Point: All the Information Fit To Be Reported -- Negotiating American Symbolic Reality
***** KERNISKY **** EJC/REC Vol. 7, No. 1, 1997 ************
Point: All the Information Fit to Be Reported -- Negotiating
American Symbolic Reality
Debra A. Kernisky
Northern Michigan University
Abstract. The essay explores theoretical and
professional perspectives on the organizational
whistleblower and examines the public relations
function of framing and disseminating critical
information. Organizations are urged to tell the
truth, but be cautious of journalists whose
motives center on ratings and sensationalism.
Organizational activities and actions often produce
harmful consequences - forcing some individuals to decide
if, how and when to reveal what they know. These
individuals find themselves in difficulty when their
conscience demands righting a perceived wrong. The motives
and actions of these individuals are perceived very
differently from within the organization and in the broader
societal realm. Organizations, through public relations
activities, want the ability to control the framing of
damaging information as the public demands the right to know
about that which impacts their welfare. The media,
meanwhile, in their role of surveyors of the environment can
either become the "voice of conscience" and the conduit from
the source to the public, or the "vultures" who gorge
themselves on the carrion of the organizational carcass.
But unlike the real vulture, who waits until prey is
dead and decomposing, today's journalist is as likely to
wear the lion's coat - hunting purposefully for the young,
the aging, or the ill. It is often in this context of the
journalist as "hunter" and the organization as "hunted" that
public relations practitioners must work to establish
effective communication relationships with stakeholders.
Specifically, they must develop internal policies for
dealing with whistleblowers, in order to retain some
critical control over the "reality" negotiated collectively
by the organization, the whistleblower, the journalist, and
ultimately the public.
How the organization and the media label the actions of
concerned employees connote the dual perspectives of what
has become an adversarial relationship. This essay will
contextualize the theoretical and professional perspective
of the whistleblower within the organizational structure and
examine the public relations function of framing and
disseminating critical information. The basic premise of
this discussion evolves from the belief that while
organizations should "tell the truth, tell it now, and tell
it often" they should not do so in such a way as to create
unnecessary harm for the organization. In today's move from
investigative journalism to tabloid-style news,
organizations must be wary of journalists who seek news
purely for the sake of ratings, not truth. First, an
examination of the public relations function in
The Public Relations Function
The term public relations as Grunig (1992) suggests, is
probably the oldest concept used to describe the
communication activities of organizations. Grunig defines
public relations as "management of communication between an
organization and its publics" (p. 4). In this sense, public
relations is more than technique, and more than simple press
agentry or publicity. Moreover, this definition equates
public relations and management, elevating the process to
include comprehensive strategies of research, planning,
execution and evaluation of organizational communication to
both internal and external publics.
Baskin and Aronoff (1988) expand Grunig's definition to
emphasize the management of relationships:
public relations is a management function that
helps define organizational objectives and
philosophy and facilitate organizational change.
Public relations practitioners communicate with
all relevant internal and external publics in the
effort to create consistency between
organizational goals and societal expectations.
Public relations practitioners develop, execute,
and evaluate organizational programs that promote
the exchange of influence and understanding among
organizations' constituent parts and publics. (p.
These definitions reflect a comprehensive evolution in
the philosophy and practice of public relations. Since the
first World Assembly of Public Relations Associations 1978
definition, "the art and science of analyzing trends,
predicting their consequences, counseling organizational
leaders, and implementing planned programs of action which
will serve both the organizational and public interest"
(Newsom, Scott, & Turk, 1993, p. 4), the philosophy and
teaching of public relations has emphasized the key elements
of management, relationships and change.
This contemporary view of public relations, however, is
not necessarily the most popular, nor the most practiced.
Grunig and Grunig's (1992) four model typography of public
relations underscores how the concept and practice of public
relations has evolved? and each model represents some degree
of the practice today. These "models" describe sets of
values and patterns of behavior that characterize the
approaches taken by public relations departments and
The first three models - press agentry, public
information, and two-way asymmetrical - all focus on the
organization's attempts to change the behavior of publics
without changing their own (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 39).
