Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication - Susan Nold

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Susan Turner Nold, J.D. is the Director of Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin.  Nold has previously held positions as a General Counsel for a Texas State Senator, an attorney for a national law firm, and worked as a fundraiser in Washington, D.C. @Susannold

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Political communication done right should advance ethical, effective, and impactful citizenship and an aspirational vision for democracy – one where all citizens are informed and constructively engaged.  I believe that political communication provides great opportunity and bears much responsibility for this goal.

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

Behaving ethically in any situation represents one’s choice to live a life of honor and service to god, country, community, their employer, family, and fellow man.  Lying, half-truths, misrepresentation, bigotry, hate-speech, and the many other forms of unethical political communication can harm others in consequential, even catastrophic ways.  If practitioners of political communication consider this more routinely, this field can bring about greater awareness among everyone about the potential impact of our words.  That would be progress.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

My examples are not the kind that make news or that are usually seen by the public.  Much political communication comes about as the result of a team and decisions made by people who are planning out a course of action.  When a member of the team voices a point of view or raises a concern, we can influence one another, and when needed, protect one another from perhaps some of our worst human instincts.  Therefore, being part of teams who value different perspectives and points of view is important. 

Also, when one’s work does not involve the benefits of a team, political communicators should be thoughtful, diligent, and conscientious. In my previous work as a legislative aide for an elected official, I drafted documents all of the time -- correspondence, talking points, policy summaries and briefs.  Doing that well means spending a lot of time talking with experts, asking questions, fact-checking, rechecking, and double-checking.  Working in support of an effective and respected legislator is very rewarding and upholding a high standard for ethics in political communication is an essential part of effective and honorable public service.  Many individuals must be capable and committed to this for our system of government to work because so much of it relies on trust.  If we abandon or lose sight of this, corruption, gridlock, dysfunction, distrust, cynicism and apathy will result.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face?

In my current work leading a university institute, we support several civic education programs.  One is a bipartisan 3-day campaign bootcamp where college students are taught the fundamental components of a campaign and use their knowledge to take part in a campaign simulation exercise.  The sessions are taught by active political professionals – Republicans and Democrats – most of whom have spent their careers working in campaigns at the local, state, and federal levels.  At times, we recognize that tactics that may be effective for winning a campaign, can be unethical.  We also recognize that campaign strategies, driven mostly by the time and financial constraints of campaigns, are ethical but not necessarily in the best interest of democracy more broadly.  We unequivocally disavow unethical tactics but highlighting these issues can be constructive and educational.  As these issues come up, or as questions arise, it is good for presenters to point them out and encourage discussion about them.  This is beneficial for the students and the instructors.  It’s never a bad thing for more of us to practice contemplating the ethical implications of our actions. 

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

I would advise people in any field to become more aware of situations that raise ethical implications.  Failing to recognize an ethical issue or its potential, is an ethical problem itself.  I would also encourage us not to fear or distance ourselves from ethical dilemmas.  I once taught students a class on campaign law and ethics and a student approached me after class discouraged and deterred by how many legal and ethical issues were involved in politics and campaigns.  He shared that as a pre-med student, he preferred to stick to medicine where there were not as many ethical issues, which of course, I found funny.  Surely, he will eventually take medical ethics. The final advice I give my students, is to work for, and associate with people who are ethical.  Do your best to avoid working for people who you know to be unethical.  That would be a difficult and unhappy place to work.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Danny Hajjar

Danny Hajjar is a Senior Account Executive with M+R, working on communications and advocacy campaigns for progressive nonprofits focusing on immigration, climate change, and gender equality. Danny previously worked with the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy on international policy and programming.

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1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Ethical communication should really be grounded in transparency and honesty toward your respective constituencies. We as a consumer of messaging and information should really expect our elected officials, political and community leaders, and other voices in this space to provide an honest picture of themselves, their platforms, their campaigns, etc. We understand that certain facts or issue areas will be spun to present individuals in the best possible light – or even to make the case against another individual or policy. But we should also expect political communication to be grounded in a truth that does not disregard factual evidence. We should not expect to be lied to, which is a bar so low these days that somehow is not even being met by our own federal government. We have to expect those that have power are willing to use it for good and are willing to own the truth, whether it’s in their favor or not. So that also means a standard of quickly owning up to mistakes or lies versus continuing to perpetuate falsehoods.

