Ethics in Economic Development

One of the topics I have a lot of passion for is ensuring a high standard of ethical behavior in business. In 2009, I became worried about the direction of economic development advertising and promotion with the launch of the Nevada Development Authority’s campaign to lure business from Southern California.

If you have forgotten the campaign, let me remind you:

Rotten Apples

Lipstick Pig

California Politicians Bananas

Flash Mob Dance Stunt

I authored a blog post entitled “Negative Campaigning”  to raise the question about using attack advertisements to promote a location. I felt comparing another state’s elected officials to chimpanzees warranted a thoughtful evaluation.

For perspecive, the Nevada Development Authority’s 2011 “YEStimonials” campaign stands in start contrast to its 2009 promotion. This newer promotion effort delivers a reaffirming message and lets Las Vegas shine as an attractive location for business without the use of negative campaigning. As their website says:

“These ‘YEStimonials highlight positive lifestyles, schools, community activities and business climate in Las Vegas while supporting the NDA campaign.”

Whether the 2009 promotion crossed or stretched an ethical line is certainly a subjective matter. All I know is, on a personal level, it triggered alarm bells in my mind. But, how do you know if something is truly ethical or unethical?

This question is the focus of IEDC’s Economic Development Workshop. A training experience I encourage every economic development professional to make attending a priority. To be clear, ethics in advertising is touched on, but the emphasis is on helping you identify situations where your ethics, or the ethics of people you are working with may come into question. The workshop doesn’t deliver a black and white look at the question of ethics. It encourages you to see the shades of gray and to stop – think – and then act.


The definition of ethics is a topic of interest in the Workshop. From a practical point-of-view, ethics can be described as –

  • How we act as an economic development professional.
  • How we structure or economic development organizations and work.
  • How we structure or community culture, laws and systems.

Ethics is NOT

  • How you feel or what your conscience says.
  • The same as religion.
  • Simply following the letter of the law.
  • Doing what everybody else does.
  • Doing something because technology will enable it to be done.

Ethics is about defining how you should act and the person you want to be.

It is about choices you make regarding both the ordinary and extraordinary decisions in your daily life. It is about holding yourself and advocating for a higher standard of conduct than simply adhering to the law.


The Workshop reviews five ways to think ethically. The five ways provide a good framework to think about the choices you make, and when you feel the line has blurred between right and wrong, can act as your North Star.

  1. Analyze the proposed behavior and determine if it serves the greater good, or helps improve human welfare.
  2. Identify the legitimate rights of all individuals or groups affected,
  3. Determine if all parties are being treated fairly.
  4. Assess if the proposed behavior is consistent with accepted cultural values (i.e. honesty, integrity, promise keeping, responsible citizenship, respect, accountability, decency, etc.)
  5. Ask if the common good is being served.

In a Workshop, the cases used to illustrate the principles being taught are often black & white. But, in the real world where you work every day it may be more like gray. For example:

  • Is it ethical to proactively advocate offering a company in your community an incentive to retain jobs when you know the probability of the company relocating is slim?
  • Is it ethical to use a ranking report that positions your community well when you know because of the way the data is collected, it does not accurately reflect the real situation?
  • Is it ethical to provide a company with an aggressive timeline for turnaround of key permits when you know the average turnaround on projects like theirs is significantly longer?
  • Is it ethical to damage the reputation of another community, state or region to help make your community seem more attractive?

Taking the ethical high road can often make your job harder. The easy choice would be to say and promise whatever the potential capital investor wants to hear. After all, doesn’t caveat emptor apply? But, unfortunately the easy choice is not necessarily the ethical choice.


One of the best parts of the IEDC Workshop is the practical seven-step checklist for sorting through potential ethical dilemmas. If you follow these steps, then you can be reasonably assured of acting in an ethical manner.

  1. Recognize and clarify the predicament.
  2. Gather all relevant facts.
  3. List all of your options.
  4. Analyze each option to determine if it is legal, represents the right thing to do, and generates a result that is beneficial to all parties.
  5. Draw your own conclusions and make a decision.
  6. Ask yourself how you’d feel if your decision was made public by the media.
  7. Take action.

The Workshop even provided some guidance in the area of ethics in marketing and communication that can apply to the question of negative campaigning.

  • Use statements or visuals that do not offend standards of decency.
  • Do not play on fear, exploit misfortune or condone unlawful behavior.
  • Be honest. Don’t mislead by implications, omissions, ambiguities or exaggerations.
  • Use research results or quotations from individuals accurately.

I think these standards are a good step forward to helping ensure truthful and transparent place branding that our communities will be proud to invest in.


I think it is important every economic development professional gets familiar with the IEDC Code of Ethics. Being aware is half the challenge to ensuring ethical behavior. You should also read about the process to addressing enforcement of these ethical standards.

I also recommend every economic development professional participate in an IEDC ethics training course. If you can’t find a course being offered near you, then consider attending the 2013 Annual IEDC Conference in Philadelphia (October 6 – 9, 2013) where I am sure another ethics workshop will be on the agenda.


To enhance everybody’s learning, consider the following short case study.

Anytown is located on the border of Louisiana. It is a relatively sleepy little town with easy access to New Orleans via interstate 55. It is just far enough North to be protected from the devastating effects of hurricanes. Anytown wants to position itself as a better choice than New Orleans for headquarters operations. The Advertising Agency presents a campaign they call “Safety Guaranteed”. The primary visual is a split image of the devastation in Plaquemines Parish immediately after Katrina versus the untouched downtown of Anytown. The headline reads, “The Choice is Clear”. Market research among CEOs in the energy industry suggests the advertising strikes an emotional chord. The Agency claims that making an emotional connection is key to lead generation and recommends investing to launch the campaign to CEOs in companies that have experienced revenue loss due to a natural disaster.

What are the considerations in assessing if this campaign is in violation of the IEDC code of ethics? Would you advocate investing in the campaign? Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts.

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