No Good Deed Dilemma: The Temptation to Tell

The Dilemma du Jour:

I’m in healthcare PR and along with my front-line colleagues have been grappling with the scourge of fentanyl for years. Everyone in our community – addicts, families, emergency responders, agencies – needs more support and funding. Locally, there is a very senior politician who blocks innovation and assistance at every turn. Recently, I’ve learned something about this person that, if made public, would almost certainly force their resignation. It’s personal, not illegal, but getting this elected official out of the way would really help our cause. All it would take is a well-timed tweet or a whisper in a reporter’s ear. Should I do it?

Signed, Itchy Trigger Finger

Dear Itchy,

Political intrigue and PR. It’s a mug’s game.

While your intention of protecting vulnerable people in society is admirable, the course of action under consideration is littered with minefields.  The first step I would take before embarking on such a drastic endeavour would be to seek advice from some respected colleagues and peers with whom you could discuss the implications of such a move, walk you through alternative measures, and review the pros and cons of various tactics that might sway the recalcitrant politician.

I’m constantly amazed at how effective old-school lobbying tactics can be in getting seemingly intransigent politicians to heed public opinion. I’m assuming you’ve exhausted all the tried-and-true avenues to get this elected official’s attention such as direct lobbying, calls to legislators, polling and petitions, letters to the editor, media relations and social media outreach.

It may be worthwhile to find out who has the ear of the politician to see if you can engage in some backdoor diplomacy if the direct approaches haven’t worked.

If dishing dirt on the elected official is truly your last resort, be realistic about whether it will help achieve your end goal or merely drag both your reputation, along with the politician’s, through the mud. In today’s Trumpian era of Teflon politicians, it’s debatable whether baring scandalous information about an elected official will really have the desired effect.

Personally, I think the risk to your personal and professional reputation of being associated with a “leak” of this nature is far too great and wouldn’t recommend your contemplated game plan.That doesn’t mean you can’t go back to the original source of the information and see if they wants to take the ball and run with it if they feel it’s genuinely warranted. As long as your hands remain clean, if the information got out somehow paving the way for a robust communications program that could actually make a dent in the opioid crisis…well, that would be a shame.

~ Martin Livingston, Principal, Living Communications Inc.

While you may be itchy, you’ve got me scratching my head trying to puzzle out how you could possibly think what you propose would ever be an ethical solution to the problem. But, since you asked: No, you should not resort to blackmail and/or career-ending public shaming to further your agenda, regardless of how laudable that agenda might be.

The last thing the political world needs is more mud-slinging. While the US landscape and our most recent federal election may have desensitized some people to name-calling and shady actions, it is not how smart, ethical people behave. Don’t let yourself believe the end justifies the means. It will take longer and be more effort to achieve your goal the right way, but I believe the will for stemming this crisis exists at all political levels.

Here are some things you can do to rally your cause’s supporters: Help remove the politician from office by putting your skills to use in backing their key challenger in the next election. In the meantime, draw on your arsenal of facts, vast array of allies, and the personal stories of those whose lives have been destroyed by fentanyl to keep the call for change in the news and top-of-mind for funding decision-makers of all stripes. Create an engaging info-campaign. Lobby local, provincial and federal governments – no one senior politician can quash the movement you want to build. You’re a communicator – so repackage your messages to resonate with different levels of government, different ministries, politicians vs. bureaucrats. There is always another door to go through. Get creative, but for the sake of your personal and our profession’s collective reputation, don’t get dirty.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, Principal, KM Strategic Communications

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.