Corporate Counsel: The Ethical Imperative in the Social Media Age

Peter V. Stanton

The words "corporate counsel" have come to mean many different things for communicators in the new age of social media.  Whereas in the past, we “counselors” focused on strategy, messaging and media, today, we must consider tweets, followers, friends, bloggers and citizen journalists, all with increasing reach, influence and impact.  In short, the job has become more complex for those whose function is to focus on tactical execution.
Corporate counselors are far more than tacticians. They are in the truest sense of the word advisors, reminding their companies and colleagues about the power and perceptions associated with the company’s words. Beyond the new demands of social media, this advisory capacity remains an essential role that has not changed from the era before the Internet to today.

Corporate counsel must encompass providing moral and ethical guidance to senior leadership. Because the world is so inextricably interconnected, our every utterance is instantly global.  Political correctness simply does not begin to cover the breadth of sensitivity and conscience that must factor into corporate communications and that we as counselors must consider and articulate to management.
When Kenneth Cole tweets that the uprising in Cairo is really a mass frenzy for his new spring line, he demonstrates the challenge. His company may strive to be at the cutting edge of new communication technologies, but they must also be at the leading edge of cultural compassion. They may think they are in the business of selling shoes and bags when, in fact, they are in the business of engaging in their customers’ lives around the world. Cole’s corporate counselors fell down in their responsibility to chide the boss and guide the communication in a more sympathetic direction before he hit the SEND button and plunged his company into an embarrassing controversy.
If we think of PR as simply “getting the words right,” we miss the boat. Communications is getting the sentiment and sensitivity right.  I dare say there is no one else in the corporate hierarchy better suited to provide this kind of guidance than the corporate communicators. But too often, professionals in our field are immersed in the tactics. They may know Twitter is important and keenly understand how the technology works. They have forgotten how the moral conscience works, or at least they have minimized its importance in their haste to be first to the blog.
The best communications counselors I have worked for and learned from, first and foremost, were readers. They had more than a passing grasp of literature, even if they hadn’t spent the summer slogging their way through Proust. They had a keen interest in what was being published, in newspapers, on bookstore shelves, in important publications. They took the time to understand alternative perspectives and cultural nuance. And then they took the time to make absolutely certain they shaped the boss’ public statements and, even news release quotes, into thoughtful expressions of important ideas. Rarely was that possible in 140 characters or less.
The idea that we must take full advantage of new tools and channels of communications is not in question. The notion that even in these new platforms we must exercise our intellect, evidence our understanding, and express our genuine regard for our audiences, customers, communities and shareholders, is the foundational principle of sound communications.  Reminding the hierarchy of that notion and providing the filter through which communications flow before reaching external publics is the inestimable value of communication counsel. If we reconnect with that formative principle, our own value in the enterprise will never be challenged.

Peter V. Stanton is president of Stanton Communications Inc. He can be reached at

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  • Robin Carley

    So true and so often forgotten.