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

Quite frankly, someone in political communication must behave ethically because they have a moral and political responsibility to do so. There is a reason why, to this day, we fault Bill Clinton for lying about his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky. There is a reason why, to this day, we hold the George W. Bush administration (and to some extent the news media) accountable for lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and leading the U.S. into a war that was not rooted in factual evidence. Choosing to be ethical or unethical can literally shape the course of history – it can present constituents with an idea of how one should act should they seek any form of political leadership. Those who choose to hold office or pursue leadership in any manner have an obligation to their constituencies to set an example of ownership of the truth.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

The late Senator John McCain had one of his signature moments of his career happen in 2008 during his presidential campaign. It’s been talked about ad nauseum but is still a shining example of how to be ethically and morally responsible on the campaign trail. During a townhall in Lakeville, Minnesota, a voter took the microphone to ask Senator McCain a question. Instead, it turned into a long ramble that led to the voter calling then candidate Obama “an Arab” and saying because of that, she couldn’t trust him. Senator McCain quickly took the microphone away from her and said “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about.” Now, there were other moments during the campaign that were ethically questionable on Senator McCain’s part, like the TV ads linking Obama to Bill Ayers. And even now some question whether or not this particular response in Minnesota was sincere (i.e. why would it be so bad if Obama was Arab?). I personally don’t believe McCain meant to disparage Arabs, but rather show some decency and respect toward Obama, all while being transparent and educating his voters about what his campaign was all about. This civility is severely lacking in the public sphere, and something that we can all point to and say “do more of that.”

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face? 

As someone who works on communication and advocacy campaigns for progressive nonprofits, we always ask ourselves whether or not our framing or our messaging is one that is truly rooted in factual evidence and honesty or if it’s just spin that demeans President Trump for political gain. Our clients are typically left-leaning and work on issues that have been directly impacted by the current administration. But even our clients sometimes remind us that there are actually policies that Republicans enact or policies that have genuine bipartisan support that we should really tout and leverage (versus spinning that to media in a way that undermines Conservatives). And there are plenty of times where we also realize that Democrats do not have the right idea or the best interest at heart – are we honest with ourselves and with our clients during those times? Those are challenges we have to think about, especially in this hyper partisan time.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Own the truth. Whether the truth puts you on a pedestal or shines a light on your faults, it’s important to embrace it and learn from it. No one person is above moral responsibility, particularly when constituencies count on you to be transparent and honest. Study those who aren’t as ethical, they are the ones that teach you the most. I urge people to study the messaging and framing behind Iran-Contra, or to study the Flint water crisis. There are countless examples of unethical political communication that for some reason we as a society and as a country have not fully learned from. And I would highly recommend looking at media coverage around those instances. As a public relations professional, I look for media framing of a situation because, more often than not, they will search for the truth and conduct extensive reporting. They will uncover trails that show unethical behavior – just ask President Trump. The Mueller Report vindicated much of the reporting done by The New York Times and The Washington Post. They saw President Trump’s behavior and reported on it accurately. Ultimately, it never ends well for leader who are not transparent and honest.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Prof. Mack Mariani

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Professor Mack Mariani is the Chair of the Political Science Department at Xavier University. @MackMariani

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Political communication ethics should be grounded in the truth.  Tell the truth.  Show your work.

Political communication ethics should also treat human beings with dignity and avoid language that is likely to unfairly damage the reputation of others or cause harm to individuals or groups of people.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

For one thing, behaving ethically is in your self-interest.  The political communication business is fundamentally about persuasion: persuading people to see things in a certain way, or support a certain person or policy.  Unethical behavior undermines the profession by making everyone who takes in your messages (the public, the news media, other political figures) immediately discount the messages that you are conveying as spin.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

When I was working as a legislative aide, we had an opportunity to personalize a policy disagreement about an airport contract (the opposing legislator had a family member who owned a business in the airport).  The legislator I worked with made the choice to frame our messages around the merits of the disagreement and rejected suggestions from others who wanted to frame the message around an alleged conflict of interest on the party of the opposition.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

The biggest ethical challenge these days, I think, is partisanship.  On a day to day basis, political communications professionals are asked to craft and project messages that undermine the opposing party and build up the party that they represent.  Although the short-term goals are often justifiable (stopping a measure that you think is a mistake, limiting the ability of the leadership on the other side to make changes that you think would be bad for the country), the cumulative effect of partisan attack politics is to undermine the ability of the system to work at all and undermine the faith that people have in politics to accomplish anything worthwhile. 

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

If you are working with the news media (or as a member of the news media), your credibility is everything.  If you give away your credibility for short-term advantage, you will pay for it in the long run.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: David Mark

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David Mark is a deputy news editor at the Washington Examiner. Previously, he served as a senior editor at Politico for six years and at CNN Digital Politics, among other roles. He is author of two books, one on negative campaigning and one on political language co-authored with Chuck McCutcheon. @DavidMarkDC

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?
Donald Trump's election in November 2016, beginning with his rise down the gold-plated Trump Tower escalator a-year-and-a-half earlier, has scrambled traditional notion of "ethics" and politics and communications. His election demonstrated that voters don't always choose who has the best position paper on an important public policy issue, or who talks in logic-based soundbites. His election was about emotion as much as reason, and going forward it's going to (hopefully) force those in the campaign community to draw bright lines they won't cross. Including disseminating false or highly-misleading information.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

As the saying goes, all we have is our reputations. What people think about you will last much longer than a two-year House term, four-year gubernatorial stint or six-year Senate tenure you helped get your boss elected to -- same goes for down-ballot races, as well. A campaigner’s goal should be to fight as hard as possible for their candidate or cause not only within the bounds of the law, strictly speaking, but what normal, reasonable people would consider ethical behavior. Much of that is common sense.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

