How to Ethically Address Harassment, Unconscious Bias and Disclosure – Joe Cohen, APR

In this week’s Ethical Voices interview, Joe Cohen, APR, CCO of AXIS Capital and President of the PRSA Foundation, shares insights and examples of a few ethical issues he faced early in his career, before he joined AXIS Capital.

Specifically, Joe discusses:

Why don’t you start off by telling our readers a little bit about yourself in your job and your career?

Right now, I serve as chief communications officer of AXIS Capital which is a global insurance and reinsurance company. My career path that led me here is unconventional. I went to school at Syracuse University at the S.I. Newhouse School and I had dreams of working in broadcast journalism. I was actually doing that when I was in college, I had a part-time job at a professional radio station while I was in school which I loved. I was planning to do that as a career and then I wound up going home for what I thought would be a short-term period in northern New Jersey. I took a job at a PR firm MWW and I expected I would do that for a few months then go back to Syracuse and pursue my radio career.

What happened was I stayed at MWW for 15 years, had a wonderful experience and clearly decided that I didn’t want to leave. During my time there, I was able to be a part of the team under the leadership of Michael Kempner that grew MWW from a relatively small firm into a best-in-class midsize agency. That was exciting and I was proud to be a part of that. During my time, I got a chance to work in all different parts of the profession. I spent 10 years in the corporate communications practice and also in brand marketing.

I was recruited to lead communications for KIND which is the maker of KIND bars and KIND granola. I did that for two years and then got recruited to go to AXIS and I’ve been here for two years and about four months and I love it. It’s a great job.

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

The first major ethical challenge I had was probably my biggest one because I really had to struggle as to how to handle it. I had been at MWW for about a year and a half, and one of my first jobs was to be the publicist for the CEO. At the time, we were really building the MWW brand and it was exciting to work with the CEO. We had won a major, major client in our New York office. I jumped the gun and gave the information to a reporter, before the story was live. I called the reporter once I realized what happened and they agreed to hold the story. Then I had this internal crisis where I thought, do I share with my boss what happened or do I not do anything because the reporter said they’re not going to run the story?

I really struggled with it because I cared a great deal about what my boss thought about me. I knew that he might lose trust if he thought I jumped the gun and actually reached out and almost caused an issue by leaking this story inadvertently. What wound up happening was I fortunately made the right decision and I went and spoke to my boss and let him know that. Michael (the CEO) was great. I mean, he basically walked me through the entire process everywhere where I made mistakes. There were a number of mistakes leading up to how I accidentally gave the information to reporter. He also credited me for going to him and saying what happened and ultimately the reporter got the story, all the news was shared, everything was fine.

But I think it really had a big impact on me because it made me understand the importance of coming clean when you make a mistake, of the importance of building trust with your managers and leaders, and if you have a great leader then they’re going to understand and they’re going to coach you. You know what Michael had told me at the time was, “You made this mistake, I get it, I understand it, here’s what you should’ve done differently. It happened once, don’t let it happen again,” and I never let it happen again. So I think that, that had a formative impact on me.

When you were struggling with this, how did you work through this issue?

Sure. I think that what happens with young professionals back then and now – and I think it’s something that’s just a human truth – is that you don’t have the perspective to understand that people make mistakes and you want to project this image of perfection and you care so much about what people think about you. For me, I think that was what I was really struggling with. I knew that my CEO thought highly of me. I knew that there was a chance that he would think less of me if I came forward and told him that I made this potentially very damaging mistake. So I struggled with that and you know it looked like there wasn’t going to be any reason to tell him because the reporter agreed to hold the story, but I ultimately decided that I didn’t want to have secrets from him. What if the reporter changed his mind?

I went through all the different scenarios and I agonized it for I believe a couple hours, and then I told my direct supervisor I was planning to do it. My direct supervisor told me that it was the right decision and then I went to my CEO’s office and laid out what happened.

Now you mentioned this was the first ethical challenge you faced. That implies there was a second or a third. Can you tell us a little bit more about any other ethical issues you might’ve encountered in your career?

