Integrity in PR & Communications: Finding True North in a Digital Age

Simon Erskine Locke, Founder & CEO, CommunicationsMatchTM 

In a recent Communicators-to-Communicators Insights Video interview, Richard Levick, Chairman & CEO of LEVICK, said something that has continued to resonate with me days afterwards.

In our discussion of communications best practices, he highlighted the importance of integrity, noting: the PR and communications industry needs to watch out for blowback and look at its own practices.

He asks, “What happens to communications firms, if we are found to engage in tools which are found not to be the ethical or credible approach we should be taking?”

He’s right.

The industry needs to take a look in the mirror.  Not because it isn’t acting in accordance with past standards, but because the world has changed.

Acting with integrity in the context of conflicts of interest, interactions with the media and submitting accurate bills to clients is of course baseline ethical behavior.

But with new platforms and ways to reach audiences, we also have to ask – what does it mean to act with integrity in the digital world?

Underscoring the importance of this issue, Richard Edelman only last week called on public relations professionals to commit to higher ethical standards at the National Press Club in a presentation on “Trust.”

As a technology entrepreneur and communicator, I look at this question from the perspective of a business that uses digital advertising, email marketing, social media, website sales funnels, SEO, as well as PR to get the CommunicationsMatch story across.  Agencies look at it through the lens of providers of digital tools to achieve their clients’ objectives.

When building any business – as I have written in the past – it is very easy to be driven by what is known as the scarcity principle.  The gist is when we chase something we want we start thinking in tunnels  (Read: Tunnel Vision).  And, when you are in a tunnel it is easy to lose perspective on what’s important or “right.”

It’s one of the reasons why people make bad decisions.  Unless you are a saint, we’ve all been down this path at one time or another.  Again and again, we see businesses (or the people within them) take short cuts.  Kobe Steel and Outcome Health are just two recent examples.

Part of the value of being a consultant is having a certain distance as a third-party, and therefore perspective, that a CEO or head of corporate communications may not have on their own business.  As Levick says in the video, there is a unique opportunity for communicators to be the “Merlin or crystal ball” and help clients identify and head off reputational disasters.

But, we all need to evaluate our own practices.  When an agency is chasing business, the desire and pressure to deliver results, creates its own tunnel vision and incentives to take digital shortcuts.

Integrity in PR & Communications: Finding True North in a Digital AgeThere are a number of questions worth asking about your digital communications…

  1. Is the information we are sharing truthful?
  2. Do we disclose the source of the information we are providing?
  3. Is it appropriate to buy email lists to market to target companies?
  4. Is it OK to buy social media followers?
  5. Are we creating clickbait that draws people to websites under false pretenses?
  6. Is the content we are developing providing value or simply being used to trap consumers into sharing emails and market to them?
  7. Are we trying to game Google in SEO by building into websites everything that drives rankings, including backlinking strategies and paying to post content on random websites?
  8. Are we publishing press releases for the sole purpose of improving website traffic?
  9. Should we target people who have been to our website to receive banner advertisements for days or weeks afterwards?
  10. Do we collect payments through websites in ways that are fully transparent?

When it comes to truth-telling and disclosure, there can be no equivocation.  Not telling the truth and using deceptive practices, puts at risk your company and career.

For the questions that relate to digital practices, there may not always be simple answers – which is why it’s important to seek out and be guided by best practices.

For this article, I’ll make this simple: As we all know, our reputations and the trust clients have in our firms and industry matter.

“Do unto others, as you would have others do unto you,” is a powerful, 2,000 year-old guide for actions.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who will be getting your communications.  How would you feel if you received it?  How would you feel if you were put into your own sales funnel?

If you use this rule, then navigating the question of integrity in the digital age will be a whole lot easier.

If you stray, feedback is likely to be swift and unequivocal.  It is important to listen.  Listen to your social media channels, unsubscribes and feedback.  Then adjust quickly.

Even if you don’t get feedback, there are other metrics to pay attention to.  What’s the conversion rate for people who go into the sales funnel and then buy your product?  How long do they spend on your website?  Don’t look at these metrics as numbers – look at them as proxies for interest or disinterest.

Two final points.

The classic benchmark for corporate behavior – How would this look on the front page of The New York Times or Wall Street Journal? – continues to be as relevant as ever.  The recent experience of Facebook, Google and Twitter in the context of “Fake News,” shows us that this question needs to be asked on an ongoing basis.

Secondly, it’s important to recognize that the digital world we are living in is dynamic.  Some practices that made sense because they were new and interesting several years ago, may be old and tired today. Or even worse, they may be perceived as manipulative and damaging for a brand.

When it comes to integrity, North Star issues and benchmarks for behaviors have not changed.  But, we need to recognize that in the digital world there are many new choices that define our businesses and us as individuals.  In an era of unprecedented transparency, choosing the right path is more important than ever.

 

About the Author: CommunicationsMatch is a search tool that helps companies find, shortlist and hire communications agencies and consultants by industry and communications expertise, location and size.  The site has 5,000 agencies and consultant profiles in areas including: crisis communications, public relations, internal communications, government affairs, investor relations, content marketing, social media, SEO, website development, photography and video.  Listing and Search are Free.  See more videos and articles on our Insights Blog.  Prior to founding CommunicationsMatch, Locke held senior corporate communications roles at Prudential Financial, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank and founded communications consultancies. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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