Ethics matter – but do they matter enough?

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Ethics, Public Relations, Society, Trust

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Below is a piece I first posted on LinkedIn as part of Global Ethics Month – some food for thought, especially if your thinking how #ethicsmatter in your working life…

Amidst the clamour of competing public interests, opposing views and amplified opinions, whose ethics matter more – yours or mine? Whose news is fake – yours or mine? Who possesses the greater truth – you or me? If we shout loudly at each other for a sufficient length of time, will we successfully convince others of our ‘rightness’, or will we artfully wear them into jaded apathy, agreeing – or disagreeing – with one of us simply to secure respite from the noise?Even if you are in the business of news, information, stories and facts, I suspect you’ve turned off the streams in recent months or weeks to escape the outrage, the ugliness and the despair relentlessly pushed into our feeds.

Profit-and-power motivated click-baitery has almost reached its peak and, I suspect, its zenith approaches as we hurtle towards various national elections but, for now, we are still bombarded with the angry, with the hopeless, with the indiscernible truths, leaving us searching desperately for a dancing TikTok kitten to momentarily pause the pain. This churning, chaotic, challenging communication environment is fracturing relationships, reshaping societal landscapes and confusing everyday values – which means the conversation concerning how, when, where and why ethics matter is more complex than a hashtag share.As public relations professionals our job is to build and sustain the relationships that maintain our licence to operate.

Relationships are at the heart of what we do and those relationships are supported by effective communication, understanding and behaviour. Good relationships are founded on trust, mutual benefit and satisfaction, commitment and loyalty, reputation and understanding but if our behaviours are bad, our communications deceptive or our narrative misleading those relationships will be null and void. Unfortunately, today’s society is deeply polarised – in no small part due to the grotesque manifestations of leadership we’ve witnessed in the last few years. This polarisation has caused chasms of dissent, aerated by impenetrable bubbles of opinion hardened by the increasing atmospheric pressure of social noise. Our role isn’t to parrot or to amplify a polarising opinion. It is concerned with elevating ethical behaviour, communication and understanding so that the relationships critical to our licence to operate are founded on values that benefit society, our fellow employees, our communities of interest, our stakeholders and stake-seekers.

Here’s a challenge for you – list and prioritise the common, core values of the 21st century. What, in 2020, do we all agree is good behaviour? What constitutes transparency? What does the virtuous organisation do? Are values-based organisations actually values-driven or are they playing lip-service to concepts they think might be useful people-pleasing memes? Around the world there are many examples of stated values being disconnected from the lived experience of an organisation — so experiential communication is discordant and the wrong notes are struck. There might be a government that says it cares about flood victims but fails to convene the necessary emergency meetings to help those affected. There could be governing bodies that crow about a child’s right to life, yet imprison them at borders or leave them to grow up in squalor in ever-expanding refugee camps. Or there might even be companies that pledge money to global causes and charities but fail to pay their employees a living wage or provide decent working conditions. 

Actions speak louder than words and, in the fifteen years I’ve been writing and speaking specifically about the role of the practitioner as organisational conscience, in some cases, thankfully, actions have improved and we have seen organisations of all types begin to actively demonstrate and live their values rather than simply publish some aspirational waffle on their websites. But — and there is always a but — times change and one of the greatest changes has been in the way in which we use language. Instead of using language to develop relationships, understanding, shared meaning and improvement, be that improvement to society, productivity, sustainability, well-being, economy etc., language has been used (and abused) to create disharmony, discord and despair, again in no small part due to the destructive caricatures of leadership we have endured. 

This means as well as looking at our organisation’s actions, we must carefully consider and guide the language and tone used in all forms of communication. Question whether it articulates and demonstrates our values or whether we are demonstrating a disconnect between who we say we are, what we actually say and where we say it, be that in person, on Twitter, or the office front desk. How well, as an organisation, do we listen when we converse — or are we simply talking and sending out stuff? Language is critical – and the choices we make around the use of language are ethical choices forming part of our guardianship of our organisation’s integrity, character and reputation. In the many ethics, risk and reputation sessions I have facilitated, one question is always asked. “What if the organisation I work for continues to behave unethically, despite my very best attempts to advise otherwise and enact change”.

And that’s when ethics matter most – when they inform your own decision making and empower you to do the right thing. The stark choice for a practitioner may be accepting bad behaviour and, compromised, remain with the organisation or, walk out the door. Livelihoods jeopardised in this way throw choices into stark relief but, if we have a developed understanding of our own ethical self, the only choice is to leave and to be better for it. 

Many professional associations around the world have a code of ethics. Adhering to a code of ethics is often the main point of difference between professional practitioners and those who have decided to hang a sign outside their door to say they ‘do PR’. Many of those codes are based on Western philosophy and behaviours and neglect to include some essential components — for example the wisdom, philosophies and values of indigenous peoples. A failing yes, but at least the codes exist and form a starting point for practitioners — and my sincere hope is that global organisations will revisit their protocols with a multicultural and diverse eye rather than a dominant Western one as has tended to be the case.

There are many tools and processes out there designed to help practitioners build ethical behaviours into their strategy and planning – pyramids, question trees, issue boxes – there’s really quite the list. Part of our role is to help our organisations determine and enact their values, often arising as part of a change management or cultural change programme so we must equip ourselves so we can facilitate and provide good counsel.

As public relations professionals we are involved in some powerful undertakings and the choices we make, be they concerned with behaviour or language, all have consequences. Speak out or stay silent – yup, consequences. Push back, ‘speaking truth to power’, – again, consequences. 

Tim Marshall, PRINZ Life Member, expert practitioner and go-to ethics person here in New Zealand is often heard to say ‘public relations operates where issues collide’. I agree entirely and where issues collide, as practitioners, we need a strong sense of our ethical self in order to help our organisations navigate issues effectively and build ethical relationships that endure and are of mutual benefit.

We also need the one capability that I prize most among practitioners but which the one capability most often forgotten – courage. Courage doesn’t manifest itself when things are easy. Courage is found only when situations are hard. The Global Capabilities Framework provides us with a great steer as to how we can discover our ethical self — and it is easy.

Devote time to your own professional learning so you are equipped to meet the challenges ahead and develop the following professional capabilities as outlined in the framework:

To provide valued counsel and be a trusted advisor

To offer organisational leadership

To work within an ethical framework on behalf of the organisation, in line with professional and societal expectations

To develop self and others, including continuing professional learning

So yes, #ethicsmatter. They matter enough to be at the heart of all we do. In fact, our present and future profession depends on it.