Laura Petrolino

Ethical Decision Making: The Communicator’s Responsibility

By: Laura Petrolino | February 21, 2020 | 
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Ethical Decision Making: The Communicator's ResponsibilityEthics and communications are like peanut butter and jelly.

Both complement each other and make the other better when they work together. 

As communicators, ethical decision making is something we face internally with our organizations and externally with clients. 

As leaders, making sure our teams maintain consistent ethical standards is crucial. But definitely not easy.

When it comes to ethical decisions (and/or the communication to expose or cover them up), we are often where the buck stops in a business. 

These are all big responsibilities and we deal with them on a pretty regular basis. 

Why Do People Think Communicators Are Unethical?

On Wednesday, Martin Waxman wrote a great article looking at the ethical practices and relationships between communicators and journalists.

He starts it with a show stopping stat:

According to a 2018 USC Annenberg School of Communications study, 57% of the U.S. general public viewed PR as either “somewhat” (48%) or “very unethical” (9%). 

That hurts.

And honestly, that perception is part of the reason why this little blog is called SPIN Sucks.

And is dedicated to changing the perception of PR, from the inside out. 

As Jennifer Phillips points out:

A common ethics situation for communicators is being asked to put out not completely truthful information (which gives the entire profession a bad name). 

Most of us do our best to live and work in a way that draws a strong ethical line in the sand.

But we are often also pushed into grey areas.

And we end up dealing with many issues that question what those ethical standards are. 

What Is Ethical Decision Making?

When I asked our community of experts to discuss the many ethical issues communicators face, the first question I got was “can you define ethics?”

Fine, fine…this is what happens with you connect with so many smarty-pants communicators.

So for the purpose of this article, we define ethical decision making as your efforts to make choices that do the most good and the least harm. 

But this IS an important question because, as Christopher Penn points out:

Once you’ve settled on what ethics means, then you can dig into whether or not your company’s standards are ethical.

So while I’m using one definition, I encourage all of you to evaluate what ethics means for you and your organization.

And then make sure everyone else in the company is on the same page. 

The Biggest Ethical Issues Communicators Face 

Communicators face many types of scenarios where ethical decision making is necessary including issues around:

  • Transparency
  • Disclosure
  • Honesty
  • Exaggeration
  • Misrepresentation

Many of these represent the same side of a different coin.

And they all are very real and omnipresent in our lives. 

The Multiple Shades of Truth

What do all of these things have in common? They all gather around the fuzzy concept of truth. 

Mary Barber explains:

The most common ethical plights result from people not telling the truth. But what does that really mean? I can be lying, but it can also mean withholding or not disclosing information that’s important. 

Here’s where the grey areas come in, right?

Is it lying if it’s omitted? Is the absence of truth a lie? 

And that’s when we come back to the importance of defining what ethical decision making looks like for you.

If you have a firm grasp of the ethical parameters you’ve built into your relationships—with employees, customers, and community—then the answer to “is the absence of truth a lie” is an easy one. 

Transparency and Disclosure

Transparency and disclosure have always been tricky issues for communicators.

And the digital, data-sourced world we live in has only made it more difficult. 

Chip Griffin mentioned all the ethical dilemmas we face when it comes to disclosure around influencers and third parties. 

(Learn more in this article about influencers and this one on FTC Guidelines.)

Susan Stoga noted the often murky area between legal and PR:

Not releasing information when you think it should be, or dealing with clients who are not disclosing info (usually on the advice of legal counsel). While not technically untruthful, there are ethical lines that I’ve seen companies come dangerously close to crossing.

Katie Robbert emphasized the struggles around data collection, transparency, and disclosure:

The feeling is that most companies aren’t being super transparent or clear about their data collection activities. The fear being that if people knew what was really happening they would opt out and businesses would have to figure something else out. TL;DR—companies aren’t being super ethical about customer data collection.

Katie and Christopher Penn reviewed this issue in their recent podcast episode about ethical data collection. Add it to your line-up. 

And Heather Feimster gave the example of this great art installation which shows the absurdity of the “terms and conditions” of certain platforms.

As Heather explained:

It’s obviously not designed for transparency and understanding on the part of the user. It’s only a legal checkbox for the platform.

Legal checkboxing is normally a red flag for times when ethical decision making is needed. 

Misrepresentation and Exaggeration

Some aspects of ethical decision making are what give us the title “spin doctor”. 

As Travis Claytor points out, one of the most common ethical fights is the “battle between sensational vs. reality. For instance, how do you make your product/service sound amazing, but stay truthful to the purpose it serves and real benefit it delivers to your customers?”

Heather Feimster adds:

Whether it’s writing headlines, making sweeping generalizations, or sensational statements, exaggeration blurs the lines of truth and can ultimately undermine trust.

We’ve been asked by clients to do things that misrepresented situations or even pretend to be other people in order to get what clients wanted. 

I’m sure every communicator has faced similar situations many times. 

The nice thing about running a business called Spin Sucks is clients know what they are getting into when they sign-up.

You can’t choose to work with a firm that built its reputation and business around ethical and honest operations, ask them to do the opposite and then get mad when they say no. 

(Well, you can I guess, but a part of you knows it’s absurd.)

Misrepresentation Example: PR Surveys

One great example of the catch-22 scenario marketers often face is the structure of a PR survey. 

Say a team puts out a survey with the assumption about results hoping they can take the “data” and use it to promote their product and/or service. 

Maybe they write questions in a way that pushes answers to fall in line with their goals.

Or maybe the data doesn’t come back as they wanted so they loosely interpret it to fit into the headline or story they had already crafted.

Is that unethical? 

It Depends…

It depends on how your company defines ethics.

I say yes, but what do you say? 

