Ethics and political communication. It is an essential topic, but one that is not often discussed. Joining me on this week’s episode is Peter Loge, Associate Professor of Media and Public Affairs, and director of the project on ethics and political communication at George Washington University.
Peter touches on a number of key topics, including:
- What are the true ethical challenges most communicators face?
- Why “The Stakes are High” is an insidious ethical temptation
- Is political communication today very different from the 1700s?
Why don’t you tell me more about yourself and your career?
I’ve been a full-time professor at GW for several years now in the School of Media and Public Affairs. I have worked with some great and dedicated people and have some just really fantastic students. Before that though, for about 25 years, I lived and worked in the world of politics and advocacy. I served in senior positions in the Obama administration, in the Senate, and the House. I’ve lobbied, done strategic communications, worked in the private sector, the quasi-governmental sector, you name it. I’ve spent my career at the intersection of public policy, public communications, and advocacy.
Thinking about your career, both spending it as a professor, as well as your professional career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?
That’s a good question, and I get asked about that a fair amount. It occurs to me, that’s not actually the most interesting question. We can all point to the big thing. We can all point to the question should I have taken a job or not? Should I have stood up in the meeting? Should I have walked away from the situation? Those are the big ethical decisions. Those are the big life decisions. I think those are important, but they may not be the ones that matter the most.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of my favorite authors, wrote an essay in 1937 called The Crackup. It was published in Esquire Magazine, and it was a brutal self portrait of F. Scott Fitzgerald. He opens it with a paragraph noting that the big blows that you notice, the ones you tell your friends about, aren’t the ones that do the damage. The blows that do the most damage are the ones you don’t notice in the moment, the ones you don’t notice until it’s too late. By the time you notice them, it is far too late indeed.
The big questions are obvious. Don’t take the bag of cash, right? Don’t lie. That’s easy. Something is on social media you know isn’t true, don’t repeat it. Don’t attack people because of their race or gender or sexual identity. Those are the easy ones.
The hard ones are things like whose picture do you use in an ad? I spent most of my life in advocacy, and as you know, as a PR pro, the way you make something real is by putting a face on it. See the face of this little girl. See the face of this family. This could be you. This could be your neighbor. This could be someone you know, or someone you love. It creates a sense of empathy.
The best pictures are the ones that resonate with the people whose opinion you have to change. So you find a face that looks like the face that you’re trying to persuade. But what if that isn’t the actual face or the issue? That simply reinforce views that it’s okay to help people who look like us, but don’t worry about the people who don’t look like us. Do you use a stock photo, for example? That way you can pick exactly who you want. There’s no question about what this person’s doing. They’re getting money for it. They’re monetizing their own image. But it’s also not entirely true, because it’s not exactly who you want.
On the other hand, do you use a photo of someone who’s actually being affected by this? That way it’s more honest, but you forever freeze someone in the worse moment of their lives.
For me, these are the hard ethical questions that folks in our fields trip over every day, and the ones we tend not to pay attention to until it’s a little too late.
I agree. There’s the Horatio at the Gates moment, which is what people love to celebrate, but it’s also the death of a thousand cuts. On this podcast you’re hearing people sharing the big moments as well as the little moments. When somebody asks you to sneak into a competitor’s press conference, and how do you react. People take and plagiarize images from the web. Then it comes back to haunt them down the road. Those are the issues we’re more likely to face than the big giant, earth shattering ethical issues.
I will challenge you that telling the truth is not always an easy ethical issue to deal with. We all lie at some point almost every day. We have great discussion in my ethics class about Kant and the categorical imperative.
PR pros love Kant. I hosted a panel recently with a speech writer from the Clinton White House, one who wrote for the Romney/Ryan campaign and a writing professor for the University of Oregon.
He said that there are different kinds of lies. There’s the parking ticket lie, there’s the misdemeanor lie, then there’s the felony lie. Don’t do the felony lie. The parking ticket lie, do these talking points make my policy positions look fat? Sure, let’s roll with that. If something’s obviously wrong, don’t do it.
What are you seeing as some of the key challenges for today and tomorrow, and how can communicators address them?
