Character and Values: where marketing and crisis prevention meet up

I commented on the News Corp/Murdoch saga by pointing out the paucity of comments about the underlying issue of that crisis: character and values. Then this article appeared in Bulldog about the role of ethics in building brand loyalty.

I may not be that clear on the fine distinction between ethics, morality, character and values, but it is clear from research and from intuition that consumers take into account their perceptions of whether a company is “good” or “bad” when making decisions. The Bulldog article focuses on a company’s goodness or badness related to its environmental stance, its relationship to the community and “its terms of operation,” which I assume mean its behavior toward its employees, competitors and other markers of ethics.

This area of character and values is where marketing meets up with crisis prevention. As Peter Firestein pointed out in his book “Crisis of Character” crises often spill out of the ethical/moral/character issues of senior management. But it would be a mistake to think that this is a PR, or “spin” issue. Authenticity is key and cannot be overstated. I remember working with a company on a green marketing initiative and I advised unless they, the company owners, were personally committed to a strong environmental posture they ran the risk of customers seeing the green initiative as window dressing. Like children, consumers are not easily fooled. Action must issue ultimately from the heart and soul and conviction of those making those decisions. To operate with the intent to create an impression or right perception rather than out of the impulse of character and values is to risk the good that could come from it turning into further harm. A telling example is the ill-fated “Beyond Petroleum” initiative. Ultimately, it was doomed and became another reason to heap on BP because the investment that an oil company is able to make in non-renewable sources is dictated more by market forces than it can possibly be exclusively by the commitment of senior management no matter how sincere they may be. Such is the reality of publicly traded companies and the competitive market for investment.

Public relations professionals have a very important role to play in this issue of character, values, ethics and corporate behavior. First, they need to help senior management understand that ultimately the company’s reputation will be based on public perception of their character. A crisis event displays that character in action like no other activity. Second, they need to help the senior leadership and entire company understand that crisis prevention is both possible and essential but it is based on everyone in the company having a common understanding of doing what is right. Third, they need to study intently and deeply understand the values and priorities of the public and the marketplace. Because perception about these things has to do with an alignment of values. If your marketplace does not think highly of hunting elephants, then for goodness sake, don’t trumpet the fact that your CEO gets quite a kick out of “protecting African villagers by thinning the herd” (Mr. Go-daddy CEO). I’m not saying that you should simply mimic the values of your core audiences because that would not be authentic. But if there are serious differences in the character, values and ethical stance of the CEO and senior leaders with the people whose opinion about the organization matters most for its future, then a problem is all but inevitable. And as a PR manager, the best you can do is point out that issue.

As I think about this, there is a simple and very powerful guide to all this: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.