All in Ethics

Since I have such respect for the quality of writing and ideas (although not always the politics) in the British magazine The Spectator, I am always delighted when the point of view of an editor or writer corresponds to my own. (I am not foolish enough to think there is any correlation between the two other than coincidence).

So imagine my contentment in reading the February 14th number when both the lead editorial and a column by Sarah Standing echoed comments I have posted here and here over the past few weeks.

Sarah Standing on saying sorry:

" 'Sorry' has lost its mojo for me, it's gone mainstream. It's one of those words that began life as a covetable Chanel handbag only to end up as a worthless flake flogged on eBay . . . I no longer believe in all these force-fed public apologies. They're starting to sound very hollow . . . I'm old school and from where I stand a true apology should come from the heart."

And not, I would add, because a crisis communications or political consultant has said it is necessary to apologize when harm has been caused. Without sincerity an apology is nothing more than gamesmanship. 

The editorial 'Bonus Points' calls out many British bankers for the damage caused by the huge payouts they received, which lead as the editors conclude to the wrong balancing of risk and reward

"Bankers must face reality and bring about changes themselves, rather than trying to face down public disgust with a last-ditch defence of the status quo. Their profession has to revert to being dull but respectable, decently but not lavishly paid, transparent in its accounting practices and the way it measures profits, intelligently regulated, and by nature risk-averse. And if that means talented people drift away from the banking sector, so be it: there are plenty of other parts of the economy that urgently need them".

Better said than by me, but at least my ideas are in line with some top notch writers.


(This picture is mine . . . taken in Paris behind Les Halles. I find it gentle and thoughtful.)

I wonder if popular trust in business may be taking a bad rap. Or, rather, I would ask the question whether our current lack of faith -- or trust -- in Wall Street, Bay Street, the U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, Fed chairman Ben Bernanke and our own Canadian financial leaders is in danger of being projected on to any business leader who misses a forecast or suffers a poor quarter?

Writing today in The Globe and Mail, columnist Derek DeCloet says:

"In 2008, skeptics, doomsayers and non-believers on Wall Street and Bay Street were vindicated. This was not because the wizards of finance proved to be corrupt or dishonest (though there were enough accusations of that - Bernard Madoff's alleged monstrous Ponzi scheme being merely the worst). Nor was it because the Street's paid gurus made big mistakes. Errant forecasts by professional soothsayers are expected. What was so surprising is that the people closer to the action - the ones at the top of the world's largest banks and corporations - proved, time and again, to have so little idea of what was just around the corner. Most of them wildly underestimated the depth of the financial rot and economic dysfunction. Publicly, they appeared too complacent, especially before September." 

DeCloet is, of course, right about the surprising lack of foresight (although some say it is willful "blindness" in the face of friends all around them making astonishing money) among financial leaders in North America and Europe.

But we should be careful not to attribute this same obduracy to CEOs in other sectors who have a good sense of their competitive and market frameworks, who look clearly at the impact of exogenous factors like commodity prices and currency fluctuations and who, therefore, revise forecasts more frequently than shareholders might like.

If they are forthright, honest and clear in their analysis, humble about what they don't know or can't predict, and willing to shoulder responsibility for what they can control (and bypass the rich bonus when they fail), then they and their companies are deserving of our trust. And, perhaps humility about what is unknown, and candor in the expression of that ignorance, is something the wizards of Wall Street -- and many politicians -- can learn from the best leaders in the manufacturing and commodity sectors.

The accusation leveled against communications and public relations professionals is that what they (we) do is "spin" facts on behalf of clients to evade truth. Anyone who has actually practiced the profession knows that this is in large measure stupid and ahistorical.

To quote myself (for the second time . . .forgive me again) from a previous post on messaging and spin:

"This is nonsense and I have written about it elsewhere. Forgive me if I quote myself from that post:

Messaging to my way of thinking is making a point of view apparent . . .  with simplicity, clarity and force. It is an element of Aristotelian rhetoric and is the foundation of ordinary discourse. Using it on behalf of a client to explain -- truthfully and openly -- a point of view is much less manipulative than juxtaposing a terrifying image with an alarmist headline. Of course, when messages are treated as dogma they can't help but sound like spin."

Two things have led me to reprise the idea: A unique beta website (hat tip to colleague Alan Chumley for bringing it to my attention) called SpinSpotter and an article in The Globe and Mail on the 'L' word in the current Canadian and American elections.

