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March 2014
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Ethics in your pocket

Ethics appPity the beleagued engineers at GM back in 2005.

The company was circling the toilet having just recorded what was then the largest financial loss in its history. And its engineers were trying to figure out what to do about an apparently faulty ignition.

They made what professional ethicists would term a teleological or consequentialist decision, i.e., one that produced more good than bad. They decided the cost of recalling thousands of cars to replace a faulty ignition would be more expensive than simply replacing them under warranty when they failed. 

Actually, if they had been good consequentialists, they would have included the effect on customers in their analysis. But in a competitive business obsessed with costs that's not always easy.

Now there's an app for that.

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics has developed an iPad app "for thinking through tough choices." It leads users through a balanced framework of ethical reasoning, identifying all the parties potentially affected and considering five concerns: utility (more good, more bad), rights (more rights, fewer rights), justice, common good, and virtue.  

It's like having Aristotle, Kant, and Mill on your cellphone's speedial.


Crossing the line

Donot crossCreating content at the intersection of a brand's competencies and readers' interests is a good thing. But when taken too far, it can cross a line.

Chevron, for example, has operated a refinery in Richmond, California, since 1902. When the local newspaper went out of business, the company launced an online news site, promising to provide residents with "important information about what's going on in the community."

On the surface, that looks like good corporate citizenship. But the ethical conflicts should have been obvious.

For example, one wonders how Chevron's Richmond Standard would have covered a 2012 fire at its local refinery. That accident cost the company $2 million in fines and restitutions. 

To be sure, Chevron's role in producing the site is clearly noted. And the paper's typical coverage is pretty non-controversial, focusing on community projects like local tree maintencance or BART's new train design

But the site will inevitably face conflicts in covering its owner or any issues that touch it.  For example, in article under the headline "Chevron Speaks," the company rebutted an allegedly "misleading" article in an alternative weekly that was critical of Chevron's planned refinery modernization project. A posting under another section called "Community Speaks" is by a local union official who praised the modernization project and Chevron itself.

I'm sure Chevron is a fine company. Its motives may be pure. But it really crossed the line here. It could have filled the gap in local news coverage in other ways that wouldn't represent such an obvious conflict.



Burson on PR Ethics

BursonMy current long-term project is a book on public relations ethics. (Yes, I know it's an oxymoron in some minds, but still...)

I'm not sure how this will turn out or even if it ever will. But in the course of my research, I ran across something Harold Burson said in an interview with the Page Center at Penn State University.

It deals with the issue of PR practitioners' ethical responsibilities towards their clients and I'm reprinting it here, with slight edits because it's based on a video that isn't always clear:

"I believe that every institution, every person is entitled to have public relations representation. I do not believe that I am compelled in any way or manner to be the one who provides that counsel representation.

"On the other hand I think that [in regards to] unpopular causes which are legitimate [and with] which I may not agree, I do not think it’s unethical for me to represent that client as long as I can do so in a way that my client is not compromised by ... disagreement.

"I think  ... that I am engaged to motivate individuals or groups to take a position or take an action that my client seeks to have taken. I think I should however as a public relations professional make the judgment on whether I represent such a client by asking myself the question, 'is what this client wants to do in the public interest?'

"And I think that is a factor that is very important [and] sometimes overlooked. The fact is I believe that no action can be sustained or successful if, in the long run, it is not in the public interest." 

While existing codes of conduct published by the various professional associations dance around the issue, Burson puts the public interest at the center of ethical decisions in the practice of PR. 

I could devote this entire blog to Harold Burson and never run out of material. Maybe I should.



The ethics of advertising drugs

DtcaIn the world of communications ethics, most discussions focus on lying in its multifarious forms -- spinning, obfuscating, deflecting, etc. 

But totally truthful communications can also raise ethical questions.

For example, here's an issue I've been pondering lately: do the risks of advertising prescription drugs directly to consumers outweigh the benefits?

On the one hand, direct to consumer advertising helps educate patients and makes them more likely to take the drugs a doctor prescribes.  But since pharmaceutical companies advertise only their newest and most expensive drugs, it contributes to the rising cost of drugs.

Furthermore, many physicians complain that patients pressure them to prescribe advertised drugs even though they don't understand the potential risks. In fact, physicians are far more skeptical about direct to consumer advertising than patients.

And there are other questions:

  • To what extent has direct to consumer advertising promoted an attitude that good health is the product of drug consumption rather than healthy habits?
  • Has direct to consumer advertising made the consumption of presecription drugs seem "normal," rather than an extraordinary intervention to cure an abnormal condition? 
  • Are recent increases in direct to consumer drug advertising, prescription drug abuse, and heroin usage simply coincidental or correlated?

DTC-Advertising-ENIndustry spending on direct-to-consumer advertising rose tenfold in the last five years. Prescriptions written for opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin rose more than 500 percent in the same period. There's no question that a lot of those drugs are eventually used for non-medical reasons. As a result, more than 100 Americans die of a drug overdose every day, more than twice the number ten years ago. 

And as prescription drugs become more expensive, harder to get, or simply less effective, they have become a new pathway to heroin addiction. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within 10 years. 

Drug overdoses and heroin addiction in suburban New Jersey have increased so dramtically the state issued a stark warning last year:

"We now live in a state where abuse of prescription pills serves increasingly as a primary route to the unlawful world of heroin, an intersection of the legitimate and the illicit that constitutes a crisis whose devastating consequences are plain for all to see."

Pharmaceutical companies -- many of which make their headquarters in New Jersey -- need to get ahead of this developing crisis. Part of their agenda should include studying the societal effects of direct to consumer advertising. We know that when characters smoke in movies and on TV the rate of smoking among teens increases. Might the same thing be happening here?

Big Pharma may be on the slippery slope Big Tobacco plowed a few decades ago. 



Theater Review: GM on Capitol Hill

Capitol Marquee.001The curtain rose on the congressional hearings into General Motor's ignition problems yesterday. Another performance has been scheduled for today, but with luck the show will then close.

As usual, these hearings followed a familiar plot line in the repertory of these predominantly old war horses. But a visiting cast member, new to this stage, gave a promising performance.

As is well known, Members of Congress treat these hearings as political theater in which they are the stars. There's more posturing at these events than on Fashion Week runways. 

Almost everything knowable by the time the hearing starts has already been summarized in a lengthy memo prepared by the Committee's staff. The real goal of the hearing is to show the members staring down a CEO when they're not raking her over the coals. 

But in yesterday's performance, GM's CEO played her part with exceptional sensitivity and control:

  • She sat alone at the witness table and didn't hide behind lawyers.
  • She didn't succumb to the members' baiting and remained calm and cool.
  • She repeatedly expressed regret and sympathy for the people hurt by the company's long delay in replacing faulty ignitions.
  • She didn't make execuses and explained what she is doing to answer questions like why it took so long to recall the switch, who was accountable for failing to do so earlier, and how it can be avoided in the future.
  • She announced that, in addition to hiring lawyers to find answers to those questions, she has also retained Kenneth Feinberg to address the ethical issues involved, suggesting the company won't hide behind bankruptcy protection.

This last plot point -- a novel twist in a hackneyed plot -- may lift the performance into award territory.

It indicates that GM sees this not an engineering, marketing, or financial problem, but as an ethical issue. That puts the company on the right flight path to restoring its reputation. And it suggests a storyline other companies might consider if cast in the same role.