attempt to facilitate dialogue with all publics of the organization and advocate that mutual values be applied to management decisions. As a result of such public relations activity, the organization could be made more ethical and socially responsible. Danger lurks in this situation for the symmetrical professional, however. A symmetrical, idealistic approach to public relations could be dangerous because unethical organizations might employ such practitioners only to give the appearance of being ethical and responsible when they have no intention of changing their behavior—in a sense practicing a pseudo symmetrical model of public relations.

The symmetrical professional runs the risk of damaging his or her reputation by associating with an unethical client, and he or she must choose organizations carefully to protect his or her professional reputation as well as the reputation of the public relations profession. Asymmetrical practitioners see themselves as advocates of the partisan values of their clients. Symmetrical practitioners see themselves as counselors who help client organizations implement mutual values as they make decisions. Advocates do not disclose everything that publics might need or want to know about their client organization.

They reason that they have no obligation to do so, just as a lawyer has no obligation to tell everything about a client in a court of law. In a court of law, the opposing attorneys attempt to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused. In the give and take between two advocates, this reasoning goes, the truth will emerge and the jury will make a reasoned judgment. There are three major criticisms of a supposed court of public opinion, however.

First, not all organizations, interests, and publics have equal representation in the court. Those with the most money and power are represented best. Second, publics--and also the media--generally do not have the opportunity to search for all the information they need to put the positions of advocates into perspective. Third, the comparison of public relations people with lawyers is a poor one--at least the comparison with trial lawyers.

Bivins pointed out, similarly, that not all lawyers are advocates. Big data and algorithms help to make decisions in the public and private sectors, from detecting fraud or the likelihood of reoffending, to medical diagnoses. In some areas, smart algorithms and intelligent systems are already taking over decision-making from people, for example, with armed drones, or in smart cars.

Technologies, embedded in advisory apps on our smartphone of in smart street lights, can be persuasive and may influence our behaviour and autonomy in subtle ways. Due to digitization, there is now a lively trade in information. Data is valuable because it enables better decisions, for example, about which consumers should be shown which ad or which people should be investigated as potential fraudsters.

We have already discussed various issues regarding privacy, and big data presents a specific challenge in this respect due to the re-use and potential combinations of different data sources. Combining and reusing big data seems to be at odds with the principle of purpose limitation, which is one of the pillars of data protection legislation. But opponents say that the principle of purpose limitation is an important mechanism to counteract unbridled collection and data obesitas Hildebrandt In addition, a significant characteristic of big data is that it is not clear beforehand which insights can be captured from the data.

One example is the Dutch anti-fraud system called System Risk Indication SyRI which encrypts, combines and analyses data about fines, debts, benefits, education and integration in a secure digital environment in order to search more effectively for people abusing benefits or surcharges. Data mining techniques data analytics and algorithms combined with artificial intelligence, especially techniques such as deep learning benefit immensely from the large amounts of data that have become available in recent years.

The data forms coaching files for self-learning software: the more data the software gets, the smarter it becomes. Companies like Facebook and Google have facial recognition software that is improving quickly thanks to the many photos that users upload every day. Translation software is also improving because it can draw on a large number of officially translated documents from the United Nations and the European Commission Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier In recent years, the discussions on monitoring the underlying algorithms in automated systems have come from different angles.

The German Government recently released a position paper stating that online platforms—such as Google and Facebook—should provide more information about how their algorithms work, for example, when filtering news or search results. This study shows that the new wave of digitization is putting pressure on public values.

ICT services and products are no longer gadgets: they are having a radical impact on our society. It is time to recognise the implications and to ensure that our public values and fundamental rights are safeguarded in the new digital era. The building blocks and the infrastructure for the new digital society are materializing now. The governance system to deal with the resulting social and ethical issues falls short in several dimensions, mainly because there is no clear understanding of the social and ethical issues implications of the digitization.

