Friday, July 27

Ordering Up Ethics: Flogs, Blogs, And Posers

After reading that 279 U.S. chief marketing officers, directors of marketing and marketing managers polled in the PRWeek/Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L) Marketing Management Survey revealed some confusion over ethics, I posted a poll to see if a self-selected group of participants could determine which of eight case scenarios might demonstrate the greatest ethical breach, noting that some were not ethical breaches (but have had some people attach ethical arguments to them).

While the poll was well read, only 22 people participated as of 9 a.m. this morning (before PollDaddy had some challenges). There are several other accounts for low participation, including: ethics cannot really be measured in terms of “greatest;” not everyone was familiar with the various cases; and people are generally confused and/or don’t care about ethics anyway. All valid points.

Fortunately for me, a few people opted in because I promised to make no claims that this is a scientific survey, but rather a discussion opener for today (and an opportunity to try PollDaddy). So here’s our take on eight...

(Poll 23%) John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, Inc., anonymously posted disparaging remarks about Wild Oats, a company that Whole Foods is now hoping to acquire. We considered placing this in a secondary position, until Vera Bass offered the following on BlogCatalog: “… I believe that breach of the more specifically defined duties (especially fiduciary duty) and obligations that are developed and maintained by those who carry more responsibility for others than most people do, is, by this definition, a greater breach.” Clearly, this is an ethical breach; and we’ll be adding something to our case study next week.

(Poll 18%) Julie Roehm accepting gifts from advertising agencies while they were seeking the coveted Wal-Mart account. While there are allegedly other ethical breaches related to this case study, we limited the poll to a single breach because it’s enough. While some argue wooing guests is an industry norm, the truth is Roehm knowingly violated her company’s policy and has been spinning ever since. While the initial action was bad enough, her defense of it continues to damage an increasing number of people.

(Poll 36%) Edelman Public Relations Worldwide published a fake blog (flog) last year for Wal-Mart (there were three actually). What makes this scenario stand out is that it was premeditated by people who knew better. The real irony is that Wal-Mart could have avoided the breach with disclosure. Perhaps more ironic, no matter how you feel about Wal-Mart, it has enough good news not to need fake news. We placed it third, but only because no one seems to have been hurt.

None of the other five are ethical breaches. At least, not to date.

(Poll 14%) While the Cartoon Network bomb scare illustrates a worst case scenario for a guerilla marketing campaign to go wrong and clearly impacted Boston (closing roads, tunnels, and bridges for hours), it is not an ethical breach. While ill-advised and perhaps not well thought out, it really wasn’t about ethics. In truth, Turner Broadcasting Systems acted very quickly and accepted all responsibility. The guerilla marketing firm that oversaw the campaign, on the other hand, was much slower to respond.

The (Poll 0%) Microsoft’s laptop giveaway, (Poll 5%) Nikon camera outreach program, and the (Poll 5%) McDonald’s mommy bloggers have all been questioned and talked about by bloggers. While all of them have the potential for an ethical breach, none of them did (that we are aware). As long as bloggers disclose the gift, loan, etc. and do not allow these items to bias their opinions and/or encourage/obligate them to make false claims, then no ethical breach can occur.

The last scenario, where Jobster sent Jason Davis a cease a desist letter, claiming Davis had violated a non-compete clause for launching a social network called, was not an ethical question. While the method was not prudent, there was no ethical breach. The two have since reached an amicable agreement.

So why do we care about ethics? To take from the preface of the International Association of Business Communicators’ code of ethics, because: “hundreds of thousands of business communicators worldwide engage in activities that affect the lives of millions of people, and because this power carries with it significant social responsibilities.”

However, as mentioned, this responsibility is two-fold. I believe that we must be cautious in applying ethics so broadly as it continuously raises doubt in or damages the reputation of people, regardless of rank or position, who have not breached ethics. As is often the case, asking the wrong questions — “Is it ethical to ask for comments on a client’s blog?” — can create more confusion than clarity.

As the best measure of our ethics, we must not only be honest with others but also, and most importantly, with ourselves. If you are ever in doubt, the simplest ethical self-test is to ask yourself one of two questions ...

“Would I be proud to tell my grandmother?” or (depending on who your grandmother was) “Would I be proud to see a story about what I am doing on the front page of the New York Times or Wall Street Journal?” If you can answer “yes” to either, you’re likely in good shape. Case in point, I think Mackey would have answered "no."



Sweet Tea on 7/27/07, 11:50 AM said...

