A Practical Model for Ethical Decision
Making in Issues Management
and Public Relations
Shannon A. Bowen
School of Communication
University of Houston
The deontological philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) provides a powerful
framework for the analysis of ethical dilemmas. Kant’s philosophy is discussed and
applied to what this research poses as the “practical model for ethical decision mak-
ing” (see Figure 1). This Kantian model establishes an ethical consideration triangle
and incorporates symmetrical communication. The issues management of 2 global
organizations was used as an empirical test of the model and to refine it for practical
implementation. I argue that rigorous analysis of ethical decisions and symmetrical
communication results in ethical issues management.
Issues management is the executive function of strategic public relations that
deals with problem solving, organizational policy, long-range planning, and
management strategy as well as communication of that strategy internally and
externally (Chase, 1977; Ewing, 1981; Hainsworth & Meng, 1988; Heath,
1997). Issues management frequently handles ethical dilemmas through the
identification of issues, research, analysis, and the making of organization-wide
policy decisions regarding those issues. This research examines that process at
two global pharmaceutical firms and poses a practical model for ethical decision
making based on the issues-management process used in those organizations.
The practical model asserted in this research is based on the deontological the-
ory of Immanuel Kant (1785/1948, 1930/1963, 1793/1974, 1785/1993). A theoret-
ical normative model for ethical issues management based on Kantian philosophy
has already been developed (Bowen, 2004). This article tests that normative theory
JOURNAL OF PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH, 17(3), 191–216
Copyright © 2005, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Requests for reprints should be sent to Shannon A. Bowen, School of Communication, 101 Commu-
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in practical application through empirical study and suggests a new, refined, and
layperson-accessible practical model for ethical decision making (see Figure 1).
Public relations scholars (Bivins, 1980; Curtin & Boynton, 2001; J. E. Grunig,
1993; J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 1996; L. A. Grunig, 1992; Kruckeberg,
1996; Pearson, 1989b, 1989c; C. B. Pratt, 1994; Wright, 1982) have argued the
need for an ethical paradigm in public relations based on moral philosophy. Re-
search (Bivins, 1989; Bowen, 2003; C. A. Pratt & Rentner, 1989) has found lit-
tle academic training in ethics for public relations majors and journalism or
communication students (Lee & Padgett, 2000).
C. B. Pratt (1994) asserted that the nature of public relations thrusts practitio-
ners “into the vortex of organizational decision making” (p. 218) and that the
counselor role of public relations means that practitioners must confront ethical di-
lemmas more often than other managers. If public relations practitioners are in-
deed acting as ethics counselors to the dominant coalition (Heath, 1994) or serving
as the ethical consciences of their organizations (Ryan & Martinson, 1983;
Wright, 1996), what background, education, or training in moral reasoning gives
them the knowledge to do so? As Leeper (1996) contended, serious ethical exami-
nation among scholars and practitioners is warranted. Nelson (1994) explained,
“The lack of a single common framework for deciding what is ethical and what is
not thus ultimately influences the outcome of public policymaking and the reputa-
tion of public relations” (p. 225).
As the ethical conscience of the organization, public relations practitioners
should be well versed in both moral philosophy and ethics. This research contrib-
utes to moral knowledge and allows practitioners an understanding of that philoso-
phy and the analytical techniques applied by a deontological approach to ethical
decision making. The practical model presented in this article can be implemented
by persons with little or no training in ethics and can result in rigorous and method-
ical analyses of ethical dilemmas.
Ethical Foundations of the Proposed Practical Model
This research builds on the conceptual foundation provided in “A Theory of Eth-
ical Issues Management: Expansion of Ethics as the Tenth Generic Principle of
Public Relations Excellence” (Bowen, 2004). The normative Kantian model in
that research was revised into the practical model presented here on the basis of
empirical study in two organizations (Bowen, 2000). A conceptual framework of
Kantian deontology is briefly reviewed as the basis for the practical model of
ethical decision making.
FIGURE 1 A practical Kantian model of ethical issues management.
Beck (1963) defined ethics as “the division of universal practical philosophy
which deals with the intrinsic goodness found in some but not in all actions, dispo-
sitions, and maxims” (p. xiii). The deontological school of ethics is based on a ra-
tional approach to decision making. Sullivan (1994) explained that the source of
moral decision making is the rational intellect rather than rules prescribed by reli-
gions or lawmakers. Flew (1979) defined rationalism as the belief that by reason
alone humans can gain knowledge of the nature of something. This view considers
faith, habit, prejudice, and religion to be irrational and prefers ethical decisions to
be guided by deductive reasoning (Flew, 1979). Rationalism and autonomy are
conjoined in deontology, as discussed below. In public relations, autonomy can
take the form of freedom from encroachment or sublimation to other organiza-
tional functions as well as the individual issues manager’s freedom to make moral
The Kantian protonorm of autonomy.
Kant (1724–1804) based his
moral philosophy on the meta-tenet or protonorm of rational autonomy. Chris-
tians and Traber (1997) defined protonorms as “underlying presuppositions that
are necessary for ethical reasoning” (p. xi). Protonorms generally span cultural
and social boundaries to reflect a philosophical tradition that is universal in nature
(Christians & Traber, 1997), meaning that it can be applied consistently across di-
In Kantian philosophy, a decision can be truly moral only if it is made by an au-
tonomous, rational decision maker. Kant defined reason as “the faculty of princi-
ples” (Sullivan, 1989, p. 48). Rationality is the guide that Kant used to endow all
humans with freedom of choice and a duty to fulfill the moral law. Kant held that
even the most hardened criminal because of his or her capacity for rational
thought, knows he or she is acting against the moral law.
Kant’s conception of freedom of the rational human agent was in opposition to
the hegemony of the ruling aristocracy during in his lifetime. The idea of moral
equality based on each being’s rationality amounted to what Kant called a Coper-
nican revolution in moral philosophy (Green, 1997; Kant, 1785/1948; Sullivan,
1989). In 1543, Copernicus used the Pythagorean theorem to prove mathemati-
cally that our planet was spherical and revolves around the sun, challenging reli-
gious doctrine that the earth was the center of the universe (Flew, 1979). Kant
equated discovering the nature of morality through conjoining autonomy and ra-
tionality with Copernicus’s landmark discovery about the nature of the universe.
