Ethics Define Business, Should Be Defended

May 19, 2008
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In the week that the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce celebrates small businesses and the Muskegon Area Chamber of Commerce awards four community entrepreneurs, it is especially important to review the counsel given to one of Grand Rapids’ most successful retailers, Meijer Inc., by its outside public relations firm and external law firm.

Every entrepreneur, every owner growing a business, and companies as large as Meijer are, first and foremost, advised to seek the protection of such counsel and that of accountants. The Sarbanes Oxley laws are a continuing, sometimes painful reminder of the debacle of Arthur Andersen’s abhorrent negligence and greed — ramifications more far-reaching than the firm’s ultimate demise.

The economic ripple effect of bad behavior, lawbreaking or malfeasance by any one firm or business may be less obvious but is nonetheless equally impairing.

Last week the Michigan Secretary of State levied fines and penalties against Meijer for breaking campaign finance law (see the story on page 1). Those penalties included a $1,000 fine against Meijer for each of 11 payments made to public relations agency Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson Inc. and for each of nine payments to law firm Dickinson Wright. Meijer is no longer working with either firm.

Township and county prosecutors in the Grand Traverse area say they will continue to demand determination of which individuals of any of the three corporate entities deserve prosecution for violations of the law.

Many have considered the situation a “teaching moment” for business owners, and so, too, would prosecution of individuals create a similar understanding — and perhaps change.

Seyferth Spaulding Tennyson owner Ginny Seyferth last week made a media statement that her firm will continue to be available to help Meijer in the future. In combination with remarks made earlier this year, even as the agency procedure was called into question, it is astoundingly cavalier. We might expect, instead, full public disclosure and provision of the records of events and possible missteps that pushed this issue into unlawful territory.

Traverse City public relations practitioner and Public Relations Society of America national and state ethics committee member T. Michael Jackson has requested the national board to review the public relations agency’s participation in the Acme Township election activities.

That is appropriate. Ethics are the backbone of any profession, but are only words on paper unless professionals are willing to defend and thereby define them. Ethics are the protection business owners must demand and expect when buying such services. Grand Rapids Business Journal believes that is, in part, the intent of the Grand Traverse County prosecutor in pursuing criminal prosecution against individuals.

As local entrepreneurs celebrate milestones this week, the news of last week is a reminder of the diligence necessary in protecting one’s business, no matter how small or large. It is a reminder that ethics are the foundation upon which business can advance.

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