Very interesting. Thank you. Actually, I had the most ethical, upstanding grandmother in the world. In those times when I have asked myself if she would be proud of me I haven't always been able to answer "Yes" but you can bet I have worked hard to decrease the number of "no" answers I've made.

kystorms on 7/27/07, 12:27 PM said...

As jericho saved said.. I too had a very ethical grandmother, and to this day consider my actions as if they were being viewed by her and try very hard to base my behaviour on that.She is gone now... but still looks over my shoulder and I am thankful for the ethics my entire family instilled in me. I think we might want to return a bit to common sense ethical behaviour, such as what you describe here.

Rich on 7/27/07, 2:04 PM said...

Hey JS and Kystorms,

Ditto. Grandmothers rock; most tell it like it is. I was raised by one of mine for several years. The other is still doing well, living on her own in a dusty cowboy town.

Common sense is a lovely concept. So far, it hasn't abandoned me too often. :)

All my best, Rich

Tiffany on 7/28/07, 4:29 PM said...

I think a growing issue--and one that immediately jumped to mind when you used the phrase "confused about ethics" in your question directing participants to this poll, is that I think that there is an evolving body of alternative ethics that apply a new standard to make ethical determinations--a standard that has nothing to do with what we historically think of as ethics. The sad fact is that there are many people who ARE quite proud of the things they've been able to achieve by misrepresenting, manipulating, double-dealing, etc., and there is a significant sector of society who sees those people as savvy rather than unethical. As such, it may not be that people are confused about ethics at all, but that one person's ethical code is based in the more traditional standards, while another's is based in what is most efficacious for his own goals and he truly sees nothing wrong with that.

Rich on 7/28/07, 5:37 PM said...


That's a very valid point. As IABC even points out:

"These principles assume that just societies are governed by a profound respect for human rights and the rule of law; that ethics, the criteria for determining what is right and wrong, can be agreed upon by members of an organization; and, that understanding matters of taste requires sensitivity to cultural norms."

If people do not value these things and cannot agree that these things are valid or that there is a right and wrong on some level, then law or inconsistent public outcry will continue to be the measure of the behaviors they take pride in.

And while this indeed will put some people at a great disadvantage because they do not accept a world where misrepresenting, manipulating, double-dealing, etc. are too be valued, then I suspect that perhaps they may have to be content to enjoy a better sleep than those who profess to have "savvy" in order to justify their own disregard for what is right and wrong. But just because they profess it doesn't make it true, even if they were in the majority.

Personally, I don't judge people for their lack of ethics (or ignorance for that matter) to think that manipulation is an effective means to get ahead (assuming it does not harm people, though it does). But rather, simply offer up the perspective of a communicator when they seem perplexed why there is public outcry after they are unmasked for fraud or other like dealings. Sooner or later, the truth always seems to slip into view.

My responsibility begins and ends with what I value. As almost every ethical guidelines seem to allude: to your own self be true.

That said, I might add that your observation may sadly correct on some level. Still, I have faith that when given an educated choice and they realize that you can advance faster by being ethical, people will make the right choice as I see evidenced everyday.

All my best,

Vera Bass on 7/29/07, 9:25 AM said...

Hi Rich,

Thank you for the (unexpected) quote and attribution. One thing I'd like to add into the mix is that while most people are familiar with the standards of intent and harm, there is far less general understanding of obligation and duty to others. It isn't a standard that is only applicaple to legal or corporate agents, either, but, for example, to parents as well as to community leaders (formal and informal).

It makes me sad to read commentary that unintentionally identifies a high standard of ethical behavior as old-fashioned. I think it has, however, ever been so, with older generations bemoaning the moral downfall of the newer.

Your faith in people is a good thing. Whether or not everyone deserves it, some will rise to it just because it was placed. :)


Rich on 7/29/07, 6:28 PM said...


Adding the quote and attribution was my pleasure, In one sentence, you nailed it.

Likewise, your comment rings true. As much as some people like to pretend they have no responsibility to others (especially when they have accepted a role that comes with such responsibility), all things in nature strive toward harmony and tend toward organization (not chaos). Only humans, it seems, choose to deviate from this truth, making themselves and others miserable.

I think the most general concepts of ethics is not old fashion, but rather a truth that serves to guide people toward a better way for themselves, more than any other person. I cannot imagine living a life in fear of being found out a fraud or embarrassed to have taken advantage of friends and family or whatever other behaviors and burdens people place upon themselves.

And thank you Vera for your comment on my faith in people. You're exactly right. Sometimes that alone is enough.

All my best,


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