#PRethics Month: Lies of Commission, Omission & Looking the Other Way

In life as well as in the business of strategic communications, there can exist lies of commission as well as lies of omission.

When is it alright or justified to “look the other way” when you clearly observe ethical missteps occurring in your own organization or in an organization in which you are a stakeholder, such as a member or a volunteer leader, akin to the saying about an ostrich with its head in the sand?

It can be a critical question of self-protection / self-preservation – and not just a matter of protecting an organization from itself when it’s acting in unethical or highly questionable ways.

Should you become a whistleblower?  What are the risks and costs to you personally?

Among its numerous Ethical Standards Advisories (ESAs), the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) includes a special ESA on “Looking the Other Way,” written by two well-known and highly respected colleagues, James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Thomas Eppes, APR, Fellow PRSA, via Professional Standards Advisory PS- 15 (August 2010).

In it, BEPS addresses the issue that “all too frequently, when questionable behaviors occur, the alarm fails to be sounded at an early stage for reasons ranging from fear to self-consciousness, to wanting to keep the boss happy, to ‘it’s just not my concern.’ This behavior is looking the other way and it can be unethical.”

This ESA – only about four pages long but chock-full of important insight – is a critical read for anyone in business, government, the non-profit sector and, most certainly, in the public relations profession.

It begs the question of us all: If we simply avoid a lie of commission by not making specific verbal statements of known untruth or inaccuracy, are we “off the hook” from an ethics standpoint?

Do we get a free pass if, instead, we choose to overlook a misdeed and simply “move on” via a “code of silence?”

By not reporting, pointing out or even uttering a word of what’s been witnessed, are the misdeed’s impact and resulting outcomes not our responsibility?

I know the short answer to that question. It involves the words “no” and “hell” . . . and not in that order.

BEPS’s “Looking the Other Way” ESA outlines numerous scenarios that routinely can occur that hinder people’s ability to get at the truth and remain faithful to it.

One situation, “The Stone Wall,” is described by Eppes and Lukaszewski as follows:

“This is the corporate communication practice of initially denying events to delay consequences, stalling when asked for information, delivering angry and emotion-driven counter attacks against those who criticize or who might criticize, or simply remaining silent. It is the tendency to minimize any serious situation, put a good face or no face on something and hold off until forced to do something.” 

The “Science of People” blog that I link to above has some interesting insights that also ring true.

In tackling overt statements that you think are lies, the author, Vanessa Van Edwards, says:

“For these lies to succeed, you have to be willing to believe the lie. It is something that has to sound plausible. The first step to tackling these lies is the determination not to be lied to. This will make you much more skeptical about what people tell you and lead you to double-check information. Another way to expose these lies is by asking someone about the assumed lie later on. If he or she suddenly tells you a different story, then this probably means that there is something else going on – requiring a deeper investigation of what the truth really is.”

All PRSA-affiliated public relations professionals should know that truth-telling is a professional imperative in the work we do for employers or clients – as well as other professional, civic and service organizations of which we’re a part.

As it turns out, acting in service to the truth can be a difficult and rather complicated endeavor.

In the “fight or flight” paradigm, human nature often drives us toward flight in seeking to escape the inherent dangers of policies, communications and patterns of behavior committed by others that we know are wrong — and that we know hold consequences, if found out . . . in which we ourselves don’t care to be swept into the fallout.

But when we take flight, we must ask ourselves, who are we really serving?

Aren’t more people being continuously hurt or dis-served by our looking the other way, than helped?  And don’t we – ultimately – risk counting ourselves (and our reputations) among those casualties?

This PRSA #PRethics Month, how else can we work purposefully to avoid “looking the other way” situations?

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Mary Beth West
Principal
Mary Beth West, APR, has more than 20 years’ experience in strategic communications. Mary Beth’s award-winning work has included creation and implementation of national media relations campaigns, employee communications programs, consumer and business-to-business marketing initiatives and crisis preparedness systems.

2 thoughts on “#PRethics Month: Lies of Commission, Omission & Looking the Other Way

  1. Samuel L Waltz Jr, APR, Fellow PRSA / Reply September 25, 2017 at 6:27 pm

    TOUGH THING about ETHICS, Mary Beth, is when “a little corruption that greases the system” becomes a major problem. https://lifeasmom.com/cooking-frogs/ COOKING FROGS is a great metaphor, as this “Mommy Blogger” points out here…

    “You may have heard the theory that you just can’t throw a frog into a pot of boiling water in order to cook it. It will jump right out. Instead if it’s placed in a pot of cool water, it will make itself comfortable and stick around — while you turn up the heat. It gets cooked before it realizes that things were getting a little hot around the collar.”

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092699/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 In BROADCAST NEWS, a favorite 1987 movie with WILLIAM HURT and HOLLY HUNTER, “You just totally crossed the line!,” she yells at him about an ethical breach. “They keep moving the little sucker don’t they!,” he retorts.

    Both of those lead to the inescapable conclusion that when people substitute OUTCOMES for ETHICAL PROCESS, it’s always the Ethics that will suffer, that will fall victim. Does anyone want to be the next Wells Fargo? The next Enron?

    People kid themselves that ETHICS ARE EASY, but they’re really not, are they? Being a good steward of your work in any profession is first about Ethics, about making certain you’re doing the right things the right way. No one is immune.

    PUBLIC AFFAIRS / REPUTATION MANAGEMENT / ISSUES & CRISIS MANAGEMENT has been a part of my work for 40 years this month, when I joined the DuPont Co. How do you “clean up” behind the World’s Safest Company — at least by its aspirations — when your first assignment is handling a Nitrocellulose Plant Explosion that evaporated four employees. Even with loftier aspirations, in work I did with the Church, how do you clean up behind “the Religious” when some relaxed their guards in terms of employees and Penitents — to follow obligations to those — and forgot their first obligations to their MEMBERS? I’ve been there, standing in front of an audience of 200 Roman Catholic priests, talking about how we navigate a certain awkward situation.

    But, without fail, that’s the result when leaders substitute Expediency for Ethics.

    • Mary Beth West / Reply September 25, 2017 at 7:40 pm

      Sam — Thanks for the examples and for commenting. Great points — all of them.

      “Broadcast News” will always be one of my favorite movies. It always got to me how Holly Hunter’s character kept holding the short end of the stick whenever she tried to advocate for journalism’s higher moral ground. Like no staged shots. No fake “White House sources.” No entertainment as news. But despite the validity of her ethics, she’s not backed up by her employer, nor by her larger community of colleagues, nor by her love interest w/ the William Hurt character. She’s kind of out there, twisting in the wind — alone with her ethical standards . . . a lonely place to be.

      But to your point, drawing an ethics-driven line in the sand means very little when you know the tide is coming in. It’s not something for those who gravitate toward herd mentalities or popularity contests.

      Thanks again for chiming in. Sounds like you’ve been to that rodeo plenty of times in your career and understand the pitfalls. It’s certainly a learning process.

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