Why Do Companies Struggle With Ethics?

As a graduate PR student, and a sometimes-PR-professional, I find it helps to take an interest in the way brands communicate and are perceived by the public. What I really enjoy, however, is a PR meltdown; watching a brand’s reputation fall apart, usually due to some form of unethical behavior. Morbid? Maybe. Better than reality TV? Definitely.

Last week, I wrote about the PR maelstrom surrounding Hot Pocket’s questionable decision to keep its recall of “diseased and unsound meat” under wraps. It got me thinking: why do so many brands and organizations find it so difficult to stay within the lines when it comes to ethics?

Honestly, it’s a little confusing. After all, whether or not consumers notice a brand behaving ethically can strengthen, distort, or kill a PR message. And, believe me, they’re always going to notice.

Where ethics are concerned, it’s important to remember that organizations are dealing with a collective audience that can talk amongst themselves. Even if 98% of consumers miss a company’s ethical transgression, the 2% that spotted it soon take to social media to inform the others. Suddenly, you have a crisis on your hands and people like me saying “I told you so.”

But, how do companies avoid this situation? Here are some generalized rules for when things are reaching ‘crisis’ level (headings courtesy of Fraser P. Seitel’s Rethinking Reputation):

Don’t denounce

It’s never wise to merely denounce a claim or situation as an untruth, even if it is. People require more. Wherever possible, consumers need to be addressed appropriately. This includes providing relatable, human insight and evidence into the company’s decision or mistake. It also includes telling the truth.

And yes, keeping quiet or purposefully neglecting to disclose information is lying by omission. I’m looking at you, Hot Pocket.

Don’t defame

Just don’t. Don’t be that guy.

Don’t deflect

Attempting to shift blame or distract when your brand is involved in a crisis is a mistake. Ultimately, consumers don’t really care if it’s your fault or not. Regardless of how minimal your connection to the event is, it is up to you to take ownership of the situation and apologize if you’re implicated.

Like defaming, deflecting blame looks wildly unprofessional. People connect with humility and utilizing it will minimize reputational damage.

Don’t dismiss

In times of crisis, dismissing a situation can be fatal. Opting to ignore the predicament can result in a brand losing control of the conversation and the audience dictating the agenda; governing what will be discussed and when.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, if a brand isn’t the first one to tell its story, someone else will be telling it for them. As a PR student, the thought of this happening during a crisis makes me break out in hives. If you don’t have a similar reaction, you’re underestimating your audience.

However, if you’re only going to take one thing away from this blog post, remember this golden rule:

Back up any disclosure of information or apologetic message with action, whether it be taking steps to investigate the situation or to ensure it doesn’t reoccur. In doing this, organizations can retain credibility and goodwill. This is an important step. The internet, and by extension the modern marketplace, is rife with cynicism. The majority won’t take your words at face-value.

Oh, and remember: If you’re trying to decide whether you should say something or not… Don’t say it. Not without giving me a heads-up so I can get some popcorn ready.