The press agentry model's first tool is publicity, the
public information model uses "journalists in residence" to
disseminate favorable information about the organization,
and the two-way asymmetrical model uses research to develop
the most persuasive messages to get the public to do what
the organization wants. Each of these models presents
public relations as a "control" or "image management"
function. The organization's goals are to control the
perceptions of its publics, and to make sure the public's
image of the organization is consistent with organizational
goals and objectives. These are linear, one-way approaches,
characterized by fierce control over negative information
and perception. The asymmetrical mind-set has dominated the
practice of public relations and public perceptions of
public relations. The mind-set sees the use of public
relations as manipulation of publics to benefit the
organization (Grunig, 1992). Public relations practitioners
in asymmetrical organizations are viewed as technicians
whose job is to "put a happy face" on organizational
messages and strategies.
The asymmetrical world view is characterized by
organizational cultures with an internal orientation, a
closed system which believes in the benefits of efficiency.
Leaders in these organizations reflect their elitism in
knowledge and wisdom. They are conservative cultures which
find change undesirable, maintain tradition over innovation,
and centralize power and authority (Grunig & White, 1992).
It is the perception by various publics of a lack of
reciprocity, a lack of dialogue with the organization, that
reinforces the negative image of the profession, and hampers
effective public relations efforts.
In contrast, the two-way symmetrical model "uses
research and dialogue to manage conflict, improve
understanding, and build relationships with publics...both
the organization and publics can be persuaded. Both can
change their behavior" (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 39). This
philosophy sees public relations as a broad participant in
the culture and structure of the organization. Public
relations actively engages stakeholders in dialogue to
collectively structure and interpret information.
Critics of Grunig's symmetrical model argue that the
interests of organizations are to protect their positions
and images, and that they want advocates, not "do-gooders
who 'give-in' to outsiders with an agenda different from
that of the organization" (Grunig & White, 1992, p. 46).
Redding (1985) confirmed this philosophy of organizations
towards dissent by suggesting that hiring decisions are
often made to reinforce these asymmetrical cultures. Many
organizations don't want "boat-rockers" so their position
becomes somewhat like the following, "Although the company
needs people who, of course, are intelligent and competent,
our overriding objective is to find people who will 'fit
in"' (p. 245). According to Redding, the cliche "if you
want to get along, go along" encapsulates the very premise
of large numbers of contemporary organizational cultures.
It is simplistic to assume, however, that all
organizations have as their *first* premise to protect their
image. Image is of critical importance to organizational
legitimacy and survival, as is social responsibility and
economic viability. Grunig's two-way symmetrical model of
public relations provides the most effective grounding for
maintaining legitimacy and responsibility, and the most
constructive framework for understanding and effectively
establishing organizational policies for resolving the
Ultimately the arguments presented in this essay are:
1) that organizations today cannot operate effectively on
the assumption that one-way communication (speaking *to* the
public) is acceptable. Neither the media nor the ultimate
target "public" will tolerate that communication process, 2)
that internal stakeholders are critical to the success of
organizational communication, such that effective
organizations must establish comprehensive and enforceable
internal policies dealing with whistleblowing, and 3) that
the relationship public relations practitioners and media
representatives must cultivate should be one of respect,
dialogue, and wary vigilance. Together their responsibility
is ultimately to the public good, as defined collectively by
organizations, media, and publics.
Corporate Social Responsibility and Whistleblowing
It is in the context of an organization's struggle
between control and dialogue that public pressure for
increased social responsibility in organizations presents
itself. This pressure constrains organizations, compelling
them to present rhetorical and concrete evidence of
legitimacy. The organization must be able to show evidence
of increasing effectiveness, and concern for the values and
expectations among the public. It is here also that,
ideally, the media serve as gatekeepers to the public in
providing evidence of organizational legitimacy and social
responsibility, or lack thereof.
The climate of concern among the public, contrasted
with the organization's need to protect its image and
legitimacy provide the stage for the whistleblowing dilemma.
