The drive for business ethics in public affairs


Microsoft’s Stephen Forshaw examines the fundamental importance of an ethical dimension in practising public affairs in the Asia Pacific region

In the worst case of conflict between requested behavior and personal ethical standards, and after all opportunities to reconcile that conflict are properly exhausted, a practitioner maintains his or her integrity by knowing when to walk away.

I frequently have the opportunity to speak to young communications students at universities about life as a public affairs practitioner.  I regard this part of my job as important – helping to shape and groom the people who will, one day, head public affairs functions in large companies, hopefully before themselves going on to run companies, or PR agencies advising clients on business and strategy.

I entrust the well-qualified academics to teach foundation knowledge: how to write, how to tell stories, how to distinguish issues and understand perspectives, how to engage stakeholders, and the like.  And I’m always happy to share my perspectives on those subjects with students.

Nevertheless, the subject that drives the most passionate responses from me is when I am asked about ethics.  Unfortunately, very few students are pondering this subject, but I submit it is a core competency for the modern-day public affairs practitioner.

Practitioners represent their companies to external stakeholders.  They are not the sole custodians of the brand.  In a sense, all employees have that responsibility.  Their behavior, i.e. what they do, how they do it, and what they say, will influence the perception of that company’s brand with a multitude of audiences beyond customers: shareholders, regulators, politicians and civil servants, journalists, business partners, and competitors – all of them, in their own right, potential opinion leaders.

A personal challenge

At some point, every public affairs professional will confront their own personal ethical challenge in what he or she is asked to say or do by their leadership, or in the case of a consulting firm, their client.  It is a key responsibility, in my view, of every public affairs practitioner to act in accordance with the highest ethical standards, which represent a confluence of their own personal ethics, and the values of the company or client they represent.

Some choose not to work for, or represent, tobacco companies, or companies that undertake experiments on animals, for example.  These are personal ethical choices, and for some individuals, may be quite easy to make.  I respect a person’s right to make these choices, especially when it comes at the expense of limiting the opportunity that comes by making them.  I may not agree with their choice, but I respect their right to do so.

The harder questions come with the grey areas that mainly emerge around particular issues.  A practitioner may be working for a company whose values and brand is deeply respected and where there is no question of ethical conflict.  Irrespective, a quiet Wednesday is ruined as the company becomes embroiled in a regulatory issue that, on the face of it, seems to involve an unacceptable ethical standard of corporate behaviour.  What course of action should he or she take now?

In my view, it is very important for an individual to establish, through their own self-analysis, a conscious set of ethical principles.  Often, these principles will be founded upon a combination of an individual’s upbringing, education, past experiences, and in some cases, religion.  They may also evolve over time: not change as much as deepen, or take on a new clarity when viewed through the lens of more experience gained as a practitioner.

In order to be effective, it is important that public affairs practitioners are clear with their business stakeholders about what is expected of them. They should also help them understand that the practitioner’s behavior (a word that will come up many times in this piece) will be viewed by outsiders as a reflection of the ethical direction of the firm.  Cynical as we may sometimes be, I don’t believe the vast majority of business leaders wish their businesses to behave unethically.

Aligning the compass

During the course of my years as a practitioner, I have applied various methods to ensure my own ethical compass aligns with that of the company for which I am planning to work.  Having established my own ethical standards, I ask myself if I see an alignment with the values of the company.

That is why I am actually a fan of longer, more inclusive selection processes: they allow me the opportunity to almost interview the company that may, ultimately, employ me!  Throughout these two-way conversations, I assess the company’s values based on the people I meet and their behavior.

I have only worked for companies with very high ethical standards and values which underpin their brand.  That is not to say they’ve never done anything wrong, but where they have, they have accepted responsibility and learnt from their mistakes.

There are five key things that I look for or focus on.  First, that there is an internal culture built around educating people on compliance with laws and standards of behaviour, and that the leadership “walks the talk”.  Sometimes, mistakes are made through actions without malicious intent, genuine mistakes or actions on the part of an individual, not the collective organization.

