ethics

Ethics and Crisis

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis can test your ethics. An ethical crisis response can turn a mess into a reputation triumph.

A crisis is an unwelcome way to prove your mettle and test your ethics.

The chaos of crisis will challenge your calm, creating an opportunity to perform under pressure amid events out of your control. But crisis also will tempt you to cut corners, blame scapegoats and bend the truth. Your core values may take a backseat to expediency. Your ethics is one of the best tools to carry around in a crisis. 

Acting ethically in crisis, while hard, is the right thing to do. Ethical behavior is the path to a burnished reputation.

Johnson & Johnson's handling of the tainted Tylenol incident is the perfect example of a crisis response based on values. James E. Burke, CEO of J&J, challenged all his employees to put "Patients First," the company's brand promise. Pulling Tylenol from shelves, meeting with thousands of care providers and patients and developing the tamper-proof container were the fruits of following that core value.

Your ethics will be on the line when you are called on to stand in front of microphone, admit a mistake and take responsibility for a mess. Your reputation can take a hit if you hide out, shift responsibility and blame others.

People know stuff happens. They tend to judge based on what you do after stuff happens. Sluggish responses, fingerprinting and denial often leads to a cascading drop in credibility.

Here are four tips on how to integrate ethics into your crisis response:

Look in the Mirror
Before doing anything else, take stock of your reputation, your brand promise, what you stand for. Let that be your guide as you lead efforts to clean up a spill, stabilize a faltering operation or condemn a bad practice. Deputize everyone involved in the crisis response to follow the same guideline. Make an enhanced reputation your goal.

Be Proactive
Don't let events beyond your control define your response. Take charge of fixing what's wrong. Find a long-term solution. Communicate with your own employees and those who are impacted. Use tools such as Twitter that allow real-time communications.

Seek Advice
Owning a crisis doesn't mean dealing with it alone. It is a sign of strength, not weakness to seek expert opinions, consult your own employees and ask those caught in the crisis what they think should be done. Be curious and empathetic, not cavalier and impulsive. You may get conflicting advice, but you also will get invaluable suggestions.

See Your Actions in a Newspaper Headline
A simple test to assess your actions is to write the most slanted story and headline to describe them. If the result disturbs you, then reconsider what you do. Pursue actions that are unmistakably sound and reflections of your ethics, actions will are likely to produce headlines you would want your family and friends to read the next day.

Ethical Slips and Spoiled Reputations

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

Corruption is a slippery slope that can color your reputation. To avoid it requires dutiful attention to what constitutes ethical behavior and giving license to employees to say "No."

The FIFA bribery scandal serves as a stark reminder that corruption is a fact of life. How you respond can color your reputation permanently. Failing to consider what is and isn't ethical can be a reputation spoiler.

The Portland Business Journal reported that one alleged kickback scheme in the FIFA scandal involved a footwear and apparel deal signed by Brazil's national soccer team in 1996. That was the same year Nike signed a major contract with Brazil, which solidified its status as a "major player in the global soccer market."

Nike issued a statement saying none of its employees were aware of or knowingly participated in any bribery or kickback schemes cited in indictments against FIFA officials. The company said it "strongly opposes any form of manipulation or bribery."

A former City of Portland employee is in jail after admitting he took money and free trips worth more than $200,000 to steer parking meter contracts to two businesses.

Corruption can occur when an official has decision-making power on a significant policy or lucrative contract. The corruption can be by the official with the leverage or a company or organization seeking to exploit that leverage.

Corruption is an addictive slippery slope. A small favor here, bending the rules a little there serves as an invitation to ask for bigger favors and more bent rules. It becomes harder to say no. Even if you try to say no, earlier transgressions become reverse leverage that forces you to descend deeper into corruption. It becomes easier to rationalize that a little grease is needed to make the wheel go round.

The stakes for how you respond to a "tempting offer" can be huge. Failure to gain a permit. Loss of a contract. Dissolution of a business relationship. Dismissal from a job. Corruption is serious business.

Whistleblowers risk a lot when they point out misbehavior or unmask cultures of corruption. Many whistleblowers are called snitches and shunned. Some lose their jobs and, incredibly, their reputations. You can understand why many people who see wrongdoing just turn and walk away.

However, there is no excuse for closing your ideas to potential corrosive practices. Taking stock of your own ethical standards and sharing those principles with your team members can erase gray areas or fuzziness in behavior. Letting employees know they won't be punished for behaving ethically, even if it means losing a contract or a policy debate, can have a powerful influence on morale and company culture.

Your assignment may be to manage an issue. But your overall objective should always be to manage your reputation. 

Opting Into Ethical Behavior

Perceptions of corporate America’s ability to act ethically took a hit last week. A banking investment firm was accused of short selling its clients. A mining company was slammed for putting profits before worker safety. A trendy technology blog was accused in the media of theft after paying $5,000 for the so-called lost next-generation iPhone.

What about the reputation of our own industry, public relations? We start in a hole. You no doubt have heard the one-liner: Public relations’ ethics is an oxymoron.

Legendary director and actor Woody Allen, who is no stranger to controversy, presents one perspective on ethical behavior to us: “The good people sleep much better at night than the bad people. Of course, the bad people enjoy the waking hours much more.”

Jokes aside, not only do professional communicators need to keep up to speed on the latest tools and trends of the trade, they need to be grounded in the fundamentals of ethical principles.

There is plenty of help to do this. Decades of thought and practical experience give us contemporary ethical codes of behavior in the communications profession. Those of us in PR may turn to codes prepared by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC). CFM’s research team follows an ethical code developed by the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR). At a national level, each of these professional associations has a panel that reviews and rules on disputed behavior, with the ability to shame wrong doers.