The Importance of Ethical Action Even if it Costs You Money and Business – Philip Tate

Joining me on this week’s episode of Ethical Voices is Philip Tate, APR, Fellow PRSA, a Senior Vice President with LGA in Charlotte, North Carolina, one of the Southeast’s leading creative and public relations agencies.

In this week’s episode, he discusses:

Why don’t we start off by just telling the listeners a little bit about yourself, and your job, and your career.

Well, I like to tell people that my PR career started when I was in high school. I was growing up in Oxford, Mississippi. My dad was on the staff at Ole Miss and he introduced me to someone in the athletic department. I began working in the press box at Ole Miss football and basketball games when I was in ninth grade. I worked in the sports’ information office there, on campus, would go over there after school and learn the ropes, and the basics of the business, everything from stats, to writing releases, to media relations.

When it was time to go to college, I decided to stay in the SEC and went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. I worked in the athletic department there during my four years.

When I graduated, there weren’t any job in the sports’ information, athletic department realm, but I was fortunate to get hired by a company in Lexington, Kentucky called Host Communications. I worked with them for nearly 10 years in Lexington and then, later, Dallas, Texas. We worked with a lot of athletic departments around the country, basically, doing sports marketing and PR and do everything from selling coaches shows, and radio networks, and scoreboard signage, to game programs and other sponsorships.

It was with Host that I moved to Charlotte back in the early ’90s. Then when the opportunity to run the NCAA Final Four, which was coming to Charlotte, came up I jumped at that opportunity and left Host, and joined that effort with the Charlotte Organizing Committee. Then when we had finished hosting the Men’s Final Four, and then two years later, the Women’s Final Four, I transitioned to the agency side of the business with, what was then, Luquire George Andrews.

Fast forward about 26 years down the road, and I’m still here at LGA. I love the variety of agency work that we get to do. We’re a full service firm. Have about 60 people, and we work with a very wide range of clients, ranging from building products, and healthcare, to real estate development. Still have our finger in sports, in a few instances, so love the variety of the work and really like what I get to do every day.

Let’s get to the meat of what Ethical Voices is about. What we’re trying to give practical real-world examples to the communications’ profession. What’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?

Well, I feel somewhat fortunate that we’ve not had an abundance of really sticky ethical issues that we’ve had to deal with as an agency. I’d say many of the ethical challenges that we faced in my years with the agency have been around new business pursuits. We’re very aware and sensitive about whom we choose to work with. I think that’s helped us head off a lot of problems before they ever happen. We try to stay very attuned to whom we represent, especially, from a PR perspective. I’d say our founder and CEO, Steve Luquire, would tell you that integrity is the real watch word around here.

We’re very particular about who we work with. And, in some cases, we’ve probably not taken on lucrative work, because it just didn’t fit with that philosophy, or we didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do.

What’s the process you use when you’re evaluating either clients to pursue or clients that are coming in over the transom, if they’re a good fit for LGA?

I’ve been on our new business team for many years, and I think you’re constantly looking for new business. It’s a lifeblood of any agency. I’d say the vast majority of our business, and I’m sure it’s not unique to our firm, is referral business. Hopefully, the clients that you’ve done good work for, and done good programs with, sing your praises, and they tell others. Or when you’re in a new business pursuit, you’re able to list those clients as references. We’re working on two pitches this week. It’s so gratifying to be able to list so many clients, current clients, as people who would serve as references for us.

It’s tough when you turn down money. The money you can make from agency fees, or other billings, can be very, very appealing. And often times, it’s for clients that are facing a difficult situation. You must be willing to say, “No,” sometimes.

What makes you decide, yes, we can help these guys, or, no, we won’t help these folks. Are there certain disqualifying actions that you don’t want the LGA brand, or your agency brand, associated with?

Definitely. I’ll give you a couple of examples. We’ve turned down business. We’re in North Carolina. This is, obviously, many years ago, but we’ve turned down business from a tobacco companies and, more recently, I would say, even in the last six months, we’ve turned down some e-cigarette or vapor companies. It’s for the simple reason of the health risks that they pose to consumers. The father of our agency founder died of lung cancer.

Decisions, like that, are very personal to him, and you could make the same statement about other people who’ve worked here, either have parents, or grandparents, who may have died of tobacco and the nicotine habit. It becomes very personal. As a result, our agency made the decision many, many years ago to not work with companies that promote, certainly, tobacco, or guns, or weapons, or drugs, or things that would harm people, or even animals. We do a 24-hour marketing PR blitz program with local non-profits that we call Good Stock. Every year we try to choose some of these charitable organizations, and non-profits, that do promote good work. We almost always choose an animal charity. We almost always choose a children’s charity among the five or six that we may work with each year.

