Pushing the frontiers in communication ethics

In public relations (PR) and marketing, ethics include values such as honesty, openness, loyalty, fair-mindedness, respect, integrity and forthright communication. These values are at the forefront of our practice.

Head shot of Kerry Sheehan,
Kerry Sheehan Chart.PR, FCIPR – Government Communication Service

For government communicators, the ethical values in public relations and marketing are also linked to The Nolan Principles and the Civil Service Code.

Ethics in communication and marketing requires adherence to the core values and are critical to build and retain the trust of those we communicate with, retain employees and can lead to greater innovation in our disciplines.

As we mark the seventh Global Ethics Day on Wednesday 21 October 2020, it’s important we continue to think about the responsibility we have in guiding ethical behaviour of our audiences.

Questions of how to guide behaviour and differentiate between right and wrong have intrigued humankind for thousands of years. From the ancient philosophy of Socrates, through the moral codes of major religions, to the Enlightenment and modern-day philosophy, we explore the questions of right versus wrong, good versus evil, light versus darkness.

Defining the scope of ethics in government communication

A PR and marketing professional has a huge responsibility when it comes to defining and implementing the ethical conduct in their area. We must research and identify potential problems and find viable solutions in an ethical manner.

Therefore, ethics can be defined for communicators as how we ought to decide, manage, and communicate.

Ethical considerations are also a vital part of executive decision-making as communicators move more into the policy advisory role to support the government’s key objectives.

Providing an objective ethical analysis to senior management is when one-way communicators can add value to the effectiveness of the organisation.

However, as the communications and media landscape becomes more crowded with ‘dark actors’ at play misinformation and disinformation being deployed at a rate never witnessed before, accelerated during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, it’s even more important for communicators to uphold ethical standards.

The ethical challenges of artificial intelligence

An effective government communication relies on trust which can be built and maintained across all of its audiences. This is even more so the case now with the increased use of data and artificial intelligence (AI) within communication.

As government departments and organisations are becoming more digital, data-driven and agile in response to stakeholder expectations and the COVID-19 pandemic, more focus is being placed on AI and its role in organisational systems, ways of working and decision-making.

But before communicators begin to play with all the new, shiny automation and AI tools that are available to us, we must consider that AI can have ethical challenges which we need to understand.

My colleagues at the Government Communication Service are trusted advisors not only on communication, but about the purpose and values of our organisations. As we transform and look to utilise AI, there is a huge opportunity for us. Ethical and reputational guardianship should be at the heart of how our organisations approach and implement AI.

Only last week, we held the first webinar on data, automation and AI at GCS and we have planned more work on the subject in the near future.

How can we trust the AI?

AI and machine learning can generate challenges. This requires the human mind to focus on ethics at every turn of activity because every mistake will be perpetuated and amplified in the data -‘algorithmic universe’.

Trust in ethical AI is paramount for audiences to realise its true potential. Poorly designed and executed AI projects will ruin reputation.

To gain trust, communication professionals must ensure transparency and inclusiveness in governance, design, testing and deployment and be aware of our biases (both conscious and unconscious), of diversity and privacy throughout the process. Communication professionals need to be involved in all stages of development.

We must learn about AI and its ethical dilemmas, in addition to ensuring our high standard of ethics in our communication continues.

The Ethics Guide to Artificial Intelligence in PR I contributed to, sets a framework for arriving at ethical decisions with a five-step process:

  • learning about AI
  • defining the PR and AI pitfalls
  • identifying ethical issues and PR principles
  • using a decision-making framework
  • and deciding ethically

To help with identifying ethical challenges in AI, the data ethics canvas from the Open Data Institute has been utilised and the sixteen public relations ethical principles come from the Global Alliance’s Code.

Communicators are now considered some of the best professionals to consult and advise on ethical behaviour in the instance of a dilemma.

Communicators should be the ones to alert senior management on ethical issues and also know the values of both internal and external publics, using these in astute analyses and ultimate resolutions of ethical dilemmas.

Communication professionals must pay more attention than ever before to ethics.

Further reading:

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  • Kerry Sheehan Chart.PR, FCIPR - Government Communication Service (1)