Fake news continues to run rampant today, which beckons the question as to whether communication professionals are paying sufficient attention to ethics in the workplace.
Without a doubt, ethical communication should be top-of-mind for all communications professionals. In business communication, more often than not, we tend to prioritize results-driven objectives such as creating mass awareness, encouraging purchase intent and driving demand. Nonetheless, it is just as imperative to take a step back and ask ourselves if we are being fully honest and transparent, or engaging in unethical behavior in any shape or form.
Related: Triple Bottom Marketing: Trend or Illusion?
Unethical communication still takes place because of one key reason: people often underestimate the impact of communication. In fact, communication is a paramount tool in developing a relationship and building trust with your audience. It has the power to shape narratives across any given topic from politics to technology and requires careful and thoughtful consideration of ethical principles.
Consider the flip-side. Unethical communication has the potential to significantly damage the online reputation of the organization in question. Imagine if a press release announcing a new product mentioned a unique feature that the item did not actually possess, or a social media post made false or exaggerated claims about being an award-winning company. You can expect your audience to immediately lose trust in the organization in a way that is next to impossible to undo.
What Is Ethical Communication?
Simply put, ethical communication refers to communicating in a manner that is clear, concise, truthful, and responsible. But in a profession that does not have an explicit set of guidelines, it can be challenging to discern right from wrong.
Be that as it may, just as the medical industry has its regulations and ethical standards to adhere to, communication professionals should observe an unwritten code of ethical conduct that acts as the backbone of our communications strategy and a key virtue of professionalism.
We should always strive to achieve both effective communication and ethical communication — who says there is no way to balance both?
Let’s explore four key ethical principles that every communications professional should bear in mind.
1. Ensuring Transparency and Honesty
Communicate only what is known to be the truth. Ethics can be tricky in this regard because although it may not have been your intention, it is still considered unethical even if a mere 1 percent of what is said is false.
I mentioned “responsibility” earlier and here’s where it comes into play: the responsibility of guaranteeing every single word is factual and accurate falls into the hands of the communications professional. This corporate social responsibility starts from conducting thorough research all the way to including proper attribution of all references and sources.
Being wholly transparent also means establishing truthful representation. Disclose all pertinent details including any caveats or negatives, as minute as they may seem. Despite the fact that many people think public relations is synonymous with “the spin,” we should never change the narrative based on what we want our audience to believe.
2. Understanding Your Audience
American comedian, Fred Allen famously said, “An advertising agency is 85 percent confusion and 15 percent commission” but that should never be the case.
Oftentimes written PR and corporate communications becomes overcomplicated with jargon and niche industry terminology that would make absolutely no sense to a layperson. This is why understanding your audience is so important. Before writing, we need to ask ourselves questions like:
Let’s not forget that communication is always a two-way street. Community engagement is not just about us getting a message across. It is also the feedback we receive, which largely depends on how the message was comprehended. This means that we must factor in any language barriers that the audience may face and push for representation in our choice of words. As communication professionals, this helps us make certain that we do not present anything that may cause harm or be construed as demeaning, intolerant or even hateful.
3. Respecting Confidentiality and Privacy
Privacy is a hot topic, and rightfully so. It is so easy to get carried away, especially when there is a potentially sensational message, but always ensure you are not violating any individual’s privacy or disclosing confidential information regarding an organization.
Honor and safeguard the confidentiality of your customers and partners that may have disclosed certain details that are meant to strictly be kept under wraps, even if there is no legally binding document such as a non-disclosure agreement. The same applies to those working in journalism and who may have tapped on sources that have requested to remain anonymous or shared private knowledge off the record.
4. Choosing the Right Time and Place
Following ethical communication practices goes beyond what you are saying, but also when and where. Take for example an advertisement for cigarettes on a children’s television channel or a feature story on high-technology weapons in the midst of a conflict. While extreme scenarios, these demonstrate the importance of when and where we decide to communicate.
Be tactful and mindful in choosing the most appropriate time and place to communicate. Plan and strategize. Research your audience, the various options you have for mediums or channels, as well as global events that may affect the way your message is received and perceived.
