Professionals in our field often discuss “communicating with integrity.” The term generally refers to honesty, transparency and a measure of humility. Such characteristics are critically important in an era when cheating, fake news and hostile denigration of opposing viewpoints seem far more the norm than the exception.
Equally important for professionals in our field is something just a little different –“communicating integrity.” Specifically, how do professional communicators address the challenge of expressing the integrity of an individual, a company or an organization? You can rarely win respect by simply declaring yourself to be ethical, moral and principled. Ethical behavior must be demonstrated, usually over a long period. Even once that criterion is met, it is unseemly or non-credible to pronounce your own integrity. That attribution ideally comes from others who view you as such.
Yet we live in a world in which personal attacks on individual and organizational trustworthiness occur with increasing frequency. Once an antagonist assaults our credibility, it becomes hard to counter the attack all alone. Rallying allies who will speak on our behalf certainly helps, but in a hostile environment even the best allies may shrink from jumping into the fray for fear of suffering a similar fate.
When left to go it alone, we have to do better than Richard Nixon when he flatly declared, “I am not a crook.” As soon as the words left his lips, everyone thought he absolutely was. In trying to instill public belief in his integrity, Nixon erased the possibility that anyone would believe him. In doing so, he demonstrated the first lesson in communicating integrity: Make it about what you believe and not only about you.
The first lesson in communicating integrity: Make it about what you believe and not only about you.
Establish Your Values
Corporations spend millions of dollars and countless hours articulating values that guide their business operations. Individuals uphold the fundamental tenets of their faith or their own belief systems that shape their behavior. These are the foundations of integrity and the core truths you want people to understand.
Far better to say: “I have lived my life guided by a belief that we are all called to public service, especially in the interests of those less fortunate,” than to say “I give millions to charity!”
Humility also is vital when attempting to communicate integrity. Reasonable people understand that we all make mistakes. We also know the best of us learn from our errors and strive to become better. Current presidential candidates can often be heard apologizing for past behaviors. Too often they omit how those experiences changed them. It’s one thing to say, “I wish I did it differently,” than to say, “Here is what I learned from that experience and how that lesson will guide me in the future.” People will credit you for growth if you are willing to own your past. A very enlightened CEO client facing a withering criticism related to bad employee behavior emphatically rejected my proposed “messaging” about what happened. He said to me, “Our history is our history. We need to own it and explain what we learned from this.” He went on to win back for his company on the foundation of respect and public trust on which all business depends. And, for the record, I learned from my mistaken approach and strive now to give better counsel.
Speak To Your People
Finally, we need to remember our people. Those who come to work with us every day are often our strongest allies because, typically, they already believe in us.
We need to remember to speak with them, hear their concerns, avail ourselves of their wisdom and enlist them as communicators on our behalf. All too often in the face of a reputational crisis, edicts are issued reminding employees to direct outside inquiries to the PR department and adhere to specific talking points. Meanwhile, management hunkers down in the executive suite and misses out on the chance to personally interact with those who will be front line communicators with family, neighbors and friends. Openness to dialogue with those closest to us, begins the process of broader outreach.
We must be able to speak about integrity. We must be able to fend off attacks on our credibility.
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