The imperative of autonomy pervades Kant’s entire philosophy. On the basis of
the rationality of an agent, that person must make decisions according to his or her
independent, autonomous, moral judgment. The Law of Autonomy stated that “A
moral agent is an agent who can act autonomously, that is, as a law unto himself or
herself, on the basis of objective maxims of his or her reason alone” (Sullivan,
1989, p. 48). Kant added that universality is the key on which the Law of Auton-
omy rests; he called this “the idea of the will of every rational being as a will which
makes universal law” (Kant, 1785/1964, p. 98)
Autonomy is essential to ethical decision making because it frees the decision
maker from the subjective concerns of personal desires, fears of negative repercus-
sions, or other biased decision-making influences. Therefore, autonomy is the
freedom to make a decision based on what is morally right in a universal sense
rather than self-interested concerns. Kant (1785/1993) explained autonomy thus:
We cannot possibly conceive reason conscientiously permitting any other quarter to
direct its judgment, since then the subject would attribute the control of its judgment
not to reason, but to an impulse. Reason must regard itself as the author of its princi-
ples independent of extraneous influences; consequently, it, as practical reason or as
the will of a rational being, must regard itself as free. (p. 213)
By virtue of having a rational will and moral autonomy, Kant categorically ob-
ligated all beings to fulfill their duty to the moral law. Autonomy facilitates the
freedom from encroachment and enhances the boundary-spanning role valued by
public relations. Furthermore, a rational approach is already used in issues man-
agement as part of the public relations process discussed by Dozier (1992) who
stated: “Managers make policy decisions and are held accountable for public rela-
tions program outcomes. … They facilitate communication between management
and publics and guide management through what practitioners describe as a ‘ratio-
nal [italics added] problem-solving process’” (p. 333). This rational process
means applying a methodical analysis to varying decision alternatives, eliminating
the influence of bias, and making a logical decision solely on the basis of doing
what is right in an objective sense.
The practical model of ethical issues management (see Figure 1) posed in this
research begins by asking issues managers to address the Kantian protonorm in the
“Autonomy Section” of the model. For the purpose of practical implementation,
the model asks to decision maker to rule out prudential self-interest, greed, and
selfish motives by posing the questions “Am I acting from the basis of reason
alone? Can I rule out political influence, monetary influence, and pure
self-interest?” If the answer is “yes,” then the issues manager can proceed to the
next step in the model for analysis of the ethical dilemma and on toward decision
making. If the answer is “no,” then subjectivity has been revealed and the decision
maker must step aside and defer the decision to another issues manager or a group
decision-making process. The model then proceeds to the most rigorous test of
deontological philosophy: Kant’s categorical imperative.
The categorical imperative.
Kant’s (1785/1964) categorical imperative
declared: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that
it should become a universal law” (p. 88). Using the rational will and autonomy of
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 195
moral agents, the categorical imperative adds the element of universal application
to the moral test. In saying that the categorical imperative is universal, an absolute
standard of moral principles is used that applies consistently across time, cultures,
and societal norms. Kant (Paton, 1967) maintained that “the principle of moral ac-
tion must be the same for every rational agent. No rational agent is entitled to make
arbitrary exceptions to moral law in favour of himself” (p. 135).
The categorical imperative includes the principle of reversibility; that is, would
the decision maker see the merit of the decision were he or she on the receiving end
of such a decision? Sullivan (1994) explained universal and reversible norms
through the questions: “What if everyone acted that way? Would I be willing to
live in a world in which everyone acted like that?” (p. 48). Paton (1967) noted that
a reciprocal obligation between persons is implied in the categorical imperative.
Contrary to common perception, Kant did not disavow the consequences of an
action. He argued that expected consequences were not the determining factor of
whether a decision has moral worth. Paton (1967) explained Kant’s argument:
We must not judge an action to be right or wrong according as we like or dislike the
consequences. The test is whether the maxim of such an action is compatible with the
nature of a universal law which is to hold for others as well as for myself. (p. 76)
Kant’s argument for the morality of actions undertaken from duty is in opposi-
tion to the utilitarian school of ethics. Utilitarianism (Bentham, 1780/1988; Mill,
1861/1957) bases morality on the consequences of an action, with ethical actions
being those that create the greatest good or happiness for the greatest number of
people. Utilitarianism has two primary schools of thought: (a) act utilitarianism
and (b) rule utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism evaluates individual actions by the
amount of good produced by the action, not by past cases; it is the most frequently
used form of utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism attempts to discern general guide-
lines for types of actions, based on producing the greatest good, generalizing from
past cases (De George, 1995). Both forms of utilitarianism decide the morality of a
decision by predicting its consequences. Thus, utilitarianism is a teleological- or
consequentialist-based philosophy in opposition to Kantian deontology’s
nonconsequentialist, duty-based approach. Utilitarianism is frequently used in a
cost–benefit analysis, but it must be used cautiously because of the well-known
pitfalls of applying this paradigm (Posner, 2002).
In opposition to utilitarianism’s worth in producing the greatest good for the
greatest number, Kant placed the highest worth on performing one’s moral duty,
defined through rational decision making. He afforded the highest moral worth to
actions undertaken from duty rather than from compulsion or law. The conse-
quences of a decision are considered but are not the main decision-making impetus
on which the moral agent bases a decision. Therefore, the categorical imperative
provides a norm of morality that helps the decision maker understand his or her
duty in a situation by allowing the agent to universalize the moral principle. If the
principle cannot be universalized, becomes self-contradictory, or is one the deci-
sion maker could not accept on the receiving end of the decision, then the principle
fails the test of the categorical imperative.
For example, the maxim “I will lie only in instances where I cannot get caught”
becomes both impossible to universalize and self-contradictory. The liar cannot
universalize this principle because if all people lied in that situation the truth would
become impossible to discover. Moreover, it is doubtful that the liar would want to
live in a world in which all others also lied because then his or her own lie would be
impossible to believe because all are liars. A lie is successful only if there is an as-
sumption of truth on the part of the receiver.
