As public trust in government and governing officials steadily declines , so too does public confidence in the “ethical” behavior of corporations . Part reality, part perception: while the speed and transparency of the digital age contribute to this regrettable trend, there is no shortage of reported corruption and unethical behavior to support the slide. Bad news for branding, for business, for employees, stakeholders and customers. How can corporations stem and turn the tide?
Adopt “best ethical practices”, and ensure that the related content and level of corporate commitment is made known to and embraced by the entire organization. Creating a culture of ethics, as regular readers of Ethisphere are aware, is not the responsibility of a single person or department within a global company. Effective policies and programs must be adopted- best practices that underscore and reinforce the importance of ethics and integrity. This requires, at the bare minimum, an achievable strategy and a dedicated communications effort supporting the ethics and compliance side of the company.
It’s no secret that many corporate communications officers do not regularly interact with the ethics and compliance side of their companies. Likewise, many of the ethics and compliance officials in large organizations don’t communicate effectively. The result: critical information and insight concerning ethics, compliance and integrity has a limited audience. Adopting best practices does not, standing alone, address the challenge.
To reinforce this important point, the Ethisphere Institute, in cooperation with AECOM Technology Corp. and General Electric, hosted the first annual “Best Practices in Ethics Communications Workshop” in 2012. The event featured a number of leading figures in corporate and federal communications, all of whom discussed the vital role of communications in setting the ethical tone of an organization. The audience included representatiives from Boeing, Aflac, Eli Lilly and Company, Fluor Corporation, the U.S. Navy, PRWeek magazine and many other large organizations.
The speakers and faculty shared a wide-range of lessons learned from their own careers and research. For example, Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the public relations and strategic marketing firm Edelman, revealed that his company’s annual Trust Barometer report indicates that trust in government, business and NGOs over the past year has fallen 11 percent . Edelman underscored the importance of offsetting the decline in positive perception by combining strong, principle-based leadership with an effective communication plan articulating and promoting a company’s positions on ethics and integrity .
Two representatives from AECOM, Susan Frank, vice president and assistant general counsel for global compliance, and Paul Dickard, vice president of external communications, also stressed the importance of linking compliance with communications in order to successfully “message” corporate values . A particularly successful initiative was that company’s inaugural Global Ethics Week in 2011, in which AECOM’s Chairman and CEO, John M. Dionisio kicked off the event with a company-wide message. The event featured a number of other activities and programs which illustrated the company’s commitment to and expectations concerning ethical behavior.
A unique panel featured four communications professionals representing very distinct organizations. It included Rear Admiral Dennis Moynihan, U.S. Navy chief of information, Mike Paul, president and senior counselor of MGP & Associates PR, Dana Perino, Fox News correspondent and former White House press secretary, and Jennifer Prosek, chief executive officer and founder of Prosek Partners. Each panel member brought a different perspective to issues including: a] the risks and rewards of using social media; b] the importance of employee engagement; c] the need for transparency in organizations; d] the importance of building a strong ethical culture; e] the need to gain the trust of internal and external audiences, and, f] how to effectively deliver the “ethical value proposition” within an organization.
Moynihan, for example, discussed the role of clear communication and transparency when rebuilding trust and reputation in times of crisis. Both he and Prosek emphasized the importance of openly and directly communicating bad news in order to properly build trust. Each of the panelists agreed that it’s important for communications executives to have a seat at the table during important company decisions, in order to be able to accurately communicate developments and decisions to the various stakeholders.
There is clearly no single “best practice” . Each organization must determine and implement sensible, achievable practices and secure the endorsement and commitment of its owners, leaders and employees. The need to effectively communicate these practices, however, applies across the board. Several of the participating companies strongly endorsed programs encouraging employee “feedback” and participation in defining and refining corporate ethics and integrity “best practices”. More than one company described popular and successful “competitions” among employees intended to inform, engage and entertain while reinforcing these critical values.
“The workshop exceeded all expectations and has generated sustained positive coverage,” said Paul Gennaro, AECOM’s senior vice president and chief communications officer. “More importantly, I believe it has elevated the dialogue around the ability — and responsibility — of communications leaders to build trust within our respective organizations, for our customers and clients, and within society as a whole.”
The lessons shared at the event were an important first step in more directly linking ethics and compliance with corporate communications. In addition to the companies and speakers listed above, many other highly respected thought leaders in the ethics and communications space also shared important insight into their organizations’ practices, as well as lessons learned from their individual experiences. To read more about the event, please go to www.ethisphere.com, or send an email to email@example.com to receive a PDF recap .