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Millennials in PR don’t feel ready to give companies advice on moral dilemmas, study finds

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Millennials pursuing careers in public relations don’t feel ready to give advice on moral dilemmas to their companies. In fact, they don’t expect to face ethical dilemmas at work, according to a Baylor University study.

Millennials — generally identified as those born between 1981 and 2000 — are projected to make up one third to one half of the country’s workforce by 2025. They’ll shift from being “doers” to being “deciders” in businesses, and their ethical compass will set the course for subsequent generations of PR professionals, said study author Marlene Neill, Ph.D., assistant professor of journalism, public relations and new media at Baylor.

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

The national study — “Silent & Unprepared: Most Millennial Practitioners Have Not Embraced Role as Ethical Conscience” — is published in the journal Public Relations Review.

Researchers surveyed 217 Millennial members of the Public Relations Society of America. Respondents’ average age was 25, with an average of fewer than three years’ experience in PR.

Researchers found that helpful preparation for Millennials included ethics training in college, workplace training, training through professional associations and mentoring by someone inside or outside their organizations.

But while the majority (74 percent) had received ethics training in college, most had not received training through the workplace or through a professional organization.

Besides lacking confidence, most appear to be overly optimistic that they won’t 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, Neill said.

When respondents were asked what ethical issues they had faced or were most likely to face, 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 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,” Neill said. “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.

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

Neill recommended that ethics courses be required to ready Millennials for a PR career; that ethics training be given in the workplace; that senior practitioners share personal experiences on ethical issues, and that Millennial practitioners seek mentors both inside and outside their organizations, Neill said.

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