Practical implementation of Kant’s categorical imperative is addressed in the
“Question Section” of the practical model (see Figure 1). Each issues manager
should independently consider the three following questions and discuss them
with the issue team. These questions are designed to invoke the universal nature of
Kant’s categorical imperative as well as its reversibility to the decision maker be-
ing able to place him of herself on the receiving end of the decision. They are: “Can
I obligate everyone else who is ever in a similar situation to do the same thing I am
about to do?”; “Would I accept this decision if I were on the receiving end?”; and,
to address rationality and autonomy, “Have I faced a similar ethical issue before?”
These practical restatements of Kant’s categorical imperative allow issues manag-
ers to effectively apply an abstract concept to a practical problem.
Duty, intention, and respect for others.
I further divided Kantian moral
philosophy into the categories of duty, intention or a morally good will, and respect
for others. These three categories roughly correspond to Kant’s three formulations
of the categorical imperative.
Actions done on the basis of duty differ from actions inspired by inclination or
self-interest. Kant argued that by people’s ability to reason and act autonomously,
they are duty bound to act according to universal (categorical) moral imperatives.
Sullivan (1989) explained, “The only incentive to act on the motive of duty, Kant
writes, is the reverence or respect we feel for the moral law” (p. 133).
Therefore, Kant’s discussion of duty provided a means by which to analyze the
goodwill, or morally worthy intentions. In 1785 Kant wrote, “Nothing can possi-
bly be conceived in the world, or even out of it, which can be called good without
qualification, except a GOOD WILL” (1785/1964, p. 154). Kant viewed a morally
good will as a necessary condition for ethical decision making. Baron (1995) ex-
plained, “The good will is manifested in actions done from duty” (p. 183).
In his discussion of dignity and respect for others, Kant required that people be
treated always as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end. He wrote
(Kant, 1785/1964) “We must respect every human person as having objective and
intrinsic worth or dignity” (p. 385). This maxim can be accomplished in public re-
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 197
lations by providing the knowledge necessary for people to make their own deci-
sions, that are based on their own judgment, allowing them the dignity of an
autonomous, rational agent.
In the practical model posed here, I labeled this phase of the theory the “Ethical
Consideration Triangle” to facilitate its discussion among issues management
teams. Each point of the triangle corresponds to one of Kant’s formulations of the
categorical imperative: (a) duty, (b) dignity and respect for others, and (c) inten-
tion or a morally good will. Under each label is a question that explains the con-
cept. The questions are: “Duty: Am I doing the right thing? Dignity and Respect:
Are dignity and respect for others maintained? and Intention: Am I proceeding
with a morally good will?”
Positioned inside the triangle, in arbitrary order, are the groups issues managers
should consider with respect to their duty, dignity and respect, and intention.
These groups are publics, stakeholders, self, the organization, and society. Issue
managers should consider each of these groups with each point of the triangle, cor-
responding to an aspect of Kantian theory. Managers need to consider multiple
groups individually, such as the various publics of an organization. These consid-
erations lead the issues manager to conduct a thorough analysis of the perspective
of each group involved in an issue. The publics should be tailored to customize the
triangle to each organization and situation, allowing a sophisticated and complex
ethical analysis that is unique to each case in which it is used.
Symmetrical communication, according to J.
E. Grunig (2001), is enacted when “practitioners use research and dialogue to bring
about symbiotic changes in the ideas, attitudes, and behaviors of both their organiza-
tions and publics” (p. 12). The symmetrical model (J. E. Grunig & Hunt, 1984) is an
integrative mediation between advocacy and accommodation that involves mutual
change and adaptation to new information. The public relations practitioner facili-
tates mutual change rather than acting only as an advocate of the organization, as seen
in an asymmetrical approach (Dozier, L. A. Grunig, & J. E. Grunig, 1995; J. E.
Grunig, 2001; J. E. Grunig, 1992a; J. E. Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 1992). L. A. Grunig,
J. E. Grunig, and Dozier (2002) argued that the symmetrical approach to communica-
tion is inherently more ethical than other approaches because it is based on dialogue.
Pearson (1989a, 1989c), extending the theory of Habermas (1979, 1984, 1987),
argued that organizations have a moral duty to engage in dialogue. J. E. Grunig and
L. A. Grunig (1996) included Pearson’s obligation of dialogue in their theory of
communication ethics, using symmetry as a way of satisfying that obligation.
Symmetry is an inherently ethical form of communication (Bowen, 2000; J. E.
Grunig & L. A. Grunig, 1996) and its use as a component of this practical model of
ethical issues management strengthens the model’s conceptual base.
The last phase of implementing the practical model posed in this research is to
communicate ethical considerations to the groups inside the ethical consideration
triangle and to consider their input in decision making. Through such consideration,
a more equitable and mutually satisfactory decision can be reached than with
nonsymmetrical methods. The information gained from publics could play a vital
role in the decision-making process of the organization. The communication should
be ongoing and used to contribute to the decision-making process as well as to com-
municate with publics about the decision. Moreover, this use of symmetrical com-
munication is consistent with Kantian moral philosophy. Kant (1785/1964) wrote
“Thus ordinary reason, when cultivated in its practical use, gives rise insensibly to a
dialectic which constrains it to seek help in philosophy” (p. 73).
The most important contribution of public relations to organizational effective-
ness can be measured in the relationships built and maintained by the function. Use
of the practical model posed here emphasizes the interdependency and ethical na-
ture of those relationships. Use of this model should enhance the practitioner’ abil-
ity to maintain mutually beneficial relationships with publics.
On the basis of the theory just discussed, and an earlier, normative model of eth-
ical issues management, I designed a practical model for ethical issues manage-
ment (see Figure 1). That practical model was based wholly on the theory just
presented but was tested and refined through the use of empirical study dis-
cussed in the next section.
Two study organizations allowed me to collect data on their is-
sues-management process and their ethics, and I used those data to reword, clarify,
and strengthen the practical model so that it can be easily used by issues managers.
In the empirical portion of the study, three research questions were addressed:
RQ 1: What is the structure of issues management and issue decision making
in the organization, including access to the dominant coalition or CEO
RQ 2: How prominently do issues managers consider ethics in their issues
management decision making?
