Communications Ethics in Economic Development

Lately, I have been advocating increased focus on communication ethics in economic development.  I am passionate about our industry setting the standard for doing the right thing.  There have been a few trigger events in the last two years that have increased my sense of urgency to raise the profile of this topic.  I recently had a great talk with IEDC leadership about emphasizing the need for diligence in monitoring ethics in communication and was pleased to gain alignment that it would be covered in greater detail in future IEDC ethics training.  So, I thought I’d contribute to the effort by sharing the essence of a piece written by Janet Kyle Altman (original post).  With her permission, I’ve taken the liberty of putting her observations in the context of the economic development profession.  I also recently authored an article on communication ethics that was published in the May 9, 2011 issue of EDNow, volume 11, issue 9.  IEDC has graciously given me permission to let you download a PDF copy of it.  If you are not a member, I would encourage you to join.  IEDC membership provides you access to a wealth of practical information.  Becoming a member is easy, simply register here.

Jane Kyle Altman’s 7 Rules of Marketing Ethics (adapted for economic development)

  1. Tell the Truth – It is a simple rule and the most important one.  Don’t knowingly write or say anything that isn’t true.  There is no gray on this point.  If you are not certain about the truth of a statement, don’t make it until you have verified the facts.  Kate Tolin, Marketing Director for Rae & Associates, Inc in Canton, Ohio offers some great perspective – “Truth in advertising is a tightrope we all must walk…and it’s a bit more challenging in professional services when you rely on many different people to deliver on your brand promise.”  Kate’s statement is highly relevant for the economic development profession where the promise we make about our town, city or state is impacted by the actions and words of all the people who live there.
  2. Say it Nicely – Don’t write or say anything you’d be ashamed to see on a billboard or the front page of a paper.  Mind your reputation.  Reputation takes a long time to build; but it takes no time to break.
  3. Give Credit and Say Thank You – The Internet makes researching things fast and easy.  But, you still have an obligation to attribute information you find on the Internet to the original author.  Don’t take credit for other people’s work.  Link to the original source whenever possible.
  4. Protect Your Clients – Capital investors expect professional behavior and confidentiality in their dealing with you.  To paraphrase Eric Majchrzak, Marketing Director at Freed Maxick & Battaglia in Buffalo – Good ED professionals should act as advocates for the CEOs who are already members of and those CEOs considering investing in their community,
  5. Provide Real Value When You Communicate – Be seen as a real expert in your field.  Don’t make stuff up.  If you don’t know the answer, say so and commit to finding it.  Consider the reason why the information is being requested and provide appropriate context versus just the facts.
  6. Ghostwrite with Integrity –  Most of us will have to ghostwrite letters, blog posts, quotes and other communications.  If you include information in the copy that the person doesn’t know, take the time to brief him/her.  That way when asked a question about the subject, he/she will be prepared to answer.  If you ghostwrite a quote, write it in the way the person actually speaks.
  7. Respect Your Competitors – Generally speaking it is poor form to say something bad about your competition.  Trying to make your community seem attractive by putting down a competitive community typically damages the perception of both locations.  Be prepared to defend any claims you make in your communication.  If you make comparative claims, have solid, fact-based backup to justify your statements. We all live in glass houses.


Communication ethics is not a fun topic.  But, it is an important topic.  The IEDC has established a Code of Ethics to guide our profession. Each of us should read it carefully at least once and when in doubt revisit it to help clear our mind whenever are not certain what the right thing to do is.

Take a look at your EDO’s published communication for the last 6-months.  Spread it out on a table and look at each piece critically through the lens of communication ethics.  If you find something you question, either change it going forward or make a note to not repeat the mistake again.

I want to give special thanks to Jane for her insights and allowing me to share them with you.  I’d love to have you share your observations on typical situations that present an ethical risk in our profession.  And/or share stories of when you were impressed with how a colleague handled a difficult situation in an ethical manner.  Leave a comment.


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8 Comments so far

  1. Mark Barbash

    May 15, 2011

    A number of years ago, i saw a utility company ad in a magazine similar to Site Selection or Area Development (can’t remember which). The utility company was located at the confluence of three states. The ad copy said: “Three great states…three great incentive packages…” I don’t know whether this was an issue of ethics or bad taste, but it certainly caused us to question whether the utility was on the same team as we were.

  2. Jim Fram, CEcD, CCE

    May 17, 2011

    While I don’t recall a specific example, I (we) do realize that if we have a client, most of the time it is a community. Unlike a real estate agent or a property owner or a company official, we must always be cognizant of the fact that we are looking out for the interests of that community and garner our actions accordingly.

  3. Scott A. Gibbs

    May 17, 2011


    The issue of communication ethics is critical in the economic development profession. I argue that the problem is one of organization silos, and the institutionalization of the profession. The emergence of open organizational models reflects an awareness of the importance of communication, dialogue, and crowd-sourcing to advancing innovation and competitive advantage. Open organizational models will demand communication ethics through self policing.

  4. Janet Kyle Altman

    May 19, 2011

    Thank you for reinforcing the importance of ethics in marketing. The need to communicate with integrity becomes even more important as our sources of information become more diverse. Developing a solid reputation for speaking the truth (even if it’s not what people want to hear) is a powerful key to branding in an era where people can’t be sure who to trust.

  5. Rose-Marie Losier

    May 25, 2011

    Ed, thank you very much for this very valuable contribution. I will share it with all my colleagues in the communication/marketing field.
    The OECD is working on new Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and I will report on it shortly. The purpose of the update is to ensure the continued role of the Guidelines as a leading international instrument for the promotion of responsible business conduct in the rapidly changing environment for international investment and MNEs.

  6. Ed Burghard

    May 26, 2011

    I recently had a conversation with a friend who made me think because he gave a really good example of unethical behavior. He highlighted how marketers often say something is free and then require you to register to receive it. He pointed out that information has value, and if you require somebody to register then there is a cost associated with the item. Claiming something is free when it is not is unethical. That example gave me cause to pause. Particularly since I had downloaded a “free” white paper from a website that morning and had to give my contact information in exchange.I think a better claim might be “Complimentary copy with registration”. That would be a little more transparent. What are your thoughts?

  7. […] your community will automatically be eliminated from further consideration. Surprisingly, by being up-front and truthful in characterizing the assets of your community you can create an opportunity to potentially find […]

  8. […] Ethics as it relates to this specialized area. There is also additional information available in a previous blog post I authored on this […]

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