No Good Deed: Should I just keep quiet?

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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.

Dilemma du jour:

There comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.

~Martin Luther King

When is that time?  I’ve been in my Communications Director role at this organization for only six months and in that time, to my dismay, I’ve discovered that a lot of unethical activity is going on and it pervades the ranks from top to bottom.  I’ve approached members of the Board, the CEO and other managers with my fears and been told to ‘leave it alone’ in no uncertain terms.  Should I just keep quiet (and keep my job) or quit and hope someone else blows the whistle?  Should I contact the media with what I know?

What our panel says…

Your actions, beliefs and integrity create your reputation. If you work for an organization considered to be unethical – especially in a decision-making capacity – you may well be linked to that organization’s activities and reputation through share-of-mind association.

Determine the consequences of any action – or inaction – you take, but before you decide ask more questions, including:

  1. What are your institutional and fiduciary responsibilities to the multiple stakeholders?

  2. Are you an appropriate, reliable, credible source for the media? Do you know what breaks that trust?

  3. How do you view ethical responsibilities to yourself? To your employer? To CPRS? To the industry at large?

  4. With whom do you align your loyalties? Your employer? The communications industry? Digital and/or traditional media?

  5. If someone else blows the whistle, will your position be to stay loyal to the firm or support the whistle-blower?

  6. Are you now – or intending to be – an accredited member or CPRS Fellow?

  7. Will you eventually create your own firm? If yes, could this situation paint you as an “undesirable” agency?

  8. Does your firm have a code of ethics? If yes, that will help in your decision. If not and you know the organization won’t take action to curb unethical activity, are you willing to work for a firm that breaks the law or disregards social expectations?

Today’s communications director is considered one of the key members of organizational hierarchies, even if your firm doesn’t treat you in that manner. The director’s role includes building trust through relationships and dialogue within the firm, as well as with society at large. Integrity, transparency and credibility are the hallmarks of such expertise. Can this situation help you refine, master and live those traits?

You sound as though you care and that you want to do the right thing. Look inside and look closely at your own ethics, at the CPRS Code of Professional Standards and think about the perceptions of your future employers.

If this were one of my clients, I would end the contract. If I were the communications director of this firm, I would meet with the top decision-makers and management teams to present the pros and cons of the firm’s position and discuss the varying degrees of social, financial, ethical and operational impacts. If the decision remained the same after this critical dialogue, I would seek other employment and then give appropriate notice in a professional, responsible and respectful manner.

Your Martin Luther King quote is wise counsel. In this particular situation, consider also what Albert Einstein said on the subject: “If I were to remain silent, I'd be guilty of complicity.”  

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

This Communications Director is in a tight spot admittedly, but going thermo-nuclear with whistle blowing may be premature.

The organization appears tone-deaf to King’s counsel to take action “because it is right.” The leadership’s mindset is perhaps objectives-based; wholly concerned with meeting budget and achieving strategic direction. Why not come at it from a language they understand, without sacrificing your own professional integrity?

Be sure to collect the facts. What do you know, and what more do you need to know? Who is affected and how? Consider the ethical principles at stake, telling the truth and taking up the public interest. Do these principles conflict with other ethical standards, such as protecting employer confidences?  These are all accountability standards found in the CPRS Code of Professional Standards.

Go back to your CEO and map out the organization’s risk and exposure to the unethical behaviour. Explain it’s a matter of trust, and trust matters. Breaches of ethical conduct, let alone the law, erode stakeholder trust among employees, customers, investors and regulators.

At stake may be corporate reputation, employee satisfaction, regulator penalties and legal costs that will impact financial performance. Clearly connect the dots between the unethical behaviour and the risk to the organization for the CEO. The leadership should have a keen interest in avoiding the potential landmines you’ve identified. 

Your role is to not only influence external evaluations of the organization, but also to provide internal leadership with reasoned arguments that align with the public interest. Why? It’s the right thing to do. Why? It’s good for business.

~ Victor Vrsnik, MCM, APR, FCPRS, Government Affairs Manager for Canada, 7-11

A quick review of the CPRS Code of Professional Standards should provide you with the direction you need to move forward in your position.

It seems that you are in a situation that is in conflict with your own personal and professional ethical standards. You’ve attempted to raise these issues with your colleagues and members of the board. Your ethical position does not seem to be shared nor has there been an attempt to provide you with any information that might move you from your stance.

Given your challenging and isolating circumstances, it seems hard to believe that you will be able to provide public relations counsel that will meet your company’s objectives. From what you present, I suggest you leave the organization.

Keep in mind that what you are obligated to protect the confidence of your employer (Standard 6). These situations happen and I suggest you reflect on what you learned so you can avoid something like this in the future.

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

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.