For firm and staff alike, ethics are good business

In the world of PR and public affairs, the reasons employees struggle with ethical issues are varied: avoiding conflicts of interest, for example, or being transparent about who or what funds a particular project.

In the world of PR and public affairs, the reasons employees struggle with ethical issues are varied: avoiding conflicts of interest, for example, or being transparent about who or what funds a particular project.

Whatever the grounds, agency executives say, ensuring that staff maintain good ethical behavior is an ongoing process, and one with long-lasting benefits for agency and staff alike.

Because ethics are wrapped up in just about everything PR pros do, the goal at Brodeur is to always have staff "reflect on themselves and their role," says Andy Coville, CEO of the Boston-based firm.

According to Coville, Brodeur hosts annual professional-development workshops that help employees stay cognizant of ethical issues. These are updated every 12 months to incorporate current events related to transparency issues, codes of conduct, and so on, and feature speakers in the legal profession or the media providing overviews of various issues.

Practicing ethical behavior is not just the "right" thing to do, Coville explains, but also benefits the firm in general, since happy employees serve clients more effectively.

LA-based CarryOn Communication, too, holds regularly scheduled training sessions that address ethical issues such as conduct and transparency. But it also conducts case-study presentations that ask staff to consider ethically compromising situations and practice resolving them, helping them prepare for potential dilemmas.

To make sure staffers always feel comfortable, the firm tries to be entirely "employee-focused," says J.P. Schuerman, MD of CarryOn's LA office. That means encouraging employees to object to any tasks asked of them by clients that make them feel uneasy or ethically challenged.

"If the client puts them in an awkward situation, they know that they're not going to lose their jobs because the client asked them to do that and they didn't want to," Schuerman says. "If it's an uncomfortable situation, they can take it back into the agency and take a serious look at it. [They] don't have to be bullied by the client."

Of course, pressures to win new business or please existing clients are some of the reasons ethical practices are a constant consideration, notes Vanguard Communications president Maria Rodriguez, whose DC-based firm does similar role-playing exercises to foster continual ethics education.

Before taking on new clients, she says, Vanguard not only vets them for conflicts of interest with existing clients, but also whether their work matches the firm's overall mission of creating social change.

At DC-based Spectrum Science Communications, president John Seng says his firm's emphasis on doing what's right starts even before new employees begin their jobs, when they are given a 50- to 60-page review guide of personnel policies covering best business practices. In addition to weekly staff meetings, a mentoring program, and management meetings, Seng says ethical practices are reinforced simply by the behavior of management during daily events, such as conference calls with clients.

"It's about the reputation of [both] the firm and [individuals]," Seng says. "It takes years to build a good reputation. It can take minutes to undo it."

Key points:

Ethical practices and training merit continual consideration/evaluation

Agency heads set an example for staff when it comes to ethical behavior

Staffers who feel their ethics aren't compromised by clients or colleagues will more likely succeed and do their best work

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