By J. Dean Spence
Ethics should be top of mind for all strategic communicators. We must weigh our communication decisions in the scales of deontological, teleological and situational ethics to ensure that the harm we may inadvertently cause is minimal. In short any given practitioner should strive to be an ethical communicator.
In Reputation Management, John Doorley and Helio Fred Garcia argue that communication ethics falls into four categories: ethics inherent to communicating; the ethics of running an organization and engaging in routine business relationships; helping companies and behave ethically; and the ethics of representation. I would suggest that we add a fifth category, the ethics of influence: The New York Times recently published an article about how easy and pervasive it is to buy social media followers and likes etc. Evidently, even marketing and PR firms/departments are using such services to boost their “street cred”.
An ethical communicator would likely disclose her professional identity when posting a product review on social media—especially if she works for the organization that manufactures the product. (Ethics inherent to communicating.) An ethical communicator would likely treat employees, customers and business partners fairly. (The ethics of running an organization.)
But let’s look at the ethics of representation. An ethical communicator today would be mindful that there may be something suspect about working with certain clients or companies. (“Do I really want to be the PR Director of a cigarette manufacturer, when I know that the tobacco industry has killed, is killing, and will kill, millions of people?” “Do I really want to be a publicist for Jian Ghomeshi considering his alleged mistreatment of women?”)
It hasn’t always been called PR, corporate communication, or strategic communication, but as long as people have been involved in communication management there have been instances in which people exercised poor judgment by aligning themselves with unethical causes, companies, or even governments. Here are five examples:
1. The KKK in the 1920’s
The KKK’s strategic communication efforts in the 1920’s were spearheaded by Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. According to Linda Gordon in The Second Coming of the KKK, the KKK thought it was saving America from the ravages of “Jewish Hollywood”, alcohol, jazz, fashion (i.e. revealing women’s clothing), miscegenation, immigration, Catholicism, Blacks, Jews, immorality, unions, and sexual/artistic radicalism.
The communication tactics that the KKK used to reinforce their beliefs are astonishing. They controlled over 150 newspapers across the USA. They sponsored huge social events that attracted thousands. They owned radio stations and a film production company, called Cavalier Moving Picture Company. They orchestrated boycotts of certain businesses. They wrote pamphlets and delivered lectures and sermons
The KKK was so good at strategic communication, so good at articulating the need for American deliverance, that its members and those who were sympathetic to the Klan’s cause believed that its movement had nothing to do nativism, racism, and bigotry. They were “saving” the USA.
2. The Optimism Campaign
It’s 1967 and President Lyndon B. Johnson knows that at worst, the USA is losing the Vietnam War, and at best the war is at a stalemate. A recent New York Times article reminds us that President Johnson, therefore, launches what has been called The Optimism Campaign: he used the press—via press briefings that spread fake news—to manipulate public opinion so that Americans would think that the communist forces were declining in strength and that the American forces were winning the war.
It was a lie.
Johnson’s Optimism Campaign, though, was a success. Influential journalists fell for it and were more optimistic in their commentary, and as a result the American public became more optimistic about the war too.
3. Russian Fake News
Russians can deny all they want their involvement in the spread of misinformation during the 2016 US election campaign, but five years ago the Russian military produced the Gerasimov Doctrine. The tenor of this doctrine was that in warfare, information can be more effective that military weapons. And, subsequently, the Russian military created a new branch of military called Information Warfare Troops.
One of these troops, a recent 60 Minutes episode suggests, is Margarita Simonyan, the head of Russia Today (RT), a state owned Russian TV network that went out of its way to delegitimize Hillary Clinton during the last US election. RT broadcasts around the word and has an annual budget of around $300 million. In addition to excoriating Clinton during the election, RT routinely airs what they think is wrong with America. As 60 Minutes reporter Leslie Stahl says, “They air a steady diet of violent protests and racial conflict to suggest that the U.S. lacks the moral high ground to criticize Russia and is collapsing from internal divisions.”
I would be remiss, however, if I failed to point out that America too has spread its share of fake news. Radio Free Europe aims to provide news from areas (Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe) where press freedoms are limited. Radio Free Europe, however, was initially set up during the Cold War with the help of the CIA, and as an appendage to broadcast propaganda about the Soviet Union.
4. Say it Ain’t So!
If you think that Canada is above unethical strategic communication, think again!
According to Amy Thurlow and Anthony R. Yue in “A Brief History of Public Relations in Canada”, Strategic Communication was helpful in the development of the Canadian West, particularly during the general immigration campaign that started in the late 1800’s. On behalf of various Canadian governments men like Clifford Sifton and John Donaldson used the following tactics to lure immigrants to the west:
- Immigration posters about the Canadian West which were hung in British post offices
- Agents were hired to give Europeans presentations about moving to the Canadian West
- A magazine called Canada West was created to promote the West as a great place to live
- Press tours of the Canadian West were arranged for American editors
Although, as a result of this campaign, between the late 1800s and early 1900s over 2 million people came to live in the Canadian West, the problem was that the campaign only targeted White Anglo-Saxon people. Not exactly what we would call good, Canadian multicultural immigration policy!
If you know of other instances of questionable strategic communication practices, I’d love to hear about it.