Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: David Murray


David Murray is executive director of the Professional Speechwriters Association, and editor and publisher of Vital Speeches of the Day magazine. With Lt. Col. Mark Weber, he co-wrote the New York Times best-selling book, "Tell My Sons" (Random House), and he's the author of a memoir about his advertising copywriter parents, Raised By Mad Men. Murray’s next book, An Effort to Understand, explores “why Americans must stop shaking our heads at one another and start communicating more honestly with ourselves." It’s available for pre-order through Publishizer@PSAPodium

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

"Political communication ethics." Aside from being a standalone headline in The Onion, I'd say political communication should be held to journalistic standards. But I'm afraid the best we can hope for is: As candid as socially acceptable and politically feasible. (Which, if practiced by political figures and operatives of good intention and imagination, can be pretty darned good.)

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Leaving the public interest out of it because it's too obvious--rhetorical excesses come back to bite you, and anyone playing the long game in politics ought to play as straight as possible for their own sustained self-preservation.

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

In political communication, people are judged not by the nuance of their individual statements as much as: By what they always do, and by what they never do, over time. People who maintain their credibility in political communication always maintain a tone of civility, they always speak with a sense of responsibility, they always stick to their areas of expertise. They never pile on gratuitously, they never speak just to get camera time, and they never lie.

 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?

In speechwriting, the central challenge isn't usually ethics. It's courage. The courage to be compelling, to advance a bold idea or to say something familiar in a fresh way. To show one's humanity, and to connect.

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

Try to work for political leaders who use words aggressively, not defensively: To bring people together and stir their imaginations, to clarify the complex, to inspire constructive action. Rather than to confuse perceptions of reality, repulse investigations, to fog up the lens.