“Now, that escalated quickly”

On the need to build trust through ethics

We live in exciting times.

Digitisation has reached almost all aspects of our lives, and this is especially true for the media. Online media are super-fast, and the big news headlines in the morning can be very different from the evening headlines. We are immersed in an ongoing, constant flow of information, which has become easily available and always accessible. Now it also very emotional. What started with a simple statement on Monday morning can evolve to a tremendous reputation crisis by Tuesday evening. Now, more than ever before, we find ourselves asking: “How has a discussion escalated so quickly?”

Main Image: Mesut Özil playing for Arsenal before his resignation in July 2018. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom - Uploaded by Dudek1337, CC BY 2.0

A recent, very heated debate example is Mesut Özil’s resignation from the German national soccer team following criticsm over his meeting with Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. One can discuss his decision and the events that led to the resignation from various angles. But this is not the focus of this article. The focus of this article is the fact that a simple picture, posted on social media, has provoked so many instant reactions, both positive and negative in tone, eventually sparking an overall national discussion on the obstacles immigrants and their children face in Germany. The German Soccer Association DFB, decision-makers from the political and business sphere, as well as an astonishingly high number of soccer fans from all around the world have participated in a debate that led to an increased tension online and offline.

With this example of the power of communications, the power of a post, and the power of our new digital era, should urge us as professional communicators to think, reflect, and act. It is our profession to communicate our brands, companies and industries. We all want to create societal relevance, to show how our companies’ products and services can improve people’s lives. To do so, we must ensure that people trust us. Trust is something we must earn. Every single time we communicate, we must ensure that we do not jeopardize the trust granted by our internal and external stakeholders.

How can we ensure trust? How do we manage it? And how can we keep it up? Best to start by looking at what helps us to maintain trust. And here, ethics are an excellent starting point. It seems that today it is more important than ever for marketing communicators to have ethics. Ethics builds credibility, removes uncertainty in the decision-making process and, ultimately, builds trust.

First, communicators should follow an ethical code. There are many good examples for such codes of ethics out there. Take, for instance, the European Association of Communication Directors or the Public Relations Society of America. As marketing communicators, where we talk more about products and company initiatives, we should put our heads together and develop our own code of ethics as well.

In an often-cited work on ethics for professionals, “Thinking Like an Engineer”, Michael Davis uses the US Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986 to show the need for a clear code of ethics for engineers. This dramatic example can and should be applied to communication professionals as well: We deal with crisis situations on a variety of levels. Davis sees professional associations as drivers of ethics, and he names four reasons why professionals should support a respective code:

  • “First, engineers should support their profession's code because it will help protect them and those they care about from being injured by what other engineers do.”
  • “Second, supporting the code will help assure each engineer a working environment in which it will be easier than it would otherwise be to resist pressure to do much that the engineer would rather not do.”
  • “Third, engineers should support their profession's code because supporting it helps make their profession a practice of which they need not feel morally justified embarrassment, shame, or guilt.”
  • “And fourth, one has an obligation of fairness to do his part insofar as he claims to be an engineer and other engineers are doing their part in generating these benefits for all engineers.”

Re-reading Davis’ words and replacing the word “engineers” with “communicators”, we see that his words hold true for our profession as well. When we follow an ethical code, we will be mindful of our activities’ implications on other communicators. Also, we will be assured that we have a supportive network of likeminded professionals “having our backs” in difficult situations. Following a broadly agreed, ethical code will help us feel good and proud about our profession. It will enable us to recognize any potential threats to our fellow citizens, our companies, employees and community. In doing so, we will be able to shape the way we as humans discuss controversies and help us keeping a respectful tone. But most importantly: ethical communication means that we as communicators accept responsibility for the messages we convey to others.

Be it for internal communications with employees, external communications with the public and the media or political communications, the foundation of our communications should be to act truthful and consistent with our value system. While messages can be perceived both positively and negatively by our audience, they will in any case appreciate transparency and truthfulness.

A good example of how this could or should be done is the Özil example and the way the German performance during the World Cup was commented on by the DFB. Was it ethically in order to issue a post-mortem blame on one of the players? Probably not. Would it have been more appropriate to acknowledge a poor team performance and to bridge to a brighter future? Probably yes. What looks so easy in retrospect is actually very tough to decide once you are in the middle of something. That is exactly what ethics are for. Especially in times like these, where topics can escalate so quickly. 


Jonathan Graham

Jonathan Graham is senior manager of global communications for TE Connectivity’s Industrial business in Darmstadt, Germany and serves on the executive committee of the Sustainability Green Printing Partnership. In his role at TE, the global leader in sensor and connectivity solutions, he manages external and internal communications. For SGP, the leading sustainability certification for the printing industry, he leads the marketing activities and chairs the SGP Foundation. Jonathan has a master’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi in the United States.