The Ethics of Impersonation, Integrity and Catfish – Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the CEO of Arment Dietrich, but she is better known to thousands of adoring fans as the power behind SpinSucks, a required daily read for anyone in the communication and public relations industry.

In this week’s engaging Ethical Voices interview, Gini discusses:

 

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your job and your career

I went out on my own 13 years ago to build a traditional PR firm. But I always knew that there had to be a better way of doing things because it really bothered me that we couldn’t measure the work that we were doing. We know that it works and we know that if you don’t have public relations that your business is not going to be as successful. But there was little way to measure it.

Through all of that, the web started to take hold. We’re introduced to digital media and it allowed us to become better at measuring our efforts and actually proving to our clients that what we do is investment instead of an expense. And because of that, I launched Spin Sucks. Through the last 12 years, we’ve really kind of figured out a different business model for communicators. And so now we have two businesses and two P-and-Ls and two bank accounts. And one’s the PR firm that does more digital communications; and then Spin Sucks, that provides professional development.

 

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you personally have ever confronted in your career?

The first thing that comes to mind is a few years ago I had a client that called me one day, and he said, ” I know you have former journalists on staff. Could you have one of them call Governor’s office and pretend that they’re from the city newspaper, and see if you can get some information?”

And I was like, “No?”

He really gave me a hard time about it. So I actually had to sit down with him and explain why that wasn’t ethical and why that wasn’t okay.

 

So how did you work through it with him?

Honestly, I think it’s because we have such a great relationship and we really respect one another as human beings. He finally kind of got it. I don’t think he totally agreed with me; I don’t think he still to this day thinks that there’s anything wrong it. But I think he finally came around to if I want this done, it’s not going to be through my PR firm.

Editor Note: I had a similar experience; with a large global brand at a major international trade show where they wanted somebody to pretend to be a blogger and sneak into a media-only press conference of their main competitor. The key is to always disclose who you are.

 

Are there any other issues that surprised you or the Spin Sucks readers?  

One that comes to mind was when the whisper campaign came out against Facebook and we discovered that it was one of the large PR firms that had done it. And I think that’s always been really astounding to me, that whisper campaigns and astroturfing and that kind of stuff exists, and that it often starts with us as communicators, not ‘us’ you and I, but the communications industry, and it’s often within the big PR firms. Those are the kinds of things where clients are asking you to do things that you’re like, “Okay.”

You can create content that is advocating for your company or de-positioning the competitors, but you’ve got to be honest about where it’s coming from.

I think that’s also why the industry has such a bad reputation, because we are seen as liars and spin doctors. And certainly politics and Hollywood don’t help us, but it’s when stuff like that happens that you’re floored a little bit because I think we all try to be, at least the people I surround myself with, try to be really, really above board.

 

Are there any other issues that you think PR professionals should pay attention to?

Gosh, what’s happening with CNN and the White House right now is incredibly important for us to be paying attention to because even though we’re not journalists, we are still part of the media because we’re providing information to journalists. And while media relations I think has decreased in value, especially as we become our own publications and we can communicate our messages almost more effectively than without that third-party credibility source, it’s still important to remember that the media is still extremely important in this country and we need to be paying attention to what’s happening. Because if the White House starts to take away press credentials because they don’t like what the journalist is asking, that becomes a pretty big problem for our industry.

 

Putting you on the spot here, and I’m not defending anyone by any stretch of the imagination, but if you’re a brand, and you know there’s a reporter that wants to absolutely find the negatives and is going to take the negative slant, how do you deal with that ethically?

I’m reminded of a time where we worked with the Catfish Institute many years ago. I loved working on that account. I loved it. But there was a huge issue with the Japanese coming into this country and dumping their catfish, and calling it U.S. farm raised. And at the time, and this was many years ago, but at the time we didn’t really know from a lobbying and regulatory standpoint how we were going to handle that as an organization.

60 Minutes was doing a series on farm raised catfish. What we wanted the story to be was how catfish is a whitefish that, if raised properly, it’s not a bottom-feeder; it feeds from the top, and it takes on the flavor of whatever it is that you’re cooking with, so it’s almost like the chicken equivalent of fish. And you know, those were all the messages that we wanted 60 Minutes to do. And part of the media training that we did with the Catfish Institute team was if the Japanese come up in the interview, or if the dumping issues come up, here are the three things that you can say to walk and bridge.