RQ 3: Does the organization rely primarily on a conceptualization of ethics
based on utilitarianism or deontology?
Sample Selection and Participants
The practical model was developed through longitudinal observation and 43 in-
terviews at two global pharmaceutical firms. The normative model of ethical is-
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 199
sues management was used as a guide to construct the practical model, based on
the comments of issues managers in the participating organizations.
To obtain this sample, Hoover’s Handbook of American Business (1997) was
used to identify the major producers of pharmaceuticals distributed in the United
States. Inquiry letters were sent to the top public relations officers of 21 corpora-
tions and followed up by a similar letter 3 weeks later and a telephone inquiry. Two
pharmaceutical manufacturers out of the 21 invited to participate allowed me to
collect data in their organizations. These corporations agreed to participate in this
study after the initial mailings, several telephone conversations, confidentiality
negotiations, follow-up mailings describing this study, the signing of legal docu-
ments, and screening meetings with both organizations. Scholars Thomas (1995)
and Yeager and Kim (1995), who specialized in the study of executives, argued
that a screening meeting is common before gaining access to a corporate setting.
The majority of the 21 organizations contacted refused to respond to letters and
telephone calls or stated that they do not participate in research projects. The par-
ticipating organizations are both ranked highly in measures of ethics and reputa-
tion published in the popular press, suggesting that the organizations that declined
participation might have wished to conceal ethical quandaries. The fact that both
organizations that agreed to participate hold missions of excellence in ethics biases
this research in favor of an organization that truly desires to engender ethical be-
havior rather than simply achieve a minimum standard.
Maintaining confidentiality was a necessary condition of access to both orga-
nizations in this study; therefore, they are referred to throughout this article as
Organization A and Organization B. Organization A and Organization B were
among the top five pharmaceutical and health care products manufacturers in the
world; they provide a fertile ground to study issues management and ethical
Brief Description of Participating Organizations
Organizations A and B are comparable in size, age, and products manufactured.
Both are global organizations, founded and headquartered in the United States.
The global workforce size of each organization is close to 100,000 employees.
Pharmaceuticals manufactured by each organization can be found in almost ev-
ery country of the world. Both of the organizations are housed in impressive fa-
cilities near major metropolitan areas, and both organizations have formidable
security measures in place for gaining access to the location.
Organization A is consistently included in a popular publication’s ranking of
best companies for which to work, and all interviewees reported that the company
has pride in doing things the “right” way. Organization B is known worldwide for
holding a strong commitment to ethics and is consistently recognized in public
opinion polls as one of the most respected companies in the world.
Philanthropy and social responsibility are concepts both Organizations A and B
regard highly in strategic planning. Both organizations have made significant
charitable donations of medicines and other products around the world in the past
few years. In Organization A, there is an unofficial ethics motto advising employ-
ees to “do the right thing”; in Organization B, there is an official ethics statement
outlining core responsibilities. In summary, Organizations A and B endeavor to be
morally responsible corporate citizens and have made a commitment to ethical or-
Data Collection and Analysis
Research proceeded in a qualitative manner, with methods triangulated through
using 43 interviews and longitudinal observation. The semistructured interview
guide was constructed by referring to the interview expertise of many scholars
(Fontana & Frey, 1994, 2000; Lindlof, 1995; McCracken, 1988; Spradley,
1979), and the observation guided by the advice of anthropologists and other re-
searchers (Adler & Adler, 1987, 1994; Atkinson & Hammersley, 1994;
Jorgensen, 1989; Lincoln & Guba, 1985).
A university human subjects committee approved the research design and inter-
view guide. Forty-three long interviews with issues managers were conducted; all
participants signed informed consent forms. Most interviews were audio recorded
with the consent of the participant and were later transcribed. Participants were
self-described issues managers, most working in a public relations or public affairs
department. They held titles such as corporate communications director (or man-
ager) and vice president (or director) of public affairs; one held the title vice presi-
dent of issues management.
I collected observation data by attending issues management meetings and
training seminars, taking copious notes of those sessions, and writing theoretical
memos (Wolcott, 1995) from the observed experiences. The data collection phase
of this study lasted approximately 1 year and took place in the United States and in
Europe. Data were analyzed using the method Miles and Huberman (1994) sug-
gested for qualitative analysis: data reduction, data display matrices, and conclu-
sion drawing. A reflexive approach was incorporated by asking participants for
comments and feedback on my notes and conclusions. Both organizations were
asked to comment on the model presented in Figure 1. Transcripts of interviews
were analyzed for phrases and words related to the research questions, and exem-
plary quotes have been included in the Results section.
Three research questions were addressed to test the practical model of ethical is-
sues management presented in this article. I wanted to ensure that the model re-
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 201
flected an accurate flow of the issues-management process, was easy to under-
stand, and covered the theoretical areas discussed in the conceptualization. By
using two organizations and basing the practical model on their comments and
feedback, the model presented here could be adaptable for use across industries
and in many diverse organizations.
The Issues Management Process and Organizational
RQ 1: What isthe structure of issues management and issue decision-making
in the organization, including access to the dominant coalition or
This research question addresses organizational structure to determine whether
the autonomy necessary for ethical decision making is allowed the public relations
practitioner. The standard process for conducting issues management is also dis-
cussed in this research question, to provide information on how issues arise and
how they are decided and managed. It is also necessary to discover what level of
power public relations has in the organization and what level of access to the CEO
and dominant coalition issues managers hold, and how frequently that access is
used. These considerations have an impact on the level of autonomy of individual
practitioners as well as the ability of public relations to have input into strategic de-
cision making and planning (J. E. Grunig, 1992c).
In Organization A, issues were managed proactively, with a sophisticated level
of environmental scanning conducted on a regular basis. The issues management
in Organization A was more symmetrical than the issues management in Organi-
zation B, because regular contact was maintained with groups in the organization’s
environment, and this contact was used for environmental scanning purposes as
well as relationship building and maintenance. For instance, one issues manager in
Organization A described the company’s relationship with AIDS activists:
Our principle would be to have ongoing relationships with them. We would character-
ize the relationships as positive because the discussions continue. But the fact that you
talk about the issue is a good thing and that’s what we have, over the past decade now,
had as the underpinning of our relationship with the AIDS community.
