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Ethics First, No Matter What

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No Matter What the Rippling Impact, Communications Ethics Come First

Communications professionals know that ethics and integrity are critically important components to our work. But applying ethical guidelines can be very difficult. At times, as we grapple with specific circumstances, we must make difficult decisions about how to handle ethical challenges.

One thing is clear — our client’s  interests are paramount. And when presented with ethical challenges, we have no choice but to apply ethical guidelines in accordance with professional standards.

As a lawyer, I am bound to follow rules of professional conduct. As a communicator I must as well. After I was appointed “ethics guru” for my law firm, I was concerned I might become unpopular. In this role, I advised powerful senior partners about what they should or should not do. Sometimes this meant telling my colleagues we could not represent a particular client. This also meant losing potential revenue over conflicts that could not be waived. I was fortunate to practice law with ethically driven lawyers, who invested in ethical practice. Later in my career, I brought that commitment to ethics to my governmental affairs, marketing and communications work at a large corporation.

In my communications work, I have had to make difficult ethical decisions and use the PRSA Code of Ethics to guide my work. I have encountered clients with little understanding about the ethical standards required in our work. This can be a hazard, particularly in working with small businesses or with those who have never been exposed to high level communications work and are not used to operating in a complex business arena.

A number of years ago, I was confronted with a situation that raised two ethical duties under the PRSA. The first was the duty under the PRSA Code to safeguard client confidences. My client requested that our relationship remain confidential. The second was the duty to “avoid conflicts of interest” and “to act in the best interests of the client, … even subordinating [my] personal interests.” Together, these duties created a situation that has been misunderstood and misconstrued by some of those involved.

I was unwittingly put in a conflict position when a mutual friend of my client revealed “information” to me in confidence that, had it been made public, could have caused very serious damage to my client’s business reputation. The information was not objectively verifiable. On questioning the source whether this information might be made public, it was clear that it could. What made this situation more complex were similar claims in another context that were causing public uproar.

My hands were tied. Because my client asked me to keep our business relationship confidential, I could not divulge my professional relationship to the mutual friend. Nor could I ask the friend to go to my client with this information, I knew she would have refused to do so.

Two ethical duties were triggered: The duty to keep client confidences and not reveal the business relationship; and, the duty to place client’s interests above personal interests.

Without revealing my client’s identity, I consulted with other communications professionals about what to do. They all agreed the information had to be divulged. If it weren’t, and there was press coverage at some point, my client’s business reputation could have been deeply harmed. In revealing the information, I did not volunteer the source of the information and I advised my client that the information should be kept confidential. Against my professional advice and personal request, my client did not keep the information confidential. Although this was her right, once she revealed the information to others,  the situation quickly rolled out of control.

Never in my law practice or in my corporate communications practice have I dealt with such chaos and difficulty after doing the right thing. Despite my attempts to explain ethical duties to some of those involved, I have been criticized (and worse) by those within and outside my client’s business who do not understand the ethical duties involved. It was my ethical duty to advise my client of the potentially harmful information that could become public. The PRSA Code required that I put the business relationship above any personal relationships, regardless of the consequences to me — and there have been plenty of those.

There is nothing I could have done differently and have acted ethically. I have often measured the cost of this difficult decision. The cost to me personally has been very high in unexpected ways. But the cost of not doing right is always higher and will never outweigh having made the ethical decision.