Want your business to act ethically? Ask your media team, not just your lawyers

Deciding on the ethical implications of a business decision can be tricky, but there's one simple solution: ask your media team, explains Belinda Noble.

How do you avoid making unethical decisions when there’s strong competing pressures and your organisational culture permits, or possibly even encourages, behaviour that’s a bit risqué?

The Banking Royal Commission has given us some prime examples of decisions that may be technically legal but have still damaged reputations for years to come.

AMP’s former group general counsel, Brian Salter, has argued that changing an ‘independent and external’ review by law firm Clayton Utz 25 times did not constitute wrongdoing and was within agreed terms of reference. Clayton Utz stands behind the report and says the findings were not compromised by AMP.

There are plenty of grey areas in business that lawyers help us navigate. They save us time and time again when we need advice on issues that could embarrass us or damage us.

The problem is that what is legal is not always what is right in the public eye.

I first came across this while working with a council which was being criticised after a tree accident. The property owner had not removed the tree, despite concerns it was unstable and, when a storm hit, the tree fell and damaged a neighbour’s house.

The council had inspected the tree and had acted within the law. But it wasn’t that simple. The people whose house was damaged had a serious backstory. One was being treated for cancer and told talkback radio that she had been forced to live in a caravan while undergoing treatment. She cried while describing the terror of the storm and the financial ruin her family was facing.

Consequently, the public didn’t care if the council had filled out the right forms or not. They didn’t care if the house had been inspected and found to be safe to live in. The council, everyone agreed, should have removed the tree.

Apologies can be a bit tricky. From a PR perspective, you always apologise fully when you’ve messed up. Legally, however, they can be viewed as an admission you were in the wrong and can open you up to a compensation claim.

In this case, council didn’t make a full apology to begin with. That was a mistake. It opened it up to more criticism and it was seen as heartless. In the following days, the council not only apologised but also gave the homeowners emergency financial assistance.

After this episode my guiding star became the court of public opinion, not the court of law.

A similar situation occurred at Australian Red Cross. Paying third party contractors a commission to raise funds is absolutely legal, but the public won’t stomach people being paid under the award for a full day’s work.

The organisation chose to do the right thing and now ensures third party fundraisers receive at least the minimum wage.

If you’re uncertain about taking any business action, ask yourself this; would it look good on the front page of a newspaper? Or even better, ask your media team.

Your media advisors are the ones who should be able to tell you frankly and if required, brutally, whether your actions could damage an organisation’s reputation. You should be inviting their criticism. They are the people who best represent public opinion in your organisation and can tell you if your actions, whether legal or not, will pass the front page test.

Belinda Noble is head of media and communications at the Australian Red Cross.


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