Across Manhattan, Ethics is on the Agenda

Manhattan was abuzz about ethics on Tuesday, with high profile speakers presenting on both ends of the spectrum. Ethisphere’s Best Practices in Ethics Communications workshop, held downtown, featured CEOs from Edelman and Hill+Knowlton Strategies, along with business and government officials. The State of NOW conference uptown hosted Jack Abramoff, convicted former Washington lobbyist and ethics violator extraordinaire.

The word “murky” was the most popular word used at both venues. Highlights are below.

PR agency CEOs agreed that public distrust is focusing attention on ethics. Hill + Knowlton Strategies’ global chairman and CEO Jack Martin observed, “It’s more important than ever for companies to show that they have the right values. The public, who used to be silent, is insisting on ethics and they are driving the interest. I’ve even advised that the public have a seat in the boardroom.”

Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, concurred about the public’s critical role in questioning how business and government are run. While interpreting the recent Edelman Trust Barometer’s findings, he described “a veil of despair as the public asks where they can turn for information.”

“It’s a murky picture now and the dynamic of trust between business and government has led to a negative cycle. Trust ratings for government and business now run in tandem,” Edelman noted. He favors “radical transparency and openness,” particularly since CEOs and government officials rank at the bottom for spokesperson credibility. “A few companies with secure, confident CEOs take the lead on issues and speak out, but it’s hardly a universal practice.”

Abramoff recounted his notorious past and his quest to fight lax Washington lobbying laws. A key contributor to the lack of public trust in Washington is Abramoff, who was portrayed by Kevin Spacey in the movie Casino Jack . Abramoff continued his redemption tour that started with an appearance on 60 Minutes in November.

On Tuesday morning he acknowledged, “In the course of being a lobbyist I did some things and crossed murky lines and pushed envelopes way beyond their limits. But the problem is what’s considered legal in Washington. Ninety-nine percent of what I did was legal, and that’s wrong. Tragically we could get done whatever we wanted.”

Since his release from jail he’s been trying to turn his in-depth lobbying knowledge into legislation to control bribery, special benefits, and even the definition of lobbyists. That way he said certain lobbyists will no longer be able to disguise what they do by using other titles such as special advisors and history professors. (That’s a reference to Newt Gingrich and his consulting role at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.)

Panama Canal Authority detailed their extensive ethics regulations and strict enforcement. One organization that’s already taking ethics more seriously is the Panama Canal Authority, which took over management of the canal from the U.S. in 1999. Ana Maria Chiquilani, VP of corporate affairs, explained their challenge to the Ethisphere audience. In order to combat the often negative perceptions about corrupt business practices in Latin America, they have to avoid even the appearance of employees or contractors receiving preferential treatment.

While the Authority has received high Ethisphere ratings, the effort has entailed setting and monitoring a strict set of rules governing all aspects of their business. These include the appointment of relatives, acceptance of gifts, procurement practices and disclosures of financial interest. Improper conduct is enforced by a “no-tolerance policy,” she noted.