Sunday, December 04, 2005

Ethicist in the Boardroom?

During a discussion with Phil Libin a while back he suggested that companies should have an ethicist on board. More specifically, he suggested an outside ethics consultant to help keep them on track.

It certainly seems like an intriguing concept given the recent business history that has brought us to such legislation as Sarbanes Oxley. But while that law, and others like it, focus on the financial obligations of a public company, who's concentrating on making sure all companies, public and private, treat their customers, employees and partners with respect?

Google likes to say that one of its core values is to "do no evil," but as I've suggested before, "evil" is subjective. In Saturday's Boston Globe, Robert Kuttner points out that Google collects a lot of information about its users, information that could easily be turned against us. Let's assume that the government needs that information for a criminal prosecution, is it good to give it over or is it good to protect it? Which part would be less evil? What if we're talking about a terrorism investigation, does that change the equation?

Google collects this information for its own business reasons, but is that good as in, "good for the shareholders" or is it evil as in "infringing on privacy"? It certainly lets Google become a more useful service, but how long should it hold onto that information? And what other purposes can they use it for? Not easy questions to be sure.

Also, once a conflict comes up, what is the right response? Is it a corporate business issue or just a communications issue?

In a discussion about Sony's DRM problems Shel Holtz, in a "For Immediate Release" podcast, suggested that if a communicator had a spot in Sony's executive suite, it's possible that the company may not have tried to spy on its customers.

I only partially agree. Sony's executives needed someone, but that person needed more skills than just communications. Sony's executives needed an ethical consultant who understands technology, it's possibilities, marketing, communications and a bit about modern society. Someone who can keep an outside perspective but still offer advice. But also one that has a strong understanding of who Sony serves most of all: the shareholders.

I think it's Adam Curry who says "there are no secrets, only information you don't yet know." Interesting saying, but when a company is beholden to both its shareholders and its customers (yes, I know there is overlap) then sometimes you need a corporate secret or two, and sometimes secrets should, in fact, be information.

The need for such a consultant will only grow as communication technologies continue to advance. The barriers between customers and companies continue to come down, leaving the companies directly exposed to their consumers.

Really what we're talking about, in a sense, is a corporate ombudsman. I've always been amused by the phrase "customer representative" because a person in that role doesn't represent the customer to anyone, they just represent the company to the customer. Really they're a corporate representative, but that doesn't sound nearly as good. Turn the job around--we need a customer's voice within the company.

But will CEOs accept the advice of such an ombudsman or ethicist?


Shel said...

Chuck, the reason a communicator would have the effect I suggested is simple. Communicators are able to assess the possible fallout of management decisions from a public relations standpoint. In a risk-benefit analysis, they can contribute the risk from a PR point of view, e.g., "We're likely to get caught, and if we do, the consequences will most likely be A, B, and C." It's a perspective nobody else brings to the table. And, if a communicator actually has a seat at the management table, it already means his or her advice is valued. It's the difference between communication-as-hired-gun, brought in to clean up a mess management made, and communication-as-counsel.

Chuck Tanowitz said...

Hi Shel and thanks for the comment.

I agree that whoever has this role should understand the PR impact. In fact, I believe a communicator is a good place to start looking for such a person.

But I'm wondering if it would be more beneficial to broaden the position a bit. It's great to have a PR understanding, but there are additional factors involved here.

Or should we expect the CEO to have this ethical conscience as a job requirement with the communicator as a necessary counselor? It's certainly worth continuing the discussion.