Ethical Behavior in Corporate Communications
I was recently at a meeting and the CEO had a small sign on his desk that read, “Do what is right, not what is easy.” I thought about it longer than I probably should have, but in this day of fast and faster, as well as fake news, corporate shortcuts and an overall lack of following the “do what is right” credence, it begs further discussion.
At the core of the ethics conversation is one simple principle: What is right? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. The Public Relations Society of America publishes the PRSA Code of Ethics which is a guideline for its members to follow. These aren’t rules, because rules are difficult in this profession.
In the six pages, there’s an underlying theme of “do what is right.” In my public relations practice, I work with publicly-traded companies. The Security Exchange Commission (SEC), which oversees traded companies in the United States, has ethics also. However, these are actually laws that need to be followed and have penalties attached. The SEC has an entire office called the Office of Ethics Counsel.
In addition to the PRSA, I’m also a member of the National Investor Relations Institute (NIRI), which is for investor relations practitioners. NIRI also publishes a code of ethics for its members.
In this post-Enron world, communications professionals in a variety of areas need to be extra judicious in their practice.
As an example, look how a Twitter post landed Tesla CEO Elon Musk into hot water with the SEC. While Musk felt he was conducting himself appropriately, he lost sight of the visibility of his position and his social media presence. One can assume that several agencies watch his behavior carefully for what he says and how he says it. I assume that his tweets don’t have oversight from his corporate communications and investor relations teams.
Is “fudging” some information on a job application wrong? What about grabbing a picture from the internet to illustrate a presentation? Or taking off work early to take care of personal business? Granted, these are minor issues, but they can escalate.
An actor who fakes a hate-crime to increase his visibility and ultimate pay. A CEO who makes inflated statements to create a positive blip in their stock and then cashes out a position in the shorted stock for an increased financial gain. A taxi driver who overhears two senior home goods executives talking about a massive issue in their manufacturing and then goes and shorts the stock, creating a financial windfall on insider information. The stakes can increase quickly.
At the end of the day, ethics are, and can only be, defined by each of us individually. The organizations we belong to provide us guidance, but it is up to each of us as individuals and professionals to forge the ethical path of how we conduct ourselves, contributing to the inclusive fabric of an ethical society.
At the end of the day, it’s a simple process; think it through and do what is right.
Ira Gostin is a public relations consultant in Reno, Nevada and a member of the PRSA Sierra Nevada Chapter Ethics Committee.