Leadership Challenges of Ethics and Intellectual Property: Elise Mitchell, APR

Joining me on this week’s episode is Elise Mitchell, the chairman of Mitchell Communications Group and CEO of the Dentsu Public Relations network. Elise is one of the most inspiring and insightful communications executives whom I have ever met and the author of a great book on leadership: Leading Through the Turn.

In a very engaging discussion, Elise highlights:

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

Well, it’s been an amazing journey, that’s for sure. And I guess I should say I’m one of those boring people who entered my freshman year of college knowing I wanted to be in public relations, and I graduated my senior year and I never changed majors. I knew it from high school when I first learned about PR and I’ve built my entire career in it, and just absolutely love it. I tell my kids all the time, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” And I’ve always felt that way about the field of public relations.

I started by working in the agency life, which I always recommend young people to do, because it gives you such a broad exposure to different industries and clients and different areas of expertise, with a PR firm in Nashville. I worked for two ad agencies and then I went into corporate life. I was the Director of Corporate Communications for Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, and Homewood Suites hotel chains.

We also had the Harrah’s casino group as a part of that, the hotel group, and I got to be a part of spinning those two companies off from each other, doing the whole bull and bear thing on Wall Street and ringing the bell with the CEO. And all of the age of 32, I thought I had reached the pinnacle of my career and I thought it wasn’t getting any better than this. And then God had another plan for me and I moved to northwest Arkansas in the late 1990s, and I took that opportunity to start my own firm. And that was when I founded Mitchell Communications Group. And little did I know, but I was buckling up to the ride of my life as an entrepreneur.

And it was really, Mark, the most amazing ride I’ve ever had. To build my own company, of course, with all of the great, helpful people that I was able to twist the arms of and talk them into doing this with me. We had fantastic teams of people and talent that came alongside us through the years to build Mitchell into an award-winning firm, much bigger and more successful than I ever dreamed was possible. And just loved it so much.

Then we had, who would’ve ever thought, the chance to sell. And, which of course you know that experience. Becoming a part of a global parent company and a global organization, Dentsu Advertising at the time, now Dentsu Aegis Network, was a fantastic opportunity for us to go from being a national firm to being able to do international work and build relationships with colleagues worldwide. Today, at Dentsu, we just, we have public relations colleagues in nine different countries in our network, all of them fantastic practitioners that we learn from, we partner with to serve clients. It just, it’s been an amazing ride.

And the agency continues to grow and thrive. And six years post-sale to Dentsu Aegis, we’re far smarter, wiser, faster, better than we were as independent, even though, at the time, we thought we were the best we could be. But you know, that’s some things you learn in life. There’s always something new to learn. Always a way to grow and get better. And you have to constantly evolve and challenge yourself to figure out, “What does the client want and need? How do we need to be changing our services? What other talent do we need to bring alongside of us to help us grow and become the best agency we can be?”

About a year and a half ago I took a step back to be Chairman of Mitchell to launch a new consultancy of my own, not in PR, but in leadership development, executive coaching, and business consulting. To be able to pore into other leaders and help them be the best that they can be and help them build successful companies by enhancing and improving their leadership skills.

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

Well, that is a very hard question, because it seems like we face these kinds of challenges every day. I think sometimes we’re real conscious of them and we know right away, on the face of it, that something doesn’t seem right. And then other times, I think it’s more in our subconscious, like something doesn’t feel right, but we can’t quite put our finger on it. I thought about this because, as you face these kinds of challenges in a unique way, not only in the field of PR, but also as an entrepreneur. Because then you’re the business owner and you have all these inherent conflicts of interest because you own so much of the company. You have a lot of your personal wealth and financial interests at stake in how you run the business and so it feels like the amount of pressure is even greater.

I think the one area that I think has presented me and, I think, many, many other people, a very common challenge in ethical practices, is intellectual property and the temptation to use other people’s ideas. Lapses are far too common. You see it every day. It’s so maddening. And we’ve got to do a better job, as an industry, of respecting the ideas and the words and the designs, everything that is inherent to somebody else’s intellectual property.

Why don’t you delve a little bit deeper into that? What are you seeing as some of the common missteps?

I think the first time this came to light for me in a way that I just, I kind of put my foot down and said, “We just cannot accept this anymore,” was when I was on the Cannes Lion PR Jury several years ago. The judges kept commenting to each other about, “Oh my goodness, like I’ve seen this idea a hundred times.” It finally came to a head about day two where we said, “We have got to figure out what is going to be our philosophy and approach to judging these entries,” because there was not just repeating of ideas, but repetition of ideas from the past where somebody had taken a campaign and had just recreated it but tried to make it appear as though it was their own. And it created a very intense discussion amongst us, as jurors, about what are the ethical standards we would expect people to live up to, globally.