Related: Why Comms Should Never Come To A Halt
Putting an End to the Ethical Dilemma in Communications
Ethics should be the cornerstone of every organization’s communication strategy. We know this to be true, but what does it mean to communicate ethically? Because the topic of communication ethics is not typically discussed as often as it should, this frequently results in uncertainty on the part of communication professionals.
Effective ethical communication is foundational to the success of an organization’s communication strategy. While communicating factually accurate messages honestly and transparently is central to ethical communication, it also extends far beyond that.
With that in mind, what would you change about the way you communicate?
Need help getting your corporate communication strategy off the ground? Check out how our PR services work together to create a positive reputation for brands and contact us today.
The study of ethics in human communication is hardly a recent endeavor. One of the earliest discussions of ethics in communication (and particularly in public speaking) was conducted by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus. In the centuries since Plato’s time, an entire subfield within the discipline of human communication has developed to explain and understand communication ethics.
In 1999, the National Communication Association officially adopted the Credo for Ethical Communication (see the following sidebar). Ultimately, the NCA Credo for Ethical Communication is a set of beliefs communication scholars have about the ethics of human communication.
Questions of right and wrong arise whenever people communicate. Ethical communication is fundamental to responsible thinking, decision making, and the development of relationships and communities within and across contexts, cultures, channels, and media. Moreover, ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and others. We believe that unethical communication threatens the quality of all communication and consequently the well-being of individuals and the society in which we live. Therefore we, the members of the National Communication Association, endorse and are committed to practicing the following principles of ethical communication:
The NCA Credo for Ethical Communication is designed to inspire discussions of ethics related to all aspects of human communication. For our purposes, we want to think about each of these principles in terms of how they affect public speaking.
As public speakers, one of the first ethical areas we should be concerned with is information honesty. While there are cases where speakers have blatantly lied to an audience, it is more common for speakers to prove a point by exaggerating, omitting facts that weigh against their message, or distorting information. We believe that speakers build a relationship with their audiences, and that lying, exaggerating, or distorting information violates this relationship. Ultimately, a speaker will be more persuasive by using reason and logical arguments supported by facts rather than relying on emotional appeals designed to manipulate the audience.
It is also important to be honest about where all your information comes from in a speech. As speakers, examine your information sources and determine whether they are biased or have hidden agendas. For example, you are not likely to get accurate information about nonwhite individuals from a neo-Nazi website. While you may not know all your sources of information firsthand, you should attempt to find objective sources that do not have an overt or covert agenda that skews the argument you are making. We will discuss more about ethical sources of information in Chapter 7 “Researching Your Speech” later in this book.
The second part of information honesty is to fully disclose where we obtain the information in our speeches. As ethical speakers, it is important to always cite your sources of information within the body of a speech. Whether you conducted an interview or read a newspaper article, you must tell your listeners where the information came from. We mentioned earlier in this chapter that using someone else’s words or ideas without giving credit is called plagiarism. The word “plagiarism” stems from the Latin word plagiaries, or kidnapper. The American Psychological Association states in its publication manual that ethical speakers do not claim “words and ideas of another as their own; they give credit where credit is due.”
In the previous sentence, we placed quotation marks around the sentence to indicate that the words came from the American Psychological Association and not from us. When speaking informally, people sometimes use “air quotes” to signal direct quotations—but this is not a recommended technique in public speaking. Instead, speakers need to verbally tell an audience when they are using someone else’s information. The consequences for failing to cite sources during public speeches can be substantial. When Senator Joseph Biden was running for president of the United States in 1988, reporters found that he had plagiarized portions of his stump speech from British politician Neil Kinnock. Biden was forced to drop out of the race as a result. More recently, the student newspaper at Malone University in Ohio alleged that the university president, Gary W. Streit, had plagiarized material in a public speech. Streit retired abruptly as a result.
