Laura Petrolino

Professional Ethics and a Communicator’s Ethical Responsibility

By: Laura Petrolino | April 1, 2019 | 
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Professional Ethics and a Communicator's Ethical ResponsibilityImagine the following scenario.

You are the leader of a successful business.

You built a core of professional ethical practices into both the business’s mission statement and operations.

Decisions are made based on the triple bottom line concept.

Your board of directors believes profit isn’t measured in just dollars and cents.

They see the long-term investment of corporate citizenship.

The people who work for you and the consumers who buy from you do so because of this fabric of corporate social responsibility.

In many ways, your ethical business practices are as valuable to your business as your product or service.

Unfortunately, the company isn’t as profitable as it could or should be.

Although shareholders value your professional ethics, they want to invest in a maximally profitable business.

Then, a large conglomerate bids to buy you outright. Such a purchase would double your current stock prices.

Professional Ethics or Profit?

The board of directors of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream found themselves in this situation in early 2000.

As a company that pushed forward endless corporate social responsibility initiatives before it was cool, a sale like this was trickier than most.

A successful sale meant the Vermont based ice-cream maker surrendered control of the initiatives and operational practices that made up its mission and values structure.

A rejected sale shortchanged shareholders, to whom they had an equal duty to maximize profits.

If this case doesn’t call for a pint of Cherry Garcia with some fair trade sprinkles on top, I just don’t know what does?

In the end, the board felt its responsibility to shareholders needed to be upheld.

Unilever bought the company for $43.60 a share.

The Grey Area of Business Ethics

This case serves as an example of the stickier side of business ethics.

We often want to see things as black and white when it comes to corporate responsibility and “ethical” business practices.

Unfortunately, for every Enron or BP Oil Spill case, where choices and mistakes seem clear, there are 10 Ben & Jerry’s, where the area of grey is broad and deep.

Have Your Ice Cream and Professional Ethics Too

In the end Ben & Jerry’s was lucky.

Unilever saw their CSR practices as good for business and kept them as part of the company’s core.

They hired a talented CEO, who worked tirelessly to ingrain himself in the unique Ben & Jerry culture.

Instead of trying to change Ben & Jerry’s, he worked within their moral framework and values to make necessary changes to improve profitability.

This isn’t always the case.

Many companies founded in triple bottom line principles find themselves being purchased by larger corporations.

Organizations who might respect their company values, but not enough to let them hinder profitability.

Chipotle is a great examples of the later.

I highly recommend Bloomberg’s Chipotle chronology and the “How I Built This” with Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ellis for really interesting views of that relationship.

Responsibilities of Business Owners

It is a myth directors are legally required to put profits first as part of their relationship with shareholders.

But most justifiably believe they must do so.

The Journal of Ethics interviewed 34 directors, all of whom had served on an average of six Fortune 200 boards.

Thirty-one of them said:“They’d cut down a mature forest or release a dangerous, unregulated toxin into the environment in order to increase profits. Whatever they could legally do to maximize shareholder wealth, they believed it was their duty to do.” (Read the full HBR article on this topic).

As an altruistic Aquarian soul (and avid environmentalist), that stat absolutely blew my mind.

Sad and scary.

Every business leader deals with professional ethics, in big ways and small.

You might not be a multibillion dollar or public company.

Communications professionals are tasked with ethical responsibilities due to our role in communicating, translating, and distributing information:

  • It might be in choices you make with clients.
  • Employee conduct.
  • Authenticity in messaging or tactics.
  • Or a variety of other issues that pop-up in unexpected places and ways.

Challenge Yourself to Be Ethical

Professional ethics isn’t just a defensive game.

It can also be an offensive, proactive one.

And that’s a role we are extremely lucky to be able to play as communications pros.

We can (and should) do this internally:

  • Through the culture and team of our organization.

And externally:

  • Through the people we choose to work with
  • Our roles as mentors for other communications professionals.

Choose Your Clients Based on Your Values

One of the first things we have our clients do as we work with them to build or grow their communications businesses is outline in VERY clear detail who they will and will not work with.

Support the people and companies who support your values.

As communicators, we can help organizations we believe in be successful.

Our strategies support their ability to effectively tell their story, build passionate communities around their missions (not just their products), and make their values a part of their success.

Likewise, as business leaders or agency owners, we can choose a team of people to work with who echo those values. Both in who they are and their actions.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to connect with the crew from RTBIQ.

It was clear from our first discussion they put their values at the very forefront of every decision they make.

This includes:

Professional Ethics for Communications Pros

Professional ethics is a crucial part of our job as communications leaders.

Mindfulness around how we approach and deal with ethical issues is important to keep at the forefront of how we operate.

As communicators, we have great power, which also means we have great responsibility <insert Spiderman cameo>.

How do you make ethical decisions and your values part of your daily work?

Image from the always awesome Pixabay

About Laura Petrolino


Laura Petrolino is the chief client officer at Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She also is a weekly contributor to the award-winning PR blog, Spin Sucks. Join the Spin Sucks   community.