White House briefings before January 2017. The White House press secretary, lead spokesperson for the president of the United States, would on a daily, or near-daily basis, describe and detail their administration's agenda to reporters. This was admittedly slanted, biased and incomplete -- but each press secretary made sure to have their facts straight. That included Republican and Democratic press secretaries. That has changed under the current administration when press secretaries have been forced to admit -- in some cases under oath by prosecutors -- that they've disseminated false information.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

Journalists face this frequently when spoon-fed negative information -- also known as opposition research -- about an officeholder or candidate. Reporters and editors must evaluate the motivations for getting leaked that information, and whether or not that should have a bearing on its veracity. After all, just because the information comes from a source hostile to the subject matter doesn't render it false or unusable. It's a case-by-case basis call.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Know your bottom-line principles. What are you willing to lose your job over? Or take some sort of other career setback? For press secretaries, it's often being told to lie to journalists. For reporters, it's knowingly printing false information. Much of ethics in politics is common sense. If you have doubts about the proposed action, probably best not to do it.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Laura Gross

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Laura Gross is the President of Scott Circle Communications. She is an award-winning public relations expert with over 20 years of experience in communications and media relations. Her past experience includes work with The White House, U.S. Agency for International Development, NPR, Gov. Howard Dean and several presidential campaigns. @lgross

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Political communicators need to be straight forward and truthful with very high ethical standards. Period, end of statement. Yes, sometimes it’s hard to talk about things that are not politically advantageous or do not sound good on the record - and that’s always challenging, but it’s never a reason to lie. Ultimately, political communication ethics must be grounded in the truth.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

How can we trust our government, elected officials and politicians to represent us if the people that are communicating with us are lying? They need to be ethical – not just because it’s the right thing to do, but it’s how they gain trust from their constituents and ethically govern our country.

 3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

I have to be honest – I struggled with this question. There is not much to point to these days. However, I think Congressman Justin Amash (R-Mich.) is doing the right thing by going against his party and calling for Trump’s impeachment when most (if not all) of his fellow Republican members of Congress are not calling for an investigation because it is not politically advantageous for them.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

I supervise a wonderful team of public relations professionals at a firm that is focused on organizations that really want to make a difference, such as non-profits and associations. We hire people that are passionate about issues and passionate about helping others. Not very often – but, every once in a while - our team needs to promote something they don’t personally agree with – legislation, court decisions, etc. Even if they don’t fully agree with a particular position/issue – they know that it is their job to get a particular message to an audience that may be interested in that topic. 

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

“It’s not the lie, it’s the cover-up.” OK, so that’s an extreme. But, seriously – do you want to work with anyone that doesn’t have a high set of values and ethics? It won’t always be easy though – unfortunately, there are still people with low ethics that just want to promote themselves and what’s best for them instead of the greater cause. Try to stay away from those people and forge your own path.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: David Cohen

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David Cohen is an elected school board member for the Cheltenham School District outside of Philadelphia and an appointed board member of the Montgomery County PA Planning Commission. @dlcohenone

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Political communication should be held to a very high standard and should be grounded in truth. While citizens, communication professionals, candidates, and officeholders should seek to make a case for and advance their causes, they should not do so in a way that lies or seeks to disparage others. Political communications should be centered on facts and honesty. Words and context matter.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

To be honest to one’s self, to citizens, and to democratic institutions. The institutions where elected officials serve to represent citizens are more important than any candidate or officeholder and will remain in place long after the candidate or officeholder has left the scene. The actions of candidates and officeholders can strengthen or weaken government and how people view government. Underlying goals of elected officials should be to identify, define and advance goals that improve society and those that they serve, and to seek to accomplish them in a way that listens to people with different views and engage them in developing solutions when possible.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

President Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex speech, where in his farewell speech the retired five-star Army general, spoke honestly and warned of the growing dominant role the military-industrial complex had in the United States.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

As a school board member, one of the challenges is knowing when and how to raise or respond to issues. For context, there are several underlying issues in play. Individual board members do not speak for the entire board and their individual views that have not been adopted as policy do not represent the entire school district. A school board has limited areas for which they are responsible, such as approving a budget, adopting policies, and assessing student achievement and superintendents. School board members need to respect matters that are discussed in confidence and not share that information with others.

