Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Andrew Lautz


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.