They spent three days on the catfish farms in Mississippi, talking to farmers and spending time with the executives, and all that stuff … and no lie. It was better than you could possibly imagine.

They were packing stuff up. Cameras were put away. Microphones were put away. The executive director was walking them to the elevator. And as he walked them to the elevator, he said, “I am so glad you didn’t ask me about the Japanese dumping catfish.”

And guess what the story was about?

This goes back to media training and being prepared. You certainly see that in politics up until the last two years. Bill Clinton was a master at it. People would ask him questions that he wasn’t prepared to answer or couldn’t answer, and he would block it and bridge it back to one of his key messages.

 

How do you help employees when they bring you an ethical issue?

My team will tell you that this is the most hated thing in our organization, but I always say “What do you think?” And they hate that because they’re coming to me for the answer, but I believe that if I just give them the answer that they aren’t learning anything and it’s not helping them from a career perspective. So I always say, “What do you think?” And I let them talk through where their gut is or what their instinct is telling them.

Obviously, they know it’s an issue because they’ve brought it to me, so I always let them talk that through. And then we work through, just from a coaching perspective: Why is that? What is your instinct telling you? Wow do you feel about going back to the client to talk about those things? I see it as a coaching and mentoring opportunity for them.

Typically, there are some that are a little shy about going to the client and saying, “Nah, we’re not going to do that.” But we work through it, or maybe we’ll have a supervisor sit with them or me sit with them, whoever it needs to be to have those conversations. But we try to let them get there on their own.

 

How are clients receptive to when you push back and say we can’t do this for ethical reasons?

Usually, it’s pretty good. We’ve lost one client over it, and at the time it was painful because it was a really large client and it meant a lot of revenue for us. But in hindsight, it was probably the best thing that could have happened because it ended up not being a good situation all around. But clients, they’ve hired us because we’re the experts. They don’t always take our advice from an expert perspective, but I think with this kind of stuff where they just don’t know, and then you point out the ethical piece of it and they go, “Oh.”

And I like to use the word integrity, because when you use the word integrity, they almost always back down.

 

Without naming any names can you tell me what the issue was with the client that caused you to lose the client?

It was during the whole Groupon era, and everybody was coming out with these ‘we can do Groupon, but we’ll do it better.’ It was during that time, and let’s just say the client was not exactly ethical about it and he wanted us to do some really shady stuff that we finally just said after three or four conversations of explaining why it was not ethical and why we weren’t going to do it, it was finally one of those things where it was like, okay, this is just not a good fit for us.

It may be painful in the short term, but long term it always has worked out, always.

 

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Hmm. I would say it was from my mother, who always said to us as we left the house for dates, or football parties, or dances, or whatever it happened to be, she would say, “Remember who you are and what you stand for.” And I say that to my team now because it’s incredibly important to remember that if something feel squishy or wrong, it probably is.

 

Any final thoughts?

I just think it’s really, really important for people to remember that there are things that are okay and there are things that are not. And if it feels squishy to you or it doesn’t feel right, it probably is not.

 

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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One Reply to “The Ethics of Impersonation, Integrity and Catfish – Gini Dietrich”

  1. Great interview. Gini’s comments about the trade show press conference ring so true about many events. Somehow people totally lose their ethics at events (I’ve been running trade shows for over 40 years now, including some of the largest in the USA) and when onsite people seem to think anything goes. At one event I caught the head of marketing and PR walking through a competitor’s booth after closing snapping pictures of everything. The ‘pretend you are a blogger’ happens a lot for press conferences, product demos and even in some cases for actual interviews. Best rule of thumb for any trade show is always presume the person you are talking with is not who they say they are but rather a plant from a competitor – so no trash talking competition, no false product claims and no comments that if it were splashed on the front page of the New York Times tomorrow that you or your company would regret. Trade shows are great PR platforms, but I’ve always pushed my customers and exhibitors to take an even higher road. You can’t unring the negative comment bell regardless of how hard you try.

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