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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