Business Monday

Ethics has never been more urgent. It starts with you

Truth, trust and ethics are in crisis. Despair helps nothing. Our best antidote is not just to hold the government and marketplace accountable — vital as that is — but to step up to the plate in our homes, workplaces, communities and selves. Our society depends on it.

Business, politics, and journalism work our brain receptors hard. Swipe or tap your phone, and dopamine rushes with a “like” and the breath stops with a nasty tweet. We do this on average 2,617 times a day, some of us more than 5,000 times, nearly double from four years ago. In the U.S., the attention span has dropped to seven seconds (goldfish: nine seconds) from 12 seconds in 2000.

News organizations reward clicks and eyeballs, which determine online play. In some newsrooms, the most-clicked reporters wear lanyards with medals. Businesses rely on them too, for pushing products or ideas. Ad agencies and PR firms offer them as evidence as jobs and contracts come up for review. With Artificial Intelligence, metrics penetrate our very marrows.

Online and on TV, “facts” are twisted, invented, posted, and re-tweeted, which engage the brain’s amygdala and invite clicks, audiences, profits. Audiences go tribal as they turn to media outlets that best coddle their prejudices, dismissing others as “fake news.”

Is it any wonder trust is in eclipse? The respected 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer — released last January — showed a record worldwide drop in trust across institutions of government, business, media and non-government organizations. Among other things, it indicated that an average person’s statement online is generally more likely to be believed than that of a science expert, or business or government leader. Respondents trust search engines 59-41 percent over human editors. In the Edelman report, 53 percent globally responded that the “system has failed them.”

Autocrats and populism thus beckon. Freedom House reports 25 fewer democracies today than in 2000, and even those are getting wobbly, including ours.

“We have come to a tipping point in a very dangerous direction,” Edelman Public Relations Senior Vice President Kety Esquivel said during a recent panel, “Navigating Ethics to Restore Trust,” sponsored by Miami Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce.

Is there reason to believe the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, due in early 2018, will be more encouraging?

The silver lining is ours to seize. It is our job — no, our duty — to shut out the noise, examine our consciences and make our workplaces and society more civil, ethical, and founded on truth and integrity.

“The only way to ensure trust is regained is through bravery and courage,” says Fred Blevens, professor at Florida International University’s Department of Journalism and Media. He has sworn off cable news and Twitter, with its excess of self-exhibitionism and attack. While not practical for all — journalists and businesses dwell there — his appeal bears heeding. Says Blevens: “Practice safe news. There is no condom for that.”

If ethics starts at the top, its roots lie within. Your reputation and career will ride on it. The future obituaries of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Roy Moore have changed forever. Why should yours?

Says Travis Winslow, vice president of ethics and compliance at Carnival Corporation & LLC.: “Trust and ethics are the key. Share a personal craving for highly ethical behavior.”

Resist ethical shortcuts and seek the right way to the goal. If your boss or client insists otherwise, walk. When you screw up, admit it fast and own it. Cover-ups compound sins.

If you are looking for a meaningful, achievable new year’s resolution, sharpening your ethics in 2018 could be it.

Don’t wait. Cultivate your inner ethical warrior. Pass it on. We are out of time.

Mark Sell and Connie Crowther are independent editors, writers, and public relations consultants. Both are former presidents of the Public Relations Society of America, Miami Chapter.

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This is an opinion piece written for Business Monday’s “My View” space in the Miami Herald. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.

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