Such an understanding is necessary so that these issues can be proactively addressed, that is, be anticipated, reflected upon, deliberated with the public and other stakeholders, and be responded to Stahl et al. The supervision has been developed the most in the areas of privacy and data protection. For example, at European level, there has been an attempt to deal with big data issues by modifying the legislation. This regulation shows that the topic of data is high on the agenda. However, there is also an ongoing debate about whether these legislative adjustments are adequate to deal with the inherent challenges of digitization.

Particularly with regard to profiling, the legal framework only offers partial protection. For other ethical issues concerning digitization such as discrimination, autonomy, human dignity and unequal balance of power, the supervision is hardly organized. The most telling examples are the European Data Protection Supervisor initiatives EDPS , , in particular to establish an ethics advisory group. Although social and ethical issues appear on the agenda, they are not being translated into policies that protect public values in practice.


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Supervisory bodies do not have enough insight in the emerging digitization issues. Likewise, civil society organizations and citizens are not sufficiently aware of the new digital developments, nor do they realise how they will be affected; the possibilities to defend themselves are too limited. The need to focus on the effects of digitization is underlined by the fact that the central ethical themes relate to important values set down in international treaties and national constitutions.

We can see issues such as privacy and justice reflected in the right to respect for private life, the right to equal treatment and the right to a fair trial. Values such as autonomy, equal power relationships and control over technology are not explicitly named in the treaties but can be seen as part of or following from these fundamental and human rights.

Digitization affects important public values. Unless government, industry, civil society and members of the public act now, there is a risk that while we are trying to get to grips with the new digital world, the frameworks to protect public values are meanwhile losing their relevance. We are indebted to Luca van der Heide for collating the specific literature for this review. Although fighting from behind a computer is not as emotionally potent as being on the battlefield, killing from a distance remains stressful; various studies have reported physical and emotional fatigue and increased tensions in the private lives of military personnel operating the Predators in Iraq and Afghanistan see, e.

For an extensive study on this topic, see Van Est and Kool Skip to main content Skip to sections. Advertisement Hide. Download PDF. Societal and ethical issues of digitization. Open Access.

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First Online: 16 March Privacy Digital home Through IoT, more and more information about ourselves is being exchanged, without us really knowing or having control over it Barbry ; Peppet ; Roman et al. Pervasive monitoring Just like the IoT, robots contribute to the increasing potential for collecting data in situations where formerly no digital data collection took place. Privacy enhancing versus losing control of sensitive information In relation to privacy, biometric technology is a double-edged sword. Insight in all platform interactions The issue of privacy also applies to digital platforms.

Autonomy Technological paternalism IoT does not just offer us comfort, but can also lean towards technological paternalism Hilty Control and manipulation through technology The most prominent ethical issue that imposes itself on persuasive technology is that of human autonomy: to what extent may we influence people and when can we apply this technology?

Steering preferences When a smart IoT environment anticipates our needs and wants, a choice is made about our supposed preferences—for example, suggesting a selection of certain TV programmes—based on previously displayed behaviour. Filtering and freedom of expression Online platforms play an increasingly greater role in determining what information and what news people see. Identity fraud Identity fraud is a major social problem that will probably only increase in scope Sandhya and Prasad Safety: psychological damage in virtual worlds VR German philosophers Madary and Metzinger focus on the risks of VR technologies that give users the feeling they are in a different body to their own and particularly in situations where users interact with other virtual or real people.

Balance of power Everything-as-a-service IoT devices are often offered as part of or in combination with a software service. Who sets the standards? Human dignity Dehumanization and unemployment Although robotics can provide great support in health care, entertainment, the police and the army, if the technology is not applied within certain framework conditions, it can undermine human dignity. Desocialization and alienation VR technology defies the usual distinction between virtual and real worlds.

Justice Classification and the presumption of innocence The application of biometrics can result in misclassification and stigmatization, by automatically putting someone in a certain category, such as a terrorist, criminal or unreliable individual. Exploitation and exclusion Platforms ensure that users have a dual role: as producers and as consumers.

