This spring I have the privilege of teaching a course at Stanford University on ethics in today’s highly complex, uncertain world. One of my over-arching themes is that few factors define our individual, organizational, and societal stories as definitively as our ethics. We didn’t cover stories like Somaly Mam. Why? Because there is nothing unpredictable or nuanced here. This alleged case is a straightforward narrative with a predicable end: lying with an added dose of self-promotion leads to personal destruction and extensive collateral ethical damage.
Trafficking is one of the most horrific and unacceptable practices that continue to exist today even in modern democracies like the United States. But sadly, trafficking did not seem to be the story here. The story of trafficking is itself revolting and compelling enough to mobilize broad constituencies. It also has the distinct advantage of being non-controversial. As other commentators have pointed out, trafficking unites the international community in rage: no one is in favor of prostituting young girls and women. This does not mean that we have dedicated enough attention and resources to trafficking. It does mean that dishonesty did not and cannot achieve that end. But somehow despite this overarching challenge, and the thousands of individual stories meriting attention, the one that emerged was the saga of Somaly Mam.
Let’s at least unpick a few lessons from this unethical distraction from the real story with the hope of dissuading future Somaly Mams.
First, unethical behavior begets further unethical behavior. Somaly Mam not only lied about her own story repeatedly to the media, on social media, in a book, through personal appearances, to donors, and most egregiously to the global community of trafficking victims. She also had to continue spinning the story in order to cover up past dishonesty. She engaged and affected others. News reports such as the Newsweek article that broke the story have already covered these in detail, but pressuring young women to rehearse fabricated stories bears repeating. Highly respected supporters such as Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Sandberg lent their reputations, financial generosity, and networks in support of her. Finally, as Somaly Mam destroyed her own credibility, she also provoked broader questions about trust in the non-profit sector as these stories inevitably do. Put simply, enough Somaly Mam stories and people will start to doubt the true accounts of need and courage.
Second, arguments that the donor environment demands emotionally escalating stories as a critical fund-raising strategy are without merit. First, a number of high-integrity organizations deliver outstanding services in unimaginably challenging circumstances without deceit. Organizations like Human Rights Watch courageously compile accurate research on even the most controversial human rights violations, including trafficking. They inform and inspire. They attract global support and respect, even from the heads of state of some of the countries most heavily criticized in their reports. Others may use photos of children or victims of humanitarian disasters in fund-raising campaigns. Done ethically these portray real people sharing their real situations with properly obtained consent – not coerced fictitious accounts or film montages. (As a personal note, these are not my favorite for reasons of respecting dignity and privacy. But in most cases they are not falsified. On the contrary…most NGOs I have spoken to explain that this is a critical way to show the world what’s really going on.) The ethically run NGOs inspire a positive cycle of trust amongst donors, the public, and, most importantly, victims and beneficiaries. Their credibility builds, which allows them increased access and influence, and in turn deepening donor loyalty.
Third, stories can be a critical communications and accountability vehicle for an organization and a cause. Stories convey the “reality on the ground” when the “ground” is far away. Examples range from humanitarian emergencies in Somalia to gang rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Stories offer a personal perspective to complement statistics and news reports. Donors and the public, armed with accurate information and greater sensitivity, are more incentivized to contribute and better educated to advocate for change. Stories used appropriately also support accountability and transparency. (“Appropriately” means telling the full story and not leaving anecdotes to mislead if taken out of context. It also means offering full accountability and transparency on an organization’s activities and financial propriety in addition to stories.) But there are plenty of true stories that serve these communications, advocacy, and accountability objectives – real stories of victimization, heroism, and donor support.
Finally, this “story” also highlights one of the most paradoxically insidious drivers of unethical behavior: celebrity. Celebrity is usually about promoting one’s own story. There are celebrities that succeed in turning the spotlight of true celebrity to shine on the cause in question. George Clooney and Oprah Winfrey come to mind. Yet all too often celebrities (or initially non-celebrities like Somaly Mam) employ the cause to further their own celebrity. This “it’s all about me” version of helping others spreads like any other unethical behavior. Here it became about convincing other celebrities and donors to associate with Somaly Mam. (No one I have spoken to over the years has referred to the name of the organization. Everyone referred to Somaly Mam.) In the end, she became famous for disgrace and dishonesty. All along, the real story should have been the individual and collective tale of courage and fighting on behalf of innocent unknown victims.
There should have only been one story here: how to eradicate trafficking, support the victims, and punish the perpetrators.
© Copyright 2014 Susan Liautaud & Associates Limited. All rights reserved.