Even if you are not running for president of the United States or serving as a college president, citing sources is important to you as a student. Many universities have policies that include dismissal from the institution for student plagiarism of academic work, including public speeches. Failing to cite your sources might result, at best, in lower credibility with your audience and, at worst, in a failing grade on your assignment or expulsion from your school. While we will talk in more detail about plagiarism later in this book, we cannot emphasize enough the importance of giving credit to the speakers and authors whose ideas we pass on within our own speeches and writing.
Speakers tend to fall into one of three major traps with plagiarism. The first trap is failing to tell the audience the source of a direct quotation. In the previous paragraph, we used a direct quotation from the American Psychological Association; if we had not used the quotation marks and clearly listed where the cited material came from, you, as a reader, wouldn’t have known the source of that information. To avoid plagiarism, you always need to tell your audience when you are directly quoting information within a speech.
The second plagiarism trap public speakers fall into is paraphrasing what someone else said or wrote without giving credit to the speaker or author. For example, you may have read a book and learned that there are three types of schoolyard bullying. In the middle of your speech you talk about those three types of schoolyard bullying. If you do not tell your audience where you found that information, you are plagiarizing. Typically, the only information you do not need to cite is information that is general knowledge. General knowledge is information that is publicly available and widely known by a large segment of society. For example, you would not need to provide a citation within a speech for the name of Delaware’s capital. Although many people do not know the capital of Delaware without looking it up, this information is publicly available and easily accessible, so assigning credit to one specific source is not useful or necessary.
The third plagiarism trap that speakers fall into is re-citing someone else’s sources within a speech. To explain this problem, let’s look at a brief segment from a research paper written by Wrench, DiMartino, Ramirez, Oviedio, and Tesfamariam:
In this example, we see that the authors of this paragraph (Wrench, DiMartino, Ramirez, Oviedio, & Tesfamariam) cited information from two external sources: Shore and Barclay and Tummer, Edgley, and Olmstead. These two groups of authors are given credit for their ideas. The authors make it clear that they (Wrench, DiMartino, Ramirez, Oviedio, and Tesfamariam) did not produce the television show House or conduct the study that found that only 38.5 percent of statements were completely honest. Instead, these authors cited information found in two other locations. This type of citation is appropriate.
However, if a speaker read the paragraph and said the following during a speech, it would be plagiarism: “According to Wrench DiMartino, Ramirez, Oviedio, and Tesfamariam, in a study of 130 participants, only 38.5 percent of the responses were completely honest.” In this case, the speaker is attributing the information cited to the authors of the paragraph, which is not accurate. If you want to cite the information within your speech, you need to read the original article by Turner, Edgley, and Olmstead and cite that information yourself.
There are two main reasons we do this. First, Wrench, DiMartino, Ramirez, Oviedio, and Tesfamariam may have mistyped the information. Suppose the study by Turner, Edgley, and Olstead really actually found that 58.5 percent of the responses were completely honest. If you cited the revised number (38.5 percent) from the paragraph, you would be further spreading incorrect information.
The second reason we do not re-cite someone else’s sources within our speeches is because it’s intellectually dishonest. You owe your listeners an honest description of where the facts you are relating came from, not just the name of an author who cited those facts. It is more work to trace the original source of a fact or statistic, but by doing that extra work you can avoid this plagiarism trap.
This ethical principle affirms that a civil society depends on freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance of dissent and that informed and responsible decisions can only be made if all members of society are free to express their thoughts and opinions. Further, it holds that diverse viewpoints, including those that disagree with accepted authority, are important for the functioning of a democratic society.
If everyone only listened to one source of information, then we would be easily manipulated and controlled. For this reason, we believe that individuals should be willing to listen to a range of speakers on a given subject. As listeners or consumers of communication, we should realize that this diversity of perspectives enables us to be more fully informed on a subject. Imagine voting in an election after listening only to the campaign speeches of one candidate. The perspective of that candidate would be so narrow that you would have no way to accurately understand and assess the issues at hand or the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing candidates. Unfortunately, some voters do limit themselves to listening only to their candidate of choice and, as a result, base their voting decisions on incomplete—and, not infrequently, inaccurate—information.
