Ethical Decision Making in Issues Management Within Activist Groups
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AbstractPublic relations practitioners face many ethical challenges, specifically in issues management (e.g., Bowen & Heath, 2005; J. Grunig & L. Grunig, 1996). By its definition, issues management is concerned with defining issues and problems, manages them through internal and external communication with publics, and often confronts conflicting value systems among publics. Therefore, issues management is on the forefront of ethical decision making in an organization (Heath, 1990). Deontology has been suggested as one of the major theoretical underpinnings for ethics research (e.g., Crawley & Sinclair, 2003; Smudde, 2005). Bowen (2004) proposed a normative theoretical model for ethical decision making in issues management based on Kantian deontology (autonomy, the principle of universality, duty, dignity and respect for others, and the morally good will) and two-way symmetrical communication. Support was found, but more research is warranted to examine the model in different organizational contexts. It is imperative to test the applicability of the normative deontological model (Bowen, 2004) in a new context—that of a non-profit activist coalition. Demands for accountability, ethical transparency, institutionalization concerns, competing values and demands of various publics groups have made it necessary to examine the ethical basis of decision making in non-profit organizations (Dando & Swift, 2003). With its mission of problematizing the fiscal policies of the Word Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the participating activist coalition was actually an issues management group engaging thoughtfully in the process of public policies on environmental, labor, development, peace, gender, and social justice issues confronting less developed nations in the world. Through a five-month participant observation in the membership groups of the coalition and 19 in-depth interviews with its issues managers and public relations practitioners, this study attempted to answer the following research questions: (1) What is the process of issues decision making in the coalition?; (2) What is the underlying moral philosophy used in the issues management decisionmaking process?. This study yielded the following findings. Participants argued that decision making should be consensus-oriented and based on equal participation and continuous discussion. Unfortunately, the lack of consistent, dedicated, and enthusiastic input by member groups was a significant impediment to a more inclusive decision making process for the management of issues. Participants’ valued equality – their emphases on being against stereotypes, inequality, and biases was consistent with the deontological paradigm. Moral autonomy was a dominant theme that also emerged through discussion of the sovereign right of each country to decide its own macroeconomic/fiscal policies. Transparency was another ethical consideration that the coalition used in its issues management. Overall, there was a remarkably high degree of congruence between the philosophical approach of deontology and the beliefs espoused by coalition members. The data gathered in this study has far-reaching implications in the positive social role of issues management and public relations. The implications for both businesses and activist coalitions are enormous: more responsive organizations, better policy, and more inclusive and socially responsible private and government initiatives.