Brands can’t take an ethical position on everything: Ellen Gunning

Ellen Gunning, the director of The Irish Academy of Public Relations, has said brands can’t try to ethically succeed in all avenues and need to instead focus on excelling on one position.

Speaking to attendees at CommsCon, Gunning said that while it may not be easy to identify the one ethical pillar a brand wants to adopt, they should do that rather than choosing too many standpoints and ultimately failing.

Gunning on stage at this year’s CommsCon

“You need to pick the thing you ethically excel at,” said Gunning.

“The decision will be very difficult. You’ll need to eliminate equality. But you can’t be all things to all people.”

Speaking on the new ethics of PR, Gunning used the example of companies which sell bottled water and donate one cent from each bottle to support regions that don’t have access to clean water. While Gunning acknowledged that the subject of plastic bottled water can be a contentious one, the brands supporting this initiative aren’t pretending to solve the plastic crisis.

Instead, they’ve chosen another ethical position to stand in, and through doing that they’ve aligned themselves with a cause and buyers are easily able to see their standpoint. Gunning made the point that given two options, consumers will lean towards the one they perceive to be more ethical. Given two plastic bottles, consumers will pick the one that makes them feel better about their purchase.

“We all like to believe that we’re behaving ethically,” said Gunning.

“The big challenge is you need to stop wearing the cloak and start wearing the waistcoat.”

Gunning went on to say that brands and organisations can hurt themselves by not picking a standpoint on difficult subjects. Using the example of sporting organisations and player behaviour, Gunning said that while organisations may think it’s safer to stay quiet on topics, especially if there are legal ramifications, it’s important that they take a clear stance or else they can risk being marked negatively.

Making your brand or company’s position known is particularly important for attracting great staff, said Gunning, especially if you’re recruiting young people. Younger workers want to feel like they’re making a difference in their work, said Gunning, so they won’t choose to work with you if you don’t have a strong ethical position.


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