Near and Miceli (1985) summarize the dilemma from the
organization's perspective. The whistleblower may provide
information the organization needs to improve effectiveness.
The prevalence of illegal or unethical activity is
associated with declining performance. Yet condoning the
whistleblowing activity threatens the very structure and
culture of the organization. This threat may create chaos
within the organization, as well as allowing external
stakeholders uncontrollable power in framing organizational
The whistleblowing process includes four elements: the
whistleblower, the complaint, the party to whom the complain
is made, and the organization against which the complaint is
lodged (Near & Miceli, 1985). The key elements in most
whistleblowing definitions include: employee awareness of
illegal or immoral conduct, and calling attention to that
conduct either internally or externally (Davis, 1989,
Callahan, 1987, Bok, 1984, Jensen, 1987). Jensen's (1987)
definition provides the most depth and distinguishes clearly
the act from the person. Whistleblowing is "a communication
act which is internal, responsive, accusatory, public,
support seeking, via various media, refutational, and
straining a contractual agreement," and a whistleblower is
"an individual, subordinate to the accused, well informed,
an insider greatly agitated, highly motivated, participant
turned judge and perceived to be a traitor/hero" (p. 321).
The perception of the whistleblower as traitor/hero
cuts to the heart of the issue of whistleblowing from the
organization's perspective. The whistleblowing act is a
violation of loyalty. And it is the organization's culture,
written ethics code, management's actual behavior, and the
organizational reward system, among other elements, that
provide direction for potential whistleblowers
While evidence suggests that whistleblowing is on the
rise (Jensen, 1987) the dilemma for both the whistleblower
and the organization is not simple. Davis (1989) suggests
that while discussions of whistleblowing tend to emphasize
the noble whistleblower, and the undeniable good the
accurate whistleblower does, the fact remains that
whistleblowing is "bad news all around" (p. 6).
Whistleblowing is proof of organizational trouble, of
management failure, and particularly bad news for those on
whom the whistle is blown. Moreover, the organization is
immediately forced to engage in "damage control," a timely
and costly use of organizational resources. And
complicating matters for the ethical organization is the
dilemma of determining when accusations are true and
accurate, or when they are made by disgruntled or highly
compensated employees, or journalists. It is in the context
of responding to distorted or false allegations made by
employees or journalists where the decisions organizations
must make should be more carefully weighed.
'Newsmag and Ambush" Style Journalism:
The 'Hunter' on the Prowl
In the past several decades we have seen movement away
from 'hard'journalism to a new 'soft' journalism,
characterized by sensationalism, drama, and lack of factual
evidence. Arlen, in his book _The Camera Age_, contends
that soft news or 'feature journalism' places emphasis on
"portraiture, anecdote, and intimacy" (as cited in Corrado,
1984, p. 85). According to Hess (1995), the 'newsmag' was
born on September 24, 1968 when the news division of CBS
first aired a topical prime-time variety show called _60
Minutes_. By 1979 it was the most widely viewed program in
the nation. By 1993, the major networks were producing
seven newsmags and had at least three more in the pipeline.
The development of the newsmag was due in part to the fact
that networks have always considered news operations as loss
leaders, but "good public relations for a government
regulated industry" (Hess, p. 64). So the newsmag was born
to attempt to bring economic stability to this area.
Hess suggests that "just as Capote drew on the
conventions of fiction in his 'nonfiction novel,' Hewitt
[executive producer of _60 Minutes_] and his disciples
adopted the technique of Hollywood screen imaging," (p. 64)
including hidden camera investigations and reporters in
disguise. In general, "journalistic practices that would
get you fired from the _Chicago Tribune_ or _New York
Times_-surreptitious eavesdropping or assuming a false
identity-are standard techniques on the CBS program _60
Minutes_ and similar shows" (p. 64). What makes this type
of news show particularly troubling is their self-righteous
attitude towards "tabloid journalism," their belief that
they are "above all that." David Broder, writing in the
_Washington Post_ suggests that supermarket tabloids "have
demonstrated the capacity to 'launch' stories-often of the
sleaziest kind-*that the mainstream press feels necessary to
follow"* (emphasis added) (as cited in Sachs, 1995, p. 33).