That’s a good question, and we’re in a really tricky political and social moment. The 2020 campaign and COVID-19. Neither of those are going away anytime soon. One we’d like to end quickly, we’d like both to end quickly, I expect, actually. We have to especially careful. Something that I see a lot in politics is everybody’s right and righteous. Everybody wakes up in the morning thinking they’re on the side of the angels. So, it’s okay to lie a little bit, because the stakes are so high.
They say “sure this isn’t quite true, but we’ll fix it once we get elected”, right? This election, so much is at stake in this election. It’s okay to cheat a little bit, because of the longer-term gain. Somehow our glorious magical ends that we can only see, justify whatever little tiny nefarious needs we may have to tweak along the way. I think that’s incredibly dangerous.
A specific example of this was in the Alabama special senate race several years ago. You had a republican candidate who a lot of people thought was pretty awful. He was banned from local malls. I’m not really sure he should have been in the US Senate. A bunch of democratic operatives who looked at what Russian operatives were doing in the 2016 election copied those tactics. They set up fake Facebook accounts, they spread online rumors. They pushed around things that weren’t true online. They told us, we know this, because they told The New York Times they did this. Their justification was, well, the stakes were so high, right? The stakes are really high in 2020. They’re high for all of us personally, they’re high for us economically as a society, as a country, as a planet. Heaven knows that in the 2020 elections thee stakes are incredibly high, not just the presidential race, but gubernatorial, Senate, House, and everything else on down the line.
It’s easy to say, “Yeah, well, this moment’s unique.” The problem is, you’re always then one election away from governing. We have to be really careful that in doing the right thing, we don’t become the bad guys.
What’s your advice for those communicators to hold the line? How can they do it effectively?
That’s always the tough question, and it’s easier for people like you and me, right? I get hired to put leaders in a box.
It’s easiest for me to raise my hand and say that’s a bad idea. That’s why I’m hired. It’s much trickier for someone who is 22 or 23. They are fresh out of Emerson College, my alma mater. Fresh out of GW or BU, or wherever. Or you’re in your second or third job, or looking at the global economy. You’re thinking, “I can’t take the risk now.” That’s when it gets harder.
I think the way you do it is the way you do almost anything. Establish rules early. You don’t decide the clear path or the gray area when you’re in the middle of the gray. Before you start a job, before you start a project, you say, “These are my guidelines,” right? When things get tricky, this is what I’m going to weigh. Is it worth putting somebody at risk? Which communities am I willing to sacrifice? What don’t I talk about? Do I have an obligation in a meeting raise my hand every time and say, “Have we thought about the impact on women? Have we thought about what this means for minority communities in the US? Have we thought about what this means for the rural poor in America?” Write those things down. Think about them now. Put them on a Post-It note. Tape them to your computer. Tape them to your desk. Put them in a visible place. Put them on a little card in your wallet so you never forget.
We both have a lot of friends who are religiously devout and they wear a Star of David or a crucifix. That’s partially a reminder, right? You’re here for a broader purpose. Don’t violate this thing that you literally carry with you. Do the same with your principals. Do the same with your guard rails. Carry those, and never be afraid to walk away if something violates those boundaries.
What do you do when the pushback from the folks who say everybody else is doing it or that you know a politician is lying because their mouth is moving. Are the ethical issues as widespread as the layperson thinks?
Most people who work in politics most of the time from city council to president, do it because they want to change the world in good ways. There are the venal and the corrupt, and the people who start pure and then get corrupted and all of that, but most of us do this because we believe in something beyond ourselves. Politics is too hard. It’s too brutal. It’s too tenuous and uncertain to do for any other reason. If you want to get rich and famous, become a bonds trader. Don’t get into politics, don’t become a lobbyist.
I lobbied for America’s Funniest Home Videos. That was fun and helped pay for my house. I also lobbied for Oxfam. I didn’t get rich lobbying for Oxfam, but I think I tried to make the world a better place. Most people I know are mostly like that. I think that the challenges are a myriad. But it Is rare that it’s a race to the bottom. We’re constantly lowering the floor. It’s really hard to be effective and compelling and honest at the same time.
But that’s why they pay you. Anybody can cheat. Anybody can violate the rules. Anybody can come up with a clever online meme that maybe undermines somebody. They pay you to do it right, and to get it right. The consequences are forever if you are exposed or caught cheating.
One of the challenges this administration has, is according to Pew Research, something like 2/3rds of the American people don’t find the President of the United States trustworthy. Mostly that’s irritating and it really bothers me. Again, I worked for the last guy, so I have an opinion on this. But ultimately, whatever.
