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.
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.