Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Frank Maisano


Frank Maisano co-founded the Strategic Communication practice at Bracewell, where he is a senior principal. Maisano has more than two decades of experience in strategic political communication, including serving in senior positions for a number of Republican members of Congress. @fvmaisano

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

Political communications must be held to a very high standard. Especially in today's world – with ever-expanding  prominence of social media and the highly charged political nature of our debate – we tend to let people get away with commentary that may not be quite up to the level of truth-telling and credibility that are necessary. Ethical standards are essential if we want to conduct a meaningful political discussions. So many times today, partisan lines impact our personal ability to connect with people who may disagree with us.  As these differences become larger, we continue to see a significant slide in our ability to conduct common sense political discourse. In the end, this hurts our overall political system.  Political Communications must be grounded in respect for others and as well as common understanding of reasonable facts.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Much of everything we do is about reputation and credibility.  This is the most important reason to conduct any communications outreach, campaigns or effort in an ethical manner.  Our reputation and credibility is something that may take years and years to develop, yet can be gone in an instant because of unnecessary risks and unethical communications behavior. As a person who has spent 30 years building a reputation as a credible resource for political, policy and media sources, I find it nearly impossible that I would risk all that hard work for a short-term gain that would be perceived as unethical or even borderline questionable.  Overall, it is about your professional demeanor and how you want to be perceived by those who you seek to influence.

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

I don't think I would be out of line to say we're not seeing much of it today.  The President often says what he wants with our much regard while his opponents – including some in the news media – are equally guilty. What has been created is an environment where neither side trusts the other.   

While the military often is challenged over its political communications, I often like to point to General Dunsmore and the way he dealt with the crisis in Niger as an current example that both was credible and respected by all parties.  He also conveyed his messages effectively.  Other than that, I yearn for the years long past, whether it be the Lincoln-Douglas debates of the Civil War era or the challenges and differences faced by Madison and Hamilton as they hammered out the function of our government.  While those political communications were often effective and reasonable, they still had their dark sides as history shows.

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 an industry spokesman, your credibility and integrity is often challenged by activists attempting to undermine you and your message.  I have found that it Is best to maintain a strong sense of self, a high  standard of respect and decency and offer only credible, verifiable truths.  Many times it is about offering a bigger, broader picture view of any individual issue that may seem different if defined narrowly.   

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

Tell the truth.  Feel free to position the story in terms favorable to your side or in the best light, but in the end, you need to tell the truth.  We know when we are stretching it – and in the end – it is never worth the reputation and credibility risk.