The 'staging' of incidents, the intent to create a
particular perception runs through examples such as the GM
truck crashes staged by _Dateline_ investigators.
Increasingly, writes Sachs, the _Enquirer_'s kind [of story]
has become the mainstream's kind-Gary Hart, William Kennedy
Smith, Gennifer Flowers, Michael Jackson, Tanya Harding, and
most spectacularly, O.J. Simpson" (p. 33). When writing
about the general craziness and aggressiveness of
journalism, Adam Gropnik referred to a "big fog of feeling"
(Leo, 1995, p. 21). Leo suggests "because of that fog of
feeling hanging over the newsroom, almost any story is apt
to be framed in terms of compassion and/or bias" (p. 21).
In the face of this change in the style and agenda of
journalism, organizations must think carefully about their
development of internal whistleblowing strategies, and re-
evaluate their relationships with media generally. At the
heart of the issue of whistleblowing and crisis
communication is the notion of ambiguity. Weick (1995)
views ambiguity as "an ongoing stream that supports several
different interpretations at the same time" (p. 91). And as
Weick's "enactment" proposition suggests, once the first
strategy of response has been established, the tone,
position, and direction of further response is set. It is
this ambiguity which helps to blur the issue of
whistleblowing and complicates the question of
responsibility, accountabilityj and ethicality. But in the
face of information from a whistleblower, the media may tend
to "enact" a crisis by "interpreting" events at face value
from the whistleblower, and in terms of how this
"information" can contribute to ratings, readership, and
advertising revenue. Under these circumstances public
relations practitioners must alter their approach to
responding to whistleblowers.
One example of an organization which was the victim of
a disgruntled employee/whistleblower and "hunter"
journalists is Illinois Power Co. In 1979 the _60 Minutes_
cameras were targeted on the power company. The company had
come under scrutiny at the request of a disgruntled employee
fired for cause. In the _60 Minutes_ segment, Harry
Reasoner distorted facts and made irresponsible charges.
The CBS crew was at the plant for several days, including a
one-and-a-half *hour* interview conducted with IP Executive
Vice President Bill Gerster, and aired only two-and-a-half
*minutes* in their segment showing the Illinois Power Side
(60 Minutes, Our Reply, Illinois Power Company, 1979).
Fortunately, Illinois Power also recorded all interviews
made with the _60 Minutes_ crews. With those tapes Illinois
power "bombed" back, producing it's own version of 60
Minutes, complete with narrator and ticking watch. It
included the entire "Who Pays" segment originally aired, but
included footage that CBS excluded. This reply pointed out
errors in fact along with significant information that the
original report had omitted. Illinois Power continues to
ship video and transcript copies around the country to
businesses and institutions.
The "60 Minutes, Our Reply" program developed by
Illinois Power did what few, if any other, industry
rebuttals have ever been able to accomplish: "document
clearly a news editing process that fit conclusions to a
premise rather than to the facts. It has damaged the
credibility of feature journalism and possibly broadcast
journalism in general and has made many corporate officials
wary of appearing on _60 Minutes_ and similar shows"
(Corrado, 1984, p. 88).
Other examples of CBS's ambush style of journalism
include a _Wall Street Journal_ article criticizing a June
1980 segment which examined "the Kissinger-Shaw Connection."
