Ethics, 9/11, Influencers and Agency Finances – Martin Waxman

I first met Martin more than a decade ago through PRSA’s Counselors Academy. He is one of the most genuine and thoughtful PR professionals and has turned his focus to helping educate others. He is one of the weekly hosts of the Inside PR podcast and was kind enough to agree to an Ethical Voices interview.

In this week’s Ethical Voices interview, Martin discusses:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?

I’m a PR agency guy. I came up through the agency ranks. I started out as an entertainment publicist, had my own consultancy, and then joined the Toronto office of a large multinational firm, started my own agency, merged with another agency, sold my shares, and really got involved in digital and social media strategy around 2005.

Anyway, I’ve since adjusted what I do. I do a lot of training now for organizations on social and digital media, crisis communications, specifically how to deal with an online crisis, and I’m teaching social media at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. I’m a LinkedIn Learning author, so it means I develop courses for them.

If that’s not enough, I’m also pursuing a Master’s degree and I’m doing research on AI and communications through McMaster and Syracuse University.

Can you share with us what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

As an agency executive you are confronted with ethical challenges all the time. I’m going to go with one that may not be the most difficult, necessarily, but it was certainly one that we couldn’t have planned. This goes back to September 2001. So September 1st through 11th, 2001. 9-11.

We were working for Procter and Gamble, promoting Olay Daily Facials. We were trying to come up with a travel program for them to say, “Hey, these are great on the go.”

And so what our concept was, and the client really liked this, in the days of the old boarding passes, we had our media materials printed to look like a boarding pass. We got metal school lunchboxes and had stickers put on them, on so New York City, Twin Towers, we had Paris, we had London, we put a water bottle in there, we put product samples, and a few other goodies, and we sent them to media on September 10th, 2001, thinking that this was kind of a cute, creative outreach.

9-11 happens and we start getting calls from not one but probably about a dozen of the outlets saying, “You sent us a metal package. You’ve gotta deal with this. You gotta come pick it up because we cannot open it. We don’t know what it is.”

We had to figure out how do we explain this to our client? It really is an ethical thing because we had taken money from them to do this. We had to determine how to tell our client we were cancelling the campaign and get them onboard. And then also, ethically, how do we deal with saying, “Yes, we’ve billed them for this but we need to do it later. We’re not sure when we’re going to do it. We’ll have to come up with a new idea. How can we come up with a financial arrangement that works for the client but also works for the agency?” Because, as you know coming from an agency background, hours billed, you don’t want to have those discussions with the CFO about why you’re writing them off.

All of this came into play. We were able to talk to our client, come up with an amicable financial solution for all of us, recognizing that we had done some work. We would have to make an investment, as our client did, but also, I think we built our client’s trust by saying, “We cannot do this. In fact, we probably can never go out with this pitch again. We thought it was a great idea two weeks ago; because of what happened in the world, it’s no longer appropriate, so we need to think of something else.”

It was really probably the first time that we had to make that type of pivot because, like you growing up in the ’70s, ’80s, this was in the early 2000s, we lived in a pretty simple and easy world in North America – you could plan to launch a product and feel fairly certain it would happen when it was supposed to happen.

P&G is a great brand, were you really concerned about their reaction?

We knew that our client would be open to this, but we needed to figure out how to tell them in such a way that we could continue to build a relationship, that we would be seen as trusted counselors giving them good advice, and also have the answer to the question, “Well, why didn’t you think of this before? Why was this not an outcome you could have predicted?” We didn’t want to go to them with our shoulders shrugging, “I don’t know. It hasn’t happened before.”

We needed to figure out how we could approach this and also take responsibility for it because it was our idea. And so how do you say them, “Look, we’re still creative. We can still be creative, but we’re also all very ethical in our approach. It’s all about long-term relationships with our stakeholders and there are so many because ultimately, it was media, the number one intermediary, but then our client’s customers. How do those play out?

Luckily our client was, as we suspected, very open to it because P&G is a very ethical company

What was the process when dealing with the media and your Twin Towers Metal Box?

That’s a great question. Well, the first thing was when a magazine or a newspaper called us and said, “You must pick this up now,” we responded quickly. That was a gut reaction. That it was our responsibility.

With the other ones, we called our key media that we had relationships with saying, “Look, we sent you this and then this awful thing happened, so if you’re open to it, we’d like to get in touch with you to talk about it more, but not for a few weeks until we see what happens in the world.” They were all very open to that and I think appreciated it because the worst thing is so many communications people don’t empathize with their audiences or don’t empathize with media.

I think one of the worst things we do is we think of media as media and not as people. As soon as we start thinking of them as people … And then this goes to Ethics 101. Would you be happy if someone called you and pitched you right after this horrible tragedy happened? As soon as you put yourself in that position, you go, “Oh.” That really reshapes what my decision would be and helps give me another perspective. No, I would to be happy because there’s more important things in the world. Maybe that media person is from New York, maybe they have a family member there, maybe they just traveled. We don’t know, so empathy is really important and I think it’s a really important part of ethics. And even if you go back to Ethics 101, that comes to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.

What process did you use when deciding how much time to invest?

