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Study Finds Millennials in PR Feel Unprepared for Moral Dilemmas
Published Friday, March 24, 2017

According to a study from Baylor University in Texas, Millennials pursuing careers in public relations feel unprepared to offer advice on ethics to their companies and don't expect to face ethical dilemmas at work.

Millennials—generally identified as people born between 1981 or 1982 through 2000—are projected to make up one third to one half of the country’s workforce by 2025. As part of a joint scholar-practitioner study, Marlene Neill, study author and assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, and co-researcher Nancy Weaver, a colleague from the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Ethics & Professional Standards, surveyed 217 Millennial members of PRSA, a professional association. Respondents’ average age was 25, with an average of fewer than three years’ experience in PR.

Researchers found that factors that have a positive impact on Millennials readiness to face ethics issues include ethics training in college, workplace training, training through professional associations and mentoring by someone inside or outside their organization. But while the majority (74 percent) had received ethics training in college, most had not received training in the workplace through such methods as videos, handbooks and learning modules; or through a professional organization such as the Public Relations Society of America.

“The study findings about lack of ethical readiness are a cause for concern,” says Neill. “If Millennials don’t feel equipped, they may be misled by their superiors or used as instruments of unethical behavior.”

Besides lacking confidence, most Millennials appear to be overly optimistic that they will not have to confront such common dilemmas as truthfulness in communication, altering researching results, working with questionable clients or blurring of personal and professional speech online. When study respondents were asked what ethical issues they had faced or were most likely to face in their jobs, they ranked only one issue — messaging, such as how much information to disclose and when — above being a “neutral” challenge. But two thirds indicated they actually had faced ethical issues regarding messaging, while one third had experienced issues regarding blurring of online and professional speech, lack of access to leadership or information and transparency in sponsored content.

“It’s difficult to determine why Millennials don’t expect to face ethical issues in the workplace,” says Neill. “Perhaps they perceive their employers as ethical or have yet to face these issues early in their careers.”

Previous research by other scholars found that when Millennials were presented with ethical dilemmas at businesses, they preferred to avoid them — generally by ignoring a request, referring the issue to a boss or simply following orders.

The findings in the study of Millennials were in marked contrast to Neill’s 2015 research with a random sample of 305 PR practitioners who are PRSA members. The earlier study found that 90 percent had faced issues related to messaging; 66 percent to lack of access to leadership and information; 59 percent to blurring of personal and professional speech online; and nearly 50 percent to personal ethics.

Neill says that for decades, public relations scholars and industry leaders have called for practitioners to serve in the role of ethical or organizational conscience, which involves representing the concerns of stakeholders inside and outside the organizations. But in previous research, she found mixed reactions from practitioners themselves.  Some embrace the role as a natural part of their jobs, even putting the public interest above their duty to their employers. But others suggest that ethics are better left to the legal department or indicate that the role is beyond their responsibilities, abilities or training.

Neill recommended that courses in ethics be required to prepare Millennials pursuing a PR career, with material including industry codes from such professional associations as PRSA, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Society of Professional Journalists. She also recommended that ethics education also should be offered through the workplace. She adds that it would be helpful if more senior practitioners shared personal experiences on ethical issues, and Millennial practitioners should seek mentors both inside and outside their organizations, Neill said.

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