Listening to diverse perspectives includes being willing to hear dissenting voices. Dissent is by nature uncomfortable, as it entails expressing opposition to authority, often in very unflattering terms. Legal scholar Steven H. Shiffrin has argued in favor of some symbolic speech (e.g., flag burning) because we as a society value the ability of anyone to express their dissent against the will and ideas of the majority. Ethical communicators will be receptive to dissent, no matter how strongly they may disagree with the speaker’s message because they realize that a society that forbids dissent cannot function democratically.
Ultimately, honoring free speech and seeking out a variety of perspectives is very important for all listeners. We will discuss this idea further in the chapter on listening.
This is another ethical characteristic that is specifically directed at receivers of a message. As listeners, we often let our perceptions of a speaker’s nonverbal behavior—his or her appearance, posture, mannerisms, eye contact, and so on—determine our opinions about a message before the speaker has said a word. We may also find ourselves judging a speaker based on information we have heard about him or her from other people. Perhaps you have heard from other students that a particular teacher is a really boring lecturer or is really entertaining in class. Even though you do not have personal knowledge, you may prejudge the teacher and his or her message based on information you have been given from others. The NCA credo reminds us that to be ethical listeners, we need to avoid such judgments and instead make an effort to listen respectfully; only when we have understood a speaker’s viewpoint are we ready to begin forming our opinions of the message.
Listeners should try to objectively analyze the content and arguments within a speech before deciding how to respond. Especially when we disagree with a speaker, we might find it difficult to listen to the content of the speech and, instead, work on creating a rebuttal the entire time the speaker is talking. When this happens, we do not strive to understand the speaker and do not respect the speaker.
Of course, this does not just affect the listener in the public speaking situation. As speakers, we are often called upon to evaluate and refute potential arguments against our positions. While we always want our speeches to be as persuasive as possible, we do ourselves and our audiences a disservice when we downplay, distort, or refuse to mention important arguments from the opposing side. Fairly researching and evaluating counterarguments is an important ethical obligation for the public speaker.
Human communication is a skill that can and should be taught. We strongly believe that you can become a better, more ethical speaker. One of the reasons the authors of this book teach courses in public speaking and wrote this college textbook on public speaking is that we, as communication professionals, have an ethical obligation to provide others, including students like you, with resources and opportunities to become better speakers.
Speakers need to take a two-pronged approach when addressing any audience: caring about the audience and understanding the audience. When you as a speaker truly care about your audience’s needs and desires, you avoid setting up a manipulative climate. This is not to say that your audience will always perceive their own needs and desires in the same way you do, but if you make an honest effort to speak to your audience in a way that has their best interests at heart, you are more likely to create persuasive arguments that are not just manipulative appeals.
Second, it is important for a speaker to create an atmosphere of mutual understanding. To do this, you should first learn as much as possible about your audience, a process called audience analysis. We will discuss this topic in more detail in the audience analysis chapter.
To create a climate of caring and mutual respect, it is important for us as speakers to be open with our audiences so that our intentions and perceptions are clear. Nothing alienates an audience faster than a speaker with a hidden agenda unrelated to the stated purpose of the speech. One of our coauthors once listened to a speaker give a two-hour talk, allegedly about workplace wellness, which actually turned out to be an infomercial for the speaker’s weight-loss program. In this case, the speaker clearly had a hidden (or not-so-hidden) agenda, which made the audience feel disrespected.
This ethical principle is very important for all speakers. Hopefully, intimidation, coercion, and violence will not be part of your public speaking experiences, but some public speakers have been known to call for violence and incite mobs of people to commit attrocities. Thus distortion and expressions of intolerance and hatred are of special concern when it comes to public speaking.
Distortion occurs when someone purposefully twists information in a way that detracts from its original meaning. Unfortunately, some speakers take information and use it in a manner that is not in the spirit of the original information. One place we see distortion frequently is in the political context, where politicians cite a statistic or the results of a study and either completely alter the information or use it in a deceptive manner. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, and the St. Petersburg Times’s Politifact are nonpartisan organizations devoted to analyzing political messages and demonstrating how information has been distorted.
