Ethics of Diversity and Inclusion – How Not to Be a Stepford Agency – Mickey Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA

Joining me on this weeks’ episode is Mickey Nall, APR, Fellow PRSA, a Professional-In-Residence at the University of Florida, the former Managing Director of Ogilvy Atlanta, and a former Chair of PRSA. What I love about Mickey is the wit and insight he brings to every discussion.

In this week’s episode, he discusses:

Please start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your career

I started off very early in non-profits with our local United Way, and then quickly that became a health care communications position at a very large local important hospital system. From there I moved to Washington D.C. and I went to work for an international positioned medical society, and from there I got a job at Ogilvy in the Washington D.C. office, and it was because I had been working in an area of patients around children who have post-traumatic stress disorder. Ogilvy D.C. handled a variety of contracts for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So, they were looking for a mid-level account director to run two of their FEMA accounts, and I got hired because of the work I did in public health care communications. That’s how it started.

And then, I spent 22 years at Ogilvy. I worked on a variety of Federal contracts, and grew from Account Director, to Vice President, to Senior Vice President, and working with the Office of National Drug Control Policy opened my eyes to a broader spectrum of integrated work, and I loved it. Eventually, I was promoted to managing director of the Atlanta office, where I served for almost 13 years.

I had a hugely phenomenal career at Ogilvy and I loved every day of it good and bad. Mainly because I learned and could capture the learning of what I was experiencing.

I’m and alumnus of distinction from the University of Florida College of Journalism there.  When the dean made trips around the country, she would come to Atlanta and we’d get lunch. So we’re at lunch and she’s like, well what are you going to do next, now that your Ogilvy career is done. And I’m like I have no idea, to be perfectly honest. So I said, I don’t know, I’m going to see my friends over at UGA or at Georgia State, I’m going to see if they need somebody to teach a class in PR of some sort. And she said why in the world would you do that? And I’m like, well because I live here, that’s just the way it is. And she’s like why wouldn’t you come down to Gainesville? And I went well it’s a five-hour drive, so it doesn’t make for a convenient commute each day,

So she countered and asked if I would consider being a visiting lecturer? This way I just got to go sample it. I got to be a part of a wonderful department, one of the largest programs in the country and experience something totally new. Now I have made the move to teaching and loving it. Loving every bit of it. It’s my career encore, I could probably do this another 10, 15 years. But between you, and me, and all your listeners – six to eight would be great.

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

For me personally there’s a lot of ethical challenges. But the one that affected me the most, because it required me to dig deep and say, wait a minute was an internal issue. I’m running the Atlanta office and as time went by staff became larger and larger. And we were very successful. I had gotten out of the process of doing resume reviews, cover letters, determining who could come to work, or at least interview to come to work at Ogilvy. I had delegated that to a mid-level manager, to work with HR on resumes that would come in for either internships or other positions and to go ahead and conduct the interview process. We we’re always very slow to hire because we wanted to be very careful to make sure we were matching skill sets with the need, and with the potential client, that this individual would be working with. So we’d look at clients, teams that sort of thing.

Well anyway, overtime, probably a year, maybe over a year and a half, I had not noticed and suddenly I noticed, everyone I was interviewing looked just like this mid-level manager. Everyone was Caucasian, let me go further. Everyone was a Caucasian female, with blonde hair, size two. We we’re suddenly becoming the Stepford wives of PR agencies. I’m going, what the hell is going on here? I kept looking at it, well maybe this is what we’re getting, I mean this mid-level manager is a phenomenal employee, and revered by her clients. So there was no issue with her performance.

So, the next time internships came up, I called her in and I said, you know I just feel like we’re just sort of tiptoeing into diversity and this is a huge problem and in our industry. I don’t understand with University of Georgia, and Georgia State, Kennesaw State, and Morehouse, and Spelman, and all of these colleges here in Atlanta, why everyone is female? That’s all I said at that point, everyone’s female, we need a more diverse group.