But in a moment of national crisis, you need to be able to turn to your leaders and say, “Yeah, I mean, I disagree with that guy, but I know he’s got my back.” Right? The consequences of not building up that reservoir of trust by continually doing the right thing are astonishing. We’re seeing them in realtime.
Do the right thing now. Do it the right way, because down the road, you may have to rely on that reservoir of trust.
How do the ethics of political communication vary internationally and how do we adapt to the international issues that may be happening?
That’s an interesting question. It’s tempting to say, “Well, the US is different. It’s special and unique.” I do think it’s really special. I believe deeply in our Republic. But we come out of the same intellectual enlightenment tradition as France and Spain and Germany and Russia and the UK. The enlightenment tradition says that we can reason our way to doing the right thing. This is rooted in the Greeks; it’s rooted in Pythagoras. I am a huge fan of his. He is an underrated philosopher and I will fight anybody on Twitter about this. That is the idea that we can sort of argue our way to the best or the right answer.
I think you see this playing out globally, right? You see elected officials in countries in the UK and in Spain and elsewhere, try to figure out, how do we gain and maintain the public trust? How do we do it in a time of crisis, like COVID-19? How do we do it in a time of when unions seem to be dissolving? They’re all thinking about these things in the same way, how do we make the best case in the right way to advance what we think is the social good? I think they’ve all read Kant. They’ve all read Rousseau, or at least they’ve read summaries of them, or they’ve heard podcasts about them. They’re on the same intellectual tradition.
If you haven’t checked him out, I recommend you look at Scott Monty. He’s a former chief digital officer, at Ford and a classicist. He said he was one of the very few classicists to be a chief communications officer at a Fortune 5 company. He talks about how we need to go back to Marcus Aurelius and the foundational, ethical thinkers.
Well, I mean, I tell my students all the time that everything we do is warmed over Aristotle, and they would save themselves a lot of money and heartache if they simply downloaded it. Aristotle speaks to this in some really important ways. One is that one ought to not lie, one ought to be honest and true, because it’s inherently more persuasive. You simply believe the truth more.
But at a tactical level, Aristotle argued that all effective communication efforts have three elements. It appeals to Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Ethos appeals to character, Pathos appeals to emotion, Logos to reason. Ethos appeals to credibility, whether or not the audience believes you’re a person of good character. If the audience doesn’t believe you’re a person of good character, nothing else matters. How do you develop that? How do you demonstrate you’re a person of good character? Well, demonstrate that you’re ethical, right?
Don’t cheat, don’t lie. Don’t hedge. That way you never have to explain it away. The other bits become much, much easier.
Be honest, be clear, be direct, be skeptical but never cynical. It’s a line I stole from a colleague who is a Republican Communications Operative, and is now at a conservative site called The Dispatch. It’s tough, but it’s important to note in America communication wasn’t happiness, rainbows, and puppies and unicorns and then along came Twitter and the wheels came off. We’ve always been awful.
It’s worth noting that in the Adams/Jefferson campaign the supporters of Adams, just accused Jefferson of all sorts of things… the President of Yale, which is the BU of Connecticut, that if Jefferson were elected president, our wives and daughters would be subject to legal prostitution. Jefferson didn’t stoop to respond. Jefferson didn’t get in the gutter. He hired someone to get in the gutter for him, and he paid somebody to spread stories in the partisan press that among other things, if elected president, Adams would invade France.
Our political communication in this country has always been racist and race baiting and lying, and partisan, and awful, from the jump. In 1946, George Orwell wrote that in our time it is largely true that political writing is bad writing. He said that political rhetoric is a defense of the indefensible. It’s rooted in pure wind. It’s always been awful.
Social media, digital media, allows speed and scale in ways we haven’t seen before, but it’s a lot of the same. I think the response has to be the same. Don’t be that person. Don’t spread stuff you know isn’t true. If it sounds outrageous, check it. Push out good messages. Just be better, and then hopefully policy makers and others can figure out ways to fact check stuff on the technological end. But the fact that I can’t fix Twitter, doesn’t mean that I should be bad, right?