Expressions of intolerance and hatred that are to be avoided include using ageist, heterosexist, racist, sexist, and any other form of speech that demeans or belittles a group of people. Hate speech from all sides of the political spectrum in our society is detrimental to ethical communication. As such, we as speakers should be acutely aware of how an audience may perceive words that could be considered bigoted. For example, suppose a school board official involved in budget negotiations used the word “shekels” to refer to money, which he believes the teachers’ union should be willing to give up. The remark would be likely to prompt accusations of anti-Semitism and to distract listeners from any constructive suggestions the official might have for resolving budget issues. Although the official might insist that he meant no offense, he damaged the ethical climate of the budget debate by using a word associated with bigotry.
At the same time, it is important for listeners to pay attention to expressions of intolerance or hatred. Extremist speakers sometimes attempt to disguise their true agendas by avoiding bigoted “buzzwords” and using mild-sounding terms instead. For example, a speaker advocating the overthrow of a government might use the term “regime change” instead of “revolution”; similarly, proponents of genocide in various parts of the world have used the term “ethnic cleansing” instead of “extermination.” By listening critically to the gist of a speaker’s message as well as the specific language he or she uses, we can see how that speaker views the world.
We believe that finding and bringing to light situations of inequality and injustice within our society is important. Public speaking has been used throughout history to point out inequality and injustice, from Patrick Henry arguing against the way the English government treated the American colonists and Sojourner Truth describing the evils of slavery to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Army Lt. Dan Choi’s speeches arguing that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” is unjust. Many social justice movements have started because young public speakers have decided to stand up for what they believe is fair and just.
This ethical principle involves balancing personal disclosure with discretion. It is perfectly normal for speakers to want to share their own personal opinions and feelings about a topic; however, it is also important to highlight information within a speech that represents your own thoughts and feelings. Your listeners have a right to know the difference between facts and personal opinions.
Similarly, we have an obligation to respect others’ privacy and confidentiality when speaking. If information is obtained from printed or publicly distributed material, it’s perfectly appropriate to use that information without getting permission, as long as you cite it. However, when you have a great anecdote one of your friends told you in confidence, or access to information that is not available to the general public, it is best to seek permission before using the information in a speech.
This ethical obligation even has legal implications in many government and corporate contexts. For example, individuals who work for the Central Intelligence Agency are legally precluded from discussing their work in public without prior review by the agency. And companies such as Google also have policies requiring employees to seek permission before engaging in public speaking in which sensitive information might be leaked.
The last statement of NCA’s ethical credo may be the most important one. We live in a society where a speaker’s message can literally be heard around the world in a matter of minutes, thanks to our global communication networks. Extreme remarks made by politicians, media commentators, and celebrities, as well as ordinary people, can unexpectedly “go viral” with regrettable consequences. It is not unusual to see situations where a speaker talks hatefully about a specific group, but when one of the speaker’s listeners violently attacks a member of the group, the speaker insists that he or she had no way of knowing that this could possibly have happened. Washing one’s hands of responsibility is unacceptable: all speakers should accept responsibility for the short-term and long-term consequences of their speeches. Although it is certainly not always the speaker’s fault if someone commits an act of violence, the speaker should take responsibility for her or his role in the situation. This process involves being truly reflective and willing to examine how one’s speech could have tragic consequences.
Furthermore, attempting to persuade a group of people to take any action means you should make sure that you understand the consequences of that action. Whether you are persuading people to vote for a political candidate or just encouraging them to lose weight, you should know what the short-term and long-term consequences of that decision could be. While our predictions of short-term and long-term consequences may not always be right, we have an ethical duty to at least think through the possible consequences of our speeches and the actions we encourage.
Thus far in this section we’ve introduced you to the basics of thinking through the ethics of public speaking. Knowing about ethics is essential, but even more important to being an ethical public speaker is putting that knowledge into practice by thinking through possible ethical pitfalls prior to standing up and speaking out. Table 1 “Public Speaking Ethics Checklist” is a checklist based on our discussion in this chapter to help you think through some of these issues.
Table 1. Public Speaking Ethics Checklist