The sad part is the actual story, the authentic one that didn’t follow the planned script, is always more interesting.

But as Katie Robbert points out on a discussion on the Trust Insights podcast:

A lot of times marketers aren’t given time to be curious. They’re given these outrageous demands saying, “I need results now. I need them yesterday.” So there’s no time to do that research. It does take some planning and it does take some buy in to say, “we can get to the answer, we get to the better answer but you have to give us time to do it.” And I think those are the conversations that are not being had and or not being heard.

How Do You Build an Ethical Culture?

So how do we build a culture which prioritizes ethical decision making?

These three main factors are crucial:

  • Company culture
  • Client communication 
  • Personal responsibility

Company Culture Is Key

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to interview James Balassone about ethical decision making in business.

At the time James was executive in residence at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

A great resource for every professional when thinking about ethical decision making in business. 

(Jim has since passed away. He left a legacy of applied ethics and I feel so honored to have had the opportunity to discuss them with him.)

He believed the categorization of “bad guys vs. good guys” is one of the biggest ethical decision making obstacles in business:

We want to believe in bad guys because that way we don’t have to worry about bad systems or bad organizations.

Balassone mentioned the work of psychologist Phil Zimbardo, who highlighted the danger of this belief through his famous Stanford Prison Experiment.

The experiment looked at the power of social situations to distort values, morals, and even personal identities.

You can read more about my discussion with Balassone and the effect of unethical organizations and environments on our personal ethical choices here —> Ethical Decisions.

Long story short: All the research on applied ethics points to one thing: culture matters. 

Culture Matters and Here’s Your Role

Mary Barber explains perfectly:

As an employer, it’s critical we make sure our employees/team members understand that we believe it’s important to always tell the whole truth and that we will back them up. This is because, especially less experienced team members, may not be as comfortable telling a client or senior person when they believe they’re being asked to do something unethical. On the surface, it’s pretty easy to say and do, but when it comes right down to it and you’re worried your job might be on the line, it can be hard to stand up for what’s right.

Sometimes the Ethical Choice to Walk Away

Christopher Penn adds:

If you are an unethical company, you will use data in unethical ways. If you are an ethical company, you will use data and ethical ways and that’s something you can’t fix with technology. That’s something you can’t even fix with process. That comes down to the people that you hired, the people who you work for and with. If you work at a company that you have an ethical conflict with, it might be time to start updating your LinkedIn profile because if you’re being asked to do things that are unethical, in an unethical organization, you have two choices: either comply or lose your job. If you care about ethics and values, you’re better off moving.

An Opportunity to Be a Changemaker

But as Sarah Kiriliuk points out, in the right situations we an actual hold the reigns to motivate change in a more ethical direction: 

At the C-suite level, decisions are made about ethical sourcing, labor, etc. that are operational in nature and can be unethical. Communicators as trusted advisors need to be able to foresee ethical issues before they even happen and use public relations data to back up their POV.

TL;DR on Culture

Leaders: make sure your people know you have their back. They need to know which ethical values your company stands by and that when put in question, you’ll support their ethical decisions. Every time. 

Employees: If you are asked to make choices that don’t align with your ethical values and you are not supported by leadership, it is better in the long run if you move on. 

Client Communication Drives Ethical Decision Making

Some people are simply unethical.

They are out for themselves and their wins only and don’t consider the cost to anyone else.

Others simply don’t think scenarios through or understand how some of the issues around disclosure or misrepresentation work. 

This is can often be true with clients.

There have been times a client has asked us to do something and I stepped back and (without judgment) explained why it wasn’t ethical.

They’ve blushed a bit, apologized, and moved on.

Most people want to make choices that are ethical, they just don’t think.

Our job is to tell clients no when they try to do something we know crosses an ethical boundary. 

If you have a hard time telling clients no, I’ve written about that here: Tough Love in Successful Client Service Relationships

And dug into the art of client negotiation here: Client Service Negotiations.

Both will be helpful. 

Always remember, clients hire us to be the experts not bow to their every demand. This includes ethical decisions. 

Personal Responsibility: The Ethical Choices You Control

In the end, what you do professionally comes down to your personal responsibility.

Where do you draw the line? What feels right, in your gut?

As you grow as a professional, you should also work to improve your ethical barometer.

Your mindfulness around ethical decisions.

I know I’m much more thoughtful now than I was when I was 20.

Not because I’m a better human, just a more mindful one.

And I’m able to look at things from a longer-term lens. 

Your Guiding Principles For Ethical Decision Making

Here’s how Travis Claytor sets his barometer and I think it’s a good template for us all:

  • Stay true to your brand, your mission, and your stakeholders. It’s easy to get lost in the tactics and achieving short term goals, but if you keep all of this at the center of your efforts, and approach it through building meaningful relationships, you’ll keep yourself on the right track.
  • What would you think if YOU were the customer—always ask yourself that question if you’re even in doubt about how you’re approaching the situation. Also, if you have to ask yourself, “Is this ethical”, you may already have a problem on your hands.
  • Speak the truth. As communicators, we find ways to present our information in an appealing way, but what does the information tell us? Can we back up our claims? Whether you’re presenting to a CEO or your team, use the facts as your baseline and don’t stray as you’re creating your materials.

Remember the Golden Rule

Tony Gnau uses the Golden Rule:

It might sound old fashioned, but one of our core values is to treat others the way you would want to be treated. When you live life and do business that way, the answers to most ethical problems usually present themselves.

How about you?

What are the ethical tenants you use to guide your ethical decision making?

What would you recommend to other communications pros facing ethical choices and areas of grey?

Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is chief marketing officer for Spin Sucks, an integrated marketing communications firm that provides strategic counsel and professional development for in-house and agency communications teams. She is a weekly contributor for their award-winning blog of the same name. Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.