The Journal said that the segment "raises some disturbing
questions about TV's penchant for reducing complicated
subjects to neat little conspiracy theories" (as cited in
Good, 1995, p. 40). Also, the _Columbia Journalism Review_
faulted _60 Minutes_ for a January 1979 segment titled
"Stop! Police!" which referred to a "tough Chicano
neighborhood" in the city of Riverside, California where
police fear attack and run without lights. Apparently the
cars were blacked out only in tactical situations, and were
not limited to the Hispanic community (as cited in Good,
A third example concerns a segment in which _60
Minutes_ reported on a Government Accounting Office study
which found fault with 2.1 million dollars spent on Army
funded cat-shooting experiments. The GAO report found "the
study under question is superfluous and extraordinarily
expensive. It does not justify the effort or animal
sacrifice on the basis of potential yield... " The GAO also
found the reporting of data that was "beyond the realm of
possibility" and a host of other significant improprieties
(Roy, 1993, p. 39). However, the _60 Minutes_ segment chose
to portray the research as "life-saving" and to attribute
its cancellation to "animal-rights activists who, in Mike
Wallace's editorial comment, believe 'a rat is a pig is a
dog is a boy"' (p. 39). To add insult to injury, in a
November 1992 Washington Post article Mike Wallace admitted
that he deceives interview subjects about the nature of some
stories and uses staging to get better footage. Wallace
stated, "You don't like to baldly lie, but I have.... It
really depends on your motive" (cited in Roy, 1993, p. 39).
It seems clear that this type of journalism - and CBS
is certainly not the only culprit - is based on the premise:
the end justifies the means. Whether the end is ratings or
exposure of real criminal or unethical activity, is somewhat
questionable. In the end, though, organization's response
to ambush journalism is often to become defensive or refuse
to comment at all on organizational actions and
responsibilities. But if public officials refuse to respond
to media requests for information because they fear even
telling the truth will not be good enough, how can the
public expect to receive the comprehensive information
necessary to informed choice-making? Is a "no comment"
approach really the way organizations should manage media
relations? And what should be the nature of organizational
response to whistleblowers, honest or otherwise?
Response to Media and Whistleblowers
Historically, whistleblowers have been forced to pay a
heavy price for their allegations. Moreover, many
organizations still follow the press agentry, public
information, and two-way asymmetrical public relations
models in part due to the belief that the best policy is
never to trust journalists, period. Thus, research shows
fairly consistent response to whistleblowing. Retaliation
is usually subtle, swift, and in most cases, final (Murphy,
1993, Mathews, 1988, Keenan & Krueger, 1992, Near & Miceli,
1985). Near and Miceli (1985) report that if the
organization is dependent on the wrongdoing, it is more
likely to continue the activity and punish the
whistleblower. Further, the organization is more likely to
retaliate if it is less dependent on the whistleblower,
suggesting the whistleblower has little power in the
organization. Whistleblowers are retaliated against more
strongly when the accusations are serious, if supervisor and
manager support is lacking, and if external channels were
used to blow the whistle. Finally, organizations with
climates unsupportive of whistleblowing are more likely to
retaliate. In almost every case, retaliation by the
has been associated with (a) reduced job
performance by the whistleblower who remains with
the organization, (b) the whistleblower leaving
the organization, either voluntarily or
involuntarily, (c) the whistleblower's decision to
ignore future instances of wrongdoing, and (d)
complaints by the whistleblower concerning
retaliation. (Near & Miceli, 1985, p. 139)
While retaliation has historically been swift and
final, employees, publics, governments, and media continue
to require that information be provided concerning their
welfare, and they want to see outlets for whistleblowing and
protection of whistleblowers. Research, however, has been
almost exclusively focused on organizations where unethical
or criminal activity has actually occurred in some form.
What is less clear are the responses organizations should
and do take when the activities are more ambiguous in
ethicality. What fail-safe measures should be taken, and
how should organizations respond to media and whistleblowers
whose motives and information are suspect?
While the relationship between media and public
relations is, of necessity, an antagonistic one, it also
must be understood as symbiotic as well. The two are locked
together by the needs of the public for information, and
each depends upon the other for ultimate survival. Yet this
symbiosis should not be perceived as informality or even
friendship. Seib and Fitzpatrick (1995) believe "etiquette"
describes the ideal relationship: formal adherence to
established procedure and professional codes is preferable
to a casualness that might lead to business catastrophe for
In order to create the most effective relationships,
journalists and practitioners must understand where their
roles overlap and collide. Ideally journalists are not
responsible to any "client" but the public, but even the
rookie street reporter knows the news organization has
"clients" - advertisers and stockholders, at the very least.
