Ethics, Anthrax and Changing Consumer Behavior – Judy DeRango Wicks

Judy DeRango Wicks, APR, Fellow PRSA, and I had the pleasure of working together for more than a decade while I led the Schwartz Communications’ Fiserv team. Together, we changed the way of millions of Americans bank and pay bills, moving from writing and mailing checks to paying bills online.

In this Ethical Voices interview, Judy discusses:

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

I spent 30 years in public relations. I was first an English teacher, then got my Master’s in journalism and communications from the University of Florida (Go Gators!), and I started out in agency. I got into technology in the 80s working on office equipment launching faxes and copiers, and headed the IBM account at Ketchum in the 90s. So, even before technology was a specialty, and I was fortunate to work on one tech client after another, so it sort of became my track.

I went corporate in 1999 when I went with CheckFree, later acquired by Fiserv, where we helped online banking and bill pay cross the chasm. Now bill pay’s in the mainstream, and I’m very proud of that.  We’ve changed behavior. I ended up getting to use a lot of the models that I learned about behavior change and they worked. Over time, people have adopted paying bills online, and I’m hoping that they’re saving a lot of time now that they used to spend at the table with paper and checks.

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

Technology is never perfect. Machines break and electricity fails. You’re always trying to be perfect, but when you are crossing the chasm, you need to be prepared for the interruptions and position yourself as a trusted service. For example, with bill pay, some people were afraid money was just going to fly out of their account. That wasn’t the case. So, we had to educate consumers on how to get started, address the misconceptions and explain how to protect themselves from fraud.

This came to a head when we were very unknown, after 9/11. You will recall someone was mailing anthrax powder in envelopes through the postal system.  People are still rattled, and now there’s a new threat at my mailbox at the end of my driveway.

It seemed like 200 reporters had the same idea at the same time. They called me at CheckFree to say, “Hey, isn’t this going to be great for bill pay? Are you seeing a surge of adoption?”

There was temptation to say “Yes, we’re seeing a surge in adoption,” but it wasn’t true. I turned to our numbers people, and asked, “Are we seeing a surge in adoption?” And we were not. We understood behavior well enough to know that we probably would not, because fear was not in the list of things that led people to pay their bills online. This was before social media, but it was a wildfire story. Everybody was covering the anthrax story, and I could’ve jumped into that by saying what these reporters kept asking me 50 different ways trying to get me to say, “Just say, yes, you’re getting a surge.”

But as we were a public company, that would be unethical and a bad idea. When earnings come around investors would ask about the surge. So, we had to step back and think, okay, how are we going to respond to these inquiries? With the help of our agency, we decided that we would stick to the plan. We wanted positive stories that talked about all the good things about bill pay that would really drive adoption – that you save time, that you’re protected by a guarantee, you have a record of payments unlike mailed checks, and so on.

So, we had the agency filter these inquiries. If it sounded like they wanted to do a story about fear, and fear of anthrax, we would decline doing the interview. But if a reporter said “yes” they would do a thorough story about bill pay and how to get started, and all those things that could lead us to having people try it and like it, then we would do those interviews, even though we sacrificed many articles we could’ve had.

But it turns out it was the right thing to do, because we ended up with some perfect stories. There was one that came out in USA Today that was so perfect that I framed it and put it on the wall. It said exactly what we had intended.

The other thing was we did not see the wisdom in associating our brand with anthrax, of all things. Why would I want a sentence that had my company name connected with anthrax? So, we avoided being associated with anthrax when we were barely getting started becoming a known brand.

An interesting thing happened a few weeks later. I was at the PRSA International Convention, and I’m sitting next to the head of PR for Hallmark Cards, and we had an interesting conversation – the same reporters were calling her trying to get her to say, “Are people afraid of sending Christmas cards this year?” Because it was Fall. And of course, she wasn’t going to say that. It was just an interesting situation to be in and see firsthand that they were trying to put the quote in our mouth, and we had to really resist to keep that from happening.

What was the process you used in making the Anthrax decision?

We were tracking consumer behavior very closely. We were doing lots, and lots and lots of research, so we were excruciatingly knowledgeable about bill pay behavior and different types of people, and their attitudes toward paying bills. I talked to our behavior guys, and they said, “No, I really don’t see that this is going to give a surge in behavior.” Then, I talked to the guys who are counting transactions, and we weren’t seeing a growth in transactions.

I put together this information in a concise email, and we also had some internal meetings, and then we decided what to do. It wasn’t difficult to decide that we can’t jump into this story. Why would we? It wasn’t in our plan to jump on to some horrible thing happening in America to get adoption. We were in it for the long haul.

