Shannon Bowen


Shannon Bowen is an associate professor in public relations (PR) at the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University.[1] She teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in PR theory, ethics and issues management.[2] She has written extensively on the application of Kantian philosophy (deontological, duty-based ethics) to PR theory and practice. Her PhD dissertation on this subject (University of Maryland, 2000) won the 2000-2002 ICA Public Relations Division Outstanding Dissertation Award.[3]

The case for Kantian Philosophy

Bowen argues for a systematic and consistent model for ethical decision making in PR and proposes Kantian philosophy because of its rational, symmetrical and objective approach.[4] According to Bowen, consequential theories (see Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism) have limited usefulness in PR: they argue for actions that support the majority even at the expense of the minority, and require practitioners to predict every consequence, which is unrealistic and risky. Other ethical approaches such as the potter box, while systematic, ignore one’s intention (e.g. morally good will) which means impure intentions can be justified.[5] Furthermore, Bowen argues that professional codes of ethics don’t provide objectivity and guidance for PR practitioners.[6]

Alternatively, Kantian ethics provide a rational, objective and consistent approach for ethical decisions by focusing on the role of autonomy, duty and the categorical imperative. An ethical action must respect principles of universality (it can be applied broadly), humanity (it treats individuals with respect and does not use them), and autonomy.[7] Bowen indicates deontology’s focus on autonomy, intent and objectivity can help PR practitioners to act as ethical counsel for organizations.[8]

Contributions to PR Practice

Bowen proposed a normative model applying Kantian moral philosophy to principles of excellence in PR (see two-way symmetrical communication).[9] The model, which Bowen tested empirically,[10] guides practitioners to consider the following:
  • individual and organizational values
  • issue identification and contemplation
  • decision-making autonomy
  • principles of duty, intention and moral good will (Bowen calls this the ethical consideration triangle)
  • symmetrical communication
Her research provides growing evidence to support a universal Kantian-PR ethical approach emphasizing rationality, good will and decision-making autonomy. In one qualitative study Bowen found that PR practitioners act as ethical counsel however they disagree about the role of PR in ethical decisions as well as what ethical approach is appropriate.[11] Bowen is among scholars[12] who call for ethics to be part of PR education and ongoing practice.[13] She has found that managers who have a deeper understanding of ethical study were better equipped to make ethical decisions; those managers valued at the decision-making table were better able to act autonomously to advise on decisions.[14]

Criticisms

While there are no direct critiques of Bowen’s work, a PR-Kantian approach is not without criticism. Kant has been critiqued for grounding moral assessment in rationality and, unlike utilitarianism, ignoring other aspects of human nature as well as the consequences of decisions.[15]

Such issues are problematic for PR. Bowen herself identifies challenges of Kant’s application to PR[16]:
  • Autonomous decision making is fundamental to the model Bowen proposes, however practitioners may not have access to the decision-making table
  • Practitioners have many loyalties (e.g. to clients, employer, self, media), and these may come into conflict with each other.[17]Following Kantian principles, the loyalty to do ‘what is right for all’ must override all other interests but this may be easier said than done.
PR practitioners argue the field is too diverse, client-focused and time-sensitive for deontological ethics.[18] The absolute nature of Kantian ethics fails to consider the possibility of job loss for acting contrary to organizational interest as well as the positive contributions practitioners could make if they weathered the storm. [19]

Other contributions

Bowen’s work has been published in a number of journals such as Journal of Public Affairs, Public Relations Review and Journal of Public Relations Research. Bowen was editorial advisor for Sage Encyclopedia of Public Relations, and she currently sits on several Institute for Public Relations (IPR)advisory boards.[20]

Further reading:

List of Bowen’s publications
Follow Bowen on twitter

[1] S.I. Newhouse School of Communication Faculty and Staff. (2010). Shannon A. Bowen Biography. Retrieved from http://newhouse.syr.edu/Faculty_Staff/Bio/index.cfm?id=267
[2] Ibid.
[3] Bowen, S. A. (2002). Elite executives in issues management: The role of ethical paradigms in decision making. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Affairs, 2(4), 270-283. doi: 10.1002/pa.119
[4] Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Kant, I. (1785). Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals. In A.W. Wood (Ed.), Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals (1-79). London: Yale University Press. (Original work published 1785).
[8] Bowen, S. A. (2008). A state of neglect: Public relations as ‘corporate conscience’ or ethics counsel. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 20, 271-296. doi:10.1080/1062726801962749.
[9] Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3
[10] Bowen, S. A. (2005). A practical model for ethical decision making in issues management and public relations. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(3), 191-216. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1703_1
[11] Bowen, S. A. (2008). A state of neglect: Public relations as ‘corporate conscience’ or ethics counsel. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 20, 271-296. doi:10.1080/1062726801962749.
[12] See Thomas Bivins.
Bivins, T. H. (1989). Are public relations texts covering ethics adequately? [Electronic version]. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 4(1), 39-52. doi:10.1080/08900528909358331
[13] Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3
[14] Bowen, S. A. (2002). Elite executives in issues management: The role of ethical paradigms in decision making. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Affairs, 2(4), 270-283. doi: 10.1002/pa.119; Bowen, S. A. (2005). A practical model for ethical decision making in issues management and public relations. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 17(3), 191-216. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1703_1
[15] Waluchow, W. (2003). The dimensions of ethics: An introduction to ethical theory. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
[16] Bowen, S. A. (2004). Expansion of ethics as the tenth generic principle of public relations excellence: A Kantian theory and model for managing ethical issues. [Electronic version]. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(1), 65-92. doi:10.1207/s1532754xjprr1601_3
[17] Ibid.
Parsons, P. J. (2004). Ethics in public relations: A guide to best practice. London, UK: Kogan Page Limited. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=ARRDoLW641sC&lpg=PP1&ots=bpP5ojpmoR&dq=ethics%20in%20public%20relations%2C%20parsons&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false
[18] Place, K. R. (2010). A qualitative examination of public relations practitioner ethical decision making and the deontological theory of ethical issues management. [Electronic version]. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 25(3), 226-245. doi:10.1080/08900523.2010.497405
[19] Ibid. Curtin, P. A., & Boynton, L. A. (2001). Ethics in public relations: Theory and practice. In R. L. Heath (Ed.)., Handbook of Public Relations (pp. 411-421). Thousand Oak, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.
[20] S.I. Newhouse School of Communication Faculty and Staff. (2010). Shannon A. Bowen Biography. Retrieved from http://newhouse.syr.edu/Faculty_Staff/Bio/index.cfm?id=267