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Perspectives Blog: Blog Posts

Cross-functional Ethics: Have Conversations, Build Culture, Ask Questions, Plan Contingencies

Friday, September 29, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Mo Schriner
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The conversation with the Minnesota PRSA “Ethics Matter” panel offered perspectives of a CEO, human resources VP, corporate attorney and communications director. The panelists had a clear consensus on how to foster ethical behavior across business functions: It’s based on relationships, company values and culture.


Good relationships should be in place to manage issues before they become ethical crises, said panel moderator Margaret Ann Hennen, APR, Fellow PRSA, and Minnesota PRSA ethics officer.


Relationships begin with casual conversations. “The first thing I do when I start a new job is to take the lawyers out to lunch,” says Ben Saukko, APR, director of communications at AmeriPride. Human resource staff also top his “have lunch” list. Informal talks with executives are key to building trust “so they respect your opinion."


One ethical conflict is having enough time for formal ethics communication, says Carrie Patton, SHRM-SCP SPHR, human resources vice president for Cushman & Wakefield NorthMarq. She frequently partners with marketing staff on projects to develop the company’s voice in communicating with employees, but partnering to communicate about ethics happens less often due to time constraints.


The key is to constantly, repetitively communicate the company’s values, says Nancy Lyons, president and CEO of Clockwork. “Our reputation is built on our values.” The value of trust starts when hiring employees. Every employee should be empowered and equipped with language to be good brand ambassadors, says Lyons.


"Values create the company culture," says Matthew Stump, JD, attorney for 3M’s critical & chronic care solutions division. He sees the culture of 3M in the daily emphasis placed on 3M’s values by the C-suite executives, which radiates to others. “The starting point is to believe people are trying to do the right thing.”


“Culture requires as much attention as sales and marketing,” Lyons adds. Corporations are struggling to build a culture where employees are accepted as the “creative, messy, interesting selves” they bring to work.



Carry the Code with You

The PRSA Code of Ethics is at the core of professional communications – center your work around it. Do you know what values are covered by the code? Schedule time to review. The code is easily accessible online or as a PDF file, or download the PRSA Code of Ethics app. Check out case studies and try the online quiz.


 There are several actions PR professionals can take to foster ethical behavior within the organization they communicate for.


Ask questions:   What do you need to ask yourself, and ask from others within the company, to be open and honest in addressing ethics? Heather Cmiel, APR, marketing communication supervisor at 3M Health Care and president of Minnesota PRSA, added to the panel’s advice, “The best organizations acknowledge their vulnerabilities.”


Committing to the truth from the start is essential, says Lyons. “My job is 99 percent ruining people’s lives,” jokes Lyons, because she is up front with telling clients both good news and bad news, and setting realistic expectations.


Being realistic is a key ethics point for human resources and legal functions as well. HR is often balancing regulatory compliance with what happens in real life, Patton says. Stump adds attorneys face the same challenges. “The best lawyers I work with bring a solution-oriented approach to the table."


Realistically, some companies have executives who don’t seem to have intrinsic ethics, Saukko says. In those situations, communicators need to be persuasive. “Make the argument that ethical behavior creates better business outcomes,” an argument based on research, he adds.


The panelists agreed honest conversations happen when employees feel valued, trusted and supported, even if they make mistakes or blow the whistle on problems they see.


Develop and practice contingency plans:  It’s easier to make ethical decisions when a plan is in place. Saukko cites from memory his contingency plan for a crisis: the first calls go to communications, legal and the affected business unit. Patton says HR should be added to that initial call.


Managing a crisis requires a clear message in response, which should repeat, and demonstrate, the company’s values, says Lyons. The organization also needs collaboration – with employees, clients and partners, customers and others. “Instead of working against each other … figure out how to move forward together."


A plan isn’t a plan unless you practice it, adds Cmiel.


Thanks to Rocket55 for hosting this event at its beautiful Northeast Minneapolis offices.


About the Author: Mo (Maureen) Schriner has 20+ years of communication experience in journalism and strategic communications.(

Minnesota PRSA
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