Ethics in public relations can mean two different things. It can mean managing your firm’s reputation, since a reputation for ethical behaviour is of course a central part of the reputation that any company wants for itself. It can also mean ethics in the way you go about managing that reputation, since there are good and bad ways to do that. Sometimes the two go hand-in-hand.
Bloomberg Businessweek recently reported that Brian T. Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, has said he is “incensed” at public criticism of his bank, and has called upon 135 ‘market presidents’ (presidents of local business units) to lobby local officials and remind them of how much good the bank does for local communities. Call it reputation management, call it lobbying. Either way, it’s not at all clear that it is a good substitute for changing the practices that have been angering critics in the first place. It’s also not clear that a focus on ‘all the good we do’ is the right approach. Why not tackle the issues head-on?
Yesterday, at Canadian Business for Social Responsibility’s annual Forum, I got the chance to ask keynote speaker Stephen Lewis about the ethics of lobbying. (Lewis, in addition to being a former diplomat and a UN special envoy, is also a former parliamentarian, so he seemed a good person to ask.) He said that, in his experience—both as a parliamentarian and as someone who has lobbied hard on behalf of many causes—the best approach to lobbying is honesty. Put your agenda on the table, he said, and you’re likely to get a fair hearing.
That rings true, especially in an era in which just about everyone is cynical about corporate motives. Even people who believe fully in the crucial role that business plays in making the world a better place—and yes, that includes banks—are likely to respect you more if you admit that you’ve got an agenda, and that that agenda is not, and properly is not, direct pursuit of the public good.