You have to make decisions all the time and sometimes there’s gray areas. I mean, there’s a lot of examples day-to-day of when you have to make a decision. I’ll give another one that was relatively early in my career where I benefited from having a really strong manager who supported me and served as a good role model for me.

I think it was probably about five or six years into my career and I was managing communications for pretty big named client and a young woman on my team was sent out to staff an assignment and she was harassed by the client. She came back to me and told me what happened and basically explained to me that she was harassed. Fortunately, it didn’t go beyond words, but it was still awful. So at the time I thought, “Oh my gosh, what’s … you know, this is wrong. Like clearly this can’t stand, but how do we approach this? If we complain to the client, do we lose the account?” Fortunately, I had a good boss and he helped make the decision very easy.

I went to him, I explained to him what happened right away. So I was fortunate that I had good instincts and I followed those instincts and I explained to him what happened, and he demonstrated great ethic and he basically said, “This is garbage. This can’t happen. This is totally unacceptable.” And then he called the head of communications or the head of marketing for the client, explained what happened and we took the woman out of that situation. She never had to work on that account again, but she got placed on another good account and it was handled well. Ultimately it was my boss who made the decision, but it had a good impact on me. I think that’s a particularly memorable example but you know there’s I think day-to-day you’ll sometimes just have to make decisions, like, “Is this the right word? Is this the right language? How do you push back on the clients?”

Every day you’re making decisions as far as what’s right and what’s pushing the envelope too far.

What’s your advice usually in these situations? Is it best to address it with the person directly, or to go above them to their manager to talk about these issues?

I went right to my manager and I think if you see something internal, I think you go right to HR. So I think the first thing that you do is you immediately disclose that information to either HR or the next person in the chain of command. What I believe my boss did was he went to the top person in the organization and I think that was the right thing to do because he didn’t play any games. I mean he basically said, “This was an issue, there’s a member on your team that did something that is patently wrong and it needs to get resolved.”

So I think he handled it exactly the right way.

You had mentioned that the person who was harassed, you took her off the account. Did she want to come off the account? Because I could see one of the challenges that I don’t think it’s the way you did it, but people say, “Well they spoke up and then they got taken off this really cool brand name account”

No, she wanted off of it. She wanted off of it. I think if she had wanted to stay on it, we would have found a way to make it work, but she didn’t want to be on it any longer for obvious reasons.

You were at KIND bars at a very interesting time because there was a bit of a kerfuffle to say the least, with the FDA where there were some questions over the use of the word “Healthy.” Can you talk a little bit more that and any of the internal processes that you went through in determining to fight back?

Sure. I benefited from working with a very ethical and strong leader in Daniel Lubetzky who’s the CEO of KIND. With the issue that arose with the FDA we always felt that we were in the right. At the KIND was asked to remove the word “Healthy,” from the label on several of its snack bars – and the reason why was because of what we felt was an outdated guideline from, I believe, 1990 that looked at the fat content in the product. The KIND bars in question were made of nuts that were high in fat but it was good fats, which, you know it wasn’t as well-known back in 1990 that there were good fats and bad fats. Because of that we were told that we had to take “Healthy” off the product.

What we decided was that we felt that that was wrong. It was outdated guidance and we decided to push back, but we took pains to be very respectful and very elegant in our communications and to push back in a way that was smart and strategic, but never contentious. Ultimately what wound up happening was we developed a collaborative productive relationship with the FDA and ultimately they changed course and reversed that guideline. So I think it wound up being not just a victory for KIND, but it also was a good example of how industry and government could work together to resolve differences in a productive manner. So, that was something where I think the ethical part of it was that we were always transparent. We were always straight forward as far as what happened. We didn’t try to hide it. If anything, we spoke very openly and candidly about what happened and you know we trusted that our customers would have the intelligence to understand and they did.

Who was involved in the decision making there? Was it PR, legal, operations? What was the process for making these responses?