Discrimination and unjust exclusion Automated systems harbour a risk of wrong judgements. Table 1 Social and ethical issues evoked by digitisation. Theme Issues Privacy Data protection, spatial privacy, mental privacy, Little Brother, pervasive monitoring, transparency Autonomy Freedom of choice, freedom of expression, manipulation, paternalism, controlling influences Safety and security Safety of information, identity fraud, physical and psychological safety Balance of power Unfair competition, exploitation, relation citizen-government-industry, accountability, control and transparency of algorithms Human dignity Dehumanization, instrumentalization, deskilling unlearning skills , desocialization Justice Discrimination, exclusion, equal treatment, stigmatization, function creep.

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Pimple Ed. Dordrecht: Springer. Cate, F. International Data Privacy Law, 2 2 , 47— Citron, D. The scored society: Due process for automated predictions. Washington Law Review, 89 , 1. Coeckelbergh, M. Health care, capabilities, and AI assistive technologies. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 13 2 , — Datta, A. Automated experiments on ad privacy settings. A tale of opacity, choice, and discrimination. De Hert, P. Second generation biometrics: The ethical, legal and social context.

Tzovaras Eds. Berlin: Springer. Dotson, T. Authentic virtual others? The promise of post-modern technologies. Dwoskin, E. The technology that unmasks your hidden emotions. Wall Street Journal January EDPS Towards a new digital ethics: Data dignity and technology. Brussels: European Data Protection Supervisor. Floridi, L. The onlife manifesto. Being human in a hyperconnected era.

Cham: Springer. Fogg, B. Persuasive technology: Using computers to change what we think and do.

Legal guide for editors concerning ethics issues | Farname Inc.

Boston: Morgan Kaufmann. Frenken, K. Smarter regulation for the sharing economy. The Guardian 20 May. Putting the sharing economy into perspective. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 23 , 3— Geser, H. Augmenting things, establishments and human beings. In: Sociology in Switzerland: Towards cybersociety and vireal social relations. Gibbs, S.

The Guardian 27 February. Goodall, N. Ethical decision making during automated vehicle crashes. Greenberg, A. How the internet of things got hacked. Wired 28 December. Hayles, N. How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Heimo, O. How to abuse biometric passport systems.

Journal of Information. Communication and Ethics in Society, 10 2 , 68— Helbing, D. Digitale demokratie statt datendiktatur. Digital manifest. Spektrum der Wissenschaft, 15 12 , 50— Hern, A. The Guardian 30 December. Hildebrandt, M. The dawn of a critical transparency right for the profiling era. Bus Ed. Amsterdam: IOS Press. Smart technologies and the end s of law: Novel entanglements of law and technology. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. Law as information in the era of data-driven agency. The Modern Law Review, 79 1 , 1— Hilty, L. Ethical issues in ubiquitous computing: Three technology assessment studies revisited.

Ehrwein Nihan Eds. Advances in Intelligent Systems and Computing volume pp. Janssen, A. Dicht op de huid. Gezichts- en emotieherkenning in Nederland. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut. Juul, N. Recommendation on the use of biometric technology. Campisi Ed. London: Springer. Kindt, E. Privacy and data protection issues of biometric applications. A comparative legal analysis. Kizza, J. Ethical and social issues in the information age. Koops, E. Glazen woning, transparant lichaam: Een toekomstblik op huisrecht en lichamelijke integriteit. Nederlands Juristenblad, 80 12 , — Kosinski, M. Private traits and attributes are predictable from digital records of human behavior.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 15 , — Kramer, A. Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 24 , — Kreijveld, M. Van Eds. De kracht van platformen. Lee, P.

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Houghton: Mifflin Harcourt. Meinrath, S. Digital feudalism: Enclosures and erasures from the digital rights management to the digital divide. Commlaw Conspectus, 19 , — Melson, G. Robotic pets in human lives: Implications for the human-animal bond and for human relationships with personified technologies. Journal of Social Issues, 65 3 , — Mordini, E. Morozov, E. The rise of data and the death of politics.

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