Building an ethical framework around disinformation

image of woman in converse trainers working on her laptop to illustrate ethical framework for dealing with misinformation

Communicators are – or should be – held to ethical standards around misinformation and disinformation. Right now it can be feel like so many people with power disregard the damage being cavalier about information does to public trust. So I want to provide some tools for building an ethical framework that can inform your approach.

Back when I was involved in press work, I’d sometimes work through some worse-case scenarios with my team. We’d work out the impact of a potential problem and what our organisation should say about it. And as we worked, there was always a point where the team and I would draw a line. We would identify the moment a statement would be unethical, and be ready to challenge any senior leader trying to use it. I’m very proud that my team had that ethical framework, and I expect no less of anyone I work with now.

Get a clear grounding in why this matters

This summer I read Sarah Waddington’s guide to ethical communications over on FuturePRoof. She says

“As public relations professionals who help shape public narratives, we have a duty of care to ensure the veracity of everything we write and share, especially where we have access to and influence over large groups of people.”

Sarah Waddington, Disinformation and ‘Fake News’

The image of PR is often coloured by Malcolm Tucker or Siobhan Sharpe. Yet in my experience the great PRs I know are nothing like those stereotypes. They do think about the impact an influential message can have and take care to not be malicious or mendacious.

Sarah’s guide explains so much in this area, and has brilliant links to more material. If you are a CIPR member then it counts as your required ethical CPD points for the year. If you’ve only time to read one thing, make it this. (If you’ve time for two, read the RESIST toolkit by the UK government comms service.)

Build your resilience

You’ve got your ethical framework and you know when something is veering into misinformation or disinformation. Your role as a trusted adviser is to say “that’s unethical and we can’t say that” to someone who may have power over your income.

This is the trickier part, so work through in advance how you might approach it. Ideally do this long before you’re in a crisis so you are making your choices without deadline pressure. Based on the person, you might take different angles. You might need to think about what you do if the senior person won’t listen to your advice. Are you willing and able to walk?

There’s some useful guides on how to politely steer your senior leadership towards the ethical choice. You know where your internal strength needs a confidence boost so look for guidance that helps those areas. Or give up and just go the full Malcolm Tucker.

Calling out misinformation when you see it

I’m a long time fan of fact check organisations such as Full Fact. I’ve seen how they pull together a briefing. So I was appalled to see a political party rebrand itself as a fact-checker at the end of November. It was disingenuous at best, and possibly an attempt to undermine independent fact-checking by sowing distrust in legitimate organisations. I was glad CIPR quickly issued a statement.

If you see something, say something. You can call it out privately, or publicly, but if you value honesty and trust then it’s important to say something. You can also signal boost the signal of independent fact-checking organisations. And if, despite following all the guidance, someone calls you or your organisation out for misinformation or disinformation, double-check before doubling-down on your initial position.

We can only start to rebuild public trust by being honest and ethical in how we work.

Image by Karolina on KaboomPics


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