It seemed it was more common in some other countries. But as a group we said, “Well, we’re not going to accept it.” And I was really proud of how our group took a very firm stand on this because there was some incredibly creative work that when we began to research it and think it through and sort of test it amongst each other, we said, “Yes, but we’ve seen this idea done many times over and over again.” But other people would say, “Well, but there’s not an original idea in the world.”

And what we decided, at least in this particular case, was, “But you can’t take an idea from your own industry and use it in sort of a blanket way to where it becomes just clear that it was taken from somebody else.” In our minds, that was not acceptable. We wanted to challenge people to be original in their thinking. Now, you could take an idea from another industry, but put a different twist on it. And so, and I know this is a subtlety, but I think it’s really crucial because this is a core part of the code of ethics for PRSA, is you cannot take other people’s ideas.

This begs the bigger question of, “What’s original?” And, “What are we allowed to use in terms of looking around at other very successful and cool ideas and using them in different ways? Is that allowed or is it not?” And I think that’s a core ethical issue that we’ve got to dig into a little further as an industry.

Let’s dig a little further, because when you first brought this up, what originally jumped out to me is, “Well, if you go back to it, there’s really only seven types of stories.” Where’s the line between, you “Hey, let’s do an unexpected moment,” infringing on the IP of another organization?

Mm-hmm (affirmative). Good question. And I agree with you. There is no original idea under the sun in terms of basic storylines. And those of us who are storytellers, which all of us in the PR industry are, we know that, and there’s nothing wrong with building off of a basic blueprint for putting a campaign together. Where I think you cross the line is when you begin using the nuances of other people’s campaigns and ideas so blatantly that you could begin to see it’s a shadow of another campaign. I mean, all of the details are the same.

And my first instinct on that is, “That’s lazy. That’s lazy. You took a concept,” which is a great core concept, whatever the story pattern might be, “But then you just simply picked up all of their ideas and you just recreated them through yourself. You didn’t stop and say, “How do we make this our own?”” And I think that’s the key question you have to ask yourself as a practitioner, is how do you make it your own? How do you put a truly unique twist on it, put your brand, the client or the brand’s fingerprints on it in a way that is authentic to them, that makes sense for them, that will, of course, will work for them, but it doesn’t feel like a complete knockoff of something else?

And that’s where it kind of made us crazy as jurors. We were like, “Oh my gosh. The campaign is like exactly the same. They didn’t even stop to think about how to make it unique and authentic to their brand.” And that’s what kind of drove us crazy. Then it felt like a complete lift from somebody else’s work and that the entering organization had not done the heavy lift to make it truly authentically their own.

So how do you keep from doing that? What are some of the practical steps you take when your organization or your clients are proposing something that you think is infringing on other IP?

I think that’s the biggest challenge because you’re all sitting in a creative brainstorm and you’re trying to come up with ideas. Typically, there isn’t a shortage of ideas. People have tons and tons of ideas. In fact, the hardest part of an ideation session is turning the corner to say, “Okay, what are our two or three best out of the 320 we’ve just come up with?” And we take the two or three best and put them forward.

And I think that’s where you have to stop and say, “Okay, are we consciously or subconsciously using somebody else’s idea? We should stop and do the research on it and check. It’s okay to take a concept, but, “How do we twist it to make it authentic to the client?” And I think that’s where you challenge your creative process to go to the next level, usually based, of course, on a strategic insight of some kind, that would make that idea authentically theirs, and that they would not come back to as a client, saying, “You just, we just knocked off somebody else’s entire campaign. How did you let us do that? You should have come to us, as the creative advisors and advocates, to help us make a campaign unique to us.”

Sometimes it’s simple twists that turn things around in different ways that make it more original and feel more unique to that client.

Is there a company you can point to, in a good way, that took what could’ve been a common idea and then gave it that twist that’s unique to that brand?

Oh gosh. I’m sure there are many, Mark. I do think it’s very common that people do throwbacks. You know, like they go back into time … Like Geico right now is, you know, they’re replaying all of their old commercials.

“What day is it?” You know? I love that. And so I think that’s so clever. People like to go back in time. They like throwbacks. They like heritage. They like when you remind them of things from their youth. You know, people use songs. Like Walmart, one of our clients, uses songs a lot, from the past. Obviously that’s helping them to target certain demographics and certain age groups of people who remember songs in fond ways. So that’s clearly a clever creative strategy to be able to do throwback and hearken back to somebody’s past in a way that is fond and makes them think certain things.

