The Principles of Ethical Communication

Principles of ethical communication


While many businesses outwardly promote positive values around trust, honesty and transparency in their day-to-day practices. What an organisation says it does and what it actually does, can be two very different things.

Should a business's communications channels be an authentic and clear representation of that business's values and operational practices? The quick answer to this is yes and here we explore why these practices are so important for modern business.


What is ethical communication?

The way people do business is changing. The world over we're seeing business and consumer standards shifting and changing.

From a consumer perspective, we see generational demographics such as Millennials and Gen Z motivated more by activism and positive action in their day-to-day lives. What this means for businesses, in real terms, is that in order to attract a more increasingly ethical audience, businesses really need to prove their worth.

Outwardly, ethical communication is the clear, truthful and concise means of responsibly communicating your business practices. Inwardly, it is driven by the need for the communicator to understand, respect and appreciate its audience's different wants and needs.


Why do you need ethical communication?

Ethical communication is an extension of ethical practices and standards. The better you can communicate your principles and practices, the more value it will add to your organisation.

This could be seen in actual financial value, but perhaps most important is the reputational value that ethical communication can bring to your business.

Your business is built on reputation, as much as it is your bottom line. So maintaining this should be absolutely paramount. But just as using honest ethical communication to bring value to your business, you can detract from your brand value with unethical communication.


Dangers of unethical communication

Being unethical, dishonest or disingenuous in your communication can bring about severe reputational damage to your business and brand. By choosing not to adhere to ethical communication practices, you are opening yourself up to all kinds of potential scrutiny.

In recent times, the most common place we see this is around ESG communication and environmental communications.

You may have heard the terms greenwashing and greenhushing. These are examples of non-ethical communication. Companies from Coca Cola, Unilever, Ikea, Ryan Air and even Quorn have all been greenwashing claims in recent years.

Taking Quorn as an example, in 2020 it launched a new lunch product as a way to address climate change. The marketing messaging for this product included the term “helps us reduce our carbon footprint”,

But the messaging lacked clarity. It wasn't clear what it meant by 'us'

By using 'us' Quorn meant themselves, rather than the wider public. Who was purchasing a lunch product which used single-use plastic packaging, therefore not helping their own carbon fooprint.

An inquiry by the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the ad was misleading. Noting in the process, that since the product was also new it was impossible to determine from the outset, if it could reduce Quorn's carbon footprint.

Now, if it isn't the ASA calling out ethical conduct within communications, there are groups such as The Competition Bureau, Earthsight, Packaging 360, the Changing Markets Foundation and more. All of whom have keen eyes on the communication practices of businesses that are claiming to do things that they arent.


The principles of ethical communication


Honest & Transparent communication

Transparency and honest communication should underpin everything. Your business communication should be the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Don't rely on fragments of the truth, or 'tactical omissions.' Because to do otherwise could severely undermine your reputation and damage your brand value.

You must also factor in the governance and regulation which governs your industry. You need to be sure that you're communicating lawfully, as well as with truth and clarity.

But most importantly, ethical communication is an extension of ethical behaviour. Ethical communication principles are one thing. But if your communications aren't rooted in actual values and practices, then you cannot really be considered an ethical communicator.


Understanding your audience

Communication is a two-way street. It isn't just about presenting messages to your audience. So much of it is about the people, and other businesses, that are receiving your communications.

Having a good understanding of your audience will help you shape your messaging. For example, internal industry jargon may not always fly with every audience, so need to be aware of the words and terms you use. Too much jargon and industry-specific language can often come across as the business trying to bamboozle its way through a situation, with overcomplicated jargon.

You'll also need to consider the means by which you are communicating. Accessibility is a major part of communications, are you creating comms that can be widely accessed by people with varying technological and ability requirements, as well as cultural differences?

For example, if you're putting out a corporate video. Does it come with closed captions to ensure those with hearing issues can consume your communications as easily as those without? And have you considered the need to communicate with those whose native language may not be your own?


Timing is everything

As the headline here suggests, the timing of your communications can be critical.

You may remember, a few years ago, AirBnB found itself in hot water due to a crucially ill-timed piece of email marketing.

The company put out a mailer, promoting floating homes, with the messaging around keeping your heads above water. Sounds fairly innocuous, but at the time the city of Houston was at the mercy of Hurricane Harvey, with much of the population of the city displaced due to extreme flooding.

With pre-planned communications, you need to consider that the agenda may shift and that there may be global forces at play that are out of your hands.

A situation may arise, like with Hurricane Harvey, where pre-planned communications would look incredibly distasteful in the current climate. Harming your once-positive reputation.

It's at times like these you need to take stock and be mindful of the bigger picture.


The importance of ethical communication

Here, we've established why you need to communicate ethically. Whether it's external marketing or internal communications, each and every business needs to practice ethical communication.

There's the point of professional ethics being morally right. As well as the fact that sticking to your morals and your ethical values is a highly effective means on which to build a business. The knock-on effect of businesses focusing more on their ethical conduct and tying this into effective communication, cannot be underestimated.

Fundamentally, the world of business is changing. Consumers are now more environmentally and societally savvy than ever before. They want to do business with companies that reflect their own values, ethical standards and basic principles of morality.

Businesses taking responsibility for how they are externally perceived will inevitably build a strong reputation and a loyal customer base. With their ethical decision-making, aligning with that of their audience.

Internally, those that practice what they preach will increase employee morale and build an employer brand. Thus leading to their company becoming a more enticing place to work. Helping you recruit the best talent, and retain it.