Well, it wasn’t a discussion I wanted to have. This was an independent agency in Canada, so it was entrepreneurial. There were about 25 people there at the time. I needed to speak to the CEO, who really made all those decisions, and he was very open to it. I think he was open to it in part because he was all about relationships. He came from a political background, so he knew the value of relationships and long-term relationships and what you needed to do to maintain them. It’s not just, “Okay, we do it, we bill you, done, next thing.” It’s not transactional.

If you are just transactional, it’s so easy for a client to walk away from that. But if they feel that their agency is not only invested but has their best interests at heart, even when it impacts the agency’s bottom line. We were able to claim back our expenses and make a case. You know, hey, the expenses are the expenses, but it’s our time that we can be a lot more flexible with and come up with different types of ideas.

But all of a sudden, when you do that, the client starts to hopefully believe and trust you more and think, “Yeah, these people really are looking out for me,” and they’ll have a conversation that maybe they don’t want to have because it’s the right thing to do. I think that’s the important thing to fall back on that it is the right thing to do.

We ended up with a very longstanding relationship with that client that actually continued later on after I started my own agency.

What’s the one key lesson or key takeaway you took from that experience?

I think the one key lesson is you’ve got to listen to your gut when it comes to ethics, and then you need a system to be able to cross-check that, to make sure that you’re making the right decision.

You need a process in place that you can come back to. You need to figure out are you going to go with duty-based or deontology, or are you going to go with consequentialism, more of a utilitarian-based approach, or both and see where you net out in the middle.

Is there another ethical issue you’d like to share?

This is from around that same time with a different client at the agency. This was working with someone who wasn’t as transparent as I thought she should be. We had hired a third-party expert, to go out and do some interviews on behalf of our client. One of the tips they would mention was our client’s product.

This one person thought we should send out the media advisory, but she wanted to do it without letterhead, on plain white paper, sent to media to book this person with no mention of the agency or the client.

I said, “That’s wrong. You gotta be transparent. You gotta at least say, ‘Presented by this person.'”

We had a big argument, but she was a senior person on the account, she won out. Anyway, she wasn’t able to go and accompany this person on the interview, so I was stuck taking this expert around. We get to one TV station and I knew the producer quite well. The guy is unpacking his bag and he takes out one product, then he takes out another product, then he takes out another product. The producer came over to me and said, “Hey, what’s going on here? We thought this was going to be about the book and there’s all this product.”

I said, “Well, I’ve known for you a long time and here’s what the story is.” She was so mad. She yelled at me for a long, long time. Rightfully so. I took the heat for that and the agency was banned from the program for about a year or so.  Rightfully so.

I was able to come back and make a case to say, “Hey, we can never do this again. One, it hurts our credibility, not being transparent, and what are we hiding? Why don’t we be upfront? If they don’t want to cover, they don’t have to. We can move on and be creative.”

Now, the person did do the interview, but we certainly made sure it was toned down.

When working with a third-party influencer you must disclose. The FTC demands it. In Canada, they have advertising standards

You know what? It kind of is simple: don’t lie, tell people who you are and who you represent. You’re probably not going to get into trouble.

How often are you facing that pushback today or is the need for transparency become more pervasive and people understand its importance?

I think that’s one of the greatest things about social media. It’s underscored the need for transparency and, in a way, has helped communications people, PR people, step out of the shadows and not necessarily be perceived to be those puppet masters who are pulling the strings. We’re kind of part of the story. With blogger relations, when we start going out to bloggers, we automatically became part of the story because the relationship was with us so they might mention us. Hopefully, if everything was transparent, that’s okay.

Are there new areas that you’re concerned about when it comes to ethics?

I think privacy and data is a huge area of concern for all of us. There are big questions around that. Europe is asking them and certainly has paved the way for a new world for Europeans with GDPR.

I think that’s an important conversation for communicators to have. How do we start that conversation around the ethical use of machine learning, data, privacy? And really, when it comes to some of the job transition that we will see or the job upheaval that we’ll see as a result of automation, how do we deal with people compassionately in an ethical manner? How do we retrain them? Those are all questions around ethics that communicators could certainly be thinking about, and in many cases, lead those questions to hopefully coming up with answers to make organizations continue to behave ethically.

Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I don’t have to think that far back for this one because I’m relatively fresh out of an ethics course in the McMaster-Syracuse program. My professor, Michael Meath, said, “When you’re faced with an ethical dilemma, hit the pause button.”

You need to step back and look at what he calls considerations, consequences, and your obligations. That’s really the beginning of having a systemic discussion around what your ethical decision will be. There’s not necessarily a right decision in every situation, but hopefully, again, something he said, “Make the best right decision under the circumstance.”

That’s great advice. How do you put that into practice?  

I wished I had thought of it or had known this way back when. Now that I’m a consultant, it’s something that I will discuss with clients, especially if we’re doing training around a crisis response. How do you come up with a systematic framework for ethical decision making? If you’re in the middle of a crisis and you don’t have this set up, you’re in trouble because you’re running to catch a bus that keeps moving forward a few feet.

I think by just spreading the word and getting people to think about differently and thinking beyond what they know in their gut, they need a system, they need to balance the decision with the biases that people may have. All of those are important considerations and as long as you can start having those discussions early, you can establish that system.

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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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