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Decisions That Vex Us

Is it right or is it wrong?

That’s what a group of college seniors grappled with during a recent communications ethics class at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. The students had to determine what they would do in six case studies, where public relations teams and media outlets had to make some very tough decisions. All of the cases were real and the class did not learn the final outcomes until after they made their own decisions and strategies.

As one of the communications fellows, who provided these case studies based on personal experience or from a colleague, I can attest that we didn’t make it easy for them. You try:

– What strategy and counseling would you give to a pharmaceutical client after a young girl begged for it to give her father access to a promising cancer drug that was in clinical trial? FDA guidelines prohibit such contact with potential patients during these trials.

– What would you do with a difficult client who has an unsavory past, but was recommended to you by a highly reputable organization?

– As a producer/editor, would you tell your viewers/readers your president outright lied or told a falsehood? This was after Trump cited incorrect information during his first address to Congress.

It can be difficult to recommend the right course of action, especially if there are dire consequences.  In communications, there always seems to be a lot of grey, and that’s when it gets most problematic. As communications professionals, we try to keep our jobs in perspective – especially if there are stressful decisions to make or when we deal with unpleasant clients who seem born to make other people unhappy.

We jokingly tell each other to relax, and that our jobs do not involve making life and death decisions. But sometimes, there are decisions that sure seem close. There are decisions that may affect a company’s stock. There are decisions that affect a company’s public reputation. There are decisions that sway public opinion about the president of the United States.

They are decisions that vex us.

The students pored over each case study and then discussed each one with the fellows. They read the smallest details and they asked question after question to make sure they got the big picture as well. Every one of them wanted to do the right thing – and make the right decision. We all know that’s tough, especially in a world that is increasingly polarized and where there is distrust of mainstream media and communicators in general.

Think about it.  Everything we post, every tweet, every picture we snap is scrutinized.

As communicators, we want to know what is right and what is wrong so we can share the appropriate strategy with our clients. We want our moral compasses to be accurate. But to get there, it does take time. Despite the tranquility that comes with picturesque college campuses, the students were stressed, and rightfully so.

At the end of the session, we told the class how each case study ended. There were a few students, shaking their heads, but there were also sighs of relief. Many of them were heading in the same direction as the fellows and their colleagues did in their case studies.

This new generation of communicators weighed the facts, did their research and created strategies they thought was most appropriate for the situation. They didn’t come to their decisions lightly, far from it. And that gives me hope.

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