Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Pete Leon and Mike Scrivner

Pete Leon

Pete Leon

Mike Scrivner

Mike Scrivner

Mike Scrivner and Pete Leon are partners in their bipartisan lobbying firm that focuses on telecommunications, technology, energy and health care. Mike and Pete have more than a half century of professional political experience between them. When he was a staffer on Capitol Hill, Mike first worked for Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) and then moved onto to work for Rep. Norm Lent (R-NY) as his Legislative Director and then Chief of staff while Lent was the ranking Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee. Pete started his career in the personal office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) , who is now Speaker of the House, and over ten years rose to be senior staff ending his career as Legislative Director for Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) who now serves as Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

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

Pete: The simple answer is the highest standard. The American people have lost faith in their government because of disinformation campaigns, half-truths and fuzzy logic answers. This lack of faith has harmed our nation and political communicators have an ethical responsibility to not only stop doing this but seek ways to repair the damage.

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Pete: Regardless of title, most people working in politics are political communicators.  Whether the audience is constituents, the media or elected/appointed officials one thing remains the same. Never lie! Getting caught in a lie often results (and should) with the relationship being forever broken.  The open exchange of information is vital to a functioning democracy. For an individual who lies, they suffer damage to their own reputation, but they also add to the deterioration of democratic government.

Mike:  Agree - at the end of the day all you have is your reputation and trust.  Once lost it’s impossible to recover.

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

Pete: As a lobbyist, I am often asked who opposes the position that I am advocating. It is my ethical responsibility to be able to name those groups and provide some examples of their arguments. I model myself after a lobbyist I met when I started as a new staffer for a member of Congress.  This lobbyist had recently changed jobs but had a long history with my new boss.  This lobbyist came in and discussed a piece of legislation that his new company strongly supported.  He then explained to me why my new boss could not support the bill. This lobbyist knew more about my boss’ positions than I did and was more concerned with maintaining a good relationship than putting my boss in a difficult position.

Mike:  I agree and would note that an advocate also has an ethical responsibility to the client to make the strongest factual representation of their case or cause.  It is professionally sound to make the audience aware of the other side and where they can find relevant information but would leave it to the adversary to make their own case.

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?

Pete: I have been asked to represent foreign governments where being openly gay is a criminal offense and, often, punishable by death.  As an openly gay, married man, this is a line I cannot cross.

Mike:  If you’re not comfortable making the case – for whatever reason – don’t take the client.  It’s not fair to anyone concerned – you, the client or the audience.

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

Pete: Read as much as you can before you open your mouth.  Too often today, political communicators just spout off with little actual fact in hand.  They should also meet people – in person not just communicate via email or social media.  Interpersonal skills and relationships are how we build trust and become better communicators.

Mike: Agree and believe it’s a problem with young staff more used to communicating through email, text and social media.  They don’t often see the value of personally knowing the person on the other side of the issue even when they’re in close proximity.  I’m still surprised when I come across this, but it seems to be increasingly the case.