A key issue that I face is explaining to citizens and parents that school board members are not involved in the daily operations of schools, and not communicating or acting otherwise. Another issue is recognizing the importance of the state sunshine law under which our school board operates, which allows school boards to only discuss certain issues like legal matters or collective bargaining in closed-door executive sessions. A third issue is working to improve communications from our school district to the community in a manner that balances the goals of providing accurate information and advocating for the school district, while encouraging civic engagement.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Communications and ethics have gotten much more complex and difficult with social media and the associated immediacy they facilitate, demand and dictate for responses, as well as the misinformation, lies, and speculation people often posit on social media posts and comments regarding politics or government. As noted by Marshall McLuhan long ago, “the medium is the message.” Due to the nature of social media and people pushing agendas or trying to score points, responding to social media posts as a local elected official on a hot button issue can be a losing proposition. I am hopeful that people younger and smarter than me will favorably resolve many of the negative aspects of political communications on social media.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Quardricos Bernard Driskell

Professor Quardricos Bernard Driskell, is a federal lobbyist and an adjunct professor of legislative politics at The George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management. @q_driskell4

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Civility, character and community are ethical standards that should guide political communication. These are derived from people’s personal narratives within social, cultural historical contexts. These guiding principles are the critical appropriation and embodiment of traditions that have shaped the character and shared meaning of a people. Thus, political and all communication should be grounded in our own narratives.  People do not emerge from a historical vacuum, but arise from particular traditions. Thus, we are to speak authoritatively, yet compassionately and act responsibly with the aim of serving the collective good. Therefore, it is our character informed by the wisdom, habits, and practices of a person’s particular tradition that informs the way we speak politically and behave ethically.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Who am I? What do I want? What do I propose to do and become? I am more interested in answering the questions of identity and purpose in respect to how political communicators behave ethically and perceive their own quests for meaning in relation to the demands of the other, which raises germinal questions of recognition, respect, and reverence as well as questions of courage, justice, and compassion. Who a person is, more often than not dictate their behavior. The American public intellectual James Baldwin once wrote, “People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.” Thus, if you know who you are and your purpose - a healthy sense of self, which is the basis upon which one, comes to understand one's own distinctive potential and self-worth, but without a sense of self, people often drift aimlessly through life without a true understanding of their place in existence.  Consequently, they fall victim to various persuasions, but those who behave and communicate ethically, their actions and practices will have a definitive impact on how he or she responds to the ‘other’ with sincerity and truthfulness. It is also the key unifying virtue in the people’s response to dehumanizing actions and other forces that work against human development and community. 

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Religion and politics: two topics you are not supposed to discuss in public life. Yet, if one surfs cable television or navigates YouTube and social media, these windows into our public life quickly showcase politicians, mechanics and grade-school teachers all weighing in on the topic with great passion and reflective commonsense smarts. However, many are not stellar examples of ethical political communication. I mention religion and politics, as I am situated between both of these subjects – both deeply personal and intimate and when discussed, either independent of each other or together emotions and passions tend to heighten. Either can also become extraneous or a continued cause of conflict, rather than a source of healing, peace and reconciliation. Religion and politics are central to many of the day's biggest news stories, and at a time where ethics and leadership are needed, there is an opportunity to chart a new course for the challenges and complexities in our society - improving public understanding of the various challenges requires skill, art and an ethical, yet civil way of communicating. Ethical communication is a courageous conversation that starts with civility and honesty.

More examples: I can recall back in 2008, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) defended then Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), his rival for the presidency, in the face of constituents spouting racist conspiracies about the then-senator from Illinois. “I can’t trust Obama. I have read about him, and he’s not, um, he’s an Arab,” a woman said to McCain at a town hall meeting in Lakeville, Minnesota in October of that year. McCain grabbed the microphone from her, cutting her off. “No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] a citizen that just I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what the campaign’s all about. He’s not [an Arab].” We need more examples and acts of courage and civility that Sen. McCain displayed during that townhall.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

How do you communicate to lawmakers about a legislation, policy etc. that runs contrary to your personal philosophical and ideological principle but professionally it is your job?  I have had to face this challenge twice, as I certain others in my career have as well - a profession that requires communicating, both written and verbally.

From the beginning, I was aware that I could face this challenge. I communicate to the US Congress and other aspects of US government in order to pressure them into specific public policy actions; and as a result had to remind myself of what I knew initially before entering the profession. Though my dilemma and disagreement was not of great magnitude, I still faced an ethical dilemma. Do I hold fast to my philosophical and political beliefs, or do I simply “do my job” and communicate effectively on legislation, politics, and policy and with people whom I disagree?

This form of political communication is advocacy; lobbying guaranteed by Constitution and from our participatory democracy. Thus, in that respect, I did my job and lobbied on behalf of a position I personally disagreed.  Because fundamentally, I knew before applying and accepting the offer of my position there would be issues that I did not always agree and that I would have to communicate and lobby on - and that is why I decided to silence my own beliefs and perform well in my chosen career. It was not out of political practicality or fear of losing my job, but it was a possible dilemma I knew could happen and I decided to take such risk when I entered the profession.  