Ultimately our CEO had the final say, but it was a small team that worked on it. It was our general counsel, the marketing team, and then comms and I had to report in to CMO. we were working 24/7 when the news broke. I think that what winds up happening in a high pressure situations like that is that you’re exhausted because you’re just working round the clock because you’re making decisions in real time, and you’re doing it with very little sleep. So I think that what helps when it comes to being in a situation like that is that being prepared on a few levels. One is as it relates to ethics and how you want to behave. Spending time thinking about your code of ethics and how that ultimately guides how you communicate. So, I think that transparency is something that always resonated with me and transparency was a big part of the KIND brand. We had transparent wrapping, the fact that you could see the products. It always made sense to be very transparent when we encountered issues, especially an issue like that.

We had a very short lead time when we knew that the news was going to break. So we maxed out that time and remember that we had just finished a major campaign, a different campaign, and we worked the whole weekend just so we’d be able to respond rapidly when the news broke. I think that the preparation on both fronts was helpful and what ultimately was really good work and something that I think helped the brand.

Are there new areas about which you’re concerned regarding ethical and ethical challenges?

Social media and digital has opened a lot of new challenges that didn’t exist before. I think that also changes in the media environment has opened new challenges. So I’ll start with social. I think there are issues with content and disclosure. As an industry over the past probably eight years we’ve made a lot of progress when it comes to disclosing paid content versus earned content but I think there’s a lot of work that still needs to get done there.

I think that there’s still bad behavior, but I think overall, we’ve been doing a better job there. I think that on the other side when it comes to the media I think that there’s such pressure to get out news quickly that sometimes there’s not the same level of rigor when it comes to fact checking. So I think that you as a communications team have to be working really closely with the reporters. It’s not that they’re unethical. I think that reporters are very ethical generally. You know there’s always some bad apples, but I think that part of it is just being open and transparent in the communications and reaching out to reporters when wrong content is out there and working with them to quickly resolve situations just because they understand that they’re moving so fast that there could be errors.

I think the other issue that is we’re still trying to understand the implications of is everything with fake news, and understanding that completely fake content that looks real can be put out there everything from written content to videos where we’re still getting our head around that. That’s not something that is an ethical challenge for us unless you’re peddling fake news which is pretty obviously unethical, but I think it’s something that we will likely begin to see on the horizon from a reactive standpoint and I know many are dealing with that now.

A lot of these ethical issues are grounded in deciding that you’re not going to share information, or you’re not going to disclose, or you’re going to hide something.

It’s the old adage, “The cover up is worse than the crime.” It almost always is better to get out and share information and to do it in a way where you explain your point of view.

As President of the PRSA Foundation are there any ethical challenges or issues you want to highlight around diversity and inclusion?

There’s many, but one I choose to shine attention on for the purpose of this podcast is something that’s not even intentional, it’s unconscious bias, exclusionary behavior and unintentional racism. There’s been a lot that’s been reported on that’s clearly egregious ethical behavior (i.e. #metoo). Hopefully people realize that behavior like that is just wrong, and I know that there’s been a really good movement. That behavior is clearly unethical. Which unintentional exclusionary behavior I think that that’s something that people are acting in a way that is demeaning and insulting and degrading, and they don’t even realize it.

So, part of what we’re looking to do through the PRSA Foundation is help improve diversity and inclusion by just educating people on best practices. We’re going to be promoting next year is the benefits of unconscious bias training, different programming to help organizations and leaders get their teams thinking about issues so that way they’re more sensitive and more aware. This is very important because people who are well intentioned sometimes make mistakes and they’re not being unethical, they just lack perspective.

We actually just published a book, Diverse Voices, it’s on our site, and in that it’s more than 40 chapters and in each chapter we have either a CCO or an agency leader or an educator of diverse background who’s risen to high levels in their profession just sharing their personal story, and I think it gives you a sense of some of the challenges they faced and how they’ve countered those challenges. I think it’s helpful as an inspirational tool for new professionals, particularly professionals of diverse background. I think it’s also helpful for anyone to read because it helps you look at certain things through a different perspective. Also, every penny of the proceeds goes to the PRSA Foundation cause which is promoting grants and scholarships for students and new professionals of diverse backgrounds, helping to support research and helping fund new awareness initiatives like the Diverse Voices book.

The final question…what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

When in doubt, disclose.

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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