Facing an Ethical Dilemma? How to Make the Best Possible Call


In a recent episode of CBS’s “NCIS,” the erudite medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard explains to his assistant: “The ethical man knows he’s not supposed to cheat on his wife. The moral man actually doesn’t.” Ethics in public relations can often get bogged down in discussion of theory. We know we’re not supposed to shade the truth at the behest of a client. We know we’re not supposed to promise results we’re not sure we can deliver. We know the rules. They’re not confusing and they’re not controversial. But execution on the ground is never quite so clean and straightforward. And when the rules come smashing into day-to-day business reality, the rule book isn’t as much help as we want it to be. “Dear client, was it really your fault that the meat was infected with E coli?” Yep. “Well, the first rule of ethical PR is to tell the truth.” Legal counsel says we’re within our rights not to do that. Do you want to expose us to needless liability? Is that how you advocate for your clients? Uh... Take that, Mr. Ethical Scold! And yet, it’s just as easy—and just as wrong—to dismiss the importance of not crossing ethical lines because business reality gives you a convenient excuse. To say the rule book doesn’t provide point-to-point guidelines for every situation is one thing. To say there are no absolutes is something else entirely. You can, in fact, serve your clients and protect your profitability without selling out your ethical principles. And you can start by following the LEAP methodology (courtesy of my colleagues Dr. Carol Orsborn and Judith Rogala and their book Trust, Inc.): LEARN EVERYTHING YOU CAN Whether this applies to a particularly sticky client situation or a business dilemma facing your own agency, nothing helps you navigate the situation ethically like information and facts. Very few situations are exactly what they appear to be on first glance, and as you dig deeper you discover things that help you see the full scope of the story. Yes, the client is responsible for what went wrong, but here’s why the mistake was made and here’s why most other responsible companies would probably have made the same mistake. And here’s what they’re doing to ensure it won’t happen again. Yes, it’s true, I can’t guarantee results, but here’s what our research has told us about the likelihood of success based on past experience. A guarantee wouldn’t be honest, but we’ve done our homework and you can assess the data the same as we have. Information always shows you a path to an ethical decision. At the same time, of course, the more information you have, the more responsibility you shoulder to use it in an ethical manner. That’s what you want, though, right? EVALUATE YOUR OPTIONS Each direction you should take presents pros and cons, and not just in the short term. Lengthen your view. If you make a tough call now and take a short-term hit for it, how will that impact your long-term positioning? Can you or your client benefit from that decision down the road? Perhaps the best option is not the one the client would most readily endorse. Is it worth the effort and the possible expenditure of relationship capital, to go all out in selling it? As you evaluate your options, don’t forget the impact on your own reputation. That’s another form of capital. If you spend too much of it to please a client in the here and now, how will you impact your ability to function down the road? ACCESS YOUR INTUITION I call this the “Mom Test.” If you explained the situation to your mother and told her what you planned, what would she think? Would she be proud of you or raise her eyebrows? Some see a contradiction between performing due diligence and going with your gut. I don’t. You need both. Your intuition is a product of your experience. It’s one of the most valuable things you possess. And if your intuition is telling you don’t, even though all the supposedly rational measures are saying go ahead, that’s happening for a reason. Perhaps a particular course of action would make sense for another professional, but it doesn’t for you. Maybe that’s a product of a particular ethical nuance within your makeup. I’m not suggesting that impulsiveness is an acceptable substitute for informed decision-making, but after everything you’ve learned, if your intuition is still telling you no (or yes, for that matter), it’s okay to trust it. PUT YOUR PLAN INTO ACTION This is where the proverbial rubber meets the road. Remember, we can only make the best decisions we can based on the information we have. Most ethical issues stem from moving too quickly and not giving enough thought to the information required to make a good decision and thinking through the consequences. Once you’ve done due diligence and made a decision, accept the outcome. Right or wrong, you’ll learn from it and will have made the best call possible. Nobody gets 100%. Ethical issues are rarely black and white, but that doesn’t mean your ethical line has to be fuzzy. Once you’ve assessed the facts and the issues, a clear assessment shouldn’t be difficult to make. Remember, the ethical man knows what he shouldn’t do. That’s not the hard part, nor is it the important part. The important part is acting accordingly. PRN CONTACT: Ann T. Subervi is president of Utopia Communications. She can be reached at ann@utopiacommunications.biz.

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