How to Tell Someone They Are Being Unethical – Dave Close

Joining me on this week’s episode is Dave Close, the retired managing director of MSL Boston. I have known Dave for more than 25 years and frankly I do not know anyone who is a better example of character, ethics and compassion.

In the interview, Dave discusses a number of topics including:

While I’ve known you for 25 years, our listeners haven’t. So why don’t you start off by telling them a little bit about yourself and your job and your career?

When I got out of college (which was a long, long time ago) I worked for a few years for a publishing company that did technology newsletters and then from there I went to a big global computer company, Digital Equipment Corporation and I did technology, PR and communications for about 10 years. I then made a pretty abrupt f jump from a 130,000-person company to a 10-person PR agency, Schwartz Communications. I was one of the first senior people into Schwartz and worked there very happily for about 22 years mostly representing technology startup companies as they grew and often helping them navigate the transition from small tech startup to publicly held company. In early in 2016 I retired and I’m happily doing retirement things but I’m still kind of obsessively following the industry and keeping in touch with all my friends around the PR industry.

Let’s get to the meat of what Ethical Voices is about and the question I ask every guest we have. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?

I had a very long career in communications and while I faced a lot of situations which I suppose you could say were ethical quandaries or ethical challenges I was pretty lucky that I had very few situations that were really big nasty kind of looming ethical problems but rather lots of little ones.

We had a client who was a pretty hard charging client who asked me to have the team call all of their competitors using fake names and fake company names and gather competitive intelligence. It was pretty easy to say to the guy “No we’re not going to do that.” It’s certainly legitimate for companies to go gather competitive intelligence and they can do it themselves or they can hire companies that do that. But I just didn’t like the idea of using fake names as a PR agency, not saying we were a PR agency working for this company. The whole thing just felt sort of wrong and I simply said we can’t do that. And there was quite a bit of grumbling but when I explained why we couldn’t, he understood and he relented.

What fallout were you concerned when you told him no?

There was a legitimate chance that the agency could have been fired from the assignment. I mean at one point this client did say “Well why did I hire you guys? What am I paying you guys for?” I said “You’re paying us to do PR, honest PR. Being clear about our affiliation and our role, not calling people with fake names.”  I think that this client thought about firing us, but I believe he liked the work that the agency team was doing for him and ultimately was not going to fire us over that.

There’s a great line from Thoreau that stuck with me…”Beware of all enterprises or endeavors that require new clothes.” And I always think about that. I would also say to PR people beware of all endeavors that require fake names. That’s just not the business we’re in. And it’s not how we operate.

Was there any pushback from the other management at the agency?

One of the things that I was very lucky with in my agency career was the principles at Schwartz Communications, Steve and Paula Mae Schwartz were very, very good about that. Part of it is they were just good people, and part of it is they were extremely concerned about the reputation of the agency as we were building the business. While they certainly would not want to lose revenue losing a client, I saw them on several occasions risk the revenue loss. And I think in one or two cases probably have a revenue loss in order to preserve the honest reputation of the agency. So anyone who worked at that agency was very lucky in that sense. And I think that that’s probably maybe I’m being a little naive about it but I think that’s probably the situation at most agencies. You’re not going to have much of a business for long if you do dishonest things. It just doesn’t work that way.

In today’s world of social media and Google, if you’re dishonest it is going to come out. And then not only are you dishonest, you’re recognized for being dishonest and that’s going to hurt any kind of business. There’s some chaos now with everyone being a journalist. But in net I think it’s a good development because it does tend to keep people honest.

Something you said right at the beginning really intrigued me. And it’s something I think holds true for a lot of us, is that you didn’t face any necessarily big watershed ethical dilemma but rather a number of small issues. Do you want to expand on that a little bit more?

We’re set up from movies and TV and mass culture that the bad guy is really bad and he’s going to be a scowling guy with evil intent and he’s going to instruct people to go lie and do all these terrible things and there is a big obvious single sort of ethical dilemma. I just don’t think that that reflects reality. What really happens is almost every day in business there are a lot of little ethical decisions that you have to make. Almost all of them at least at the start are not that big of deal. It’s a little thing, it’s trim here and there. But if you start to sort of go along with it you can set yourself down a path where the situation can become more and more dire.

