Ethics in the communications industry

Ethics in the communications industry
Mar 7, 2019
The future of marketing with Dr. Thomas Hancocks

As we enter into a post ‘fake news’, GDPR-centric era, the role of ethics in marketing and communications has become a hot topic. We spoke with Dr. Thomas Hancocks, a teaching fellow in applied ethics at the University of Leeds, to get his views on how the communications industry can navigate this brave new world.

The use of individuals’ data has dominated the news lately, with cases such as the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal. Do you think the public fully understand the technology they’re using and how their data may be stored?

There’s a growing awareness among the public about big data, and various scandals—like the Cambridge Analytica case—have helped build consciousness of that. It’s a shame that it took large-scale privacy violations to bring big data to people’s attention, but that’s often the way society becomes aware of ethical problems—like journalism’s phone hacking scandal, or the parliamentary harassment and expenses case.

However, I wouldn’t say this ‘growing awareness’ amounts to full understanding. Often people are unaware of who possesses their data, as companies may sell it to third parties. And while they may advertise this to customers, this doesn’t mean that customers have a good idea of who their data is being sold to and where it will eventually end up.

Do you see a moral obligation on companies to communicate how harvested customer data is being used?

I think the starting point must be full transparency, and any deviation from that needs to be justified. Part of the problem is that companies have felt they can discharge their obligation by simply writing ‘we will sell your data to third parties’. But that’s too ambiguous.

One key reason for the obligation of transparency is based on consent. For consent to be valid it must be informed, voluntary, and the person consenting must have capacity. If companies are not clear and transparent with the information they give and doing as much as they can to ensure that only those with capacity consent, we have grounds for questioning the validity of the consent.

On top of transparency, I would add the broader obligations on companies: truthfulness, non-manipulation, and obligations to vulnerable customers.

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How can brands and communications experts operate in an ethical way?

As with ethical issues facing many professions, awareness is key. Marketing and communications impact people, in both positive and negative ways. Being aware that marketing/communications doesn’t take place in a vacuum, but within wider society where people can be hurt, deceived, offended, desensitized, and have their privacy violated, is crucial.

There’s work to be done around emphasizing the importance of consent and making consumers feel less like an object and more like a human with agency, by making people aware of exactly what data the company has, and exactly how it will be used, for instance.

How do you see the role of ethics in marketing changing over the next five, 10 years—do you see a growing demand for total transparency, or a move towards acceptance that marketing will serve to obscure the truth in some way?

It’s hard to give a completely accurate picture. Looking at the EU’s intervention with GDPR, we see a real recognition of the harmfulness of big data and privacy violations. There are also wider issues around technological advancement and AI that will have implications for how big data is computed, stored and used. So, it may well be that further legislation is introduced to mitigate harms.

I’m hopeful that companies will be more proactive when dealing with potential ethical issues. The current interest in ethics and transparency is due to companies responding to new legislation—the response has been a reactive one. But I hope that marketing—and other sectors—now take ethical issues seriously and will take steps to proactively engage with them.

Who does marketing serve—can it be a force for good?

It’s common to hear people talking about the evils of marketing. There’s a truth to this—marketing can sell gambling to children, get people addicted to cigarettes, undermine people’s body image, amongst other harms.

But it can do good as well. It can give people greater choice, make them aware of new products, of charity campaigns, and global issues such as famines and foodbanks. There’s also a role for marketing in a healthy democracy—promoting awareness about political policies and candidates.

Truthfulness is key here. Think of the case of the ‘£350 million to the NHS’ claim, that led a lot of people to vote for Brexit based on false information. If democracy requires people to make informed choices, then that doesn’t look like democracy at all. It’s deceptive marketing, which is corrosive on the democratic process.

On the topic of purpose-led marketing campaigns—can these ever be truly altruistic when they’re pursued by companies whose aim is to turn a profit?

There are certainly cases where profit and ethics meet. Think of Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance. These initiatives make a profit, but they do so by promoting an ethical cause. It’s conceivable that the same is true of purpose-led marketing.

Some say this isn’t ethical, because it’s ethics done for the ‘wrong’ reasons–i.e. for profit. Good intentions are generally considered crucial for truly ethical conduct. However, even if it’s not an ideal case of perfect intentions, we shouldn’t be averse to companies making a profit through improving or benefitting the world some way. The cases of Fairtrade and the Rainforest Alliance show that this can work.

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