To protect, preserve, and promote the privilege to operate

Unethical behaviors do not give birth to sustainable social or business models.

My last post explored the dangers of believing that the notion of right and wrong is completely subject to localized customs and PR should conform accordingly.

We now know the folly of that flawed line of thought, as the irresistible force of transparency makes every act known eventually. Certainly there will be resistors and laggards who “successfully” maintain a corrupt culture for a period of time, but the smart money says it cannot be sustained.

In my earlier post, I cited China's ongoing campaign against corruption. But let's step back for a moment and examine why China is cracking down – and why now. President Xi Jingping sees what unethical decision-making breeds: it creates enemies and fuels public outrage; it creates a bigger divide between haves and have-nots; it defeats the earnest efforts of those who work hard and honestly. And that's just for starters. When corruption rules the marketplace, products don't work as they should, medicines are ineffective or poisonous, environments are spoiled, food becomes unhealthy or downright dangerous, and public services don't work well if at all. In China, all of this leads to one thoroughly unacceptable outcome: social unrest. 

Even a fundamentally atheistic country such as China is embracing the more practical reasons to fight immoral and unethical behaviors. Why? It's simple: unethical behaviors do not give birth to sustainable social or business models. Society, sooner or later, simply refuses to tolerate them.

And when we concede that business models based on corrupt behaviors aren't sustainable, we are led to what amounts to a natural law of commerce in the developed and developing world: no organization can exist without the permission of its publics. In our business, this has been an axiom since the early days of Arthur Page and even before that.

So who or what should govern, or at least set the tone, for a culture of ethical decision-making? Speaking of Arthur Page, the Arthur W. Page Society has long placed a major focus on corporate character, with ethical decision-making is at its heart. We are, after all, the sum of all of our actions. There is no language more powerful than what we do. Thankfully, today, I see a growing awareness of that in our profession, along with a renewed emphasis on cultivating the character of an organization that is true to its values and whose objectives are in harmony with those of society.

That's a big task. It should fall to the CEO to set the tone or the organization is doomed. But it's also the job of the CCO and agency partners to be “on watch” for the CEO. In a speech I gave in late October at the University of Maryland, I drew a parallel between brand management and character management. We have come to accept brand management as a culture. In that culture, every decision is filtered through the brand promise and the experience it is designed to deliver. If the initiative does not support the brand experience, it dies. 

Likewise, CCOs, in collaboration with their fellow C-suite colleagues, can layer character management on top of virtually any other cultural emphasis. Whether an engineering culture, a sales culture, an entrepreneurial culture, or a brand culture, all can accommodate an overlay of management concerned first and foremost about the impact each decision has on the character of the company.

The responsibility for creating this powerful source resides in the office of the CCO. No other function spans an organization so completely, or views the world more holistically through the spectacles of multiple stakeholders. It is, in its most elemental stage, a form of organizational governance, setting the rules – written and unwritten – about “what is acceptable around here.” The cost of not attending to this function in an urgent way is not some ethereal intangible. It's cold, hard cash squandered. It's market share lost. It's hefty penalties and, sadly for some, jail time. It's the loss of our privilege to operate.

Of course, when we step up to this character management role and help our organizations get it right, the benefits are equally tangible in the form of sustainable growth and success. To my mind, no role we can play earns us a more valuable or sustainable place at the table than this one.

Dave Senay is president and CEO of FleishmanHillard.

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