I remember the situation, I’ll kind of genericize it, but we worked with a lot of startup companies that had very hard charging people who were in startup culture and their whole purpose was just get things done and they would move very quickly and sometimes it would be kind of sloppy. And then a lot of these companies became successful enough that they became public companies, did IPOs and now they were public companies subjected to SEC oversight.

I had a client once who wanted us to write a press release and put it out and push it declaring a big sale. And I hadn’t heard of this big sale. And as I started poking around and asking more and more questions well it turned out that it was just a letter of intent.

Now as a small privately held startup, touting your letters of intent might be OK. It shows that you might have a little momentum going. But as a public company a letter of intent is not a sale. And eventually the shareholders or even the SEC are going want to know OK where’s the revenue, how much revenue was it, all of these very basic questions which I just started asking the client. And they ultimately agreed that it could cause some trouble. There was some potential downside to calling a letter of intent a sale. I mean that’s an example of something that’s not a big deal. But I think if the agency hadn’t been pressing with some sort of tough questions they may well have put that out and there would have been some trouble. So just an example of a little thing, one of the many little things that PR people really should help their clients with. That’s the value we bring.

What are some of the other little things with which you’ve dealt?

We’ve had clients who were doing layoffs. I listened to the fantastic interview you did with Tony about ethics and layoffs and it got me thinking about it. We had at least one client who was doing a layoff and wanted to announce a number that was significantly lower than the actual layoff they were doing. I suppose you could say “Well a layoff is a layoff and if you’re going to look bad in the press you’re going to look as bad with 10 people as you’re going to look with 30 people.” But it simply wasn’t accurate. And that’s another example where there is no real upside to not telling the truth. And there’s a lot of potential downside to not telling the truth. And we just urged them very strongly to simply announce the real number which to their credit they finally did.

Help me understand, because to my mind when you brought that up, I’m just thinking that’s called lying which is obviously unethical. What was their rationale for not disclosing the full number?

Well this is where you can get into gray areas and there is often a lot of gray areas in ethics and PR and communications. You could say well we’re laying off 30 people but we’ve opened some job postings in different offices ultimately over the next year or two we may hire another 20 people. So in the end it’s going to net out to 10 and therefore we want to say that it’s 10. Well I suppose if you take a really long time line and different job functions and descriptions that may be true that ultimately their employee population will only go down by 10. But in fact they were laying off 30 people and there would be 30 people out on the street without jobs. So, there is nothing really to be gained by fudging that number. It kind of goes back to the idea of using fake names. Why would you ever put out fake numbers or numbers that were so twisted with such a tortured justification that they are kind of fake numbers.

What did you do to prepare yourself and your teams to handle these issues?

Companies should always be honest. PR people should always be honest. And in an ideal world that would be the situation but we’re far from an ideal world. A lot of the ways I found that clients could get themselves in trouble, unknowingly sometimes, good people not trying to be dishonest but just sort of drifting into tough situations is when they had made the transition to public company and were perhaps not fully aware of the challenges and some of the risks of doing that.

We had some pretty extensive private versus public company PR training that we ran fairly regularly in the agency so that everyone would understand that. I used to salt it with some just horrible looking examples to get people really scared so that they would stay really stay on their clients and keep them from getting themselves in trouble. And then if we had a client who was private making the transition to public often would provide that same training to the client. Some of it is just making sure everyone is proceeding from the same basic set of knowledge and facts and understanding.

In terms of preparing the team I was lucky that I think the agency was an atmosphere where there was a pretty high and is still a pretty high emphasis on just being straightforward and honest to preserve the client’s reputation, to preserve the agency’s reputation. So, if there was a tough situation where someone from one of my teams came to me and said “Hey I’m being asked to do this and I’m uncomfortable with it.” I would ask them just a series of questions like “Why are you uncomfortable with it?” And the basic question is “Is it true?” Are the facts in support of this. If they weren’t, we simply wouldn’t do it.

I was very lucky and I think probably a lot of the people that I worked with were lucky over the years that a huge, 95 percent plus, of our clients were pretty straightforward honest people. They did not want to do something unethical. If we pointed something out to them they would sometimes be horrified “Oh I hadn’t thought about that. We’re not going to do that if it looks like it’s dishonest.”

What were some of the ethical challenges you ran into when you were running an agency?