The lesson: If one is going to enter into the profession of any form of political communication, make yourself aware of the possible risks, threats and challenges. Who you are in this world is largely the result of decisions you have made in the past and have to make in the future. Learn how to make the right choices for your future in order to overcome life’s greatest and most worthy ethical challenges. As aforementioned, the ethical challenge while not great, forced me to grapple with questions I only explored theoretically, but fortuitously, for me these are questioned I was about to ponder previously before choosing to become a lobbyist.   Design a powerful future based on possibility rather than circumstance especially in the world of political communication.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Ethics is central to leadership, and leaders help to establish and reinforce organizational or institutional values. Most people are guilty of some form of unethical behavior throughout their lifetime myself included. Nobody thinks that this is a perfect world with perfect people. Therefore, we need good people who are willing to engage and to commit themselves to making it better. Anybody who comes to an institution or to the field of political communication bears a special responsibility to try to do that. 

America has deeper issues than partisan political divides. Its people suffer from a lack of faith in leaders and institutions such media, business and politics. Moreover, this divide, in many ways stems from our lack of ability to empathize. Start with empathy. You may not agree with a person’s perspective on any issue or their worldview, but at least you will understand the origin of their perspective, or the why. Moreover, I’ve discovered that understanding why a person takes the positions they do, or believes the way they do helps me to communicate graciously with them even though I may never agree. There is something sacred about understanding a person’s particular traditions, which informs their beliefs that makes disagreements manageable.

Political communication professionals must for the sake of our republic, bridge the partisan, racial and extremist gaps by spending some time walking in the shoes of the rhetorical ‘them’ – the American people, as a whole, inclusive of more than their personal constituencies. Mirrored advocacy and representation of specific opinions and sentiments gleaned from constituents perhaps is portion of the mandate for your future work; but it must move beyond that, in order to aid our society in growth, at times we must attenuated our own egotism for the good of the whole. Very simply, to grow, to learn what it means to communicate in the political world, you have to leave your comfort zone, confront fears and take risks. Learn how to overcome fear and step outside of what has become comfortable and familiar to you.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Andrew Lautz

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Andrew Lautz has conducted research for high-profile campaigns and corporate clients, and has served on communications teams for congressional and presidential campaigns. He holds a B.A. in Political Communication and an M.P.S. in Political Management from George Washington University. @Andrew_Lautz


1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

 We should hold political communicators to the same standard we hold public officials for one simple reason: our audiences are often the same. Political communicators are usually speaking to voters, constituents, and stakeholders. Our bosses are candidates, lawmakers, activists, and advocates. And our bosses are usually speaking to the same voters, constituents, and stakeholders we are. I'm troubled by the notion that it's OK to be nasty in political campaigns, because that's 'what it takes to win.' The meaner a communicator is in a campaign, the harder it is for them to turn the switch when they work for the public. One good exercise is to consider the following: 'Would I say/write/do this in my home? My classroom? My place of worship?' If the answer is no, then the action should not be acceptable in political contests. Where should we root political communication ethics? In the same rules that built our system of governance. That system, though imperfect, has withstood many tests over 230 years. Our political communications system should last as long.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

After four years as a political communications professional, I’ve learned that it's not enough for me to have different ethical standards for my job and for my life. For many reasons, we seem to have lowered the bar for those playing in the political arena. The types of bad treatment and inappropriate behavior acceptable in this space are inexcusable in any other forum. I know people across the political spectrum that are kind and funny and patient in person. Yet on Twitter, I don't recognize them. Some of their most ruthless tweets earn hundreds - thousands! - of retweets. This comes with a personal cost. I don't want people to know me for dunking on my political opponents every day for 50 years. I’d rather help solve political and policy problems the whole country faces. No one can fully separate their career from their life in this field. So, we should model our day-to-day practices to reflect that crossover. Think about how you would treat family, friends, and strangers, and treat your political opponents like that.

 3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

I'm a big fan of presidential transitions. Recent transitions have been some of the most dramatic in history - Bush to Obama, Obama to Trump. Obama promised to undo what he saw as Bush's mistakes. Trump vowed to roll back what he saw as Obama's failures. These environments should give way to acrimony. Instead, Bush wrote to Obama, "you will have an Almighty God to comfort you, a family who loves you, and a country that is pulling for you, including me." Obama said to Trump, "If you succeed, then the country succeeds." It doesn't matter that these men may have felt differently than they said. What matters is they communicated in an ethical way, seeking to put a long and vicious campaign season in the past. We can all do better to make our campaigns worthy of the people who vote in them. In the interim, we should focus on the post-campaign pivot to responsible governing. Presidents Bush and Obama have led the way.

 4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

Sometimes, your boss or client is worse than your political opponent. In our current system, we spend an inordinate amount of time and money on our adversaries. It's a lot easier than discussing what our 'side' is fighting for, and easier still than providing detailed policy solutions. Political campaigns, though, are not one-sided. There are usually two choices in this system, and neither party has a monopoly on good values. I have worked for candidates I considered less ethical than their opponents, and I know firsthand how quickly the “right” choice can become murky. Quitting a job is hard to do, and isn't always the best choice anyway. Switching sides isn't usually practical. If you work for many campaigns, you have to consider the balance of your work, too. One bad apple doesn’t always spoil the bunch, but know your values and consider the whole of your work as more than a sum of the parts. It’s important in a field as complex as this to keep your moral bearings. Don’t lose yourself in a system you don't like.

