Dis-close to right

Recently, Jim Lukeszewski (world-renowned crisis communication consultant and co-author of the current code of ethics for the Public Relations Society of America) asked me to contribute to the process of creating a new “Ethics Standard Advisory” from the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. This ESA, a supplement to the code of ethics, regards disclosure. In this context, disclosure means providing relevant information about an organization or crisis in both a timely and complete manner.

Most professional communication practitioners advocate for disclosure, but the ethical question becomes just how much, and what, should be disclosed - and when. Many stakeholders outside an organization’s leadership demand unequivocal revelation of information, particularly in instances where the stakeholder perceives some level of crisis.

In our discussions of the ESA, it seemed prudent to preface any ethics discussion with exposition of the times when disclosure clearly is not possible. Jim suggested these situations can be considered “Process Nondisclosure.”

Process Nondisclosure represents situations where conditions exist that legally preclude disclosure, and therefore do not represent “unethical nondisclosures.” These include: material information about publicly held companies (insider information); institutional secrecy, i.e. grand jury proceedings, police reports in criminal matters or personal information related to employment; proprietary information in commerce; court ordered non-disclosure; privileged communications; various classifications of secret government information; and officially sealed records and data.

While some people may bristle at not being provided information legally protected in the situations suggested above, the really messy part begins on the edges of legitimately withheld information. Especially in a crisis, once individual judgment of organizational leadership comes into play, the true transparency of the firm will be revealed.

In any question of disclosure, one needs to differentiate between what any stakeholder may “need or should have to inform their decisions, plans and actions” and what these individuals have a “right” to know. Certainly a consumer or other community member endangered by a firm’s product or actions should have the “right” to know post haste, but in many instances that individual’s desire to inform decisions, plans and actions for personal gain may not represent a “right.”

The demands of stakeholders (activists and media primarily) on companies in crisis to disclose the unknown or even unknowable details of an incident create great consternation for me. Certainly being forthright trumps hiding the truth, but there appears to be ever stronger pressure on firm spokespeople to speculate and prostrate themselves before all the facts become available. No one wins when this happens.

Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is director of the Master of Business Communication Program at the University of St Thomas Opus College of Business.