I agreed to teach an ethics course as part of Rutgers Unviversity's new certificate program in public relations.
I know, I know, "ethical public relations" sounds like an oxymoron along the lines of "jumbo shrimp." And Rutgers itself has had more than it share of ethical challenges recently. Plus, much of the course will be taught online which is the subject of some controversy.
So here's why I agreed to do it.
First, if Rutger's experience over the last few months teaches anything it's that large institutions can easily lose any meaningful connection with the ethical principles they espouse. Companies are just as vulnerable.
But ethics can't be taught to institutions or companies. It has to start with individuals. Most PR people I know strive to be ethical. But in the workshops I've given over the years I've discovered that, while they know that something like lying is unethical, they have great difficulty explaining why with any precision.
If you can't explain why something is wrong, the liklihood that you will recognize it -- much less avoid it -- declines precipitously.
Which brings me to my second reason: it seems to me that every major PR crisis of recent years was rooted in an ethical lapse. Sometimes, it started as an Act of God, but it really became a crisis because someone didn't act ethically.
Take Carnival Crusie Line, the subject of my last posting. An engine fire is an accident. But when it happens three times, you have to wonder if the company isn't acting imprudently. Well, prudence is one of Plato's four cardinal virtues.
Finally, I have been curious about this relatively new phenomenon of online education. I have never taken an online course, much less given one. I saw the Rutgers gig as an opportunity to learn more about it.
My Rutgers course will not be a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). In fact, I expect to have only a handful of students. And I have tried to structure the course to maximize interaction with each of them through discussion boards and individal email exchanges. My goal is to help each student develop their own framework for ethical reasoning.
Now that the heavy lifting in the course's development in over, I plan to report on what I learned in my research over the last few months and on what I will learn when I begin interacting with students in September.
If you have any thoughts or suggestions, I'd welcome them.