So, she’s saying, oh you want to hire more men. And I was like, well I want you to hire men and women who bring something to the table beyond our sameness, beyond our, all come from the same school, all look alike, our clients are certainly not that way.

And so anyway, this person was very upset with me and said, well let me just bring you the resumes and you will see that I have chosen the most qualified individuals to come in for interviews.

I said, you know what, we are going to take a minute let me look at this through again. Well I flipped through about 25 resumes, and I found you could just tell from schools that people had come from and gender, that goodness it looked to me like, we had quite a few applicants that could be brought in that didn’t just read female on their resume.

So I sat down with a supervisor, and just said, well here’s what we’re going to do, I’m not trying to get in your way, but I just have a duty, to issue, and we have the opportunity to at least bring in, qualified individuals, and give them a shot, and see what happens. And she was very upset with me. A

But it became, as far as I’m concerned, the most ethical decision of my life to override someone I had handed off HR recruitment and interviewing, to who did an excellent job with client work. And take it back and say, this isn’t correct for me.

I literally looked through and found about 25 people that were great, I brought in 10, I hired a young man who went to a very small school, a small program. He worked with us for seven years, all the way to account director so from account executive all the way to account director, left us, went to work for a major Georgia-based company, major. He has been there five years, just left to go to a global financial company as a director level. And so I’m like this young man would have never had the opportunity to experience our brand, in order to get that next job, in order to get that next job, because of just to me an ethical issue of someone screening inappropriately for the job.

I’m very proud to say over a three-year period we became ethnically the most robust office in the US for Ogilvy. We had more African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, Latinos in our office percentage wise, per capita, than any other office in the US. It was something I was so proud of because we were walking the walk of the need to diversify the industry.

Now did we do a great job of inclusion? I think the industry is continuing to suffer from great diversity efforts, but less great inclusion efforts.

So for me that was the biggest one, because I was talking a great amount of diversity and inclusion, I was out in the marketplace thinking I was doing the right thing, but in my own organization in which the buck stopped on my desk, I was allowing someone to make hires that were, let’s just say very narrow and scope. And that was an ethical challenge for me to reprimand someone that did other work so well.

And I had a lot of minor ethical issues as well that were always around client initiatives and for me those were generally people asking you to do something that was not correct, but they had not taken the time to think about it. They just were moving too fast in a crisis and other things where you could just say could we hold up, count to ten, breathe, and sort of investigate what we need to do and not do. We’re not going to do what you suggested, because that’s not right. And you’d have a lawyer sometimes sitting there with you, saying oh no that’s legal, that perfectly legal to do that. And you know I get to be the guy and we all get to be the professional that gets to say, guess what I’m the conscience of this organization and my conscience is not going to allow this, not the law, the law is fine, it’s perfectly legal, but that’s not right.

How did you work to train your staff to take the time and starting thinking about I ethical issues?

We had an ongoing training program and there were monthly topics. I will say I would utilize often time what was going on PRSA in their webinar series and other things as methods to meet the training requirements for that month.

There’s an old adage in our industry that clients barking at our industry saying I need and answer right now, right now, right now, right now, and the agency saying, would you like an answer right now or would you like to wait four hours and get the right answer?

Give me a minute to do some monitoring and analyzing of the situation, I could actually make a better situation with you. And often times clients are just in the panic and they rely on their senior communications professionals inside and outside to be the calming voice.

One thing I like – and lot of companies aren’t doing this anymore – are notes at every client meeting. That you have a note document, and so ours were put in shared drives and I just did spot checks on client meetings that I wouldn’t be part of all of them.

And I’d read their notes and often times I’d be confused by something and I could catch it in the notes so I would call the account team in or the account lead in and say gosh walk me through this, I want to be sure the program, or the idea, or the concept that we’re going to put forward, avoids some of the pitfalls in advance. For example, it could be stupid things, like a gaming company that once was doing a promotion with a major retailer. And it was around a costal beachy theme, and they wanted young women dressed in bikinis to be at the launch. While that’s probably not unethical, it’s just bad taste. But these mini-issues they could have become bigger issues if people had showed up that way.

