Self-regulation – outsourced ethics?

Blog by Henrik Rydenfelt, Researcher, University of Oulu; Vice Chair, VEN – The Finnish Council of Ethics for Communication

Communication ethics is the critical reflection and revision of practices of communication.

The scope of this reflection may be narrow or wide. Narrowly speaking, it aims to assess the ethical merits of this or that particular action or practice. In a broad sense – the sense which is often forgot – it asks what sort of a culture of communication we should foster and engage in.

Among communication professionals, just like among any groups of professionals, there is a danger, however. Think of the way in which ethical ideas and concepts are invoked within your professional life.

For one thing, your company more than likely has a strategy with a bunch of value-laden words – suggested by a consultant, presumably based on a workshop which you may or may not have attended. But even if these framed concepts somehow translate into practice (which is itself often doubtful), research shows that value-laden notions and codes of conduct will be understood very differently by different people in different contexts.

Secondly, there’s all that CSR. Businesses are increasingly engaged in reporting their activities from the point of view of “responsibility”. But are these reports motivated by actual ethical considerations? Who reads them?

Thirdly, there’s the gospel of nice corporations. At a hefty price, millionaires and billionaires will sit between you and a beautiful set of powerpoint slides and tell you the secret to their success. Without exception, that secret includes appreciating other people, fostering innovation and new ideas, and taking care of employees, colleagues and the environment.

That one time when they out-priced a new competitor which had a better idea, hired its employees and destroyed every trace of their superior innovation doesn’t get mentioned.

All of the three practices just mentioned may surely be useful as tools and as inspiration for ethical reflection. The problems begin when we think that engaging in these (and various other) practices, or hiring someone to do so, amounts to actual ethical criticism and revision – when we outsource our ethics.


Self-regulation: the Finnish case

In 2015, associations of communications professionals came together and founded the Council of Ethics for Communication in Finland. This development was possible in a small country with a high level of professional organization and a long tradition in self-regulation, especially within the media.

The Council was born out of perceived practical need. For one thing, ethical issues and questions had started to appear on the everyday agenda. It was understood that no one person – such as a managing director of an association – could single-handedly respond to all of them and represent the whole profession. A larger panel of experts was required.

Another issue concerned problematic situations that could emerge between professionals and their employers or clients. Sometimes professionals were asked to do what they thought they shouldn’t be doing. They needed an ethical code which they could rely on and refer to.

Self-regulation. A council and a code. Here’s the question you should be asking: how is this not outsourced ethics?

There’s no single and simple way to avoid the pitfall; here’s three ways to make sure that the ethics really comes from within the profession.

Firstly, the council and its code should be based on (and constantly engaged in) gauging the expectations of the profession and its stakeholders, including their organizations and outside collaborators such as consultants. The code is by the professionals and for their actual practices.

Secondly, an ethical council should be proactive and address potential puzzles before they become actual problems. The Finnish council discusses and assesses general practices so that its ideas and comments could be helpful to the broadest possible number of professionals in their everyday choices.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, councils should always remind themselves that their role is primarily to foster and give tools for ethical reflection among professionals – rather than be another opportunity of outsourcing that reflection to the “experts”.