The typical issues-management process in Organization A is formalized; it in-
volves the use of a model. That model asks issues managers to handle issues by
“establishing relationships of trust through communication, feedback, and learn-
ing.” The multiphase model is similar to the models discussed by issues-manage-
ment scholars (Buchholz, Evans, & Wagley, 1989; Chase, 1977; Cheney &
Vibbert, 1987; Crable & Vibbert, 1985; Ewing, 1997; J. E. Grunig & Repper,
1992; Heath & Nelson, 1986; Jones & Chase, 1979; Lauzen, 1997), which gener-
ally include assessment, identification of issues, information gathering, strategy
and prioritizing, action planning, implementation, and evaluation.
The first priority of both organizations once an issue was identified is to collect
facts on the issue. Issues of any significance more serious than daily activity re-
quire an issues-management team to be assembled. The team normally consists of
several issues managers, a product specialist or research scientist, an attorney, and
someone from the finance department; data collection on the problem is likely on-
going. At this point the organizations diverge in how they handle the process, as I
discuss in the next research question.
The issues management in Organization B was of a more reactive nature than
that of Organization A. Organization B’s issues managers told me they do not
maintain regular relations with members of the media or publics for the purposes
of information gathering, but they “rely heavily on industry associations for such
information.” Issues managers at Organization B were frequently informed of is-
sues by media calls requesting comment on lawsuits or consumer complaints,
placing them in a reactionary and less strategic mode than if issues had been identi-
fied, tracked, and planned for in advance. Organization B often had to engage in
crisis management because of a lack of environmental scanning. Organization A is
clearly more proactive in issues management than Organization B by maintaining
symmetrical communication with publics, scanning for issues, and planning how
to manage emerging issues.
Issue decision making in both organizations was reliant on group decision mak-
ing in an issue team. One participant in Organization B explained, “For the most
part we argue it out. I can remember two situations where you get to a point where
you have to go up high to the CEO and say, ‘We’re deadlocked—make the deci-
sion.’” The structure of an organization and level of access to the dominant coali-
tion can also affect how decisions are made, so that area was also explored in this
Public relations was not included in the dominant coalition at Organization A,
but the highest level public relations practitioner did exercise a direct reporting re-
lationship to a member of the dominant coalition: the head of the legal department.
The public relations vice president had been with the organization about 20 years,
had 11 senior executives in a direct-reporting relationship, and managed a depart-
ment of approximately 130 public relations practitioners.
In Organization A, the relationship of public relations to the dominant coalition
was hindered because of the formal stratification of the organizational structure.
Because public relations personnel reported to a member of the dominant coalition
who is in the legal department, their input about the values of publics and stake-
holders outside the organization might not be represented in issue decision mak-
ing. This potential deficit left the organization open to ethical dilemmas arising
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 203
from failing to consider the interests of publics and stakeholders. Furthermore,
sublimating public relations to the legal department was problematic in that the
definitions of ethics used are not those based on moral philosophy or the
deontological view of the organization’s ethics motto, as I discuss shortly. Instead,
the ethics and values of the organization were relegated to legalistic norms based
on retributive enforcement. Therefore, the organizational structure at Organization
A was not ideal for issues management and posed some obstacles to ethical deci-
Commenting on the lack of a direct reporting relationship to the CEO in Orga-
nization A, the vice president of public relations said: “I realize that about 80% of
people in my position at other companies report directly to the CEO. But I think it
works in this case because I have complete access to him whenever I feel it is war-
ranted.” The vice president estimated that 75% to 80% of issues are managed by
her and her public relations department and that only a small number of issues
needed to come to the attention of the CEO.
Access to the CEO is available but is rarely used; a true ethics-counselor role
was used infrequently. The access and contribution of public relations personnel
are therefore hindered because the top issues manager might not always have the
autonomy necessary to make ethical decisions.
At Organization B, the senior public relations practitioner was a member of the
dominant coalition. The top issues manager had been with Organization B about
10 years and was a trusted decision maker and counsel to the CEO. Although the
organizational structure of Organization B was decentralized, the top issues man-
ager held an unquestionable amount of power over global issues management.
This executive noted that decision making was participatory and collaborative
throughout the organization and that “[telephone] calls outside of channels” were
encouraged. The participant emphasized, “We try to promote a culture that has ev-
erybody focused on enhancing our total reputation.”
This issues manager relayed many instances of counseling the CEO on ethical
dilemmas that had faced the organization and emphasized the executive’s role as a
decision maker in a collaborative process. The participant told of instances of
counsel to the dominant coalition on labor disputes, product tampering or failure,
activist pressure, latex allergy litigation, and fatal misuse of various products. The
second highest ranking public relations executive in Organization B also spoke of
an effective and collaborative relationship with the CEO, including frequent ac-
cess as needed.
The level of access to the dominant coalition at Organization B was sufficient
for public relations excellence (J. E. Grunig, 1992b), in that it had a voice in the
highest level of decision making. The organizational structure at Organization B
was sufficient to allow the public relations manager the autonomy necessary for
ethical decision making.
Prominence of Ethics in Issues Management
RQ 2: How prominently do issues managers consider ethics in their issues
management decision making?
Organization A has an unofficial ethics motto, whereas Organization B has an
officially adopted ethics statement to guide ethical decision making. Organization
A’s motto is an informal quote from the founder, reminding employees that the or-
ganization exists to help people live better, healthier lives, not just earn money
from its products. Organization A makes a judgment based on what the issue team
thinks is best for business, for patients, and for the company, usually without ex-
plicit discussion or analysis of ethics. There is no mention of ethical analysis in the
issues management model used at Organization A. One participant said, “We all
have a clear understanding of what the right thing to do means, so we don’t sit
around and ask ‘Is this ethical?’” Issues managers at Organization A made deci-
sions without careful consideration of ethics, because ethical analysis was not the
norm in issue meetings.