Some additional factors that came into play were that you want people to trust their payment provider. The financial industry has enough difficulty building trust. You want consumers to trust who’s moving their money, so we didn’t want to do anything that would lead us to be untrustworthy. And the banks also would know if there was a growth in transactions. So, if we were to say there was growth, the banks would know it was untrue and would be unhappy.

It comes down to making sure your communications initiatives align to your core values.

Are there any other ethics examples or advice you want to share?

I learned something that our CEO reinforced. When you’re the PR person, you want to shout to the rooftops about everything, and I really learned from him – it’s OK to hold back or say “We’re not ready for this” or “We are not that, so don’t say we are.” You want to work for honest people like that. I would’ve walked through fire for that guy, and it was a great thing to know that even in meetings where I wasn’t there listening, that I knew he was always looking for the right thing to do, and would follow through with the right thing to do even if it was difficult. Even it meant firing a family member. He was just a very, very ethical guy.

On the flip side, earlier in my career I worked for a tech firm where there was a gal who represented a software company here in Atlanta, and they ended up hiring her to handle communications in-house. And when she got there, it turned out the reason they hired her is because they knew they were about to have this huge scandal, and I watched my former colleague be the face of this horrible story, and those guys hid behind her. It was like they were hiding under the desk, they were chicken, and they paid this poor woman to talk to the media week, after week, after week as they were drug through the courts, and when you are the face of the company, that sticks to you.

So, my advice to young people, or anyone, is if you sense that you’re working for people who are dishonest and making decisions behind closed doors that could lead to lawsuits, if you can, get out of there. Because in PR, that’s going to stick to you, your job is going to be to defend these people, and you’re defending them publicly, you’re taking on their guilt, their blame.

You mentioned research. How did CheckFree and Fiserv ethically use data to shape a narrative and determine what to target?

With research, first you need to understand what you want to accomplish. If you look at the Jackson Jackson Wagner behavior change models – behavior change is different from an impulse buy. Choosing cinnamon toothpaste over peppermint toothpaste is an impulse buy. Behavior change is completely shifting from writing checks to paying your bills from a computer. That was a big leap for some people.

So, you look for what is the barrier to that, and for us the first barrier was fear related to security. We also looked for triggers that would lead to adoption, such as late fees, and then focused our marketing around those questions. Next we looked for who would they listen to, and I realized early on that having them quote me as the expert, the head of corporate communications at CheckFree, wouldn’t work. They would think “Of course she’s going to say it’s safe and secure.”

But what if the financial reporter in each city who people do trust recommended bill pay? For example, in Atlanta, if Clark Howard says it, people know he’s an ethical guy. You can’t buy his opinion, he says what he thinks, and there are also people like that who are national. People like Suzy Orman, and Jean Chatzky, and Terry Savage, we realized those types of people were the ones that people would really have to hear believed that bill pay was safe and secure, and so we realized we needed to target those people as influencers.

We realized that one of the greatest barriers was fear of fraud, and that could stop people from adopting bill pay. I bumped into an analyst that we respect highly, Jim Van Dyke at Javelin Strategy & Research, and we were talking about the data that we were seeing. He was seeing that people were irrationally afraid of their computers, because of some of the stories that were coming out about identity fraud and the data that was being put out by the FCC that identity fraud was the fastest growing crime in America. Jim was seeing, in his studies, that people were irrationally afraid, and we were seeing that there really wasn’t a lot of fraud in internet banking.

So, we decided to fund studying identity fraud across the country. The first year, we were the only sponsor, and came up with a significant amount of money to allow Jim to do 5000 interviews, which is a lot of interviews, to get a lot of data to find out are people becoming victims of fraud and If they are, to try to determine how did it happen.

It became an annual program that we did for many, many years. We identified the areas where there were fraud risks, and tried to educate consumers to mitigate those risks. And we would update it every year according to how fraud was actually happening in the marketplace.

We believe we did make a difference. People did change their behavior about protecting their passwords, about renewing their antivirus.

One thing that stands out in the study is all the sponsors made the commitment not to try to monkey with Jim’s data. So, the findings became a really definitive report and a terrific PR vehicle, because there were reporters out there, hundreds and thousands of them, who are actually waiting for this thing to come out every spring, and they used it, and they used it all year, and it started being cited in all kinds of reports. Some of the government studies that they’d been doing, they just stopped doing them, and started using our study.

[Editor Note: I managed the PR for that Javelin Strategy & Research ID Fraud study for 14 of the past 15 years]

Do you have advice on how to institutionalize ethics in a corporate communications department?

