Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication: Craig Vachon


Craig Vachon is a senior partner at NextStage, a Paris-based private equity firm. For the last thirty years, he's been an entrepreneur and seed investor in founders of impactful start-ups. Craig's first novel, The Knucklehead of Silicon Valley, is being published in late October 2019.   @c_ster

1 ) To what ethical standard should political communication be held? Where should political communication ethics be grounded?
Sociologists contend that trust is foundational to functioning societies. In business communications, we often rely on the quantifiable to assist us in determining the trustworthiness of a partner or transactor. This is relatively simple as in most transactions, the quantifiable claim gives confidence to the transactors as to the fairness of the transaction. If something is amiss, confidence and trust is removed, and those transactors will have numerous avenues for redress. Simply put, they probably will cease to transact in the future. (Example: Enron)

But in political communications, claims are more difficult to quantify. (While undoubtedly some jobs were created in the last 12 months in America, should all the credit for these newly-created jobs be attributed to Ivanka Trump?) Hence, to my perception, political communications often tend to stretch the boundaries of trustworthiness and honesty. Since lack of trust creates shakier societal foundations, political communication should have an ethical responsibility to society to pursue only honest, truthful communication, and that which is quantifiable. Failure to communicate with honesty, should have similar results to business communication, where the parties cease to further transactions (politician’s get voted out of their roles).    

2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?
Because failure to do so erodes the most basic foundations of our society. Our trading partners, allies, and everyone else, including our future-allies (as an entrepreneur, I suffer from never-ending-optimism) rely on our communication to judge our trustworthiness. Our communication that is less than ethical, strains our trustworthiness, whether our community, fellow countrymen or world-wide. 

When we act and communicate ethically, all participants benefit.

3) Can you give an example of ethical political communication? What can people point to and say “do more of that?”
I’m fond of mea culpas. Reagan’s apology after the Iran-Contra situation elevated him to a trustworthy leader for most. If Bill Clinton had the testicular fortitude to do so after the Lewinsky affair, I believe he would have elevated himself in the eyes of the world considerably.

Ethical political communication is probably the norm. But the drama of non-ethical communication sells more advertising, so media entities tend to focus on it (either to make political points or to attempt to diminish its import). Seemingly, if the populace voted more often (perhaps digitally every three months), we might have more responsiveness from our political leaders (CEO’s of small and large businesses have quarterly hurdles when they report results to their stakeholders). 

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?

I think we all face these challenges daily. My mother was an exceptional entrepreneur and inspiring, ethical human. Over the years, when making ethically-challenging decisions, I often play-out in my mind how I would explain my decision to her in the future. I find this to be an extremely potent litmus test. If I am apprehensive about the hypothetical explanation to Mom, then I rethink my approach.

5) What advice about ethics do you have for people studying political communication or starting their careers in the field?
Being in politics means you have many more bosses than the average human. You serve your constituents. If your communication doesn’t serve the well-being of your populace in an honest and forthright manner (like you would want to be treated), then perhaps you need to reevaluate your career or approach to solving challenging issues.