How has social media changed ethical issues?

Social media to me has made the ethical challenges greater, yet at the same time easier for customer service to show CMO’s and other executives of companies what’s being done wrong. You know to say, oh you can’t just leave this here, we’re going to have to fix this. And the fix isn’t just a customer service problem, it’s a reputation management problem. Do we have an operations problem here, or a PR problem? Most of the time the PR problem is just going to be an operations problem.

And so you know fixing the operations first, you know looking at the core, can avoid some ethical challenges.

How were you going about training and helping some of the employees avoid that unconscious bias?

It’s a good question. I was very fortunate to work of a company that was a part of the WPP network. I had this theory that, when you make a few minor mistakes and they become major mistakes it’s amazing, how when you’re publicly traded how you’ll fix those mistakes, and actually put training programs in place, so that they don’t happen again as a way to avoid regulatory and legal damages.

We had a chief diversity officer, long before people were doing that. And so that diversity officer was challenged in the US to come up with a training program to help recognize bias, and how to navigate through that. I mean it was just amazing, you would go through a variety of exercises and this training was mandatory. You had a lot of other training that wouldn’t be mandatory, and you’d have senior people, they’re just too damn busy. I’m senior, I’m so important, I’ve got client meetings, and professional things to take care of, I can’t go to all of this training, only young people need to go to that.

You have people who have to go to things that actually get maybe the necessary tools to navigate these minefields, in order to make the situations better. And then you have senior people who don’t because they’re so senior, and they’re above it all. And they in turn don’t get any illumination of the problem and the solutions. So, this was mandatory, you would sit in the room with your colleagues, your fellow employees, and you would go wow I’m hearing stuff out of his mouth that is totally not acceptable. And they’re not meaning to be unacceptable they just either A) didn’t know better, or B) didn’t care. I don’t think you can train people to care but I think you can train people that these are the guard rails that you’re going to stay between and you’re going outside of them.

Did that help?

That helped a great deal on the diversity side of the equation pretty quickly. What we did not do well on was inclusion and retention. We were constantly hiring great people, and yet they weren’t staying.

The key, to me of inclusion, is it’s one thing to invite everyone to the party, we’d invited everyone to the party, look at the party, it’s so optically perfect now. But you know what, until somebody walks across that room and invites that person to dance at the party it’s not inclusive.

We needed to take a step back, we had invited people to the party, but we weren’t asking anybody to dance. And so, the step back we had to take was, we had to form some communities around likeness, so we had a Latina community, we had a LGTBQ community, we had an African American community, we had to form some communities in each office so that people could support one another. And we had to put the resources behind it. But what we found is first of all, if I have a community within the company you can go to with your issues and problems first, there will be someone in that community, stronger, more senior, more experience that can then go to management and say here’s an issue that we can fix.

For example, one group of creatives had a wonderful, ongoing happy hour session, where they played golf at a driving range. But several people in that group felt that it had become very clique-ish, which happens of course, and they didn’t like that. But nobody wanted to say anything, because they work in that department, they didn’t want to get into trouble, they just were never available to go anymore. And you know that just led to further ostracization.

Once that was brought to the attention through one of the communities, I could go sit with the head of that department and say you know what, here’s the issue, we either need to revamp that or I’m going to need us to do something different. And this executive, was like I am flabbergasted, I am mortified, I am sitting here fighting for budget to keep us doing this and it’s actually working against us, let me stop and we’re going to go do something else. And they did, and we increased our retention.

As an MD, did you have any ethics incidents around time sheets?

Well, time sheets at Ogilvy were an incredibly regimented and regulated program, and they have to be. The profitability of the firm is tied to the time sheet and bill codes, and what you did or didn’t do. So, years ago New York had determined a better way of doing it – all time was logged from the previous day by 10:00 AM the next day. For the managers what was great about that, from a financial management standpoint, is that oh yeah, I could tell you every day by noon what the profitability was of the office was, up to that day per month kind of thing. What our margins were, and that sort of thing. If we were on forecast of not. The harder part came, when you would look at time sheets, you would look at whether a job estimate had been and you would look at time being spent on the job, and the beauty of having them daily that way, was you could see it’s getting out of whack. And you could go to that individual or their supervisor and go, why is it so out of whack, is it taking Joe over there, is it taking him eight hours something we’ve budgeted for four hours, that’s not good.

