Embracing ethical communication for sustainable business success

Communication permeates every aspect of growing a business, from establishing brand identity and attracting customers to managing relationships, gathering feedback, empowering employees, and navigating challenges.

Fostering a robust organisational culture and cultivating positive business relationships relies on upholding the principles of trust, honesty, and transparency in their daily operations and communicating this effectively to the outside world.

However, there often exists a misalignment between the words they espouse and their actual conduct. The importance of communication ethics cannot be overstated, with failure resulting in severe financial and reputational repercussions.

Incorporating the tenets of ethical communication not only enhances the credibility and trustworthiness of a business but also facilitates sound decision-making, mitigates unnecessary conflicts, and fosters stronger business ties, the foundations of sustainable business growth.

Here, we’ll delve into a comprehensive understanding of ethical communication, providing you with the necessary insights to uphold ethical standards in your business endeavours.

The rise and rise of ethical expectations

The importance of business ethics is increasingly paramount in the consciousness of consumers, and this trajectory is expected to continue to rise. NIQ (formerly NielsenIQ), found that 70% of consumers say sustainability is now more important to them when selecting products than it was two years ago. This trajectory is potentially set to rise further spurred by the preferences of millennials and Gen Z. For example, FMI – The Food Industry Association found that 45% of Gen Z and millennials shop with sustainability in mind, compared to only 14% of baby boomers.

Conversely, 76% of consumers are willing to abstain from purchasing a company's products or services if they discover that the company has endorsed a course that contradicts what they believe in.

There is a growing influence of activism and positive action shaping the consumer behaviour and brands need to respond accordingly. Just as ethical practices are essential, ethical communication is also paramount in modern business operations. Ethical communication entails adhering to a set of principles rooted in specific business values that guide corporate communication practices. It emphasises the importance of expressing a business communicator's thoughts and messages effectively, concisely, and responsibly.

Ethical communication, in essence, involves clarity, truthfulness, conciseness, and accountability. It embodies a communicative approach characterised by a genuine desire to understand and appreciate the diverse needs of the audience involved.

So, how can brands put this into practice?

Principles underlying ethical communication

There are four foundational pillars, or essential elements, of ethical communication. Each pillar is crucial for establishing a robust framework of communication ethics. Neglecting any one of these key elements could jeopardise the entire ethical equilibrium. Here, we’ll delve into these key principles of ethical communication in greater detail.

Honesty and transparency 

This is the cornerstone for any ethical communicator. Representing your business, every statement must be entirely truthful. It's imperative to convey the complete truth, avoiding partial or fragmented facts, as failure to do so risks reputational harm.

Applying honesty and transparency into every area of business operations and communications involves avoiding practices such as:

  • False advertising: Deceiving customers by making claims about a product or service.
  • Manipulative marketing: Using psychological tactics to manipulate consumers into making purchases they wouldn't otherwise make. Examples include using fear, guilt, or peer pressure to coerce consumers into buying products.
  • Data privacy violations: Collecting and misusing consumer data without their consent or using it in ways that are harmful or invasive to individuals' privacy.
  • Greenwashing: Misleading consumers about the environmental practices or benefits of a product or company, often by exaggerating or fabricating claims about sustainability.
  • Failure to address issues: Ignoring or downplaying serious issues or controversies related to the brand or its products, rather than addressing them transparently and taking responsibility for any wrongdoing. 

These are some of the big ‘don’t’s’ which would put you at risk of reputational damage. But a great deal of care must also be taken to ensure that you are adhering to any regulations that may govern your industry, to ensure that you’re communicating lawfully.

Ethical communication goes hand in hand with ethical practice. Those that do not practice what they preach will quickly lose credibility.

Depth of audience understanding

Communication extends beyond the creators and presenters of messages; it also encompasses the recipients. When communication is overly complex, laden with jargon, it fails to resonate.

Ethical communication entails tailoring messages with the audience in mind. Using straightforward language that is easily comprehensible is more appreciated than employing overly sophisticated vocabulary. For example, it's nonsensical to convey crucial business information in English to an Italian-speaking audience.

The manner of communication also warrants consideration. Utilising inaccessible platforms overlooks the importance of technology and disability accessibility, which are as critical as language accessibility.

Timing and placement

The timing and placement of messaging are sometimes overlooked, yet they are crucial factors in ethical communication.

Ethical communication involves being mindful of the dissemination of your messages. Consider the timing and location carefully as you develop your communication strategy. Conduct audience research to determine the most suitable channels and platforms for your messages. Additionally, remain aware of ongoing events, such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks, and adjust your messaging accordingly.

Privacy and confidentiality are paramount

Data protection, privacy, and cybersecurity have become worldwide concerns, with news outlets frequently reporting on the latest data breaches and cyber incidents. In Q3 of 2023 alone, 2,715 data security incidents were reported to the ICO.

Preserving the confidentiality of customers and clients is of utmost importance in business ethics. Numerous companies and organisations collect and analyse data for marketing objectives, making it essential to safeguard this information. Sharing such data would breach the trust that clients and customers have placed in your business.

Ethical values lay the groundwork for achieving business success

Guided by these fundamental principles of ethical communication, every business should prioritise professional ethics when sharing messages. Not only is ethical conduct morally justified, but it also serves as a potent strategy for achieving sustainable business success.

Embracing ethical values lays the groundwork for trust within your organisation and mitigates the risks associated with unethical behaviour. Moreover, it fosters stronger relationships with both customers and employees.