Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

Amid the news of RBC swapping a handful of its Canadian IT staff for foreign workers, I zeroed in on a post about the bank trying to use crafty “PR-speak” to recover.  The challenge is, few are buying it. Quotes from one of the soon-to-be-replaced employees and resulting news stories had carried the story too far by the time RBC’s CEO spoke of the bank’s “very high priority on Canadian jobs” a couple of days later.

SpinningEdReality is a company’s brand is determined by what others say about it, not the image it attempts to create for itself.  The most brilliant communication is futile when the message is not reflected in the company’s actions.

What may come as a surprise to some is corporate communicators know you’re only as a good as the organization you represent. Simply “spinning” with minimal action to support your message is exhausting and soul-sucking.

Fortunately, those in corporate communication roles have a wide-angle view across the organization to foresee issues and a trained sixth sense to identify and appeal to their stakeholders’ self-interests. This often presents a huge opportunity for communicators to build a business case and steer the company to the “ethical right.”

One way is focusing on this “brand” ideal that marketers and communicators strive to nurture and sustain and how it actually translates into the tangible “goodwill” line in a merger or acquisition. Another way is to re-frame the scenario to highlight long-term threats, as Toby Heaps, CEO and Publisher, Corporate Knights did in a CBC interview when he cited the economic drain of chronic unemployment.

Many astute communicators and PR professionals serve as the company’s conscience by using these and other angles to push for ethical actions based on good business sense, which resonates with decision-makers. In doing so, they also strengthen the corporate message and its impact.

I’ve seen this approach used to persuade decision-makers to take ethical steps, such as restoring socially conscious programs, firing dishonest vendors and treating exiting employees as fairly as possible. Mark Schumann, a former IABC Chair, once referred to this role as being the “organization’s conscience and protector of the corporate soul.” When performed effectively, it’s likely averted many so-called “PR disasters.”

Unfortunately, this approach often fails in the first attempt or the PR team is alerted too late. Still, I suspect there are communicators, possibly in a bank somewhere, who continue to tenaciously pursue ethical practices that really “walk the talk.”

Although it’s usually below the radar, this too is PR and the polar opposite of soulless spinning.

What do you think? Have you seen evidence of this in your work?

6 thoughts on “Reverse Spin: When PR Steers Ethical Practices

  1. Notice that RBC went from “we’re doing nothing wrong, everybody’s doing it,” to taking action, admitting wrong doing and understanding that the oursourcing of jobs is a big issue. Unfortunately, I think they changed, not on the advice of PR people, but because they realized that, thanks to old media and social media, they were going to lose tons of customers. That’s how banks works.


    1. I agree with you Barb. For clarity, I cited RBC as an intro point, not as the ethics poster child. My premise is PR pros are smart enough to know words alone can’t repair reputations and that making complex business decisions to be “nice” won’t cut it either. I agree that the efforts of an astute communicator with the ear of decision-makers can’t take sole credit for ethical actions. However, it’s time to look beyond the “spin doctor” label and recognize the profession’s full or “potential” breadth. Not all PR practitioners or communicators take these steps and if they do, many often fail (probably many times in financial services) but that shouldn’t negate their efforts. And the examples I cited are real but like crisis stories, can’t be broadcast in detail.


  2. Leslie, you are so right. The days of PR spin, if they ever existed, are so past tense. Corporate actions and communications must be in sync to be effective — not always easy to do when different agendas are in play.


  3. No one professional or professional group should have to act as the “corporate conscience”. An organization is either ethical or it’s not. Ethics should be embedded and communicated throughout the organization and be part of its DNA, its corporate culture and corporate governance and communications practices. Fortunately, such organizations exist.


    1. I agree Chitra and thank goodness ethical behaviour is the norm in some organizations. Mark was actually referencing this role in scenarios when a company has “lost its soul” but you’re right, it’s likely too much for one group alone. Also, as I said earlier, I’m not trying to give the corp. communications/PR dept. sole credit but making recommendations to do the “right thing” and ensuring the message is more than words is part of a practitioner’s role that isn’t always apparent.


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