In the converse, oh look we budgeted eight hours and how is he getting it done in four. And if it really is four and not eight we need to notify the client that we’re going to be under budget and that’s a good thing. But we also know how we could spend that budget, we have these other option ideas that you can spend budget on and guess what I’m finding the budget for you.

And so that’s the key of ethics and technology, for a senior managers ability to look at what could be an issue, oh look someone’s overcharging and go oh no, no, no, no the benefit is undercharging so I can get more budget to do other things. And if you’re a younger professional and you’re tired of media relations, but you want to do this great event, guess what if we can save some money in the media relations budget, we might be able to do this event. And you could run it. And I hate to say it that way, but markets incentivize them to do the right thing. And let me incentivize you to do the right thing. Do not be overwhelmed as a young professional that you have to be 100% billable every day and that you may think you have to lie or cheat on your time sheet to get to that 100% that’s just not going to happen.

The tools, wonderful technology and software are in place that I can catch it, it you’re running ahead or behind, just tell me why. I wanted you to be putting your time down accurately every single day. And I was a bear about it because it was a major ordeal to change something from non-billable to billable and even worse to change something from billable to non-billable. And that was hard.

If you manage the people, the time and the money you aren’t going to get into trouble.  Manage the people, the time and the money, and you’re going to be successful, and I am because of that.

Are there new areas, new developments that have you concerned regarding ethics?

And I’m sure you get this from everyone, it’s the speed of light now. Now you know you’re having to monitor 24/7, to see if people are posting something about your brand that could lead to legal issues, regulatory issues, and ethical issues. Or the actual thing happening is an ethical issue, and how you stop that or fix it. So I fall back on that, you monitor, you analyze, you come up with a game plan, you do the response, you evaluate the response. There was a point in time that often times saying nothing was the right response, because the situation would go away. We are well beyond that now, you do not get to say nothing. You have to come out strong, and you have to come out and fix the problem.

So I see it as this wonderful renaissance for the public relations professional, because our departments should be growing. Our department should have increased budgets. If everyone’s a citizen journalist, if everyone’s polarizing around politics, if everyone is just angry all the time, we’re going to have issues. And the PR department, the PR agency, the communications contractor is going to have solve it.

It’s hyper, it’s harder, it’s more rewarding when you solve it quickly. But at the same time, you might not be going home at five o’clock. When I started in the profession, we ran a very eight to five day and carried a beeper on the weekends. And if you got called you got called. Whereas now we have to generate and operate a 24/7 environment.

Finally, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

True, true, true, true, story, best piece of ethics advice I was ever given was, when it feels bad, back away.  If it gives you pause, your face reddens a little bit, stop and just stop and consider, is it an ethical problem? Are you uncomfortable because it’s just a new area of work, maybe you’re uncomfortable because the deadline is unrealistic, get over it, that kind of thing. But when it feels bad, we have to stay curious, and when we’re caught off guard, take moment, just a moment it doesn’t take long and consider if it feels bad, it is bad.

Take a stop, and then question the hell out of it. And that’s what I was taught, take a moment, and if feels bad, it may be, it probably is bad. But take a moment, investigate it and then just start asking questions. If you are in a work environment where you’re asking questions and that’s frowned upon that’s not a place you want to work. Also, the response of “legal says we have to do it that way”, is not the response I want to hear.

You know what I mean, I want to say no it’s legally okay, but that’s still wrong. And my job is to say to you that’s wrong. We gotta do this differently. And if I’m successful I’ve convinced you of that. If I’m not successful, you’re going to do it your way and you haven’t broken any laws, but ethically your challenged and I would need to move on.

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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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