Rush was right! But did we listen?

More than 20 years ago, Rush warned us that our world was in deep trouble. We didn’t listen, and now look at this mess! Worldwide financial chaos, terrorist threats all around, violence, famine, disease. I don’t want to depress you, but if it gets any worse our kids may have to move back in with us! (Note to self: Call locksmith.)

Rushworth M. Kidder

Rush Kidder

Before you think I’ve lost my mind, the “Rush” I’m referring to isn’t the right-wing pundit on Clear Channel, but Rushworth M. Kidder, now head of the Institute for Global Ethics.  In the mid-80s, Kidder interviewed 22 world leaders in government, business, education and religion. He ask these leaders to identify key concerns society would have to address in order to negotiate the coming century.

Most of the answers won’t surprise you: the nuclear threat, the degradation of the environment, the population explosion, the economic gap between rich and poor nations and the need for educational reform. But there’s one more Kidder writes about:

The sixth (issue) surfacing in interview after interview caught me by surprise: the breakdown of morality. It was as though these interviewees were saying, “Look, if we don’t get a handle on the ethical collapses going on around us, we will be a surely doomed as we would be by nuclear disaster or an environmental catastrophe.” (From Kidder’s “How Good People Make Tough Choices”)

What happened to ethics? Most of today’s problems can be traced to a breakdown in morality, in our business establishments, in our elected leadership, in our communities, and in our families. Somewhere along the line we failed to do what was right for the whole. Instead, we acted out of self interest, arrogance and greed.

Gordon Gecko would be proud!

The PR lesson? If you accept the role of PR professionals as “boundary spanner” (and I know not everyone does), then we should have been pounding our fists on that mahogany table. We should have insisted that our organizations toe the ethical line. After the whistle blowers came forward at Enron, WorldCom and elsewhere, I don’t recall seeing a PR person on the cover of Time. Maybe these organizations kept their PR people in the dark, you know, like Leo used to do with C.J. so she wouldn’t have to lie to the press.

As I’ve written before on this site, it takes courage to do ethical public relations. It requires that we do battle with the so-called “dominant coalition.” It means we must divide our loyalties between the interests or our organizations and the interest of society. Ethics is where the “real” PR professionals separate themselves from the marketers and the shills who simply claim public relations as one of their “tools.”

I’m not sure who anointed public relations as “corporate conscience.”  It’s in all the textbooks, and it has been for 30 years. Sadly, a good many who call themselves PR practitioners haven’t read those books. Most see themselves as warriors for the “team,” clever and creative, but too often spineless.

If your organization don’t act in an ethical manner — respecting the needs of all those affected by its policies — then you’ll never win the public trust. Just ask President W about the loss of trust. Or the Catholic Church. Or AIG. Without trust, communication stops and the job of public relations becomes irrelevant.

If you don’t think counseling the CEO on matters of ethics is the job of PR, then please tell me whose job it is so we can fire them.

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If the loss of morality in business, government, and society has you concerned, let me suggest Rush Kidder’s “How Good People Make Tough Chioices.”  The book is 12 years old, and some of the stories are dated. But ethics doesn’t change much over time.

Yesterday, on my daily nature walk, I found myself humming Barry McGuire’s classic, “Eve of Destruction,” a song so controversial in 1965 that most radio stations banned it from their play lists. This video puts the song in a more modern context.  Depressing, but well done, and befitting the times, indeed.

7 Responses to Rush was right! But did we listen?

  1. Bill, great post. My SO and I were discussing the current state of the economy, and he made a comment about this situation really calling capitalism into question. I countered with the assertion that the current crisis isn’t really a failure of capitalism, it’s a demonstration of the crucial role ethics and morality play–or should play, rather–in making business decisions.

    I’ve provided examples before in the comments on this blog about times when PR either wasn’t invited to the marketing party and found out later about questionable campaigns, or ignored when they do raise concerns. Someone has to be thinking about what’s right, not just what’s profitable. If it needs to be PR, then so be it. Makes sense to me.

  2. ladyjoe says:

    Bill, insightful post. Thanks for reminding me of Rush kidder’s book. It’s one book I enjoyed reading so much.

  3. […] former faculty colleague at Kent State, has an insightful post on his ToughSledding blog, “Rush was right! But did we listen?” Well, no. The “Rush” here is Rushworth M. Kidder who has written extensively on […]

  4. chiru says:

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  5. Greg Smith says:

    As usual, words of wisdom. Thanks, Bill. I’ve just had a minor (ethics) battle on this myself. Needless to say, it wasn’t my words that went out on the media release. At least I made my point. However, the lesson is that at some stage(s) you have to take a stand. It didn’t come down to my job in this instance. But (as I’ve told students) at some stage they’re going to be faced with making moral/ethical choices. We might practice and teach ethical PR, but there’s still plenty of business (and government) out there that don’t.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    You make a good point here, Greg. You can make an ethical stand and still see management’s decision go against you. Does that mean you quit your job or resign a client? No. As I tell my students, once you walk away from a job or the client, you are no longer in a position to advocate for ethical conduct. Sometimes it’s smart to simply retreat and return to fight another day. That said, if management ignores your advice over a prolonged period, it’s time to move on.

  7. […] in your offices, your PRSA chapters, and even your families. I write about ethics a lot, like here and […]

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