Opinion: The quest for truth: Ethics and integrity in communications

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IF you look at the headlines dominating the news cycle, you will notice that morals and ethics are severely lacking, writes Courtney Malengo. From badly-behaved business leaders to above-the-law politicians, there is no shortage of unethical stories in our world today. As public relations and communications professionals, we are called to uphold a code of ethics in our dealings with the public, our employers/clients, and the media. While we won’t all face overt ethical conundrums like the ones that play out in the media, it is more likely an ethical predicament will sneak up on you in subtle ways.

When I ventured into the public relations field, I remember people saying, “Oh, you mean spin?” While some practitioners will peddle anything, even spin, the public relations profession is fundamentally the opposite. Professional bodies provide a robust guideline for ethical practices. Specifically, when discussing the disclosure of information, something communication professionals routinely deal with, the following expectations support open, ethical communication:

  • Be honest and accurate in all communications.
  • Act promptly to correct erroneous communications for which the member is responsible.
  • Investigate the truthfulness and accuracy of information released on behalf of those represented.
  • Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.
  • Disclose financial interest (such as stock ownership) in a client’s organisation.
  • Avoid deceptive practices.

When I started my career in journalism, I was on a quest to uncover the truth. Even as I progressed into public relations, my quest continued to truthfully represent the companies. I will always champion an accurate representation of what is truthful and sincere in how you represent yourself and your company. 

I have provided counsel to various executives and organisations during pivotal moments in the throngs of crisis and reputation management. That has uniquely put me in the position of acting as a spokesperson and publicly going to bat for that company or individual. Lest there be any confusion, I only want to put my reputation and word on the line if I know that company or executive has been truthful and honest with me, so in turn my representations are truthful too. 

Much to the chagrin of some people I have worked with, I don’t take that responsibility lightly. Whether it is a statement for the media or a statement to employees, my quest for truth always continues, even now as a strategic communications consultant. 

Truthfulness and transparency do not mean you tell everyone everything. A good leader and a good communicator must manage knowing when to divulge certain details and when to share, for the greater benefit. From a company’s perspective, I also recognise earnestly wanting to minimise drama, gossip, and disruption. These two scenarios, no matter how difficult, do not have to be mutually exclusive. The most ideal scenario is absolute transparency with the communications/PR counsel, letting that individual discern the most accurate and fair way to represent the story for both parties. 

Sometimes, organisations become laser focused on one tree, rather than the forest. Executives don’t always think through the ramifications or repercussions of what they deem to be a “small” or “minor” situation. Communications professionals know how rapidly an initially minor situation can quickly become a major crisis, sending shock waves throughout an organisation. Code of Conduct of professional PR bodies require us to be truthful in our communication, but those we work for and with must first be truthful with us.  

The quest for truth and accuracy should remain a noble pursuit for communicators in every sector and position. The ethical challenges we may face aren’t always the salacious situations we see in the media; sometimes, they can sneak in, in purposefully unassuming ways.

COURTNEY Malengo is the founder of Spark + Buzz Communications, a strategic communications consultancy that helps brands tell their story to inspire audiences and galvanise growth. From concept to completion, Spark + Buzz designs creative and strategic solutions through branding, marketing, and public relations services. Malengo is an accredited public relations professional with a master’s in communication and organisational leadership from Gonzaga University, Washington.