So that, I think, happens all the time and can be very clever. It’s almost like a salute, you know, to something else. So I think that is okay to do, because then there’s always a way that the brand has made it their own, that feels authentic to the brand.

Regarding fishing for ideas, what about companies that do RFPs with the goal of just getting some creative ideas that they can use.

Yes. Oh my goodness, it’s probably the biggest pet peeve of any agency owner or principal, is that exact process. It is so frequent, and it’s maddening because it feels as though the prospective client is just fishing for ideas. We’ve had it happen to us over and over again. Davis & Gilbert, the legal minds in our industry, they have so many good practices out there. They’ve advised us for many, many years. And they will tell you, “Be sure you put all of the language on your, every single slide, every document that you provide to a prospective client, that allows protection for your material. Copyrights the ideas and the concepts.”

We do that all the time. I think most agencies do. Then it can still be so difficult to watch those ideas then emerge from those prospective clients, either with other agencies or, sometimes, we see this more frequently too, clients say, ” We’re going to do this work in-house.” And then they just use some of the ideas that they had gotten through the fishing exercise. Which again is just so unfair. It undermines fair standards of competition in our industry, certainly undermines honesty and the values that we all have in terms of being able to own up to whether something is yours or not and not claiming it to be your own.

I will tell you a specific story around this. So I remember, there was a brand who reached out to us, several, many years ago now, but who really liked our work that we had done with some of our other clients. And they sought us out and they said, “We’re doing an RFP. We would really like you to bid on this project.” And I spent quite a bit of time on an initial call, sort of vetting them and them talking with us. And I agreed that we would go to the next step. So they sent us all of the materials. And I was reading through the RFP, I noticed in one section it said, “You have to present two or three original ideas for us.” And I stopped. And I picked up the phone and I called the client. Got her voicemail, and I said, “Please call me back, I have a question about the RFP.”

And I remember exactly where I was. I was in New York at the time. I was standing in the middle of, it was actually the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue. I had wandered in there just to look around, and my phone rang. And it was from this client. And so I remember standing there in the middle … You know, people swirling around me in this first floor of this department store. And I’m taking this call and I like literally put my foot down. I know she couldn’t see or hear me, but I said, “We cannot do that.” I said, “It’s against our core values and principles to do that because we have seen where our ideas often appear in client work later.” And I said, “It’s maybe knowingly or unknowingly, but I think it goes against what we would consider fair competition.”

I said, “Now, I’m very happy to share case studies with you and show you our core creative process and how we come up with ideas so that you would have a very clear sense of what is the quality of the work,” which they, of course, had already seen when they pursued us, “But also what is our process. How do we come up with original ideas? What are our insights and our tools and our strategies and how do we come up with something that’s unique and authentic to you.” I said, “I think that should suffice because I know, obviously, you’re just looking for how we think and that that would be the basis of how you would judge us.

And she told me, “No,” that they wanted to see original creative ideas. I said, “Well, we can’t participate.” And I think she was shocked, but I said, “I’m sorry, but we can’t participate. If you can’t evaluate us based on our process and the work we’ve done for other clients, and trust us to know that we are going to use outstanding work for you, then sharing original ideas … ” I said, “That’s how we get paid for, is by creating ideas for clients. So you’re basically asking us to do creative work for you, for free, and then we have no basis for knowing whether those ideas are protected.” And she wouldn’t budge. And I said, “Thank you so much for thinking of us. We’re very flattered. But I’m not going to participate in that process.”

And I hung up the phone. And I remember just being so incensed that she would not consider the fact that what she was asking for was asking for work for free, but really not protecting us in any way. And we walked away from that opportunity. And I remember, later, thinking about that quite a bit, saying, “They really should’ve hired us,” because we were the best agency for them. But I was unwilling to go through that process because I felt that even after significant conversation with her, that she was not willing to change her mind.

Now, that was many years ago. We certainly participate in RFPs now where this is asked for, because times change and you can change your mind about how you want to do things. But at that moment in time, I just couldn’t do it, Mark. I was so angry about it because I think we’d been burned so many times before. I thought, “Enough is enough.” You know, clients needs to stop asking for free stuff and then pulling it in-house or seeing your idea emerge in some other winning agency’s work.

Are there any other ethical issues or conundrums you’re seeing around intellectual property?