 5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

As you draw your ethical road map, don't only consider how you make choices in this space. Consider how you'll respond to decisions imposed on you by someone else. As a student, when I thought about my moral obligations, I imagined answering all the 'yes or no' questions. This is natural - we all want to see ourselves as leaders. However, I was thinking too far ahead. In the first several years of my career - and to this day - I've mostly been in subordinate roles. I have spent more days responding to others' requests than making my own. My toughest dilemmas have come from bosses asking me to do something uncomfortable. On the one hand, I had an obligation to complete tasks handed to me. On the other, I had an obligation to maintain my personal standards - my ethical road map. I can't say I always made the right choice, but I would have done so more often if I had spent time thinking about how to work with my superiors on moral quandaries. I encourage every student and young professional to think about this upcoming, early stage of their career - not only what decisions you will make later on.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Oren Shur

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Oren Shur is a senior vice president and political director at the Washington, DC-based political consulting firm SKDKnickerbocker. Shur has extensive experience in political communication and political advertising, including serving as the director of paid media for Hillary for America in 2016. @OrenShur

1) To what ethical standard should political communication professionals be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

I believe we should ground our ethical standards in political communications in the various audiences to whom (or what) we owe an ethical responsibility to . . . In my view, we have an ethical responsibility to: the public, the elected officials/candidates we work for and our democratic institutions (specifically: the media and our systems of voting). As political communications professionals, we should be honest, forthcoming and honorable in the ways we communicate to the public, with our elected officials/candidates and about our democratic institutions.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Because we, as political communication professionals, are entrusted to communicate with the public about their elected officials and their government – that’s a sacred responsibility. If the public losses faith in our democracy and the people who lead it and the institutions that protect it (and that’s damn near close to happening right now), everything else we enjoy about living in America will erode.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

It happens all the time. When an elected official tells the public something they may not want to hear, but they deserve to know. Or when a candidate condemns a lie that was designed to help them instead of repeating it or winking and turning a blind eye. Or when a spokesperson is asked to lie to the media and refuses to do so. Or when anyone in the field admits a mistake. Unfortunately, the instances of unethical conduct tend to get all the attention.  

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

On many occasions over the years, I believed that spinning the truth or withholding certain pieces of information would be in my candidates’ best political interest – and, there’s a fine line between running smart and savvy campaigns and being unethical. In my view, the key is having the wherewithal in those moments to hit pause – and consider whether you’re about to say or do something that you’ll feel good about long after Election Day. I’ve tried to do that and mostly feel good about the decisions I’ve made in those moments. Anyone who works in political communications should expect to find themselves in those situations time and time again.  

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Your parents probably raised you to be a good, decent and honest person who treats others the right way – working in politics is not an excuse to abandon those lessons; it places a higher burden on you to honor them.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Jennifer Rubin

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Jennifer Rubin is an opinion writer for the Washington Post and an MSNBC contributor. @JRubinBlogger

1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

Rule #1: Never lie. It’s that simple. One can shade, spin or puff up your candidate, your cause or in your media conversation with political players but one cannot, as the White House communications staff now does, misrepresent or makeup facts. If I tell an elected the piece is about X, it better be about X. The same holds for spokesmen, advocates, candidates and electeds.

Rule #2: Do not incite bigotry, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or any other hateful rhetoric in the political realm. If your boss asks you to smear a group or attack an opponent’s religion, for example, you refuse. We now are seeing a surge in hate crimes and, specifically, violence against religious institutions. Anyone who contributes to that atmosphere owns some responsibility for the impact her words have on others.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Your word is the coin of the realm. Still. If you lie, you’ll lose the ability to communicate effectively for your candidate or cause. If a journalist loses the trust of editors, readers and she is toast. Beyond that, political communicators are Americans living in the society that they help shape. If they want more reasoned debate and less divisiveness politics they must not spew falsehoods or fan the flames of bigotry.

 3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

James Mattis refused to lie or offer obsequious praise for the president. He continued to reaffirm his belief in the Constitution and in equality under the law. Eventually he was forced out, but he did not compromise his own code of ethics while he was serving.

 4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you or political communication professionals in your field have faced or are likely to face?

We all face competitive pressures, but if speed is a priority over accuracy, we all lose. Whatever role you play in the political communications profession the most important words may be “I don’t know” or “I will get back to you.” In addition, in an environment in which political players may not respect objective reality, it is easy to fall into false balance. If one politician says the sky is blue and the other says it’s red, you don’t simply repeat each assertion. You say one politician correctly identified the sky as blue; the other misrepresented the sky’s color. (We should reserve “lie” for a deliberate falsehood as opposed to innocent error or ignorance)

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Learn history and policy. If you are simply a cipher or a transcriber for others you cede your reputation and moral authority to others. There is no shortcut by which you can cover healthcare, for example, and not understand in some detail the healthcare data and issues you will be communicating. Likewise, you don’t have to be a lawyer to cover the courts, but you better know how to read an opinion, have some substantive knowledge of the issues (e.g. separation of powers, voting rights) and understand the nuances of legal writing. The struggle to keep current when you have so much to do can be stressful, but “what you do” must include speaking and writing authoritatively.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Jim Kessler

