On taking responsibility

As communicators, we have long sought to avoid accountability.Advertising boasts of demonstrable, persuasive power when sales increase, but the inability of advertising to truly lead the consumer is highlighted when a campaign falls flat.Public relations is claimed to be of vital...

As communicators, we have long sought to avoid accountability.

Advertising boasts of demonstrable, persuasive power when sales increase, but the inability of advertising to truly lead the consumer is highlighted when a campaign falls flat.

Public relations is claimed to be of vital importance to every organization and its continued success, but its precise contribution eludes effective measurement.

For every sales promotion that fizzles, there are at least six good reasons.

In every area of our industry there is an aversion to demands for specific performance from the recommended action.

Communicators want to be on the side of right, even when things go wrong. Clients are encouraged to accept the counsel they receive on the basis of the communicator’s experience or the creativity of an idea. More exacting yardsticks are avoided.

The reasons are often transparent.

For those of us who are consultants, we live in fear that our clients will judge us harshly and move their business elsewhere. So, we are reluctant to encourage measurement which may reveal deficiencies.

In no area of communications is accountability avoided with greater diligence than when questioning turns to ethics.

Do our advertisements, speeches, brochures and promotions have an impact on the values of the receiving audience?

Influence behavior

Does communications have the ability to influence behavior and lead society in new directions? Can the decision of what is right and wrong be shaped by the message contained in a television commercial?

The first line of defence is strongly emphasized in almost every university textbook on advertising.

There is an obligatory chapter which dismisses Vance Packard’s thesis in The Hidden Persuaders as based on incorrect assumptions and a simplistic view of human behavior.

Advertising does not really have the ability to influence or shape consumer patterns, the authors contend.

The text then proceeds through 350 pages of success stories, revealing how a theme, a picture or a creative strategy is used to excite and motivate the consumer.

The contradiction is so thinly veiled that it stands out like an illuminated superboard.

Additional defence is quickly mounted for communications.

David Ogilvy argues that advertising only reflects the values of society, never leading or defining them. This message is echoed in many different ways, but with the same primary argument.

Communications does not have the power to change behavior, nor is the average consumer easily influenced.

Advertising, public relations and promotions play by the rules which have already been written.

The defence rests with the claim that the worst which can be said of the communications industry is that it repeats and promulgates values and messages which society has already embraced.

In other words, do not blame communications – that is akin to shooting the messenger.

The implicit statement is that we, the communication practitioners, do not have a role or responsibility in defining or defending morality, or representing right or wrong.

We simply use the information and values currently in the public forum to get the job done.

There should be no accountability for the impact, if any, on the character of our society, children, political system or basic beliefs.

If we accept this point of view, which is widely propagated, communicators are, by definition, amoral.

We have no responsibility to society for the tone or content of our message. There should be no recrimination for the values expressed. There should be no ethical accountability.

In fact, the ‘code of ethics’ for many agencies is written in this style. There is no comment on the values or constraints that should be exercised. No concern expressed for the impact of a particular message on children, women or society at large.

Usually, the restrictions are limited to a statement which says ‘we will uphold the law.’

In other words, what we do is right and proper, what messages we communicate are beyond criticism as long as the law is not violated.

How sad and incorrect, as lawyers are the first to note, when ethics and legality are seen to be synonymous.

If we wish to see a better society than the one we now have.

If we want our children to grow up with values that lead to fairer, kinder communities than those which are deteriorating around us, we must go beyond the defensive platitudes which have been used to protect the communications industry from ethical accountability and define our conduct in more stringent terms.

Surely we must begin with the acceptance of principles which will guide our work.

Principles which reach higher than the broad definition provided by law.

Principles which seek to define and reflect a commitment to justice and respect which rise above the lowest common denominator of present social behavior.

The task is not always easy – we must ask some tough questions.

For example, does my portrayal of women in this advertisement erode their dignity?

Is this press release an honest reflection of the facts, or does it present a distorted, biased view, failing to recognize the rights of the audience that will receive it?

Does the message being communicates encourage the respect of each person’s rights, or in various ways undermine them?

We all need to develop an approach to communications which seeks to create accountability for the results of our efforts and the values that we convey.

Communications does shape society, and we cannot be divorced from the power of what we do.

As professional communicators, we are far more than windows for society and its values. We also serve to define, clarify and legitimize values and action.

Consequently, we must have the courage to sort through those values and determine which are right and wrong – not just in legal terms, but in social, moral and spiritual terms.

To do less is to prostitute communications. It becomes a servant to any master, an actor without a conscience.

As communication professionals, we are important forces in our society, a position we must acknowledge with humility.

We must face the role we have assumed courageously, and accept accountability for the contribution – or absence of leadership – that we give to our society.

Michael Campbell is president of Marshall Fenn, Toronto, and director of the Institute for Ethics and Leadership at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.

end

The defence rests with the claim that the worst which can be said of the communications industry is that it repeats and promulgates values and messages which society has already embraced.

In other words, do not blame communications – that is akin to shooting the messenger.

The implicit statement is that we, the communication practitioners, do not have a role or responsibility in defining or defending morality, or representing right or wrong.

We simply use the information and values currently in the public forum to get the job done.

There should be no accountability for the impact, if any, on the character of our society, children, political system or basic beliefs.

Amoral

If we accept this point of view, which is widely propagated, communicators are, by definition, amoral.

We have no responsibility to society for the tone or content of our message. There should be no recrimination for the values expressed. There should be no ethical accountability.

In fact, the ‘code of ethics’ for many agencies is written in this style. There is no comment on the values or constraints that should be exercised. No concern expressed for the impact of a particular message on children, women or society at large.

Usually, the restrictions are limited to a statement which says ‘we will uphold the law.’

In other words, what we do is right and proper, what messages we communicate are beyond criticism as long as the law is not violated.

How sad and incorrect, as lawyers are the first to note, when ethics and legality are seen to be synonymous.

If we wish to see a better society than the one we now have.

If we want our children to grow up with values that lead to fairer, kinder communities than those which are deteriorating around us, we must go beyond the defensive platitudes which have been used to protect the communications industry from ethical accountability and define our conduct in more stringent terms.

Surely we must begin with the acceptance of principles which will guide our work.

Principles which reach higher than the broad definition provided by law.

Principles which seek to define and reflect a commitment to justice and respect which rise above the lowest common denominator of present social behavior.

The task is not always easy – we must ask some tough questions.

For example, does my portrayal of women in this advertisement erode their dignity?

Is this press release an honest reflection of the facts, or does it present a distorted, biased view, failing to recognize the rights of the audience that will receive it?

Does the message being communicated encourage the respect of each person’s rights, or in various ways undermine them?

We all need to develop an approach to communications which seeks to create accountability for the results of our efforts and the values that we convey.

Cannot be divorced

Communications does shape society, and we cannot be divorced from the power of what we do.

As professional communicators, we are far more than windows for society and its values. We also serve to define, clarify and legitimize values and action.

Consequently, we must have the courage to sort through those values and determine which are right and wrong – not just in legal terms, but in social, moral and spiritual terms.

To do less is to prostitute communications. It becomes a servant to any master, an actor without a conscience.

As communication professionals, we are important forces in our society, a position we must acknowledge with humility.

We must face the role we have assumed courageously, and accept accountability for the contribution – or absence of leadership – that we give to our society.

Michael Campbell is president of Marshall Fenn, Toronto, and director of the Institute for Ethics and Leadership at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.