Over the weekend, I had dinner with friends and the talk turned to the ethics of public relations. Their son is in grade 10 and he wants to be a journalist, so we often have discussions about public relations, journalism and the shift that both fields are going through right now. We got onto the topic of the importance of ethics in a person’s life. Then it turned to what happens when an organization has an issue – how they are able to be ethical and manage their reputation.
The values of an organization and the ethics of the senior team are key drivers in how the organization does business. Having solid values and ethics doesn’t mean that they will never face an issue or a crisis, but it does mean that they will likely deal with it in a respectful, productive, transparent manner. As a communicator, our role is to communicate internally and externally about what is being done. Often, we are brought into the planning because we can provide the perspective of stakeholders and ask the tough questions that need to be asked.
I have been at planning sessions and at the senior table during quite a few issues and crisis situations. For the most part, the CEO/president and senior team usually want to do the right thing. They often have multiple priorities and stakeholders that they need to satisfy and sometimes that can make their response seem unclear or even suspicious to an outside observer.
Most people only view events and actions from their own perspective – from a “what’s in it for me” lens. That’s where strategic communication comes in. Explaining what happened, why it happened and how the organization and the people are going to make it right and make sure it doesn’t happen again is more complex than it seems. The messages also need to be clear and delivered in a manner that communicates the values of the organization.
Often this happens in a stressful, challenging environment where emotions are running high. Taking the high road isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but it is the right thing to do. Often, as a communicator, it is our role to explain how something might be perceived and to provide solutions on how it could be more effectively done or communicated to make sure the risk of misunderstanding or misperception is minimized.
Good PR is ethical. It is important to be truthful. Sometimes, depending on the situation, that might mean saying: “I can’t speak to that right now.” We don’t misrepresent information or the facts. We don’t cut corners. There is a standard that we, as communicators, must uphold. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t strategic or that you don’t have a plan in place to manage your organization’s reputation or to mitigate the damage. It means you don’t do anything unethical or dishonest. You don’t hide things and you don’t lie.
I read a piece on the Huffington Post website this morning about a PR person who is reported to have misrepresented herself and it was pretty surprising. I don’t know the whole story of what really happened here. But I can tell you, I don’t know any communicator who would ever consider doing what this young woman did – either on their own or at the request of their agency or the client. It’s worth a read.
Our role, as the PR practitioner, is to help guide an organization to do the right thing. Better than anyone else in the room, we know how to read our audiences, anticipate their reactions, and explain how various actions will be perceived. Others in room may be persuaded by quarterly P&Ls, traditional methods of operating, short-term financing and tricky logistics. However, our eye is on the public.
Thanks for the comment, John. I agree – it is usually the communicators that best understand the values, motivation and perceptions of the organization’s stakeholders.
We are fortunate here at AHA to have clients that believe that communications is a senior level function and belongs in the organizational strategy planning stage as well as at the implementation level. Our focus is always on what is best for the organization, which comes from an authentic commitment to all stakeholders – internal and external, which of course includes the public.