By Chiara Valentini, Associate Professor in Corporate Communication,
Aarhus University, Denmark

Recent global events, such as the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Spain and Finland, and the protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., have brought a number of problems on the table of diverse political, social, and economic actors for whom we, public relations professionals, often work. A fundamental question is whether organizations, particularly multinational ones, should take on any responsibility for diverse sets of global issues. And if so, what role should organizations have in solving them?

In a recent book chapter on globalization that I wrote for the soon-to-be published edited book by Brigitta R. Brunner Public Relations Theory: Application and Understanding, Wiley, I discuss a number of issues and challenges for the public relations profession that have emerged as result of growing global communication flows and human interactions. I argued that globalization has challenged public relations on at least four major aspects: (1) the definition of publics, (2) choice of strategies and tactics, (3) handling global issues and complexity, and (4) dealing with ethical responsibilities and moral considerations.

I would like to share with the EUPRERA community some reflections in relation to the last two challenges as they seem to be relevant to recent global events. It is obviously not new that public expectations towards the role of organizations in handling a diverse set of social, political, economic problems has dramatically increased especially in the recent years, yet, what it is interesting is to notice a growing public expectation beyond good community relations practices. Few years ago, Starbucks’ statement of not wanting guns in its stores has raised media attention on and discussion of the company’s moral stance towards the ever-ending discussion of gun-control in the U.S. The long and continuous refugee crisis has also become a concern of several organizations, including corporations, many of whom have responded by developing specific initiatives to support the integration of refugees in the host country through, for example, training and then employing refugees in their professional workforces. Several American companies that were part of Trump’s business councils recently resigned because they morally felt that the position of the American President towards the Charlottesville’s protest was not sufficiently clear in condemning extremism. These are few examples of moral stances taken by diverse corporations. Why are organizations doing this? Because publics are questioning not just the nature and real objectives of organizations’ ethical intents but the whole foundation of organizational values, norms, and cultures to which public relations activities also contribute. Normative ethical theories stress that organizations have moral duties towards different publics and society. Yet, what to do if the publics’ interests are contrasting or contradicting? And are all organizations compelled to take on ethical responsibilities or could they simply show some moral considerations?

To answer these questions, one must first bear in mind that ethics does not equate morality. They imply different levels of commitment and duty. Ethics refers to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morality refers to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Publics expect organizations today to display high moral considerations when taking decisions that transcend codes of ethics or already accepted ethical responsibilities, such as respect for the environment and people’s human rights. Public relations’ code of ethics or the UN Global Compact function as general principles governing good practices in public relations and general corporate behaviors, but they are short in helping professionals in addressing moral claims that stand from global issues. These are very difficult to tackle because moral obligations cannot be controlled via legislation or sanctioned by professional authorities, as they are based on an organization self-constraint and are voluntary. Additionally, if organizations decide to take a stance on global issues, they need to evaluate their existing corporate social responsibility (CSR) priorities and how these could include aspects that address global issues, without compromising their corporate values and budgets. They need to consider and evaluate the potential risks in addressing global issues that are far away from an easy solution and for which different, even contrasting, positions among influential publics and/or inconsistencies in legislations exist. These and other questions make organizations’ efforts in handling global issues rather a difficult and complex activity. CSR theories are not sufficient to help professionals, nor are the existing global public relations theories. How can we, public relations professionals, contribute to this discussion?