January 20, 2021

Let’s talk about ethics and image of Public Affairs

Working in the intersection between government and business creates a myriad of complex challenges. Ethics is of course an important issue to discuss with your team and reflect upon. Poor ethics, resulting in a shady morality, have been an increasing problem in the past few decades. But PA and lobbyism today still have an image problem. Movies like “Thank You for Smoking” or hit series like “House of Cards” confirm the stereotype or assumptions about people working in the cross-section between business and politics. Even just using the words, “Public Affairs” or “lobbyism”, at a dinner party or in public, can sometimes call for attacks with accusations such as “corruption” or statements like “Ihr seid doch alle gekaufte lobbyisten” as someone wrote in German on Twitter when promoting this guide, which probably doesn’t need any translation.

But as PA professionals we of course need to first look inside our own ranks to change this image. And it of course starts with our behavior and setting a high bar for our code of conduct. It is also in our interest to change this image as it depreciates the value and recognition of the discipline.

Obviously some politicians also share this negative impression of the discipline, which then makes the working conditions even harder. In the 500PAC several depressing examples from PA professionals appeared. For example, a PA person working in the tobacco industry described being denied meetings as they were considered “bad lobbyists” by a politician. Or how about PA professionals from the financial sector being portrayed as “vultures” or “bandits in suits”. It is not unethical to argue a case in the most favorable way possible, so long as this does not entail being less than truthful or withholding significant information. But on the other hand, there has to be an ethical compass guiding our behavior and work. And even though one can argue it is an image problem based on stereotypes or a lack of information, we as PA professionals can still improve our own ways of working. Based on the understandings from the 500PAC, certain ethical considerations or precautions should be considered in your organization:

  • It all begins at the front door:

Ethical considerations shouldn’t be discussed for the first time with your colleagues on the way to your first meeting. They should be clear the minute you walk through the front door of your employer for the first time. Shared values, ethics, and a sense of responsibility should characterize the PA function. This is the first step to increasing the credibility and professional standing of PA, but also to enhance the ethical rectitude of organizations within society.

  • Show a framework or theoretical approach:

The myths or misunderstandings perpetuated about what we do will only cease if we take a more professional approach to our discipline. Showing a framework, a theoretical and transparent approach in our organizations, will underline that we work in a professional, methodical and systematic manner supporting the business targets – as with all other parts of the organization.

  • Create a code of conduct:

Creating a code of conduct in the PA team provides all team members with a clear view on how they should act. And it sends a clear signal to the rest of the organization. What should you include in this? Two elements characterize high-performing PA professionals:

Transparency: Both internally and externally be very open about your actions and activities, who you represent, and remember:

Integrity and honesty: Have a high level of integrity and be honest. You might fool a politician or stakeholder once, but not twice, and it will come back to haunt you. And frankly, as one former politician in the 500PAC put it, “It is easier to be sympathetic to a lobbyist if he or she is honest, also about the disadvantages or pitfalls of their proposals”.

For more inspiration of the content to include in a Code of Conduct take a look at associations such as the Public Affairs Council or Association of Government Relations Professionals

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Anders Kopp Jensen

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