Jim Kessler is the Executive Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. He has worked there in a senior capacity since 2005. He also worked for 12 years on Capitol Hill, most notably as Legislative and Policy Director for Chuck Schumer. @ThirdWayKessler

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1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

To paraphrase Mike Tyson, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” In political communications, the tension is between winning, scoring points, earning clicks and likes versus being truthful and ethical. If those weren’t the stakes, I suspect people and organizations would mostly behave ethically with their communications. Here’s a possible standard … what if you were the target of the communication? Would you think it was fair, truthful enough, captured the essence of the topic? Even if you didn’t like it, would you say it was above board? In 1998, I was a high level staffer on Chuck Schumer’s Senate race against the incumbent Senator, Republican Al D’Amato. It was a brutal race with negative attack ads, planted stories from anonymous sources based on opposition research, and the reality of having a tracker from the enemy team present and filming at every public event. At the end of each day it felt like a playoff hockey game between two teams that despised each other. We won (thank God) and when D’Amato called Schumer to concede, Schumer told him that it was a tough, tough race, but that Al was fair. You can still be tough, hard, and mean and have ethical communications.

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

I used to say that Washington is a town that remembers and they’ll remember if you played fair. I’m not sure that’s the case today. We are exploring new boundaries in communications on privacy and ethics. My wife witnessed a woman passed out at a jazz club being photographed by the table next to her and then posting it online. Why would someone do this? I’m sure they don’t consider themselves unethical, but here they are doing something horrid to a complete stranger. So we’ve become addicted to clicks and likes. And of course, it isn’t just people in bars … it’s reporters, comms directors, political candidates.

Perhaps the reason to behave ethically is because doing otherwise could hurt your client or boss or you. I prefer the old-fashioned reason: doing what’s right when no one gets helped or credit is called integrity.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Study the differences between Joe Lockhart (Bill Clinton’s spokesperson) and Sarah Sanders (Donald Trump’s spokesperson). Do more Joe; do less Sarah.

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face?

I work at a think tank. We are not inundated with ethical dilemmas. We are not in a winner-take-all election. We are not a for-profit company that has sold a product that causes cancer in lab mice. As the head of policy for our think tank, I strive for intellectual integrity in our work. Let’s not hide data that doesn’t support our view. Let’s release as much of the raw data underlying our reports as much as practical. When we do polling (and we do a lot of it), make sure the questions are fair and not designed to get an outcome we want.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

You’re the trailblazers. The online communications world is in its infancy. The temptation to appeal to an adoring online crowd, be a provocateur, put snark over substance will be immense. But the consequences are enormous. The rise of the populist right and left that has infected much of the world is partially the consequence of self-serving political communications. People my age won’t solve this problem. It has to be you.

Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Peter Loge

Peter Loge is the director of the Project on Ethics in Political Communication, an Associate Professor at The George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, with over 25 years of experience in politics and communication including senior positions in the House, Senate, and Obama administration and on a number of candidate and issue campaigns.

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1) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?

From the White House Press Secretary to casual observers who post about politics on social media, everyone who communicates politically has an obligation to support, or at least not undermine, the system that allows that communication to take place. 

Our democracy is a long argument, and the quality of that argument determines the quality of our democracy. If our political arguments are shallow, based on deception and ad hominem, or are otherwise base our democracy will be as well. If our political arguments are honest, robust, passionate, and calling to us to a higher ideal, our democracy will reflect that as well. 

2) Why should someone behave ethically when it comes to political communication?

For the same reason one should behave ethically in general. For some that may be because bad behavior has a way of coming back at you, for others because the right thing to do is the right thing to do. Your ethical foundation should not be determined by the context, even if how those ethics are applied may be. In addition, winning at all costs may come at exactly that, a cost to our system ultimately larger than any one person or one issue.

Ethics and winning are often pitted against each other - people use phrases like “bringing a gun to a knife fight.” But our politics isn’t a fight to see which controls the turf, our politics is an argument about the best way forward together. Bring a crane to a construction site and use your superior tools to build a better house (given the context I should note this metaphor is not mine, a student named Andrew Smith thought of it). It can be really difficult to find ethical ways to win, and it can be hard to engage in heated partisan politics without taking the easy and ethically suspect approach. But if it were easy, you wouldn’t be paid to do it, and even if you aren’t getting paid our democracy deserves better than the easy way out.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”

Most political communication is ethical. There is a lot of political talk, most of which we don’t notice because it is neither especially inspiring nor is it especially awful. Recent examples of “we need more of that” include Senator McCain defending President Obama during their heated campaign for president; Senator Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, defending Speaker Nancy Pelosi during the initial debates over the Affordable Care Act; and Senator Flake calling out the President’s attacks on our democracy. These are notable because all of these legislators acted in ways consistent with their conservative beliefs while defending a forum in which their opponents could be heard. One can publicly commit to a rhetorical approach and still take a policy position against those whom they are defending. 

