Thursday, July 17, 2014

The True Usefulness of A Common DMO Ethical Code

In my opinion, one of the worst decisions made in the 100-year history of the governing board for the 100-year-old association for professionals in my former career of community destination marketing (DMO) occurred just a decade ago.

Quietly deep-sixed was a common code of ethics that every member DMO’s staff had been required to sign each year.  Ironically, it was the adoption of a code of ethics more than 90 years ago that helped spur formation of the organization and draw membership.

I still wasn’t aware when I served on that board a few years later or with incredulity I would have the code of conduct back up for reconsideration.

In Durham, my last DMO before retiring, we not only continued the practice but had a consultant update and expand it to a “best practice,” expanding the name to read Code of Ethics & Conduct.

Not only was this much improved version readopted by our governing board in Durham, but reading and signing the code was made mandatory for each board member as well.

Of course, DMOs individually must still show evidence of a code of ethics to be Internationally accredited.  But the DMAI board that deep sixed having one in common among members missed the point of why it had been so useful.

Its wasn’t about enforcement.  Should anything get appealed all the way to that level, someone is clearly over the line.  The real value of having one in common was as a communications tool among individual community DMOs when competitors crossed the line.

Sadly, I was forced to use it that way once to inspire a counterpart to stand up to unethical behavior among his staff and stakeholders that was undermining my community.

DMOs operate in the “commons,” and abiding by a common code of conduct permits them to be extraordinarily competitive while at the same time being cooperative, often lost on private sector executives or even local officials prone to be cutthroat.

It is not without reason that the general public is so uncertain of the ethical standards of officeholders, business executives and community boosters.

On another occasion, I used DMAI’s now defunct common code of ethics as the reason not to comply with a request from another community’s stakeholders that would have undermined it.

In this way, codes work best not as a means to resolve disputes once out in the open or as some kind of self-righteous one-upsmanship.  By then it is usually too late for someone to modify behavior without losing face and way too much energy goes in to proving who is right.

As an friend of mine in high office once remarked, “there is only room for one person at a time to stand on principle.”

Common codes of ethics and conduct work best as a gentle nudge when someone appears conflicted or passive about crossing the line such as I did in a very uncomfortable first meeting with a relocating hotel executive in the 1980s.

Chillingly, he unsuccessfully offered me a bribe if I would pave the way for him to jump onto a governing board, which was self-appointed.

Ironically, researchers have found that signing a code of conduct is no guarantee, nor is transparency, about avoiding conflicts of interest.

To bolster them, research has found that putting the signature line at the top of the document helps, but so does having people ask publicly for forgiveness.  Both are moral cues.

But too often those prone to stray merely find these enablers.

Unfortunately, within their communities, DMOs are still the exception  among business-related community organizations when it comes to codes of conduct, where among strategic partners they would come in even more handy.

When the association for DMOs adopted a code of ethics in 1923, members were routinely buying conventions (paying bribes or subsidies,) and selling facilities that didn’t exist or that they knew wouldn’t be ready.  “Anything goes” had been the model.

DMOs were first organized in the wake of the sense-of-place movement fueled during the Progressive Era, and an exhibit of the ideal city created by Fredrick Law Olmsted and a partner for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.

By the 1920s, civic boosterism was in its heyday and mass leisure tourism by roadway was emerging, giving communities far greater potential than just the 10% or so that has always been represented by conventions.

But shady convention practices were only one way community destination marketing was being ethically abused.

Many who were marketing places as a commodity began to erode the very identities they had created by falling in with billboards and other forms of desecration and blight.

This was also when destination marketers fell under the charm of downtown developers and allies who, rather than funding stadiums, convention centers and cultural facilities themselves, began to push communities to fund them publicly instead.

While tourism was given as motive, as it is far too often today, researchers have uncovered that the real reason was to shore up and increase private property values.

Rather than focus on uniqueness, destination marketers falling under this spell became enablers of homogenization.

DMO’s would be well advised to reinstitute a common ethical standard but this time, part of the conduct should be a return to the primary role of safeguarding the distinctiveness of their communities.

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