I think that all just reinforces what our agency value is when it comes to choosing who you want to dance with.

Can you give me an example? Was there a new business lead that came in where there was some division and dissension among … Some folks say, “We want to go with these guys.” Some folks say, “I’m not sure.” What was the process that you used to work through the concerns to come to the decision you made either, to go with it, or not to go with it?

Well, I’ll give you an instance that’s, maybe, just slightly off-center of that. But we helped the board of a local non-profit agency. This is many years ago now. They had a situation where the CEO of this non-profit, this charitable organization, was spending money on some very questionable ways. Unfortunately, in that instance, we were called in much later in the game than we would have liked. There’s an old expression, “You shut the barn door after the horse had run out.” Well, this particular horse was galloping across the pasture. By the time we were called into it, there were a lot of things that we would have recommended that were not even in play. But we were able to assist the non-profit, with offering some counsel on making the smoothest transition possible after that initial media storm had quieted down.

We came in and helped with the crisis situation, got things to simmer down a little bit. And, probably, the biggest issue, on the front end, when we were first called by one of the board members, “Could you help,” was we were concerned that the agency would be perceived as guilty by association. Why would you choose to help defend this particular agency when such malfeasance was being done by the CEO?

Fortunately, the board stepped forward and said, “Hey, we’re the ones who’ve hired these guys and they’re the right people to help us through this situation.” Then it was very gratifying that other agencies, in the non-profit realm, also vouched for our integrity throughout that process.

That’s an instance where, again, you want to do the best thing. We’re big supporters of our Charlotte community and when this happened, it was a black eye, not just on this non-profit, but we felt like it was a bit of black eye for Charlotte. This is where we call home. This is where we choose to live and work. We wanted to do what we could to help get things moving in a positive direction. And, like I said, in time, we were able to do that.

Probably the biggest thing there was what were we going to get paid for doing this? I would say, at the end of the day, we probably did not get paid for our work, but we felt like it was important work for the community. We felt like it was important from a reputation standpoint that folks would not perceive us negatively, or, “Oh, look, there goes an ambulance chaser trying to grab some money out of a negative situation.”

We made the decision, as an agency, not to take fees on that particular instance, and I think that served us very well over the years since that happened because folks realized, “Well, they really are people of integrity.”

Were you public that you were doing this pro bono?

We did come out and say we were doing it pro bono when we were first contacted by the board. They came to us and said, “Let us know what your rates are and we will pay for this fully,” et cetera. Once we got into it, gosh, it was probably a week, or 10 days, into the media fire storm we realized, “You know, this doesn’t feel right. There’s more money to be made from other clients. This is better for Charlotte. This is better for the community, so we’re going to waive our fees on this.” And, basically, when asked, we said, “Hey, this is pro bono work. We’re not billing the agency for this,” and I think that served us well.

It would have been nice to have had the income, but, again, that would have been a short term fix. And long-term, I think it would have caused some, potential clients, to maybe cast an eye toward our firm and say, “Do they really practice what they preach?” We just took that out of play very early on.

Are there other areas of ethical concern?

Social media and other user generated content, certainly, raises lots of issues when it comes to disclosure, when it comes to that free-flow of information; two pillars of the PRSA Code of Ethics. I think most PR pros are still learning to navigate all that. That playing field is changing every day. You got new algorithms. You got new tracking, things like that. I think that’s a very current situation that we’re all having to deal with, and understand, and navigate unlike anything we’ve had to do before.

I think the other thing, just … We got advice many, many years ago. This is actually before I came to work here, but I had a mentor of mine say to me, he said, “Philip, you know what’s right and what’s wrong. You can feel it in your gut.” And he said, “Trust your gut. Trust your instincts and be willing to turn down a piece of business, if it doesn’t feel right. Be willing to stand on the right side of an issue, even if it runs counter to your client.” He goes, “There will be other clients that match your values who you would rather do work with.” So, he said, “I think most people would tell you, ‘I know what’s right and I know what’s wrong.'” So, he said, “If you can look at it through that lens,” he said, “You’ll make the right decision.”

How are you helping your employees understand what’s the right process, what’s the right thing to do, when it comes to social media?

A lot of it involves hiring the right people and hiring good people. I’d say, particularly, the people who are on our social and content team at the firm have a very good understanding of social media, how it can be used. I think most people, including me, have our own personal accountants. I think it’s the same counsel. We’ve done a program, for several years, with a couple of local sports teams, one college, one pro, and try to give them a little bit of a primmer, or a lesson, about social media and just trying to increase awareness for that.

