Advocacy Ethics

Ethics Officers Play Vital Role in PR Firms

Editor’s Note: To commemorate PRSA Ethics Month, PRSAY is running a month-long series of posts on important ethics issues facing the public relations profession. This is the fifth post in the series. An archive of ethics-related posts can be found here.

The role of ethics officer for a public relations firm is not for the faint of heart or those who eschew conflict. In most cases, not every fact will be present, and it is the job of a corporate ethics officer to determine fact from fiction and help the company mete out the most ethical solution that ensures the firm’s ethical standards are kept intact.

Let me clarify the term “officer,” which unfortunately connotes a notion of enforcement which is not what I do. I would much prefer the more accurate word of “counselor” or “advisor.”

As an ethics officer, I have one client: my firm. An ethics officer serves the company that employs him or her and that includes serving management as well as every single employee.

To be an effective ethics officer you need the full engagement and support of management. The tone and the example must come from the top. Management must be seen as “walking the talk” in action, not only in words.

In a firm like Ruder Finn, there are three different types of ethical issues we face: conflict of interests between clients; conflict of values between our clients and the firm; and issues of right versus wrong.

  1. Conflict of interests between clients. This issue is true for any consulting firm. We need to make sure we do not represent clients that are in direct competition for products or ideas. We cannot represent Coca-Cola in Shanghai and Pepsi in San Francisco. Sometimes the conflict is evident; at other times, it is not clear. To determine if a conflict exists, we inform both parties. If neither has a problem, then we do not have one either. However if one of the parties has a problem, then it is our problem. We either renounce the possibility of working for the new client or we resign an existing account to take on the new client.
  2. Conflict of values between our clients and the firm. We have specific guidelines that list the type of activities that Ruder Finn do not wish to be involved in, such as violating human rights, harming the environment, involving illegal activities, etc. If we believe that a potential client is involved in such activities, then we will not represent them. If we discover that an existing client is involved in any of these, then we will — and we have — resign the account.
  3. Issues of right versus wrong. In any large or medium company, with many employees, things will happen that should not have happened. My role is to first find out what exactly happened, why it happened and what can be done so it does not happen again. My role is also to see what can be done to compensate the party that was injured in one way or another.

An ethics officer cannot be effective unless he or she has the full trust of employees.

Trust should be earned, never implied. One way to earn trust is to respect confidentiality and to respect it absolutely.  Employees know that they can come to my office at anytime, have the door closed if they wish and ask that whatever they say remains strictly confidential.

On one occasion I was hard pressed to reveal the source of information about an ethical breach. My response was unequivocal.

“If you really want me to reveal the source of the information, you will have to depose me and if you do, I very well may be in contempt of court.”

That settled it.  It became clear to everyone that respecting the confidentiality of an employee is critical.

Another essential attribute for an ethics officer is humility. Resolving ethical dilemmas is difficult. We do not always have all the facts, and thus, can rarely be totally sure that we are making the right decision.

Finally, an ethics officer should always keep his or her letter of resignation ready. There may be a time when he or she is asked to do something that crosses the line between what is acceptable and what is not. Life and work situations can change, but one’s personal integrity should never be compromised.

Emmanuel Tchividjian is a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Profession Standards. He is a senior vice president and ethics officer at Ruder Finn, and blogs about corporate ethics at the Ruder Finn Ethics Blog.

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