I live in downtown Washington, DC. There’s litter sometimes in front of my house. People who go to bars and restaurants will drop a beer can or a fast food bag or something. I pick it up and I throw it away. It’s not my job. Somebody else gets paid to pick up garbage. That one piece of garbage isn’t going to change the world if I leave it there, but it’s garbage in front of my house. I don’t litter. One more soda on the street doesn’t matter, but still, I shouldn’t liter.
I view communication and social media the same way. Just because one more won’t matter, doesn’t mean you ought to do one more. Just because one more bad thing online goes unchecked won’t matter, you still ought to check it. Garbage is garbage.
I think that’s some great advice that you’re giving. I’d love to ask you to take a step back and think what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
That’s a really good question. I’ve been thinking about it since you and I first chatted. I think the best advice wasn’t really about ethics, but it’s about how to manage my career. And that is be the person you want to be. If you want to be somebody who is kind, generous, trying to do the right thing in the right moment, always, then do that. Do that in your personal life, do that in your professional life, do that in your social life. Ethics are ethics.
It’s interesting. When I was launching the project on ethics for political communication at GW, I mentioned at a faculty meeting, “Hey, I want to have this project on political communication ethics.” A faculty member raised her hand and said, “You don’t have political communication ethics, Peter. You have ethics, and they are applied to political communication. You should call it the project in ethics and political communication.”
I thought that was brilliant insight, right? You don’t have PR ethics. You don’t have business ethics and family ethics, right? You have ethics. You find a way you want to be in the world and you are that person. You’re that person at work, and you’re that person with your family, and in play, and everywhere else. The best advice I got was, figure out what you think a good person is, and be that person.
You mentioned the work you’re doing on ethics and political communication. You want to tell us a little bit more about that, and when we should expect to read your book.
I love a good softball. I launched the project on ethics and political communication about a year ago to promote the study, teaching and practice of political communication ethics. If you work in public relations, business, law, medicine, journalism, or anything else, you’ve got to study ethics. There are books and journals and conferences, and whole infrastructures.
There’s remarkably little when it comes to political communication, at least not since about Quintilian. There was one conservative public intellectual named Richard Weaver in the 1950s, but beyond that, really not so much. So, I just think it ought to be a thing. We’re doing a couple of things for it.
We’re hosting online chats with bipartisan groups. We had, for example, the head of the College Republicans and College Democrats at GW online for an online Google chat. They share an office at GW, which I think is pretty cool. We’ve asked five questions, political communications, professionals, pundits, students, and others. We’ve written for The Hill campaigns and elections, and for others. I’ve spoken at conferences, universities and given public talks. In April, I’m going to have a piece out in an online journal called media ethics, about the needs of deep political communication ethics.
And yes, as you noted, the first textbook of its kind is going to be published this summer by Ramona Littlefield. It’s called Political Communication Ethics: Theory and Practice. Half of the chapters are from academics writing what one ought to do, Quintilian, Machiavelli, Cicero, speech writing, digital, you name it. The other half are chapters from basically friends of mine, political communications practitioners. They’re a bipartisan group, writing about what ethics means to them. The person who ran Dr. Ben Carson’s presidential campaign and was a senior advisor on the Trump campaign, discusses campaign ethics. A speech writer who’s been working with Democrats for years, and is now in Vice President Biden’s campaign writes about speech writing ethics. Others write about digital ethics. There’s a couple of friends of mine who are Democrat and Republican, who run a bipartisan lobbying firm, co-wrote a chapter about lobbying ethics.
This will be useful for students. Hopefully we can have more conversations like that. I think hopefully for professionals, as well. It’s written to be understood, not dumbed down, but also not the kind of thing that made your hair hurt in graduate school. So, Political Communication Ethics: Theory and Practice, Ramona Littlefield. Pre-order it now. It should be out in July.
Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I want to thank you for drawing attention to ethics and public relations, and ethics in communication in general. The idea that you’re one of the few podcasts, that you’re one of the leaders in this, is great. It’s also a little bit troubling. This ought just be something we do. If you work in PR and you want to draw attention to your client, you don’t send out a press release at 4:00 on a Friday. Ethics needs to be part of just the stuff you know and breathe and do in public relations and marketing, and for heaven sakes, in political communication. So, thank you for taking the lead on this.
Well, thank you. As I said, there’s a lot of others that are doing some great work, too. We need to have more people shining the light on this and helping. I think there’s so many that are doing it, and we just need to continue to advance it.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.