Ethics Is the Heart of Leadership


By Sue Stoney, VP of Communications

Three experts on ethics engaged attendees in a lively discussion about ethics and its central importance to the human community—including the realms of government, academia, and corporate—on September 26, 2016, as SF IABC and PRSA partnered to bring Bay Area business communicators a lunchtime event.

Meet the Panelists

Sally Baack, Professor of Management, College of Business, San Francisco State University, began by saying she believes the academic environment is the perfect “lab” for communicators (many of whom are studying while also working in the real world) to test out ideas that can help prevent “after-the-fact PR” from becoming necessary.

Nigel Glennie, who has been part of the Business Critical Communications team at Cisco and soon to join Hilton Worldwide as VP, external communications, was also an appointed member of the IABC Ethics Committee from November 2014 to 2016. He believes that communications professionals occupy an important place at the executive table and, as such, have a responsibility to voice ethical concerns.

The current Executive Director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, LeeAnn Pelham, is past Director of Ethics and Corporate Governance for the Santa Clara Valley Water District and Executive Director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission. She does not see a big split between the public and private sectors when it comes to ethical matters.

Michele Horaney, PRSA past president, introduced the three panelists. She explained that the three experts from the PRSA/SF IABC co-sponsored 2015 ethics panel (David Batstone of the University of San Francisco, John Onoda of Charles Schwab, and Ronald Hansen, IABC Director of Professional Development) would now form a bank of experts with this year’s panelists, willing to answer ethics-related questions from communicators.

Real-World Ethics

As you might expect from experts in communication, panelist Nigel asked attendees, “What brought you here?” This began a spirited interaction between the three panelists and the approximately 20 audience members.

Early on in the conversation, the effect of ethical issues on independent communicators came up. It was pointed out that the long-term consequences of unethical behavior are especially weighty for those who own a business, given such behavior’s interrelatedness with the company’s brand.

When the topic of company culture was front and center, Sally pointed out that an environment in which questions from employees and staff are not only supported but rewarded is crucial. Ethics and profits are not antithetical.

LeeAnn explained that, often, Government’s response is “We must do more training.” With systems in place and the support of individual and collective action, people tend to do what’s right.

Sally, again referring to her classroom’s lab environment, explained that guest speakers present on proven techniques to her students. Team meetings during which it is safe to share role-playing scenarios are important because they provide every participant with experience as to how to behave ethically. It is her experience that organizations that conduct this type of training on a regular basis have support from their top leaders.

Nigel pointed to Cisco’s emphasis on attending ethics training and the company’s support of IABC’s Code of Business Ethics.

A question from an attendee about companies that foster a culture of fear prompted Sally to answer that there are ways all of us, regardless of the culture in which we work, can step into the role of “employee as hero”. She cited an online program called “Giving Voice to Value” that allows participants to practice how questions could be asked/things stated.

Nigel added that we communicators, as skilled storytellers, can help with this kind of training. We can also “script” the “if…then” for individual scenarios to play out what would happen after an individual takes certain actions.

Another attendee of the panel explained that she came from a company with a “Speak-Up Culture”. During training sessions, she was in the same room with representatives from the labor force, administrative assistants, and others who, when presented with certain scenarios, began by exclaiming, “Oh, I couldn’t do [say] that!” By the time the training ended, these same employees felt that they had been given a voice and a sense of power.

An independent who regularly deals with much smaller companies wondered aloud how much easier his job would be if the companies he works for would adopt such a culture.

LeeAnn posed two questions, “When do we have to be accountable, and to whom?” and “How and when do we need to be transparent?” The attendees and panelists agreed that organizations need to be built on an expectation of accountability and transparency.

Sally said that any treatment of ethics as a topic must separate the legal (usually straightforward and the number one priority) from the ethical (the “tricky stuff”). For her the standard test of an ethical solution is a question: “Would affected parties agree that your way is the (or, at least ‘a’) fair and equitable way to handle this situation?”

Nigel told us that, in his career, discussions begun about the content of a press release would often start with “What do we say to whom?” And when he would ask, “But have you fixed the problem yet?” the answer would sometimes be in the negative. As to who needs to know, he said he feels that should be anyone who feels he/she should know.

Cyber security also came up, and an audience member mentioned that, when a company whose service she uses was hacked, she was given free credit monitoring. That disclosure to her before she even knew that her information may have been compromised went a long way toward building trust in her. As a result, she has no qualms about recommending this company’s service to her clients.

Sally cited up-front disclosure of hacking as a risk that must be balanced against the consequences of the public finding out about it later. What is your intent? What is the right thing to do? LeeAnn said that the appropriate equation is this: The public sector bottom line equals trust.

To Nigel’s comment (“You may have done what you thought was right, but you will be measured against your culture’s sense of what is right.”), Sally responded, “When you know you have a ‘better than’, you know you have a better measurement of what is right.”

And to Nigel’s point, an attendee offered this imperative, “Draw a line between the ‘right thing’ and ‘opinion’.”

The old adage about a good leader being someone who looks outward to assign credit and in the mirror to place blame rang true for several people in the room – as did this quote: “If you cannot find something authentic to say, you’re part of the problem.”

All in all, the panel was a lunchtime well spent for those of us who attended.

Sue Stoney
Sue Stoney is a writing coach, writer, and editor and VP of Communications for the San Francisco chapter of IABC. For more than 20 years, in the corporate world and as an independent communicator, Sue has helped many people develop content and write the stories that contribute to their business bottom line. Sue is



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