Ethics Thought Leadership

Truth-Telling: A Return to Ethical Communication

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Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series of guest posts from industry thought leaders predicting key trends that will impact the public relations industry in 2014. Hosted under the hashtag #PRin2014, the series began Jan. 8, 2014, with a compilation post previewing some of the predictions.

As I look back on this past year, remarkable in my opinion for the disingenuous messages wafting from both public and private sector leaders and the concurrent decline in public trust in those leaders, a clear need for a return to ethical communication seems crystal clear.

Ethical communication, in my mind, means providing those publics who rely on me and my organization to tell, as the saying goes, “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

I do believe that we as public relations professionals are doing a good job of helping others come to grips with the need to be open, honest, and sincere. But…

Just a casual glance at the news will tell you that there are any number of reasons for the publics with whom we interact every day to be skeptical.

From the global impact of the NSA “data-collection” fiasco to the ongoing embarrassment of our elected representatives’ shenanigans on Capitol Hill to Yahoo!’s “will she/won’t she” quandary with CEO Marissa Mayer, readers/viewers…our publics… are asking, “What’s going on? What’s the real story? Who’s lying this time?”

The “2013 Edelman Trust Barometer” provides some disconcerting data to back this up. And, lo and behold, trust in CEOs and government leaders is firmly camped out at the bottom of the rankings.

For me, the challenge lies in convincing those whose words or intentions are going to be communicated to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of hardworking citizens whose tax dollars will be sucked into the bottomless pit of “for your own good” expenditures that finger-pointing and weasel-words don’t work.

Effective public relations should be about building trust and confidence, not about spoon-feeding “just enough” to keep the baby from crying.

PRSA defines our profession in these words: “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.”

PRSA’s Code of Ethics further defines ethical practice through its “Statement of Professional Values,” starting with “Advocacy”: “We serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent. We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.”

“Mutually beneficial relationships” and “responsible advocacy” come as a result of proactive efforts to answer concerned publics’ questions with fact…with candor…and with an understanding that they have a right to question our actions and our intent.

And, contrary to Jack Nicholson’s heated blast at Tom Cruise in “A Few Good Men,” we can handle the truth.

“Ethics” should be more, however, than a one-dimensional effort of making sure that the “truth” is told in a particular situation. It must be seen and sensed in the actions and words of those in leadership positions. A recent Huffington Post commentary cited the dramatic decrease in satisfaction among government employees resulting from their uncertainty about their own futures and, by extension, that of the government.

Employee dissatisfaction is nothing new. But, as pointed out in the accompanying survey, this decrease came at the same time that employee satisfaction in the private sector has increased.

Why? Because, I would argue, the public sector employees, justifiably proud of their individual and collective efforts to do a good job for everyone, feel that they are not being heard, and they are not being told the truth by their own leaders.

More important, though, is the underlying message to all employers…and communicators for those employers: “Employee…and public…trust and satisfaction will directly reflect your perceived honesty and openness…”

This new year, 2014, offers a new opportunity to begin a rebuilding of that trust. And it starts with us, as the public relations counsel to our public or private sector leaders, making a stronger case for both the “free flow” and the concurrent “disclosure” of information that will, when properly executed, serve the public interest and contribute to informed decision making in a democratic society.

About the author

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk was inducted into PRSA’s prestigious College of Fellows in 2009 and is one of just two actively-teaching college professors in Massachusetts to have earned this distinction. You can read more of Kirk’s musings at his blog “A Professor’s Thought” and follow him on Twitter @KirkHazlett.

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  • […] Truth-Telling: A Return To Ethical Communication – Kirk Hazlett shares how ethics is the key to building better reputations for public relations professionals. So many professionals that don’t follow ethical guidelines get in trouble, as a result. Let’s make sure everyone does the right thing. […]

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