Yes. I do. Other, more insidious temptation for practitioners is using language, wording, ideas, and concepts in their writing. This goes back to when we were in high school and college and professors would warn you against plagiarism. You can do research and you should, but be super careful that you’re not picking up these core concepts or even the actual words and using them as your own. And I think that’s a huge issue. We see that a lot in the profession, where you’re reading something and you’re thinking, “Hmm, this sounds exactly like … ,” you know, something I wrote or something somebody else wrote, or the concept is not original.

And I think practitioners have to really bend over backwards to make sure that they’re properly crediting the source, that could be in a PowerPoint presentation you’re making, it could be in a blog post that you’re writing, you should give credit to where an idea comes from. And I think that’s really essential, because otherwise then you present yourself to the world as coming up with an idea or using certain language, you’re representing to the world that this is yours, and it’s not.

And there’s nothing worse than that to undermine trust that clients and colleagues in the industry would have with you as a professional, if they see that you’ve done this. It’s almost one of the worst examples of intellectual property theft, the expropriation of intellectual property, stealing other people’s words. Because once again, it should be so easy for us as practitioners to be able to come up with our own original ways of stating things. Even reading concepts that we like in research or, you know, other practitioners, it’s okay to be able to take that and build on it and put a unique twist on it, but you still should be giving credit where credit is due.

And I think that happens all the time, every day. That is undermining the fairness and fair competition and recognizing and having responsibility for your ownership of your ideas and your words, the way that you write and say things.

As a manager and a leader, how do you instill that value in your employees? How do you make sure they don’t succumb to that pitfall?

I think as a leader and a manager, you need to be coaching your people all along, that original thought is something to be praised. It’s something to be lauded. It’s something we all aspire to. And how do you challenge your people to be original? Some of that might be people not having the confidence in their ideas or in their style of writing, for example, or their style of production work in visual content.

In my book, “Leading Through the Turn,” I talked about my whole leadership journey, but I talked a lot in the book about how we built Mitchell and the story behind Mitchell. And I have two chapters on innovation. In one of them, I talk about creating a culture of try. And what I meant by that was you have to create a safe environment, a greenhouse environment for your people, that it’s okay to bring forward new and different ideas. And in fact, that’s the kind of thinking that is praised. So when people take the safe route and they try to suggest ideas that they’ve seen before and done before and they know it was successful, that’s okay to consider, but how do we think differently?

And I think that’s where you can challenge your people, as managers and leaders, to be unique, to bring something that they haven’t heard of before, to put two and two together in a completely different way. One of the ways you do that is you get out the echo chamber you’re living in and look at other industries, attend different conferences, read different things, talk to people who in completely different walks of life from you, expose yourself to diverse ideas, so that you can get them to see the world in a very different way.

And that’s when the best ideas actually begin to come, really unique ideas, because you’re putting things together that never were put together before and you’re creating something new. So as leaders and managers, we need to encourage and praise more of that. I had a client one time, I loved this, they had presidential awards every year in their corporation where they would, you know, this and that, all these great awards. But he created this one award and he called it “The Best Try.” And every year he would stand at that awards ceremony and he would talk and tell the whole story behind a try, a team that tried something new, an individual, something that was come up with that everybody thought was crazy, wouldn’t work, and they worked hard to try to make it work. They did their homework, they tried different things, they tried, failed, tried again, tried different strategies, all those sorts of things, and were able to come up with a concept.

Now, in many cases the concept didn’t work initially, but it often became the springboard for something really, really different that had never been tried before, even in the industry. And people were always amazed by this. And I loved it because I thought what he praised is then what people sought to repeat so that they would have a chance to be praised. And it had a way of encouraging and creating what I call a culture of try. And I think we’ve got to do a better job of that in our agencies, to encourage people to take risks in their thinking and their ideas, to come up with new and different things that have never been tried before. And that’s what we want to take to the client.

Now of course, not every client will buy those ideas, but you’ve got to push yourself to think in new and different ways.

I remember with clients in the early days, clients that were afraid to take risks, I would say, “Let’s just do a pilot. We’re going to do a pilot.” And they were always okay with the pilot because it’s like, “Well, I’m not committing to do it across the entire organization, but we’ll do it in this market or that market and test it.” And I said, “Absolutely. Let’s just test it and see. And we’ll learn.” You know, and in today’s business thinking, the concept of growth mindset is a neuroscience principle that is very powerful and a lot of people are trying to help their teams think more with a growth mindset. Which is, “What are the possibilities? What could be?” Instead of, “Oh, this will never work,” or, “We can’t do this.” But to say, “Maybe we could,” and then, “What is the way we could go about doing that?”

