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MARKETING: Take ethical high road and set good example

October 27, 2008

A student bartender explained that the bar owner requires his employees to serve cheap liquor in place of the more expensive liquors listed on the menus. "The customers don't know the difference. So who's hurt?" she asked.

What difference does it make that customers pay for a top-quality product and actually receive a low-quality substitute? Let's see. What kind of ethical standard is the bar owner setting for his young employees? How many businesses down the road will be tainted ethically by them as they move to other jobs, spreading unethical practices and their jaded attitudes? And what could happen to the bar's business when customers discover the duplicity?

This is one example offered by Kathy Fitzpatrick, professor of public relations at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, who presented the Ethics Month program in September for our Hoosier chapter of the Public Relations Society of America. A licensed attorney, accredited PR professional and a published academic, Fitzpatrick has earned a national reputation for her leadership in ethical standards.

Fitzpatrick spoke on the implications of ethics on the credibility and advancements of the public relations profession. But in the course of her remarks, she used some examples from her college students that raise many questions about poor ethical examples that business people set for young employees.

Remember how your mother always told you to never behave in a way that you wouldn't want reported on the front page of the local newspaper? Surely, you grew up with that little voice in the back of your head that speaks to you whenever you have a choice between the "right" thing and the thing that seems sweeter but makes you think "no one's looking."

Ethics is all about making the "right" choices. Taking the high road.

Think of the public outrage and disgust recently as AIG executives spent nearly a half-million dollars on a posh retreat even as they were soaking up $85 billion in governmental bailout-which the rest of us will pay for over a long period of time. In fact, the recent financial failures appear fraught with unethical behaviors.

A few years ago, students in India rioted because they had been penalized for cheating on exams. Their rationale? They had the right to cheat in order to score well enough to get good grades and ultimately good jobs. Are those students the type you want to hire for your business? What effect would such an employee have on your other employees?

Remember, your company's brand credibility relies upon your managers' and employees' behaviors with customers, vendors and others. If you externally tout your organization's integrity and honesty, then you need to set ethical policies internally with your managers positioned as role models for ethical behavior.

"Good or bad conduct can be contagious, so make sure your senior management models appropriate behavior internally and externally," attorney Stephen M. Goldman, a professor of corporate law at Catholic University, wrote in the September 2008 issue of PRSA's Public Relations Tactics publication.

Goldman continued, "In addition, make sure that your external relationships with business partners, clients and customers reflect who you are as an organization. Each interaction is an opportunity to support your brand."

Think of the string of companies that have crumbled over the past decade because of wrongdoing and unethical, dishonest behaviors. The fallout hurts many people: those who lose their jobs, those who lose the money they invested in the company and the families of all those affected by those losses.

Your organization must set the standards for employees' behaviors. Your managers must model the "right" thing to do, which includes serving customers the quality product they think they're paying for, whether it's liquor or anything else.



Millar is CEO of Millar Communication Strategies Inc., a public relations firm that offers strategic planning, including crisis planning/communication/recovery. She can be reached at 2500 One American Square, Indianapolis, IN 46282, or call 639-0442.
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