Without a doubt, ethical communication should be top-of-mind for all communications professionals. In business communication, more often than not, we tend to prioritize results-driven objectives such as creating mass awareness, encouraging purchase intent and driving demand. Nonetheless, it is just as imperative to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are being fully honest and transparent, or engaging in unethical behavior in any shape or form.
Unethical communication still takes place because of one key reason: people often underestimate the impact of communication. In fact, communication is a paramount tool in developing a relationship and building trust with your audience. It has the power to shape narratives across any given topic — from politics to technology — and requires careful and thoughtful consideration of ethical principles.
Consider the flipside. Unethical communication has the potential to significantly damage the online reputation of the organization in question. Imagine if a press release announcing a new product mentioned a unique feature that the item did not actually possess, or a social media post made false or exaggerated claims about being an award-winning company. You can expect your audience to immediately lose trust in the organization in a way that is next to impossible to undo.
What Is Ethical Communication?
Simply put, ethical communication refers to communicating in a manner that is clear, concise, truthful and responsible. But in a profession that does not have an explicit set of guidelines, it can be challenging to discern right from wrong.
Be that as it may, just as the medical industry has its regulations and ethical standards to adhere to, communication professionals should observe an unwritten ethical code of conduct that acts as the backbone of our communications strategy and a key virtue of professionalism.
We should always strive to achieve both effective and ethical communication — who says there is no way to balance both?
Let us explore four key ethical principles that every communications professional should bear in mind.
1. Ensuring Transparency and Honesty
Communicate only what is known to be the truth. Ethics can be tricky in this regard because although it may not have been your intention, it is still considered unethical even if a mere 1 percent of what is said is false.
I mentioned “responsibility” earlier and here’s where it comes into play: the responsibility of guaranteeing every single word is factual and accurate falls into the hands of the communications professional. This corporate social responsibility starts from conducting thorough research all the way to including proper attribution of all references and sources.
Being wholly transparent also means establishing truthful representation. Disclose all pertinent details including any caveats or negatives, as minute as they may seem. Despite the fact that many people think public relations is synonymous with “the spin,” we should never change the narrative based on what we want our audience to believe.
2. Understanding Your Audience
American comedian, Fred Allen famously said, “An advertising agency is 85 percent confusion and 15 percent commission” — but that should never be the case.
Oftentimes written PR and corporate communications becomes overcomplicated with jargon and niche industry terminology that would make absolutely no sense to a layperson. This is why understanding your audience is so important. Before writing, we need to ask ourselves questions like:
- Who is going to read this?
- How much background knowledge do they have?
- Is there a way I can communicate this in a more straightforward manner?
Let us not forget that communication is always two-way. It is not just about us getting a message across, it is also the feedback we receive, which largely depends on how the message was comprehended. This means that we must factor in any language barriers that the audience may face and push for representation in our choice of words. As communication professionals, this helps us make certain that we do not present anything that may be construed as demeaning, intolerant or even hateful.
3. Respecting Confidentiality and Privacy
Privacy is a hot topic, and rightfully so. It is so easy to get carried away, especially when there is a potentially sensational message, but always ensure you are not violating any individual’s privacy or disclosing confidential information regarding an organization.
Honor and safeguard the confidentiality of your customers and partners that may have disclosed certain details that are meant to strictly be kept under wraps, even if there is no legally binding document such as a non-disclosure agreement. The same applies to those working in journalism and who may have tapped on sources that have requested to remain anonymous or shared private knowledge off the record.
4. Choosing the Right Time and Place
Being an ethical communicator goes beyond what you are saying, but also when and where. Take for example an advertisement for cigarettes on a children’s television channel or a feature story on high-technology weapons in the midst of a conflict. While extreme scenarios, these demonstrate the importance of when and where we decide to communicate.
Be tactful and mindful in choosing the most appropriate time and place to communicate. Plan and strategize. Research your audience, the various options you have for mediums or channels, as well as global events that may affect the way your message is received and perceived.
Putting an End to the Ethical Dilemma in Communications
Ethics should be the cornerstone of every organization’s communication strategy. We know this to be true, but what does it mean to communicate ethically? Because the topic of ethics in communication is not typically discussed as often as it should, this frequently results in uncertainty on the part of communication professionals.
Effective ethical communication is foundational to the success of an organization’s communication strategy. While communicating factually accurate messages honestly and transparently is central to ethical communication, it also extends far beyond that.
With that in mind, what would you change about the way you communicate?