Ethics Thought Leadership

Stuck in the middle

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While some of my colleagues, especially in the travel and tourism industry, are enamored with the glitz and glamour that often comes with media relations, I prefer working from the inside out. Focusing on internal communications allows me to help my organization and clients build their brands. If our employees aren’t sold on our brand promise, how can they deliver it to customers and guests?

Employee communications practitioners, by their very definition, have a focused audience. They also have access to information and insights that are afforded to a select few in most companies. We’re often the first to know about mergers and acquisitions, major policy developments, and other significant changes. Our privileged status comes with tremendous responsibility to protect the company’s privacy and safeguard confidential information.

At the same time, we must balance our obligation to the broader public and ensure the free flow of information so that our audiences have the best data available to make decisions.

This is where employee communications professionals can get stuck in the middle.

What happens when we know the company is quietly exploring new headquarters in a different state, and a colleague, who is not in the know, is about to buy a house? Can we divulge? Hint?

That’s a tough call.

Let’s play it out. So, what happens if you suggest to your coworker that waiting may be wise, as there are changes potentially coming; you can’t discuss them, but her decision may be impacted? Sure, you may have spared her some headaches, but what other disasters have your good intentions set in motion?

Let’s say she expresses her gratitude by sharing your valiant hint with others in the workplace. Of course, she doesn’t have the details, so the rumor mill goes into overtime. Speculation about what’s coming fosters a culture of distrust and anxiety. Your noble idea to spare one colleague has created problems for many more, including the company itself.

What happens if you don’t tell your colleague? Well, she could end up buying the house and the headquarters could move. Sure, it’s a headache for her, but life is full of unexpected changes and, if she’s a good friend, she’s likely to understand that you’re obligated to release information only when it’s been fully vetted and approved for release. And, if you’re a really good friend, you’ll show up on moving day and help.

Ethical dilemmas are rarely straightforward, especially in internal communications. Modeling from Sisela Bok’s three-step ethical decision-making process, we need to weigh out:

  • What we know and what we don’t know
  • Who’s affected by this dilemma
  • What our options are
  • What are the likely outcomes if each option plays out

I recommend including others, especially seasoned and trusted PR colleagues outside of your organization with whom you can speak frankly. Often getting an outside perspective can make things clearer and give you confidence in your path forward.

Although it may not have the high profile enjoyed by other facets of public relations, employee communications has its share of drama. Ethical decision-making, especially supported by PRSA’s Code of Ethics, a deliberative and thorough process, and a cache of trusted colleagues can keep your practice and career on the right path.


Nancy Weaver is the internal communications manager at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas and internal communications consultant. She is in her second term on the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and also serves as the past-chair of the Employee Communications Section. An accredited public relations professional and educator, Nancy has more than 20 years of experience in media relations, government affairs, community outreach, employee communications, business to business marketing, crisis communications, public participation, and integrated marketing communications.  She has worked in numerous sectors including with elected officials, PR agencies, government contractors, civil engineering firms, real estate professionals, higher education, travel and tourism, gaming and hospitality. Nancy is a past Western District Chair and past president of PRSA’s Las Vegas Valley Chapter.

 

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