It’s just around as simple as think before you tweet. Do you want to see that on the lead of Sports Center? Do you want to see that as a headline in your local TV news or, maybe, in the local newspapers that still exist? Just think before you tweet. Is this going to be perceived the wrong way? Or am I tweeting, or posting, in anger? I think some of that, there’s some basic behavioral things that play there, but I think that’s, again, you know what’s right and you know what’s wrong. If it feels wrong, even in the heat of the moment, it probably is.

Thinking back on your career is there any decision you made that you wish you could change?  

I can’t think of many. Like I said, I feel very fortunate in that regard. When I faced an ethical dilemma, I’m able to fall back on the personal values I have. I’m the son of a United Methodist minister, so I come from that background. Then, also, the agency. Like I said, I was drawn to this firm by the founder. What I’ve learned of him from others, and what I’ve learned from working with him all these many years is trying to stay true to your own personal values. Trying to stay true to our values, as an agency, and offer advice that mirrors that. I think those are the fundamentals.

Is there any other ethics advice you’d have to share to those starting the profession?

Yeah, I think I tell folks a couple things. I think one thing is to consider different forms of compensation in whatever career you choose. It’s so much more than just your paycheck. I think we’re all very aware of the importance of healthcare, and when you’re a young professional, you may not be as aware, or have the need, for healthcare benefits. But that’s a significant investment for any company to make in an employee, so that’s a form of compensation. But even beyond the financial and the healthcare benefits, or 401(k), or other things that are just considered table stakes when you’re considering a compensation package. I encourage a lot of folks, young professionals and older ones alike, I said, “One of the most important forms of compensation, to me, is who do I come to work with every day? Do I like the people I work with and work for? Do I like the clients I do work for and work with?”

Those are forms of compensation too. If you work with difficult people, or abusive clients, it doesn’t matter how much you’re being paid. It’s a miserable existence and I don’t think you want to do that. You don’t have to do that. You can go find someplace else. That’s some of what I counsel young pros about is consider all the forms of compensation. It goes just beyond what’s on your paycheck, which is certainly important, but the other things, like who you work with, who you work for, can be just as important.

Any final thoughts today?

I was talking to some other people on our PR team early this week, and we were talking about how they’re facing more issues of transparency more frequency these days. We have a couple of former journalists on our PR team and they work regularly with reporters on really tough client issues, in many cases. They’re always very cognizant of conflicts of interest that can arise, and disclosure can sometimes be an issue. I’ll give you an example. We recently were asked to author and op-ed piece for a local newspaper from a prominent businessman, who we didn’t work with, or work for, but who knew us by reputation and is very well regarded in the community.

Our client had hoped to have him support their position without revealing that he used to have a financial stake in the company. And we said to them, we insisted, that his connection to the company, even if it was in the past, must be revealed as part of that op-ed. They pushed back on that a little bit and we said, “That’s a non-starter.” I said, “And it can be as simple as Mr. Executive is currently the CEO of XYZ Company and is a former board member, or former investor, of ABC Company.” I said, “You have to disclose that, otherwise it could be misinterpreted. It could be misconstrued and that would not be in your long-term best interest.”

Fortunately, the client took our counsel on that one, but I think that’s something that we’re seeing more, and more, of and sometimes, you know, having been in the agency business for so many years, every now and then you’ll have a situation where you’re helping a client with a situation and that might come into conflict with another client of yours. It’s not necessarily the same industry, but maybe on a community matter, or maybe it’s on a regulatory matter, or something of that nature. So sometimes those situations can create a sticky wicket that you have to navigate.

How have you navigated that, when you’ve had two folks on opposite sides of the issues?

Well, like I said, it doesn’t happen often, but, again, I think we try to come up with the best solution and think about the greater good. I think that goes back to our PRSA Code of Ethics, to some extent. You think about the greater good, the public good, in that instance and, in some cases, I can think of one instance where we had to, basically, get the two parties in the same room and serve almost like an arbitrator to help find a path forward. Again, I think that speaks to our agency, and to our leadership, that we’ve been able to facilitate a few of those conversations over the years, when something like that happens. In some cases, it might have kept something out of the media, when it could have been a real issue had it been debated in the public, rather than resolved behind the scenes.

Sometimes that can be the best counsel is, not to play it out in the media, but rather to let’s get the parties in the same room and see if we can find a solution that works for everyone.

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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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