No Good Deed Dilemma: Am I Ethical or Exclusionary?

The Dilemma du Jour:

I work in the communications department of a post-secondary education institution and I’m concerned we are getting squeezed in what I’ll call “the vice of political correctness.” Don’t get me wrong: I am squarely in favor of inclusiveness, transparency, honesty and diversity. But recently some of my colleagues have been insisting we cater to all points of view no matter how narrow or obscure or untested because we cannot risk causing any offence to anyone. I’m not sure this is even possible, but I am sure it stifles debate and puts the university’s leadership on the defensive when asked for an opinion on virtually anything controversial. 

I’ve watched our administration try to deflect discussion, order various reports and investigations in hopes of satisfying activists of all stripes and our spokespersons getting into all manner of verbal gymnastics trying to please everyone. Of course, the results please no one and I believe our reputation as a leading educational institution is faltering. I think our organization can remain dedicated to broad debate without bending to the ‘opinion du jour.’ However, when I voiced this some of my colleagues called me unethical and exclusionary. Am I?

Signed, Ethical Enigma

Dear Enigma:

Unethical? Absolutely not. Exclusionary? Perhaps – but having been in PR for decades now, I feel quite confident in saying two things: (1) you can never please everyone and, (2) not every opinion deserves a platform. While your colleagues would likely recoil from that last statement like vampires from garlic, if you give every person with a ‘narrow or obscure’ point of view a chance at the bullhorn, you won’t have a conversation, you’ll have the Tower of Babel. Communications should absolutely foster inclusiveness and transparent, open exchanges of information and ideas. But, as you well know, trying to cram too many messages into anything results in obfuscation, not clarity.

While post-secondary institutions have a long history as forums for emerging ideas and differing opinions, some have taken the ‘safe space’ idea so far they run the risk of creating new issues where none existed by catering to the ‘I’m offended opinion du jour.’ While clearly not a Comms decision, I am reminded of a US college that banned white students from wearing hoop earrings because some black students felt it was cultural appropriation. Given hoops have been worn around the world for centuries (as far back as Ancient Greece), I find this boggling and an example of how catering to such opinions can foster division rather than inclusion.

You don’t say which colleagues are calling you unethical and exclusionary. If they are in your department, and especially if they are senior to you, I’d move on. If not, and if the rest of the Communications team shares your view, then it will be your role to collectively educate them on what makes communications effective. That said, Communications does not have the last word in institutional policy, so if your institution’s leadership insists on not offending anyone as their guidepost, there may be little you can do to change their mind.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

I believe it’s possible to lead debate or be responsive on the substantive aspects of any topic or issue, without being forced into one or another corner based on the popular views of the day. Post-secondary institutions like yours especially enable widely divergent views, philosophies and ideologies to co-exist, accommodating discussion that moves ideas – and therefore societies – forward. It’s not a simple environment in which to work, to be sure. Respect for diversity, tolerance together with honesty and openness about the challenges are essential.

But I question whether you are truly comfortable navigating in this constantly shifting and less-than-clear landscape? PR leaders are the heart and conscience of their organizations and this only works well when your personal values line up with those of your organization. 

It sounds like you might be frustrated by the open and inclusive culture and values of the organization, which is indeed the majority of post-secondary institutions. I have to ask: is this environment the best fit for you?  While describing you as unethical is a strong accusation, it’s possible your colleagues (are they peers or superiors?) may be asking this, too.

Practicing in our field means upholding the principles of honesty, integrity, freedom of speech and respect for diversity, and that starts with you. Perhaps it’s time for an honest assessment of whether this environment, with its unique values and culture, is really where you can make your best contribution. And if you decide you want to stay in your current employment AND you truly believe your institution’s reputation is faltering, find some evidence to support your views and develop the strategy and actions to change course.

~ Libby Brown, BPR, APR, Director, Corporate Communications, Provincial Health Services Authority

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.