Most news organizations try, though, to keep a buffer
between journalists and those who take care of the business
side of journalism. In contrast, the PR practitioner has
clearly defined clients who are paying to get their message
delivered to the public. They must divide their loyalty to
these clients and to the-public which is relying on
truthful, timely, and comprehensive information.
In an ideal world the public(s) interest is the focal
point of both entities' ethical behavior. But economic
reality often tugs practitioners and journalists from this
point of common interest. Mary Ann Ramer, journalist
turned-public relations executive, sums up where interests
collide: "Journalists worship accuracy in the church of
objectivity and the religion of balance. However, much of
my PR life has been taken up with persuading reporters to be
accurate by being complete in their stories, to be objective
by at least considering the other perspective rather than
dismissing it as propaganda...." (Seib & Fitzpatrick, 1995,
p. 69). David Broder, _Washington Post_ columnist, put the
relationship in perspective by stating to business
executives, "The media are going to look at you skeptically
to cynically, which is the same way they view labor or
government or athletics or the arts or anything else -
except, of course, themselves. You may as well grin and
bear it - because bear it you must, whether or not you grin"
(Nolan, 1996, p. 16-17).
Tensions between the two professions continue.
Scandals involving both practitioners (Watergate, Tobacco
companies, military cover-ups) and journalists (_Dateline_,
_60 Minutes_, Janet Cooke) provide ammunition for both sides
in this war of words. The notion that public relations
practices are intrinsically unethical is a common belief,
yet simplistic to the point of being just plain wrong. And
to believe that all journalists have Mike Wallace's ethical
code is equally faulty. Finger-pointing accomplishes
nothing constructive, it just builds more bridges between
the two. Yet believing naively that absolute truth grounds
every news release or news story is equally as naive.
Seib and Fitzpatrick (1995) suggest that "the ethical
task arising in this context is for neither the public
relations practitioner nor the journalist to become so
caught up in interprofessional contentiousness that the
duties of representation and communication are neglected.
Both have responsibilities to the process of conveying
information" (p. 78).
This brings the discussion full circle to the original
questions. How should organizations deal with legitimate
whistleblowers, and on those occasions where the motives and
information of whistleblowers and journalists are
questionable, how should organizations respond? And
ultimately, how can public relations be perceived as a more
ethical profession through handling these types of
First, the issue of legitimate whistleblowing.
Barnett, Cochran and Taylor (1993) suggest there are at
least three important reasons for employers to take steps
not only to protect whistleblowers, but to provide specific
and effective *internal* whistleblowing procedures for
employees. The first two reasons are reactions to the
expectation of legitimacy and accountability by the public -
the increasing legal protection of whistleblowers and the
continuing emphasis on improving ethical behavior in
business. The third reason, however, deals more
specifically with the negative consequences of external
whistleblowing, which is usually done with the help of the
media. The negative publicity, regulatory investigations,
and legal liability which in most cases accompany external
whistleblowing force organizations into crisis management
mode. This "reactive" approach to crisis management has
potentially greater negative consequences for organizational
legitimacy and survival.
The benefit of internal disclosure policies includes
the ability of the organization to investigate and correct
wrongdoing and avoid the negative consequences of external
whistleblowing. The greatest public relations efforts
should be those which create and communicate the procedures
and policies for effective internal whistleblowing (Barnett,
Cochran, & Taylor, 1993). Buhler (1991) suggests several
steps in this process. First, employees must see concrete
policies, i.e. codes of ethics, communicated both by word
and by example. Second, employees must be able to identify
the sanctions of unethical behavior. And third, ethical
behavior must be positively reinforced. Buhler writes, "It
is the organizations' culture, the written code of ethics,
management's actual behavior and the organizational reward
system that guides employees in the direction of ethical
behavior" (1991, p. 5).
