VEN 2017/1 – Correcting misleading impressions by communication
1. Case and issues
The following description of a private company’s communications has been presented to the Council:
A service provided by a company has been presented in an exceptionally favourable light in media, resulting in considerable publicity and social media attention. Expectations concerning the service are, however, clearly unfounded in the facts. The content of the company’s own communications are not erroneous, nor does it as such yield a misleading impression of the service. However, the company has not attempted to correct favourable but unfounded impressions which have arisen.
How should a communications professional act when an erroneous, imprecise or misleading impression of a product or service arises in the public sphere? What if the impression is generally positive? Should a communications professional correct mistakes made by others? How should misleading claims and impressions be corrected?
2.1 Communication Code of Ethics
The Council does not make decisions concerning the actions of individuals or corporations. The Council assesses the practices of which the case acts as an example as well as the ensuing ethical questions. The Council’s statements are based on the Communication Code of Ethics.
In the assessment of the case described, the Council finds the following Codes to be relevant:
The communications professional:
- does not make claims that he or she knows are erroneous
- does not make true claims in a manner that gives a misleading impression
- corrects a claim that turns out to be erroneous
2.2 Specific questions
When should communication be considered misleading?
Communication is misleading when it involves bias, exaggeration or failure to address the shortcomings of a product or a service. Communication can also be misleading when a company attempts to create an unfavourable impression of current circumstances in order to amplify the benefits of its own products. The use of unclear concepts or expert vocabulary may also generate misleading communications. Misleading communications do not necessarily entail presenting untrue claims.
Whose claims should be corrected?
A communications professional should correct an erroneous or misleading claim presented on behalf of the organization when that claim influences or may influence expectations, conceptions and behaviour on part of stakeholders and audiences.
A communications professional cannot correct or even be aware of all claims concerning the organization presented by outsiders. A professional should nevertheless correct erroneous and misleading claims made by outsiders when they gain considerable publicity or are repeatedly presented in e.g. professional media or social media discussions which concern the organization. The relevance of the correction is proportional to the potential effects of the claim on the expectations and actions of stakeholders.
How should the correction be made?
An erroneous or misleading claim should be corrected as quickly as possible, and, if possible, in the same publication or other context where it has been presented. If an erroneous claim has been published in a leading media or in a media otherwise highly relevant to stakeholders, the correction should be made in the same media. In addition, an error should be corrected in the organization’s own communications, such as in a bulletin, website, blog or enterprise social media. The correction should be brought to the attention of the organization’s personnel in case the personnel otherwise would act based on erroneous conceptions.
3. Statement of opinion
In the example case, the company has not itself presented erroneous or misleading claims. An inaccurate and misleading impression concerning its services has nevertheless arisen. The amount of publicity has been considerable and will potentially greatly influence expectations. However, the company has not attempted to rectify misleading impressions in the same contexts or in its own communication channels and platforms. In this respect, the Council finds that the communication practices described in the example case are not in accordance with the Communication Code of Ethics.
VEN 2015/1 – Communication concerning a client or a client’s competitor without disclosure of business relationship
1. Cases and issues
The following examples of communication practices have been brought to the attention of the Council:
- In numerous messages posted from his/her Twitter account, a communications consultant has presented criticism of a key competitor of his/her corporate client.
- A communications consultant has praised his/her own client in messages posted from his/her Twitter account. The business relationship between the consultant and the client has not been disclosed in the messages, on the consultant’s Twitter profile, or in other materials readily accessible for the public.
Should a communications professional praise a client or criticize the competitor of a client without disclosing the business relationship? In social media, communication is often technically limited. Should a business relationship be disclosed even on Twitter?
The Council does not make decisions concerning individuals or corporations, but assesses the practices of which the cases act as examples as well as the ensuing ethical questions. The Council’s statements are based on the Communication Code of Ethics. In the assessment of the cases described, the Council finds the following Codes to be relevant:
The communications professional:
- explicitly discloses the involvement of an employer or a client in the content of a message or publication pertaining to them
- openly discloses his or her pertinent interests, ties and obligations
Pertinent ties and obligations entail such interests that are relevant to the public’s assessment of the content of a message. A business relationship between a professional and a client is such a tie, if the content of the message is due to this relationship. Principally, this is the case when the communication had not taken place in the absence of that relationship.
The relevant ties and obligations have been effectively disclosed at least when the text of a message, a signature or the social media profile of a communications professional includes an expression of a business or employment relationship, or when such a relationship is otherwise evident from the context. A communications consultant with numerous clients may find it technically difficult to list all such business relationships. However, technical limitations do not cancel the duty to disclose ties and obligations at least when the communication is considered as whole.
3. Statement of opinion
In both example cases, the communication in question would not have occurred without the business relationship, which is thus pertinent in the assessment of its content, and should have been disclosed. The brief form of Twitter communication entails that even pertinent ties and obligations cannot be expressed in every message. However, they must be disclosed in the whole of the communication. In neither of the examples is this requirement met. The Council finds the communication practices described in examples (a) and (b) to be out of accordance with the Communication Code of Ethics.