Paul Holmes 09 Jun 2011 // 10:43AM GMT
It’s hard for me to read articles like this one from the FT on the renewed corporate enthusiasm for “chief ethics officer” type appointments without reflecting on the fact that this trend represents yet another failure for public relations. Because if the company’s public relations counsel is doing his or her job right, there’s no need for ethics—or at least for a separate ethics function. I’m not talking about the hackneyed notion of PR as “conscience of the corporation,” which has always seemed a little fanciful to me. I’m taking about solid, pragmatic public relations counsel. The most basic role of the senior public relations professional inside an organization is to advise management on the likely impact of its decisions on the organization’s key stakeholders. That means making sure management understands how decisions will be explained to and accepted (or rejected) by employees, customers, communities, policymakers, shareholders—and those in the media and NGOs who seek to speak for those stakeholders. I would argue that if the advice provided by the public relations department is sound, and if management listens to that advice and makes decisions with full consideration of their impact on each of those stakeholder groups, companies will make decisions that are sound from both a relationship management and an ethical perspective. (The simplest way to think about this is to ask how various stakeholders are likely to react when—“if” is no longer an issue in an age of radical transparency—the decision is made public.) I would further argue that thinking through these issues in terms of their likely impact on public relationships is a more effective approach than either (a) arguing in favor of broad ethical principles that can sometimes seem a little abstract in a corporate environment or (b) taking a compliance-based approach that sets strict rules and then assumes that any action that does not actually break those rules is therefore okay. (This latter approach, of ethics “enforcer” is one that the FT discusses at some length.) Finally, I’d throw in one last comment to tie this to a subject most of you are probably tired of hearing me talk about. This doesn’t work if the company has a “communications” department rather than a public relations department. I am emphatically NOT arguing that communications—even good communications—can take the place of ethical thinking. That’s a prescription for “spin” and for long-term ethical and reputational damage. But good public relations thinking will almost inevitably lead to the same place as sound ethical thinking, and in a way that makes the reasons for ethical decision-making and ethical behavior crystal clear.