The intent of making an ethical decision is in the minds of the issues managers
at Organization A, but the rational analysis of ethics such a decision would call for
is not in place. One participant at Organization A explained:
I mean seriously, ethics is difficult for me to articulate. I don’t think I would have been
here as long as I was, from either from their perspective or my perspective, if there was-
n’t some shared understanding of ethics. But I don’t know that on a day-to-day basis, I
would really sit back and say, okay is this an ethical decision? How do I handle it?
Another issues manager at Organization A echoed the idea this way: “I don’t de-
liberate. I’m a big boy. I understand these issues and there’s only one way to do
things at [Organization A]. It’s the right way.” This issues manager had the in-
tention or morally good will called for in deontology. However, the executive
does not deliberate about what the right thing to do actually is, and so he could
make a hasty or ill-advised decision. Furthermore, publics and stakeholder inter-
ests are not being considered regularly in Organization A’s response to issues.
This research found little support in Organization A for a formal analysis of eth-
ical issue implications and a low level of desire to increase the prominence of eth-
ics in decision making. However, Organization A’s ethical consideration of
high-visibility issues illustrates that the issues managers know the important role
ethics can play in such decisions and that they have the capability of conducting a
formal ethical analysis if they had a model or guidelines to use.
Organization B’s level of ethical decision making is more analytical than that of
Organization A. Issues managers consider ethics prominently and consistently in
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 205
the issue decisions faced at Organization B. The organization has a formally
adopted ethics statement delineating the values through which employees should
make decisions. The multiparagraph statement spells out responsibilities in four
broad areas. The first responsibility referenced consumers, including patients,
doctors, nurses, suppliers, and distributors. The next focus was on employees and
maintaining open employee communication. The next broad responsibility high-
lighted community relations, taxes, and philanthropy. The final point referenced
responsibilities to stockholders, research, and development. Participants ex-
plained that these four broad areas are arranged in descending order to signify the
level of importance of each public to the organization. It is interesting that Organi-
zation B’s ethics statement did not include a responsibility to self. It is possible that
an ethical responsibility to the self is assumed in the section on employees, but that
duty is not explicitly defined.
In addition to the ethics statement, an advanced deontological model of ethical
decision making is used at Organization B to thoroughly analyze the ethics of a sit-
uation before arriving at a decision. The decision-making model is worded in lay
terms, but it is a sophisticated deontological model. Two forms of Kant’s categori-
cal imperative are represented in the model through the questions used to represent
duty, dignity and respect, and intention. However, there is no explicit challenge to
view the decision from the receiving end as there is in the practical model posed in
this article. Organization B spends time considering the issue in regard to its ethi-
cal ramifications, using the issue decision-making model, the priorities outlined in
its ethics statement, and debating the ethics of the options.
Participants in Organization B said that analysis of ethics was normally con-
ducted in issues-management meetings, and I observed such analyses in four
group issue meetings. Issues managers repeatedly turned to the ethics statement of
Organization B for guidance in their decision. Several team members in each
meeting mirrored the sentiments of one operating company president, who said,
“What would the ethics statement have us do?” The observed discussions evi-
denced a high level of ethics training and understanding, and the issues managers
were certain that deciding the issue ethically was their goal. I concluded that the is-
sues managers in Organization B considered ethics thoroughly and from a
deontological standpoint in their issues-management meetings. Consider the fol-
lowing explanation from an issues manager at Organization B:
Interviewer: Let me just ask you—in general—when you’re making an issues
management decision of some sort what role does ethics play in
that decision? Where does it come in?
Participant: It comes in right at the beginning. You know you want to do the
right thing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what that right thing
is because you don’t have much information but you want to try
to do the right thing because there’s customers, employees, com-
munities, all these groups out there that you have to think about
when these issues arise.
Participants stated that ethics was a prominent factor in the decision making at
Organization B, perhaps the most prominent factor in many instances. Illustrative
of the high priority of ethics in the decision-making process is one issues man-
ager’s argument: “My main consideration was always what’s the right solution.”
Ethics is a primary factor in both the individual and group decisions of issues man-
agers at Organization B.
Organization B produced and implemented a consistent and methodical way of
analyzing ethical issues, whereas Organization A has not yet embraced the impor-
tance of ethical analysis, except for issues of highest magnitude. At Organization
A, each issue is approached by individual ethical frameworks, depending on who
is managing the issue.
Ethical Frameworks: Deontology Versus Utilitarianism
RQ 3: Does the organization rely primarily on a conceptualization of ethics
based on utilitarianism or deontology?
Both organizations operate under the deontological intention of a morally good
will, or “doing the right thing.” At Organization A, ethics are of an individual na-
ture, meaning that each person uses his or her personal values to decide what is eth-
ical. Organization B’s approach to considering the ethics of each decision kept the
issues managers coherent with the organization’ goals and priorities as specified in
the deontological ethics statement.
Organization B is more well developed than Organization A in regard to the
conceptualization of ethics that issues managers use. Organization B has a unified
approach to ethics, and it is of a deontological perspective. Organization B’s
deontological ethics statement clarifies that making a morally sound decision is
more important than financial or other concerns. An issues manager elucidated:
It just really does come down to these discussions on what the ethics statement says
and what the ethics statement would have you do. These happen all the time. Now it’s
very, very often when one of these questions come up someone says, “you know, this
is an ethics statement question.” The statement says this is the way it has to be. And
that is what we try to aspire to.
The ethics statement is deontological because it commands perfect and imper-
fect duties to the publics and stakeholders around the organization, as well as sets
the priorities among those groups for the company. One issues manager made a
classic deontological statement: “Our first concern is always to do the right thing,
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 207
not about the consequences or what might happen, but just doing the morally right
thing.” Another elucidated, “When I dissect all of this I probably think first how
did this happen and why did this happen? What’s the right solution? You have to
stand by your convictions.”
