There’s a reason why it’s referred to as a ‘dilemma’; how to stay true to yourself when the pressure’s on
Ethics are funny things. One, because people don’t often associate them with Comms Pros who have carved their career out of influencing, sometimes at any cost, and two, because everyone has a different idea of what ethics are. In actuality the latter reason probably folds back into the former, as most Comms Pros I know would say they do have strong ethics.
For me, I think this definition of ethics makes most sense, especially for those in the field of marketing: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold”. As Comms Pros, our greatest asset is our credibility, without it nothing we say, write or counsel cuts through more than once. I would go so far as to say, our names are all we have.
In this light, what better time to Blog about ethics than now as we move towards a Federal Election in Australia and our Politicians are under the spotlight for everything they do and say. Big shout-out to http://www.politifact.com.au and http://theconversation.com/au/factcheck for the awesome work they are doing keeping it real!
My top four ethical markers:
The stories we sell: I write this with some degree of trepidation because it may imply I am above reproach. Let me say up front, I have been caught out on occasion by the very thing I’d caution here – upselling a story. Yes, in PR we are employed to raise the profile of our clients, but one of the reasons journos get grumpy on occasion when you call them, is too often Comms Pros sell stories that aren’t really stories. Most of the time it is because of client pressure or because we’re trying to overcome the challenge. The reality of the situation is all you really end up doing is hurting your reputation and the image of the profession as a whole. It goes to my next point…
The feedback we give: I’m not sure when it happened, but Comms Pros too often have a misplaced identity where they think because they are supposed to be polite, they have to become “yes men”. Mismanaged expectations are the most common problems in client relations. It all stems from the fact too often Comms Pros don’t want to tell clients, that their new watsidosit is not front page news. Having the strength to be honest is an ethic the profession would do well to foster. On the flip side, if you are a client, when your agency says it’s not news, you should really listen. I’ve never heard of a PR person that doesn’t want to get coverage. If it’s possible, they’ll be all over it!
The money we make/take: We are all in business, yes we are. Some might work for not-for-profits, but regardless we live in a highly commercialised society if you haven’t noticed. Money is what makes our world go round more often than not. That said – money is not the be all and end all. I work for a PR agency and I see it most in pitches, where competitors will promise the world in a pitch. It’s delivered by their most senior pros for the sole purpose of winning the deal and contracting the client on retainer, but after the fact little thought goes into how they will meet those agreed business objectives three months later. Usually it’s because they pass it on to junior team members who just don’t have the experience to understand how the program underpins the strategy. My point being, the best of intentions don’t equal ethics, particularly when you are getting paid for your intellectual property.
The secrets we keep: This might sound like a funny one, but as Comms Pros, we often hear lots of juicy stories. Some are obviously meant to be kept closely guarded, particularly if they relate to a client or internal happening, but at a more basic level, the only way you build trust in any relationship is by proving you are trust-worthy. Just because you have been taken into someone’s confidence and you have interesting information, doesn’t mean you have to share it. For those that employ an agency, keep this in mind when they guide you one way or the other. The good agencies don’t do it on a whim. They know about sensitivities beneath the surface. And it often can’t be included in a briefing book. It’s a matter of not compromising the relationships by divulging the information. As with agency/client privilege, the same applies with the press. A Comms Pro has many masters, and ethics are quintessential; in fact you could say, they’re the only fabric strong enough to keep them in one piece.