No Good Deed: To uphold or not to uphold professional standards?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it. We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Today's dilemma:

I’ve been offered a very good senior communications job in the political world.  I think it could be a very exciting and challenging role.  But do I have to park my ethics at the door and toe the party line, producing propaganda rather than facilitating conversations about key issues? I am concerned, especially given how ‘gloves-off’ politics seem to be these days.  I want to uphold our Code of Professional Standards, but I’m worried my employers’ political agenda will trump (ahem) my own personal and professional standards.  Should I just turn the job down?

An inconvenient truth: If by “ethics” and “personal and professional standards,” you mean the traditional journalistic standards of accuracy, balance, fairness and ‘objectivity’, yes, you will very likely be asked, on occasion or regularly, to park them at the door. And more senior you are, the more likely this will happen.

A reliable senior friend in government PR describes his experience, and the clear introductory instructions he got from an assistant deputy minister:

“Your first priority is to make the minister look good, your second priority is to make the government look good and your third priority is to make the premier look good.”

If those priorities are not spelled out that crudely on Day One, they will slowly become clear. They are part of the working atmosphere and you will be expected to make them part of your DNA. And, yes, you will likely be expected to include “party lines” in your news releases. Such as the current spate from Ottawa of messages mentioning the "strong middle class". An example: 

“Canada's biggest environmental and economic challenges require the brightest minds working together to produce innovative solutions that will support a clean environment, a sustainable economy and a strong middle class. That's why the Government of Canada supports an inclusive and collaborative approach to innovation, one that encourages researchers and their partners to combine their expertise so they may address these crucial issues together.”

That’s the lead paragraph in a recent federal news release. Please tell us which media outlet is going to parrot that.

If you are currently a journalist, recognize that you are not being offered the job because of your reputation for accuracy, balance, fairness and ‘objectivity’. You are being offered the job because of a proven ability to get messages across to audiences, and perhaps because the public “knows you” and will therefore give your messages added credibility.

You may find the new job is “not all that bad.” But, yes, you almost certainly are going to be asked at times to park your stringent ethics at the door, along with the CPRS Code of Professional Standards.

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver

Congratulations on your job offer! One of the enviable advantages of your chosen career in communications is there are so many venues to display your skills.

However, you should pay attention to the questions you are asking yourself. They are important and relevant in any and all industries. Being a part of a politician’s staff can be exciting and rewarding. Do your style and personal political leanings click with the politician and other staff members? Will they be open to giving you the background you need in order to understand direction or decisions?

Will you be working in a government office where you can bring your skills, questions and experience to each and every project you are assigned? Concern about ‘spin’ can be true but, in my opinion, spin is often the result of implementation. Bring sincerity and understanding to everything you do.

In any case, you bring yourself to the table…ethics and all. You can offer advice and speak up when you believe things are unethical…. which may not the same as political. In the end it needs to sit well with you.

I suspect that during your interview process your need to uphold professional standards and ethics came through. Government is interesting and important. Our communities depend on it. Good luck.

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant

CPRS’s code of ethics states that practitioners must be accountable to publics, clients, employers, and your profession and to society. For a senior communications expert about to dive into the world of politics, your naivety should give you pause.

Will this job – as you see it – allow you to uphold that principle? Will “producing propaganda” assist a communications manager to “practice the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth?” Will your assumptions encourage you to “knowingly disseminate false or misleading information?”

Whether it’s government, sports, corporate, retail, A&E or the not-for-profit sector, there are countless communications experts who excel in ethics, leadership and strategy, without “parking” their ethics. You’ve coloured politics in an uninformed, simplistic manner. It’s time to put away your crayons and educate yourself.

Absolutely turn down this job. Question your assumptions on the role of communications. Assess the principles of confidentiality, the public interest and the courts of public opinion. If you’re unable to uphold your own professional standards, then you’re unable to uphold your employer’s.  I think you should examine your perceptions of responsible leadership in communications before stepping up to the C suite so unprepared.

~ Ange Frymire Fleming FCPRS, APR, president-Vocal Point Communications & KPU professor in Applied Communications

About the Author

Deborah Folka 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.

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