Guest Post by John Friedman
It is a difficult time to be a professional communicator. Trust and credibility are two of the attributes that we rely upon to do our jobs.
However, today, accusations of falsehood and deliberate deception are eroding trust in our profession by both those stakeholders we need to do our jobs as well as those we hope to engage in order to provide the maximum value to our companies, organizations or clients.
The continuum between full transparency and “spin” (as it is charitably called) is one we must navigate, and we must do it well.
Fortunately, there are tools and allies to help us.
The question of ethics is one that seems simple, but can become quite complex. Certainly, there are legal ethics, and there are parameters and guidelines that are encoded in law that must be followed. That is why one of the most valuable partners in professional communications is the legal department. Working with them to ensure that concerns about revealing proprietary information while maximizing transparency is essential. The relationship between the two is often dynamic but it need not be contentious. Establishing trust and a working relationship is important – so that when issues do crop up you have a foundation on which to work together.
Another key partner is human resources, because they have the responsibility for attracting, hiring, retaining and engaging your colleagues. Again, they benefit from a positive reputation that is only facilitated by sharing your story; including your culture and workplace values.
Years ago – at an organization that I will not name – I was directed to “steer” an award selection committee to choosing a specific person. I was certain this was improper. I asked the outside counsel (the organization did not have its own legal department) and they recommended that I do what was right to protect the organization and myself. When the leader could not be dissuaded from that course of action, I made the decision to resign my position rather than take part.
That was a bold and drastic thing to do, and I am fortunate that I was in a situation where I could extricate myself that way.
However, it is common that people find themselves unable to make that kind of decision and therefore may “go along” until they can find another source income. On the other hand, they may be tempted to convince themselves that “it’s not my decision so I have no choice but to go along with it.” On the other hand, it may seem like a harmless exaggeration or omission (such as exaggerating the number of people who attended your event). It is true that in some professions these sorts of embellishments are almost expected, such as real estate listings which commonly euphemizes “tiny” as “cozy” or “quaint.”
In the end, the problem with that is once you are on the slippery slope, momentum picks up and it is much harder to change course.
Moreover, once a person’s credibility is lost or damaged, it is very difficult to get it back.
It is somewhat more complicated for the single practitioner, who has to act as their own communications, legal, marketing, etc. departments and that is where having good relationships with other professionals is key. Bouncing ideas or thoughts off someone with these skills, whether by professional agreement or informal arrangement can help keep you from making a costly – both financial and reputational – mistake.
In all circumstances, I find it helpful to refer to the Code of Ethics (PRSA, IABC, National Press Club) for guidance. These organizations can also offer advice or ideas on how to handle the situation.
Image: rawpixel via Unsplash, Creative Commons CC0
John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices.