I’m taking a course on administrative ethics for my Public Administration degree. At first glance, this wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with marketing as a writer. Then, I was subjected to yet another advertisement for Healthcare.gov.
For those outside the U.S., Healthcare.gov is the government website set up as a marketplace in relationship to the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare). Last October, the website was launched despite the fact that it didn’t work. It has since been “fixed,” which means it works better, but it’s far from satisfactory. There’re still quite a few major glitches, which means, if it were a regular start-up, it would probably be bankrupt by now. Instead, it’s bankrolled by my government. So, while I don’t have an objection to the government using marketing communications to communicate with the public, I do have a problem with the government continuing to invest so much money and effort in selling a service that still doesn’t work.
Now, let’s get back to ethics. In my ethics course, I’ve been studying the public service ethic. What is it? What makes public service and public organizations different? Why do government workers need their own set of ethics? The short answer is that government workers are called to prioritize serving the public interest over personal and organizational priorities. The connection is that advertising Healthcare.gov at this time with its current functionality doesn’t serve the public interest; it serves the political interests of President Obama and his administration, including his fellow Democrats, and it serves the organizational interest of the Healthcare.gov implementers, who still want the American people to buy in to their mission, despite the fact that they are failing the American people in that same mission.
So, what does this tell us as marketers?
If you’re like me, then the idea of service appeals to you. Whether you’re in business, in nonprofit, or in government work, you could (if you choose to) consider yourself in service of someone. If you’re in business, then you’re in the service of your customers. If you’re in nonprofit, then you’re in the service of your clients (those who receive your services). If you’re in government, then you’re in service to the public. And, if you’re a writer, then you’re in service to your readers.
When I was asked to describe an ethical issue I’d faced for my ethics class, I described how I decided to handle the issue of honesty in my memoir. As fellow writers, you certainly realize that memoirs are supposed to be true stories. At least, I hope you do. The public—i.e. readers—have already denounced memoirists caught in lies harshly enough that everyone the least bit interested in writing should be aware of the “rules.” Besides, that’s kind of what distinguishes memoir from, say, fiction—telling the truth. It’s rather self-evident, isn’t it?
But there’s telling the truth and there’s dancing with libel. Libel, if you are not aware, is when you make accusations that hurt someone’s reputation; the presumption is that those accusations are false. In my case, the accusations are true, but that wouldn’t prevent a lawsuit. Whether I win or not, it would still make my book much more expensive.
Thus, the ethical issue: How much truth to share? My answer, and how all this ties together, is: Enough to serve the interests of my readers without recklessly endangering my family’s financial well-being.
In short, service is an attitude you choose to embrace—or not. If you serve your readers, then you should think of your readers’ needs throughout your process and not just at the end. That’s the best way to avoiding marketing a “broken” service.