In financial technology, you’re guided by laws and regulations. So, the first thing I would say is whatever industry you’re in, you really have to get to know what are those regulations, and the laws and the compliance requirements in place that you need to adhere to. You need to get to know legal. PR and legal sometimes don’t get along, because legal is editing our press releases. But if you learn to think like legal, your press releases get approved a lot faster.

Get to know your privacy officer as well. We had a privacy officer who was outstanding. I got to know him, and found what are the requirements on a public company if something happens. And in banking, something as simple as a file moving late, like money moving at 1:00 AM instead of midnight. We would proactively communicate to our customers above and beyond what was required.

First, you have to have processes in place, and we ended up having someone full-time who wrote messages to communicate proactively to our banks about any little thing that might have gone wrong, or moved slowly. By following that process you build a reputation for being forthcoming with information, for responding quickly when anything happens.

When communicating, your message should always be this happened, this is what we’re doing to address it, here’s the timeframe we expect for it to be fixed, and if needed, these are the extra things we are doing above and beyond to make sure that everyone is whole who might’ve been touched by what just happened.

Unfortunately, these things, a lot of times, happen in the middle of the night with technology. So, you need processes and people on call and they need to be ready. You can’t do it all yourself.

To aid in training our associates to think about security, privacy and ethics we ended up writing a quiz. Every employee every year has to retake this quiz. We had an internal campaign that was called, “How Secure is That?” So, you can also make it clever and educational, but it basically makes sure every single person in the company from the receptionist to the loading dock, everybody knows how to protect customer data, not to leave laptops lying around, and so on, so that you do really train every single person to know what the right thing is to do in protecting people’s data.

In communications, you want to protect the company. You want to avoid lawsuits. You want to avoid bad press, which results from lawsuits. So, the best way to do that is to prevent people from doing the wrong thing. So, if you look at some of these cases, a lot of times it’s the weakest link in the company. It’s a lower level person who makes a bad decision that can lead to big, big problems for the CEO. There are CEOs who have lost their jobs because of something someone else did in the company.

This can also be challenging in a growing company. We would buy five or six companies a year. So, you’d get your own infrastructure just perfect, and then you bring in a new company, and their processes were not so perfect. So, we were continually having to reeducate and make sure that every corner of the company was doing things in the same way. By fixing a lot of these processes, you’re really reducing the crises you need to deal with, and legal appreciates it too, and management really appreciates it.

Are there other areas of concern to you about ethics?

I’m concerned the educational system is not teaching ethics anymore and the impact it may have on the workforce. When I was in elementary school in the ‘60s, we had a lot of education in the classroom about right and wrong, and cartoons like Goofus and Gallant. Goofus knocks the little girls over to get ahead in the line. Gallant opens the door, and is polite to their teacher, and so on. And I sense that is not the case anymore, and there are some who don’t seem to have that moral compass. And I’m also concerned some of them have turned politics into religion, where they are seeing half of the room one dimensionally. And where that comes into play in the workplace, if you don’t see half of your customers or half of your employees as having the same rights or moral outlook as you do, that’s kind of tainting your thinking in everything you’re doing.

And I know in Silicon Valley, they’re looking at some companies who have a lot of power, where they seem to think they have the moral authority to do things that may or may not be legal or ethical, and I don’t know how to solve this particular problem, because I think it’s become very pervasive, but I do think it’s a concern as we are giving our data to companies who may or may not be handling it ethically.

So, how do you solve that in your own world?

I tried to hire great team members. I had a CEO who actually had in our HR review process, a section for managers about judgment, and he said, “If you see there’s someone on your team who’s making bad decisions, we don’t want them, because that’s the person who’s going to get the company in big trouble.” And I think that needs to be part of the process.

On our team, I felt we were the conscience of the company, and if we’re on a call with legal, and HR and the executive team, or any department, there have various roles. Our job was to say this might not be the right thing to do, now they call it “optics”, but also, I enjoyed being able to suggest let’s not only do this, let’s go above and beyond, like give away anti-virus for the next two years to anybody impacted by this particular issue. Or if someone dies, let’s set up a trust for their children. Let’s pay for the travel of the family in another country to come and get their loved one. I mean, just be a good company, I think you need to have a heart, and the PR department should be where you find the heart. When you work for a company like that, you really can sleep pretty easily.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given in your career?

My dad used to say, “If you don’t know what to do, do the right thing,” and he would laugh. But that’s always stuck with me.

That’s pretty good advice.

If you don’t know what to do, do the right thing.

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. 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


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