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View from the Street: Are we the baddies? Questioning the ethics of corporate communication

David Gaffney

Senior partner

There’s a classic comedy sketch by David Mitchell and Robert Webb which depicts two Nazi soldiers in the trenches.  

Mitchell’s character is deeply troubled by the skull emblem on their caps and, as the reality of the situation dawns on him, he enquires tentatively of his comrade: “Hans… are we the baddies?” 

I was reminded of that skit this week following an exchange at the public inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal. Mark Davies, the former director of communications at the Post Office, admitted he had been “at the heart of a corporate cover-up”. Julian Blake, the inquiry’s counsel, pressed him: “Had you ever asked yourself, might we be the baddies?” 

It’s a question all good comms people should ask themselves from time to time. It is especially important during periods of acute institutional stress, when the pressure to protect a brand or reputation is greatest. These are the moments we are most at risk of losing our way, without recourse to a moral compass. 

Of course, life doesn’t always divide itself neatly into two distinct camps, one of them right and the other wrong. Humans are complex and dynamic. Issues are layered and not every piece of information is available to us. We cannot define people as good girls or bad boys and forever limit them by those labels.  

Similarly, organisations are not intrinsically evil. But individuals and organisations – even the best ones – do make dreadful decisions and perform abhorrent actions. Companies can be badly managed, influenced by misguided people, led by those with questionable motives.  

That’s why foolproof governance processes and protocols are essential. External comms teams should be a critical – in both senses of that word – part of that governance framework.  

Being a great communicator does not make you a brilliant comms professional. An ability to write well, think creatively, tell compelling stories, articulate complex issues clearly, make arguments, build relationships – these are all essential skills for the best in our game. They are also hallmarks of many infamous dictators, autocrats, conmen and fraudsters.  

A deeply entrenched set of values is as important – if not more so – than an eye for a picture and a flair for composing crisp copy. Integrity, morality, self-awareness, good judgement, a keen sense of justice, a sense of humour; these attributes are harder to quantify but the best comms people will have the lot and apply them to their work consistently, regardless of the circumstances.  

The PR person in the room needs to be the voice of challenge, providing the necessary checks and balances on corporate behaviour by understanding the wider context, by predicting how customers and others will be impacted. They should help set out the rights and wrongs of any given situation and be confident enough to say when something is beyond the pale. 

That is rarely a comfortable role. It is doubly difficult to perform it effectively when you are part of the leadership team – one of the gang – and when your livelihood, bonuses and future success is tied so inextricably to that of the company, the brand, or your colleagues. Indeed, it is one of the ways external consultancies like ours can add real value, by providing a more objective opinion, a view from afar that affords a different perspective.  

Apple may regret not seeking an independent opinion on its latest campaign. The company was forced to apologise for an advert launching the new iPad Pro, which demonstrated an astonishing level of corporate hubris and lack of judgement. Why did nobody see that coming? Maybe they did but felt unable or unwilling to speak up.  

Life is drawn not in black and white, but shades of grey. People are rarely either good, bad or indifferent – they are all of those things, all at once.  

But, when times are tough and the pressure is on to hold the corporate line, we communicators and advisers should stop for a minute and ask ourselves, our colleagues and our clients: Are we the baddies?