And the willingness to try and fail and learn from failure. Failure is an iterative process. How do we learn from it and grow and become more thoughtful, more strategic, more daring, if you will. Still true to our brand, but how do we evolve and become relevant and meaningful to our audiences in new and different ways? And in fact, going back to the Cannes conversation, those ideas were the ones that were the very, very best. Because we’d say, “It was so original and so unique that it caught the attention of everybody because it was something different.”

What’s the process, or how do you go about really digging down to try to understand why am I feeling uncomfortable?

Oh, that’s such a good question, Mark. I’ll give you an example. I became an APR really early, and I remember at that time studying the code of ethics and just thinking, “Gosh, I’m so worried I’m going to violate these things and not know it. But ignorance is not an excuse. You have to know. And through the years that I ended up building my own firm, I remember going back to the code several times going, “I don’t know if I might be potentially breaking the code. How do I keep myself in the clear? How do I make sure that I’m always operating ethically?”

And I remember a time that I felt this way, but then I had seen other practitioners have this same trap. Which is the idea about disclosure of conflict of interest. Knowing that you are aware of information perhaps from one client that could potentially help you with another client, or there might be a potential conflict of interest between two clients, and you’re sitting there kind of stuck in the middle going, “Oh, well I know … Should I disclose this? Does it really matter? Is it … I don’t know if it’s going to evolve into something bigger. Maybe it won’t, maybe it’ll just … If I’m quiet, it’ll take care of itself.” And there all these conversations you have in your head with yourself about this.

And in the end, here was my standard. I thought to myself, “I always want to be able to earn self-respect. If I can’t earn my own self-respect, it doesn’t really matter what other respect I have from the rest of the world because I have to live with me, and I know what I’ve done.” So I always held that up as kind of the gold standard of, “Elise, you got to look back on this particular decision or this time and are you going to look back and be really proud of yourself? Or are you going to be ashamed and embarrassed?” Even if nobody else knows it. Because you have to live with yourself. And I always felt like, “Well I want to be able to sleep at night and I want to feel good about myself, no matter if anybody else finds out.”

And then, of course, the other part of that is, “What if the whole world finds out? What if it ends up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?” Which of course, in the #MeToo movement, we see now how many of the people whose actions have been, they’ve been called to reckon for those actions, they would’ve, they’d give their right arm not to have made those bad decisions in the time when they thought they would never be caught.

So we know that. As humans, it’s obvious. There’s always the chance that somebody will find out. But even still, how do you feel about your own self-respect?

I kept telling myself, “I have to trust this process. If I’m doing the right thing by them, what I hope is,” and this is what I found to be true, “What I hope is that their level of trust in me and in us will be so high that they will hold us in higher regard because they will know that we are truly a trusted advisor.”

And that’s exactly what happened every time. Exactly. Now, of course, there are times when clients would say, “Well I appreciate you sharing that with me. No, I don’t really want you doing this or that,” you know? And a lot of times you knew it in your heart anyway. Like, “I shouldn’t be working with a client that’s in the same industry.” And of course you should know that. But even if it’s not clear-cut in a client contract, you still should go to the client to say, “We’ve been approached and have this opportunity. I want you to feel that you can trust us.”

And that always worked well for us because people would say, “We trust you implicitly because the mere fact that you came to us and told us about this and gave us this option lets us know that you would never do anything to hurt us.” Which, of course, was exactly what we hoping they would think, was that because we put their best interests in front of our own, the amount of trust multiplied for us, you can, exponential. And that you cannot buy. How do I live and act and behave every single day to always earn that trust against all the competition that would come after that account, if it’s a great account, how do you hang on to it?

And I always felt like that there has to be an incredible amount of trust, that your client feels like you always have their best interests at heart. That will see you through mistakes you make or, you know, things that don’t go well. In the end they’ll say, “Yes, but not only do they know us and they love us and they are great at what they do, but we trust them.” And I think that’s huge.

To wrap up, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Well, probably it was this idea of earn your own self-respect. Earn self-respect and you’ll never have to worry about having done something that others wouldn’t respect because, almost always, we are our own worst critic and we have very high standards that our mother or our grandmother or somebody in life taught us, a mentor. You know, always step back outside yourself and say, “How would I feel if the people that I respect the most in my life knew about this decision or about this action? How would I feel about that?” And if it passes that standard, it’s probably a really good one. Unless you’ve had terrible mentors and nobody taught you right from wrong.

Listen to the full discussion here:

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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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