According to Ethisphere magazine "Ethics are absolute. Business ethics are relational." Finding and debating those absolutes has engaged philosophers for centuries. And parsing the world of business ethics takes up quite a few kilobytes in Wikipedia.
Understanding that ethics is the "theory of right action and the greater good" doesn't help much when it comes to making decisions about how to handle a company or individual's reputation during a fast-moving, overwrought and/or threatening situation . . . often a crisis. Tough and hurried choices about how to act and what to say have to be made. Should a CEO respond to a media inquiry about an issue when there is a danger of releasing too much unverified information? How do you balance competing stakeholder interests if the nature of 'right action' is muddy in a backdrop of conflicting points of view?
I admit to at times thrashing around for suitable norms on which to base my counsel about public communication, media or social media strategies when there are choices of principle to be made. This week I was pointed towards a solid starting point by Eric Bergman and Ivan Muzychka, in a seminar at the recent IABC "Blast of Fresh Air Conference" in St. John's NFLD (at which I presented a workshop on social media and crisis communication.)
Bergman and Muzychka referenced Patricia Parsons' book Ethics in Public Relations: A Guide to Best Practice (An archived Inside PR podcast interview with her can he heard here.) Parsons suggests a five question guide to 'right action' in making the potentially treacherous decisions I talked about above:
- Does it do harm?
- Does it do good?
- Is it the truth?
- Does it respect privacy?
- Is it fair and socially responsible?
A bit vague perhaps and only a starting point, but helpful in starting the discussion about defining right action.