Second, that I have the latitude to execute my function, with strong support from top management, in accordance with the values of the company.  This means if line management, intentionally or unintentionally, wants me to deceive, either by act or omission, that I know the top management “has my back”.  This relationship needs to be founded at an early point between a practitioner and the CEO, or some other appropriate senior leader in the company.

The third component is probably the most important – it requires personal actions that are consistent over time.  It becomes harder to enforce your aligned standards over one area of line management if they can cite examples where you did not in the case of another.  Conversely, it becomes very helpful to both you, and line management, to point them to cases where what you are advising is consistent with the way the business has handled other such issues, and consistent with the company’s values.

Fourth – this may sound somewhat contrary to what I’ve said elsewhere – is to be adaptable.  What I mean by that, is to take the time to learn the business.  Go deep, understand the complexity of issues the business faces, understand where grey areas exist, and learn to navigate the myriad of issues that may arise in the public affairs dimension.  This is really important; because nothing will influence a business stakeholder’s view of the counsel and advice they receive more than them knowing that the person giving that counsel has made a genuine effort to understand the business.

Maintain objectivity

Nevertheless, it is important to balance that “go deep” philosophy with the need to avoid, as Sir Humphrey Appleby described it in that great TV series, Yes Minister, becoming “house-trained”.  A practitioner must maintain objectivity, curiosity, and balance.  Becoming a champion of the line area may compromise a practitioner’s necessity and ability to remain a champion of the company’s values.

The fifth and final point is to know where to draw the “line in the sand”.  The line is drawn having regard to a practitioner’s own ethical standards and the values of the company: if the choice of company was sound in the first place, there will be an intertwined relationship between the two.

If there is a requirement to cross that line, it says there is now an irreconcilable conflict between ethical standards and behaviour sought.  Knowing where that line is drawn requires everyone to think about the consequences of crossing it.  The first step would be to sound an alarm, internally, to senior leadership that the behaviour sought by the business is in conflict with the values of the company (and the practitioner’s own personal ethical standards).

In most cases, that alarm will be loud enough to have the leadership intervene and ‘course correct’ the behaviour sought.  The key here is that sometimes, this means going over the head of someone who could be a senior line manager, and quite possibly, more senior than the practitioner.  This has consequences, but they are secondary to correcting the course before it becomes too late for the organization.  This is more important than the consequences for individuals’ egos.

A public affairs professional’s reputation is, in essence, their own brand.  The behavior displayed is something that will impact the future value of his or her own personal brand, and is something he or she must be willing and able to defend.

In the worst case of conflict between requested behavior and personal ethical standards, and after all opportunities to reconcile that conflict are properly exhausted, a practitioner maintains his or her integrity by knowing when to walk away.  It is the most complex ethical question to require that any practitioner know when the impact on their own integrity and brand will be so damaging that behaving as asked is just not possible.  Yet it is crucial to give backbone to ethical standards to know where that point is.

A practitioner’s reputation as a public affairs professional is enhanced by their ethical standards, not diminished by them.  This holds true so long as ethics are well-founded and reasonable, behaviour is consistent over time, and efforts to course correct within the organization when it starts to go adrift are genuine, principled and managed diplomatically and effectively.

Some go into a career in public relations thinking it’s all about writing press releases and hosting launch events.  As we specialize in the field, some will move into areas of government relations, corporate communications, investor relations, issues management, and so on: the various fields of public affairs.  The value a public affairs professional brings to the wider business is specialist counsel: a combination of being the company’s voice to the outside world, but just as importantly, the outside world’s voice to the company.

Judgement call

Giving solid counsel is important – backing assessment with evidence, displaying solid judgment, and the like.  However, it doesn’t end at giving counsel: it requires following up with execution.  Both require, in my view, a well-defined personal ethical compass: that is, a set of standards of appropriate behavior that are well-mapped to the organization’s values.

Where conflict exists, it should be deliberated carefully and objectively to ensure the modern public affairs practitioner can be a really solid business partner, brand custodian and guardian, and through all of that, true to his or her own standards.

Ultimately, I submit, it will be their own ethical standards which make or break a true professional public affairs practitioner.

Stephen Forshaw is Microsoft’s corporate communications director for Asia Pacific

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