Organization A uses many approaches to ethics, and none seems to predominate
because there is no organizational guidance, training, or codified values statement
regarding ethics. A 4-hr training seminar in ethics was, at the time of this research,
being designed for new employees, but that does not include all of the issues manag-
ers or older employees. One issues manager contended that “I don’t think we can
give any specific training for ethics because each situation is different.” Issues man-
agers in Organization A make individual ethical judgments in an effort to do the right
thing, but they conduct no formal analysis of ethical issues and have no guidelines
specifying the organization’s values. Another issues manager said “I didn’t have to
learn how to be honest. And not to cheat. All these things you learn as a kid.” Al-
though such statements reflect a moral intention of making ethical choices, they
show an uninformed attitude about the extent to which moral philosophy and ethical
deliberation can contribute to effective decision making. In contrast to the issues
managers at Organization B, none of the participants in Organization A exhibited a
familiaritywithmoralphilosophy or decision-making frameworksbasedonethics.
The majority of issues managers at Organization A prefer a deontological ap-
proach, but views of ethics within the organization are mixed. One issues manager
at Organization A identified with the intentions and duty of deontology and
critiqued the weakness of utilitarianism’s reliance on consequences:
I don’t think you know the consequences. See it’s funny because you can’t predict the
outcomes. I find that with the media too. You can have … are your intentions correct,
is your position correct, and the outcomes and the consequences are unknown. Some-
times you hope you can predict them and when you are right, great. But there are many
times when you just can’t so you have to focus on what’s the right thing to do and let
the outcomes be secondary.
Another issues manager concurred: “The bottom line is, you always do the
Organization A’s head public relations executive used a utilitarian approach,
mixed with legalistic and deontological frameworks. In addition, the person to
whom the highest ranking public relations person reported was the corporate eth-
ics officer—an attorney who uses a legalistic approach to ethics. One issues man-
ager said “Well, I think another good test for ethics is sometimes we talk to the
lawyers.” A shortcoming of this approach is that what is legal does not define or
necessarily indicate what is ethical.
Even though Organization A intends to use a deontological approach of “doing
the right thing,” as opposed to the utilitarian goals of serving the greatest good or
creating the greatest happiness, there is no framework for analysis in place to help
managers discover what the right thing might be. Having a disjointed approach to
ethics is problematic, as seen in this statement from a participant: “It’s funny be-
cause I don’t ever feel as if I grapple with ethics. It’s not even … you know, it does-
n’t come to mind.”
One participant explained that she held a deontological ethical framework but
did not know how to use that framework to logically analyze the ethics of issues: “I
think it’s almost instinctive. You either know the right thing or you don’t.” Issues
managers at Organization A appear to infer that there is something inherently
weak in deliberating the ethical implications of a decision, as if they have to auto-
matically know the right thing to do or they are not moral people. This aspect of the
organizational culture can be counterproductive in that it leads to rash decision
making and then having to solve the problems such an approach might engender.
Combining deontology and utilitarianism in different situations, and connect-
ing a reliance on individual judgments or legal norms, invites confusion. This ap-
proach to ethics leaves no single approach as the clear or safe choice for issues
managers. Mixing paradigms to this extent might lead to confusion for both inter-
nal and external publics. Such an approach could also lead to Organization A gain-
ing a reputation as an unpredictable or unreliable company. Although the issues
managers try to make ethical decisions, that cannot be assured because of the in-
consistent consideration given to ethics and the lack of formal ethical analysis on a
majority of issues.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
The practical model posed in this article was tested successfully in an empirical set-
ting. It does represent the general flow of the issues-management process in the par-
ticipating organizations. The model captures the deontological paradigm of the is-
sues managers and elucidates further deontological considerations for issue
analysis. The ethical-consideration triangle brings to light many publics and stake-
holdersforconsiderationin the decision, andexcellencetheory(J. E. Grunig, 1992b)
is incorporated in the symmetrical communication represented in the model.
Issues managers need a consistent and reliable guide to ethical decision making
for use in issues management. To serve that need, the normative model (Bowen,
2000, 2004) was reworded for practical use. The practical model necessarily as-
sumes that an issue is identified as the condition that leads the issues manager to
the model and that the organization is approaching the issue decision making from
a deontological perspective of using universal moral principles, rather than using
consequentialist philosophy, such as utilitarianism, to decide the issue.
Minor revisions to the practical model were made according to the empirical
study findings, and they were incorporated into Figure 1. The senior public rela-
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 209
tions practitioner at Organization A provided feedback on the need for simplifica-
tion of the model and the requirement of a clear flow from item to item. The items
were simplified, and the use of brackets was added. Changes were made to repre-
sent the model as a flow chart that is easy to follow; for example, “Start here” was
added at the beginning of the model.
One issues manager suggested that more lay terms be included in addition to the
philosophical terminology in the model, and those were added. The model was
also made more accommodating by phrasing each of the requirements of Kantian
theory as questions the issues manager can pose. For instance, to fulfill the require-
ment of autonomy, the issues manager poses the questions: “Am I acting from the
basis of reason alone?” (ensuring rationality) and “Can I rule out political influ-
ence, monetary influence, and pure self-interest as subjective norms that might in-
fluence my behavior?” (eliminating bias).
Role of the Research Questions
The practical model integrated the issues-management structures at Organiza-
tions A and B by allowing for both individual and group consensus decision
making. The research question examining the structure of issues management in
the organization allowed me to ensure that the type of decision making actually
used would be symbiotic with the practical model posed here. If the issues man-
ager is autonomous, then he or she can make the decision or use a group consen-
sus decision involving an issues-management team. If the issues manager is sub-
jective, then a group consensus decision must be used.
The second research question explored the extent to which ethics was a deci-
sion-making consideration in the issues management of participating organizations.
The disparity of findings between Organizations A and B proved significant. The
use of an ethical analysis model at Organization B allowed an in-depth analysis of
decisions that can lead to more effective and enduring solutions. Ethical analysis
was encouraged as a part of the issues-management process at Organization B.
Organization A did not consider ethics explicitly in its issues management, un-
less the issue had progressed on to a visible crisis. Furthermore, there was a lack of
ethical codification in the organization that led to individuals making decisions
based on situational ethics and personal value systems rather than a unified organi-
zational approach to ethics. One can conclude that a rational and consistent ap-
proach to ethics would be preferable because it helps to maintain trust and build
ongoing relationships with publics.
The third research question was designed to ensure that a model based on
Kantian deontology was appropriate for use in the participating organizations.