SpinSpotter is "a website and software tool that exposes new spin and bias, misuse of sources, and suspect factual support." You turn on SpinSpotter and it will flag words and phrases in an article that evidence bias, are just recycled phrases from a press release, or favor slant and opinion to reporting. What constitutes "spin" is defined by an advisory group of journalists assembled by the SpinSpotter folks. A computer algorithm allows all users to contribute to the knowledge base of "spin". And truth mongers can share with others their own "spin markers" when they come across an egregious example of the uniquely subjective writing that sometimes passes for reporting today. 

The Globe and Mail story talks about the Democratic Party launching a 'Count the Lies' site which keeps a running tally of the number of lies John McCain tells during his campaign. This may seem redundant since political campaigns are about power not truth, and truth (like civility and decency) is easily sacrificed in politics. But at least the Democrats have given political campaigning its true name.

I love both because they are small proofs that social media and and the web encourage the democratization of ideas and facilitate honesty. And if you need further evidence, Jeremiah Owyang at Forrester has developed (although it isn't clear from his post if he is the progenitor of the concept) a protocol for using Twitter to score the candidates in the first presidential debate on September 26th.

His scoring guide looks like this:

-3 for a personal attack
-2 for a false statement
-1 for avoiding the issue, or not answering the question
+1 for a successful assertion
+2 for a successful counterpoint to opponents assertion
+3 Quotable sound bite

I didn't know it at the time of my post on apologies, but on March 25, 2008 the Ontario Bar Association (a branch of the Canadian Bar Association) sent a letter to the provincial government urging the Attorney General of Ontario to amend or enact legislation to "give effect to the provisions of the Uniform Apology Act" in the province.

Forgive the legal language, but here is what the central parts of the proposed Uniform Apology Act (also available on the OBA's website) have to recommend about the effect of an apology (corporate or personal) on liability.

Should such legislation be enacted, the benefit for companies (the legislation would apply to "all persons, natural and corporate") facing a crisis in which management recognizes it has done something worthy of apology is self-evident.

2 (1) An apology made by or on behalf of a person in connection with any matter

(a) does not constitute an express of implied admission of fault or liability by the person in connection with that matter,

(b) does not constitute [a confirmation of a cause of action or acknowledgment of a claim] in relation to that matter for the purposes of [appropriate section of the applicable limitation statute],

(c) does not, despite any wording to the contrary in any contract of insurance and despite any other enactment or law, void, impair or otherwise affect any insurance coverage that is available, or that would, but for the apology, be available, to the person in connection with that matter, and

(d) may not be taken into account in any determination of fault or liability in connection with that matter.

So we are to believe that the commitment of executives to environmental responsibility is wavering. According to a study by the the gandalf group reported in Canada's The Globe and Mail, 152 Canadian executives are less sure than they were 15 months ago that a carbon tax is a good idea  and no longer support a cap-and-trade system for carbon management with the same zeal.

As is pointed out, the results evidence some pulling back on environmental responsibility because of the imagined costs of economic turmoil and the impact of punishing increases in the price of oil. "Ensuring an adequate supply of energy is much more important to executives than fighting climate change or controlling energy prices," concludes the report. Support for a carbon tax has fallen from 63% in February 2007 to 47% today. Support for a cap-and-trade system has also fallen from 57% to 47% over the same period

There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth as people see evidence in this of lack of fealty to sustainability among Canadian corporations. Sure enough the Globe and Mail sought out interviews with executives who confirm they are even questioning the effect of GHGs on global warming. (Ignoring strangely an article just a few days before by Rick George, president and CEO of Suncor Energy Inc., expressing strong support for linking corporate objectives to social realities).

But when you factor in a confidence index of +/- 7.32% the ambivalence is hardly definitive and not especially shocking. The results may in fact be over-stating a decline that is not surprising really and not indicative perhaps of anything more than a reasonable caution in the face of economic instability.

There is also some good news in the study that shows some forward (if slightly defensive) thinking. Approximately 87% of respondents support government investment in emerging technologies: 85% support building new nuclear plants and 78% backed major investments in wind and solar energy alternatives. And aren't these alternatives the best and lasting answer to climate change?

Vehicle_electric What I found most troubling is the comment about government investment in emerging technologies. Haven't we been told time-and-again by business that it is a better midwife to innovation than government? Look at what GM is doing with its Chevy Volt. Let's not start asking for handouts.


Jad0014 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:

  1. Does it do harm?
  2. Does it do good?
  3. Is it the truth?
  4. Does it respect privacy?
  5. 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.