Chapter 3: Strategic Communication Ethics
Before reading the section on conflict of interest, think about the following situation:
Should a newspaper travel writer accept a free hotel stay, airline ticket, meals, and so on from a resort as an enticement to get the writer to do a story? Does this produce real or perceived bias in the resulting reporting? Is this arrangement disclosed to readers? What if the only way the newspaper could afford to have a travel writer was to accept such free offers? What kinds of conflicts, real or perceived, need to be considered?
Conflict of interest is “a clash between a person’s self-interest and professional interest or public interest” (Business Dictionary, 2016). Communication professionals should try to eliminate any action that may compromise their impartiality or the interests of their organization. That includes separating personal interests from the organization’s goals.
The definition seems straightforward, but real-life situations can be murky. As a professional working at an advertising agency, should you take on two clients who are competitors? Most within the industry would say that you should inform both parties of the situation and let them decide if they want to proceed. However, let’s say your agency takes on a client who has a history of using unethical labor practices, something that you staunchly oppose. How do you remain impartial in this situation? How do you write material that benefits your client when your personal opinions may affect the content? Or, should you, as a journalist, accept a small gift from a source (for example, a five-dollar Starbucks gift card) before or after an interview? Most journalists would say no, because accepting a gift from a source, no matter how small, could affect your feelings toward the individual, which could be reflected in your writing.
There are several ways to avoid a conflict of interest. Gather as much information as you can about the potential conflict in order to make an objective decision (or as objective as possible). Firms should have formal rules, and conflicts should be disclosed to supervisors. To safeguard your career and reputation, it’s important to always uphold high ethical standards and conduct yourself in a manner above reproach. You may want to ask colleagues or supervisors for advice. Also, be as upfront as possible with the parties involved.