As you know and agency people know, a tremendous part of your energy is spent kind of feeding the machine and acquiring new clients. There are ethical challenges in the endless process of pitching and acquiring new clients. I can recall several instances where we probably could have won a client assignment or even a big client assignment if we had been willing to make promises that we probably ultimately couldn’t fill. Or agree to client requests or requirements in their RFP that we knew we couldn’t fulfill, that it probably couldn’t be done. And I do know that there were cases where we didn’t win a new client because one of our competitors had promised them things that … I’m trying to be diplomatic here … promised them things that we knew they couldn’t deliver.

I mean I remember one that was a relatively low fee assignment and we didn’t win and I asked why and they said “Well this other agency promised us four vice presidents on our team.” You know and I know that that is not going to happen.

I think it was very important, and most agencies do a good job at this, you need to keep things very ethical and honest in the pitch process because that’s going to really set the tone for the entire relationship. And if you start the relationship on a set of false or unreasonable promises or impossible expectations it’s not going to go well.

I worked with a lot of companies in my career that were in open source software and there’s a famous saying in the open source world, “Information wants to be free” and they mean not as in free beer but it wants to be set free, information will have freedom. And that really applies to the truth as well in any kind of communications or messaging effort. The truth is going to be free. It will set itself free. And so there’s never anything to be gained in the long run by trying to trim or alter the facts.

What are some of the new areas that give you concern with regards to ethics?

I think it’s true, that almost every person in the PR agency world is a good honest person trying to do the right thing and trying to be honest. But I do worry a lot, I think many people do, about social media certainly. What we saw in the 2016 election, the ability of really profoundly almost comically untrue stories and information to go viral and spread all over the place to the point where you can really start doubting that there is an objective reality or objective truth to a situation. And I know that Facebook and some of these other companies are trying to get a handle on this but I’m not sure they can because the ability of the bad guys to use these tools evolves faster and changes faster apparently than the vendors can keep up with it. So I think that’s a real concern, we seem to be drifting more and more into an environment where … what was it Rudy Giuliani said? That stunning line. “The truth isn’t the truth.” “The truth isn’t true.” A real epitaph for our times.

And then the other thing I think is going to be an enormous challenge for particularly younger people coming up in the communications industry. They’re living in an environment now where I think there’s a profound lack of ethics. I don’t want to go all political on you but particularly in the executive branch of government and it’s out in the open. It’s not even as if they’re ashamed of doing unethical things. There is a pretty sizable part of the population that I think is starting to look at ethics as this sort of cute little indulgence of the elite. And we’re in big trouble as a nation and certainly an industry if people start to think of ethics as optional or ethics is a hindrance and a business obstacle.

You mentioned your concerns about social media and the gaslighting as well as just that viral spread of untrue information. What can we do about it as communications professionals?

That may be the biggest challenge of all for communications providers. What was it Churchill said? Something like “A lie can spread around the world before truth has time to put on its trousers.” Great, great line. And I think a lot of gaslighting that’s going on comes from a recognition that it’s very tough for people to come in after the fact and try to fight that with facts. There’s an old political adage that says “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.” Meaning you’re sitting there with your checklist saying “Let me give you the 15 facts that will prove that this statement is incorrect.” Meanwhile the people who are spreading the false statement have gone out and spread 15 more false statements. It’s a huge, huge challenge and I don’t have a magic formula for it. But I just think as long as PR and communications people stay scrupulously honest and just patiently keep putting out only honest information and try to act to correct the disinformation that’s probably all we can really do. And trust that in the end, in the long run, the truth will out.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve been given?

I mentioned that I spent about 10 years at a Digital Equipment Corporation.  The company was founded and run by an incredible man, Ken Olsen, who ran it for about 30 years. And Olson was a very stern kind of demanding boss but he was scrupulously fair and honest and he created a culture that was very ethical from top to bottom. It was really a pleasure to work in that environment. And soon after anyone got to Digital Ken was this sort of distant figure, 130,000-person organization. But you would hear these sorts of sayings from Chairman Ken…and the first one I heard was “Ken says do the right thing.”

And people would go around and repeat that. I can recall being in meetings where there was a real dilemma and people wouldn’t know what to do. And someone would say “Well remember what Ken says and do the right thing.” And he never specified what the right thing was because it was always situational but there was this overarching feeling in that entire corporate culture that we were all obliged to do the right thing and that always stuck with me. And I tried to use it certainly as a guide in my career and I would tell that story to my teams and sometimes I would tell that story to my clients. And I don’t think you can get any better advice than simply…do the right thing.

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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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