Empirical study confirmed that both organizations were deontological in nature.
Organization B had formalized its belief system in a deontological ethics state-
ment. Issues managers in Organization B explained that they believed their moral
duty was to do what was right despite the consequences of the decision. Organiza-
tion A did not have a formal ethics statement, but the preference among issues
managers was a deontological approach. Although some issues managers in Orga-
nization A mentioned utilitarian concepts, the overarching yet unofficial motto
was to “do the right thing.” Therefore, a deontological decision-making paradigm
as posed in this article is appropriate for use in both participating pharmaceutical
firms. It is likely that many other organizations, in the pharmaceutical industry as
well as other industries, are primarily deontological and could adopt this practical
model for ethical issues management.
Limitations and Recommendations for Future Research
This research developed a model for practical ethical decision making and tested
and refined that model at two global organizations. The organizations participat-
ing in this research were large, employing tens of thousands, and both were
based in the United States. These considerations could affect whether and how
the model could be applied to smaller organizations or those headquartered in
other countries. For instance, smaller organizations might not be as equipped to
devote the time and resources necessary to conduct a thorough ethical analysis.
Organizations headquartered in countries without a Judeo–Christian ethical basis
(De George, 1999) might find implementing the model difficult. A particular
challenge could come in trying to apply the model in collectivist societies, such
as China because of its reliance on individual autonomy. Therefore, future re-
search should test this model in non-Western businesses before attempting to
implement in such organizations.
Furthermore, the sample studied in this research could influence the outcome of
this study because of a volunteer bias in the two participating organizations. These
two organizations hold ethics in high regard and desire to be ethical corporations.
Because the organizations that agreed to participate are generally reputed to be the
two most ethical in the pharmaceutical industry, one can assume that the partici-
pants felt little if any fear of taking part in this study. Caution should be exercised
when extending the findings presented here to organizations with different ethical
decision-making structures or less emphasis on ethics. This comparative case
study is a study of exemplars rather than being generalizable across an industry.
The organizations that chose not to participate in this study might have declined
because of trepidation about a researcher scrutinizing their ethics. One organiza-
tion, so closed in structure that I could not ascertain the name of anyone in the pub-
lic relations department, did not allow me to be connected with that department by
telephone. Studying such an organization surely would provide counterpoints to
much of the data in this study. Organizations with an asymmetrical world view are
PRACTICAL MODEL FOR ETHICAL DECISION MAKING 211
closed and resistant to change; by not allowing access, they reinforce their status
quo. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the organizations in greatest need of ethical coun-
sel that chose not to participate in this research. Future research should include or-
ganizations that are less than exemplary in ethics, whose organizational cultures
do not value ethics as central to the organization, or who place little emphasis on
ethics in decision making.
Why Should Organizations Use This Practical Model?
Issues managers must integrate business decisions with ethics. To remain viable,
businesses require decisions to be made, issue policies to be determined, and is-
sues to be resolved. Issues managers are charged with the responsibility of ana-
lyzing issues and making the correct decisions. In the terms of many participants
in this study, options are not black or white, but gray. The practical model al-
lows issues managers to conduct a thorough, systematic analysis of the ethical
aspects of a decision and to understand that decision, and its ramifications, from
a multiplicity of perspectives. Regardless of which ethical paradigm is imple-
mented, conducting a rigorous and methodical analysis of ethical decisions en-
sures that a more sound decision is made than if an informal approach to ethics
had been used. Perhaps the larger question is whether an organization has a for-
mal ethics program in place—complete with a decision-making model and eth-
ics training for managers.
Most managers have little training in ethical analysis or decision making
(Bowen, 2002). All issues managers bring a set of personal values they normally
apply to the ethical part of a decision and therefore believe they have addressed the
ethical issue. However, using individual values as a guide to organizational deci-
sion making is problematic. Such decision making undoubtedly leads to an incon-
sistent organizational approach to ethics and endangers the reputation of the
organization as a reliably ethical company. The component of a rational analysis of
ethical dilemmas is often lost when using individual ethical frameworks.
The lack of a rational and systematic analysis might leave unconsidered in the
decision any number of groups from the ethical consideration triangle (see second
half of Figure 1) of self, publics, stakeholders, organization, and society. Issues
managers basing decisions on individual values also could omit viewing the deci-
sion from the perspective of any of these groups because an individual-values
method does not require the decision maker to do so. Issues managers using the in-
dividual-values approach to ethical decision making should pose the questions:
“Are we as a company being consistent in applying ethics to a decision? Are we
addressing all the ethical issues inherent in a decision?”
Symmetrical public relations is an intrinsic component of the practical model.
Dialogue between the organization and the groups in the ethical-consideration tri-
angle can construct more enduring solutions to ethical issues than the organization
might be able to construct alone. An issues manager at Organization A explicated
why considering the ideas of publics is important:
And it strikes me that when you make decisions you consider what the right thing is
across many different audiences. And imbedded within that is the recognition that any
decision that you make is a balancing of interests. The quality of the decision that you
come up with is almost always better.
Such dialogue and collaboration often lead to mutually beneficial solutions,
such as Organization A using bovine corneas from animals already used for food
purposes to test an eye medication. These corneas were cheaper and more consci-
onable for Organization A, and animal rights activists could live with the decision
because it meant no additional cows were to die for testing that drug. The symmet-
rical model is of great importance because it allows issues managers to gain
knowledge of the issue from a perspective outside the organization and to incorpo-
rate that knowledge in its decision making. Philosophers (Baron, 1995; Habermas,
1984, 1987; Kant, 1785/1964) have agreed that dialogue is an inherently ethical
form of communication.
The deontological branch of ethics argues “Do what duty indicates is ethically
right.” A decision using a deontological paradigm is potentially more complex
than one based on utilitarianism, wherein the philosophy directs a clear path of
serving the self or the good of the greatest number. Deontology is based on the
moral agency of the individual, and that aspect of the theory confers a great re-
sponsibility on the individual issues manager. With that responsibility comes a
need to rationally and thoroughly consider the ethics of issues, and this practical
model of ethical issues management provides a sound basis for that analysis.
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