4) Can you give an example of an ethical challenge or question you have faced or that political communication professionals in your field are likely to face? 

First is what we all face - how to engage in political discussion or argument. A lot of it for me is what I choose not to do - I don’t tend to pop-off about politics online, and regardless of the venue I I try to focus arguments on the argument and not the person, and I try not mistake the clever for the smart.

Most of my career has been spent working on issue and advocacy campaigns. A critical element of those campaigns is framing the issue - helping shape what the issue is “about.” Most issues are about a lot of things at once, for example smoking is about farmers, convenience store owners, smokers’ rights, public health, and much more. How the issue is seen by the public, policymakers, and the press determines who the allies and opponents are likely to be and the range of likely policy outcomes. How advocates decide to try to frame an issue may be miles from how they come into it. One way to succeed on criminal justice reform is to secure the support of law enforcement (and it’s hard to win and then have policies implemented without it). The framing choice raises a few ethical questions. First, are you lying about your motives to get the outcome you want? If so, is that OK? This is a variation on the ends/means question, but with personal values being the means. A bunch of years ago I was the first director of The Justice Project, a self-described “death penalty reform” organization; we didn’t take a position on the death penalty, but said we had problems with trials and fairness. The goal, of course, was to abolish the death penalty. We believed that if we brought enough attention to its flaws people would give up on it. This framing brought in new allies and ultimately succeeded. Early in the effort I got a call from a childhood friend who had heard about the effort - he was devout and a law professor - he called me to chew me out for clearly lying about my motives. This was the first time I’d talked to him since about 8th grade. In another case I was asked to write a plan to pass legislation making an international industry more transparent, which the client thought would make it easier to identify and combat human rights abuses. It occurred to me that the issue could also be framed as terrorism (transparency would help identify and break up terrorist networks). I then went out to find people who thought this was true - the idea came before the research - and it turns out some experts agreed with me. So we ran an anti-terrorism campaign, the bill ultimately passed, and has since been repealed.

In addition to the question of motives, the success of the efforts may have unintended longer term consequences that may make other problems harder to address. If the real problem with the death penalty is a larger set of structural problems with crime and punishment, “reform” that eliminates the death penalty may have the effect of strengthening the logic of our current approach to crime and punishment, an approach with which many anti-death penalty advocates have serious problems. By drawing attention to terrorism and the need for more tools to combat it, the effort could have the unintended consequence of increasing surveillance and limiting civil rights - a close cousin to the need to protect human rights, which is why the advocates got involved in the first place.

In both cases I stand by my decision and my approach, but I can also see why others would disagree.

Advocates will regularly be faced with similar challenges. How far are you willing to push the messaging to get the end you want? How many unusual suspects are you willing to bring into your effort and thereby possibly strengthen their goals which may be very different than yours?

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?

Think about ethics early and often. Find a personal set of principles or foundations and stick to them. One way to do that is to write down lines you will not cross, or ideals from which you will never stray, and tape them to your computer or stick them in your wallet so they are never far.

More civility and respect in politics would be good, but that’s not always the same as ethics. You can be ethically partisan, aggressive, impolite, and in your face. There may be times when your ethical principles demand no less. But always remember that there are always Wednesdays in politics. The world doesn’t end with Tuesday’s election. Every bill you help pass needs to be an effective law. Every program you help fund needs to be as successful as possible. Your deadline might be Tuesday’s election, Wednesday’s city council vote, or Thursday’s hearing - but your goal is what happens as a result.

In The Crack Up F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work—the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside—the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within—that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again.” 

It can be easy to see the obvious - promises of money or favors in exchange for votes or statements are wrong. Ethics is also about the small decisions we may not see until it’s too late. The corner cut or something we let slide out of expedience. The offer of money in a brown paper bag is the wolf at the door, it’s easy to see and easy to figure out you should keep the door closed. The little ethical decisions are the termites in the basement that, left unchecked, can bring down the house without your noticing anything is wrong until it is too late. The effect that we have on society as political communicators often does not come down to a few core decisions that define us, but in the small decisions we make day to day.  

Introducing Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication

Those who do political communication for a living tend to think of themselves as generally ethical people doing the best they can to make the world and our country a little better. To find out more about those ethical foundations we are asking political communication professionals, and those who study political communication, what, if any, ethical responsibility political communication professionals have, and to whom or what they have that responsibility.

All participants answer the same five questions (more or less). We want to know what ethical standards should be, why someone should be ethical, examples of ethical and unethical behavior, and what those just starting out should think about. We might also ask another question or three, depending on what’s in the news, how the conversation is going, or because we think it’s interesting.

We are reaching out to Republicans and Democrats, experienced professionals and those new to the profession, writers and philosophers, and anyone we think might have something interesting to offer the discussion. If you have an idea for a good person to ask, shoot us an email at info@ethicsinpoliticalcommunication.com.