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Event Recap: Training Your Ethical Mind

Mark W. McClennan APR visits the University of Tennessee, Knoxville to speak on the importance of training your ethical mind. McClennan is the host of the EthicalVoices podcast, general manager for C+C, and author of Ethical Voices: Practicing Public Relations with Integrity. With over 20 years of experience in public relations, McClennan educated many aspiring UT students and experts in public relations about the new dangers we face in disinformation, and how to create an honest work environment.

McClennan began with a thought experiment on what issues could be faced if one was on the public relations team for Hersey’s. Chocolate sourcing is a decades-long debate where companies must justify how and why they get it. Chipotle’s carnitas suffered heavy scrutiny after one of Chipotle’s suppliers wasn’t humanely raising their pigs. McClennan raised the importance of keeping an ethical supply chain if working in physical product industries. Here is what the PRSA Code of Ethics states on honesty: “We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.”

Greater efforts will have to be made to hold to the truth. A new era of misinformation approaches, McClennan emphasized. ChatGPT and Charlie AI are the leading general-purpose software. They are continuously raising ethical questions about what it means to be a writer in this new age. McClennan played around with the software, concluding that the answers they promptly gave were “Generally, pretty good.” Not only can you resubmit the same prompt and get completely different answers, but they all offer a generally good template. From a student’s perspective, academic dishonesty has reached another level.

Deep fakes introduced a new age of disinformation tactics. The technology exists to completely generate video and audio of any person given enough data on them. The Times and Times Sunday ran a campaign called JFK Unsilenced partnered company Rothco collected all speech data to recreate his final speech. The campaign was a success, and the speech John F. Kennedy would have given, has been completely recreated from all voice data. “It gave me chills to hear his voice again,” said Jerrie Smith, an attendee at the Dallas Trade Mart in 1963. McClennan mentioned the audio alone is enough to fool most people.

How as a company do you hold an ethical standard for your employees? What do you do if you’re working in an unethical environment?

Words aren’t enough anymore. According to McClennan, George Floyd’s death gave clear examples of companies that were post-activists. “Black Lives Matter! No s***, what are you doing [as a company?]” Actions have always spoken louder than words. It is not acceptable to be passively involved in important matters. Get involved as a company, and as a person, and show the work. Otherwise, you become at risk of being accused of all talk.

McClennan encourages companies to start adding ethics to the hiring process. Personality tests for hires are quite common, adding one for ethical standards should be taken just as seriously. Incorporating ethical talks or training can help reiterate the importance of the company.

There are pieces of advice that can be taken to an individual level. Immediate automotive moral intuition tends to be selfish. People are 5 times more likely to make ethical decisions when there is time to think about it. Allow employees and yourself to take time for ethical decisions. Just like the internet and social media, AI and deep fakes have given lies new tools to fight with. Hold true to the nature of your work and fight back. Hold your workplace accountable, and work with those who uphold the standard.

APR, Fellow PRSA, General Manager at C+C’s Boston Office, Host of EthicalVoices, 2016 PRSA National Chair, Adjunct Professor (Ethics) at Boston University.

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