Five Questions about Ethics in Political Communication - Olga Moshinsky Woltman


Olga Moshinsky Woltman, LemonSkies, describes herself as “a nonprofit strategist for good causes.” Olga has nearly two decades of broad-reaching experience helping nonprofits raise funds and awareness, with specialty in planning, messaging, and creative concepting. She has extensive experience working with Chapters and Affiliates and is a frequent contributor to industry publications. or

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

To give you my simple definition, ethical standard that ought to guide political communications is about doing the right thing (not to be confused with what’s legal). I differentiate between ethical and legal because you cannot automatically assume that as long as it is by the letter of the law it is by default ethical, not to mention that not all laws are ethical. Also, this might sound idealistic, but I’d like to see political communications decoupled from agendas and elections ratings.

The other consideration is intent, is your motivation pure or corrupt? This doesn’t always change the outcome but with ethics there is a lot of gray and sometimes trying to do the right thing is all you can do.

 All of this of course is theoretical, each situation is unique so we can probably talk a lot about contributing factors in application.

 2) Why should someone in political communication behave ethically?

Ethics are about right and wrong. Not to oversimplify this question, but isn’t by the very definition doing the right thing is what we should thrive for? Words matter and political communicators have a platform and a megaphone to amplify their message. The message that’s being put out creates a ripple effect impacting wellbeing of real people and communities so one has a responsibility to be thoughtful and deliberate.  

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

Scary thing, often it is it’s hard to distinguish if political communications are authentic. Spinning probably has always been a part of the game, but maybe more subtle compared to what has become the norm today. When you asked this question New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern came to mind straight away. After the tragic shooting at the country’s mosques Prime Minister Ardern showed true leadership and grace. She showed empathy and respect but at the same time took swift action. We need more of that. As a young female leader of a country (yes, I am going there), she managed to thread the needle, showing the world that compassion and decisiveness are not mutually exclusive. I’d like to think that her handling of this complex and nuanced situation was not just about communications mastery, but also about who she is as a human.

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 am a fundraiser and so much of what we do is about messaging and positioning, so you face ethical considerations, large and small, all the time! An obvious one is being honest about what the funds will support. I always want to emphasize the importance of donors’ support and that even a small contribution makes a difference (100% true), while avoiding hyperbole and being too specific about what particular program dollars support because when running an effective and efficient organization you just can’t be that specific.

A more nuanced question is how you balance raising money effectively without diminishing the very people you are helping. I am not saying shy away from emotion, but it is important to stay true to the mission and when sharing stories to maintain dignity of your constituents, not representing them as objects of pity. This goes for the photos you select also, by the way, and photoshopping to exaggerate is a hard no for me.

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

So here it goes - you didn’t say it had to be practical by the way, since I suspect when rising through the ranks one doesn’t always get to choose position, so maybe this isn’t about what you say but about how you say it.

  • Context matters, especially when it comes to nuanced issues. There is a way to present information or even facts in favorable or negative light. But leaving out the bigger picture colors perception. Fault by omission is still dishonest when knowingly done to shift how audience will interpret information.

  • Don’t dig in on a topic or issue just to be right or stick to it. It’s okay to change your mind in light of new information and acknowledge it. Not sure I’ve ever seen it happen in political space though unless it was in a “damage control” situation.

  • Just be straight and direct, don’t tap dance and dodge the issues. Burying the “lead” amongst a bunch of unnecessary distracting details is like camouflage to divert attention. 

  • Lastly, would you say whatever information is in question to someone’s face without a screen or Twitter handle to hide behind? What if are talking to a friend? Or your mom? That’s your North Star.