Barnett, Cochran, and Taylor (1993) believe the
development of "internal disclosure policies/procedures" or
IDPP's are critical because attempting to suppress or
silence employees may actually lead them to external
whistleblowing and significantly worsen the problem. These
IDPP's should specifically spell out: 1) employee
responsibility to disclose wrongdoing to parties in the
organization, 2) designate appropriate communication
channels for disclosure, 3) outline formal investigative
procedures, and 4) guarantee protection for employees who,
in good faith, disclose suspected wrongdoing. "One reason
why many employees may resort to external disclosure after
first attempting internal resolution is that management is
not responsive to their concerns" (p. 134).
Keenan (1990) supports this position with research
showing that companies which provide adequate encouragement
of whistleblowing on illegal or wasteful activities and
which provide enough information to employees on where to
blow the whistle will be positively associated with: 1)
stronger moral perceptions of the seriousness of various
types of harmful acts, 2) the belief that suspected
wrongdoings are treated fairly and consistently, and, 3)
confidence that an individual would not face retaliation or
reprisal for blowing the whistle.
These policies and procedures do not just "appear' in
effective organizations, but are a part of a broader
cultural approach to ethical decision making. "Most experts
in the field of ethics agree that ethical behavior starts at
the top of the organization with management setting the tone
for the rest of the employees" (Parliman, 1987, p. 26).
But what should be the policy of organizations towards
the "ambush journalist"? When the _60 Minutes_ cameras show
up on your doorstep, should you lock the door and turn off
the lights? The answer is no. If you turn to run you might
get shot in the back. The appropriate response to this
situation occurs in several stages. It is a long term
proactive approach. Effective media relations should never
be conceived as obtainable in the short run. Nor should
practitioners or journalists ever believe that the
relationship is "complete" requiring no additional energy or
work. This relationship might be viewed in the same light
as the teacher-student dyad, with the roles fluctuating
depending upon the situation. Both teacher and student
learn from the other. And these relationships are never
particularly successful when the two parties become "best
friends." Both must respect the others knowledge and
experience. But while respect and dialogue - a collective
learning atmosphere - should ground the relationship, both
must also know that other entities and stakeholders will
ultimately have an impact on the relationships' progression
Thus the first stage of the PR-Media relationship
should be the knowledge and expectation that like the
teacher-student relationship, we are continuously working on
the dialogue that is transacted between us. The second
stage involves the requirement that each of the parties make
sure that their own house is in order before accusing the
other of lacking in fair play. For the organization/PR
practitioner that means cultures that actively promote and
monitor the ethicality of behavior. That produce outlets
for whistleblowing internally, and policies that effectively
constrain unethical behavior.
And finally, the third stage involves the organization,
for its own safety, monitoring its media coverage. While
Hazel O'Leary might not be the perfect role model for this
element of the process, she did have the right idea in
monitoring the coverage of her department. Unlike Secretary
O'Leary, but perhaps in the model of Illinois Power,
organizations should accumulate their own body of evidence
documenting ethical performance. There are several
advantages beyond simply "Your Side" of the story. This
monitoring of media provides evidence for the organizations'
internal audiences which is supportive and fiercely
protective of employee welfare. For when an organization is
accused, so are each and every one of its employees. The
situation at Mitsubishi *may* exemplify the need to protect
the larger employee constituency from the accusations of
whistleblowers who do not represent even a small segment of
the organizations population.
Ultimately, the organization needs to establish a
systematic way of responding to often ambiguous ethical
dilemmas. The keystone of an ethical organization/
profession has always been the individual. Every individual
must keep in mind the influence his/her work has, and match
that influence with commensurate accountability. Nolan
(1996) suggests, "As case after case demonstrates, concrete
actions represent the indispensable first step in image
enhancement. Without tangible action, communication is
futile and likely to be perceived as hypocritical. The best
image enhancement strategy is doing the right thing - and
getting caught at it" (p. 15).
While the events of the moment determine to some degree
our ethical behavior, we must also ground our response in
theory, planning, and experience. The relationship between
public relations practitioners and media representatives
requires mutual respect and appreciation for the demands
imposed on, and the responsibilities of the other. Ethical
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