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Amid 2020 COVID Pressure, PR Must Mitigate Higher Ethics-Crisis Risk

By Mary Beth West, (@marybethwest) MPRCA, Co-Chair, PRCA Ethics Council (#PRCAethics).

Of the required reading for public relations practitioners at every level of experience, the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s (ECI) Global Business Ethics Survey report entitled, “Pressure in the Workplace: Possible Risk Factors and Those at Risk” deserves high-priority.


The benchmark survey – spanning 18 countries, with 180,000 employees surveyed – details how organizational change can unleash risk factors for unethical misconduct in organizations globally.

And as PR folks know, “misconduct” in our parlance is spelled C-R-I-S-I-S.

Of interest to global PRCA members: the ECI report provides statistical data as to the extent that “employees feel pressure to compromise their organization’s ethics standards, policies or the law,” by global continent, which highlights a degree of cultural nuance worldwide.

ECI has noted, “Results show that employees working in organizations with four to seven significant changes in 12 months were two times as likely to say they observed misconduct than employees working in an organization without any significant changes.”

The ECI survey isolates six types of misconduct and captures data points for each:

1.      Abusive behavior

2.      Conflicts of interest

3.      Corruption

4.      Discrimination

5.      Sexual Harassment

6.      Violations of health and/or safety regulations

ECI’s research shows that “weak leadership” is statistically documented to be tied to ethical compliance failures / misconduct.

Consequently, for public relations practitioners, the criticality of our role in promoting a strong leadership culture cannot be understated.

PR practitioners must inherently stand as strong leaders themselves, with true peer-level share-of-voice and influence at every decision-making table to help cultivate not only strong leadership choices as they relate to positive public relations impacts but also positive leadership cultures that foster internal integrity, disclosure, transparency and compliance.

Relative to COVID-19’s onslaught of change-on-acid that global management and employee teams have had to absorb without warning this year, ECI further states:

“It is important to note that while questions on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic were not included in the 2019 GBES, COVID-19 may be having similar repercussions in 2020. Organizations have had to react quickly and undergo many organizational changes, such as moving employees to remote work, increasing flexible work schedules, implementing cost-cutting measures and executing travel bans.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has led to extraordinary challenges in workplaces across the globe. The impact of the pandemic on employee pressure to compromise their organization’s ethics standards remains to be seen. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be assessed as part of ECI’s upcoming 2020 GBES data collection effort. In the meantime, we can reasonably surmise that the organizational changes resulting from COVID-19 might lead to increased pressure on employees to compromise their organization’s ethics standards…”

Clearly, in “PR World,” ECI’s warning portends of a potential cascading ethical crisis tsunami that may hit throughout the next few years.

After all, ethics breaches pose the worst forms of trust-destructive crisis potential for our clients / employers and the brands they represent.

Public relations agency leaders and consultants should view this scenario as one of a most-urgent ethical calling for their own practices. We should get ahead of this issue and start advising our clients NOW about risk potential that’s likely at hand, quite possibly with change-related ethical misconduct scenarios having occurred already – or, with the stage set ready to occur – right under management teams’ noses, if the ECI statistics are any indication.

Proactive assessments and diagnostic tools to monitor shifts in employee or management-level behaviors, internal whistleblower reporting, compliance / quality failures, operational and financial disruptions, and the like, can serve as red-flags of pending PR disasters and other forms of conflict that may pose reputational risks weeks, months or more than a year from now.

PRCA and ICCO members would be well-served to review the ECI data and begin internal team conversations now to ascertain windows of opportunity for advising clients in helpful, proactive ways – which likely will only enhance the client-firm relationship.

Mary Beth West, MPRCA, is a U.S.-based public relations strategist with 25 years of industry experience. An ECI member (Twitter: @ECInitiative), she serves with Fletcher Marketing PR and co-hosts Fletcher’s “Ms. InterPReted” PR podcast, which routinely features PRCA leaders.