Three Places to Find Ethics Advice: The Mirror, The Torah and Poor Word Choices – Roger Friedensen, APR

Joining me on this week’s episode is Roger Friedensen, a partner at Forge Communications, which is a research and communication strategy firm in Raleigh, North Carolina. Roger is a great PR professional and an even better guitar player.

In this interview, Roger discusses:

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

I have worked in public relations for the better part of three plus decades. I started in 1985 after finishing a master’s in communications at UNC (Go Tar Heels!). I joined a firm called Epley Associates that was founded by Joe Epley who was actually the first to hang out a public relations shingle in North Carolina. That was in 1968. And over the years, he built a midsize firm that became nationally known for its work as well as for our dedication to professionalism and ethics. Joe in fact later became not just chair of the Counselor’s Academy PRSA but also he became president of the PRSA International. And as I remember, he was the first president to come from a relatively small firm in the southeast.

So, I spent virtually my entire career there. In 2006, when Epley Associates was sold I was with Catevo Group for a few years and then when the owner of that decided to move on to do other things, one of my colleagues and actually my first boss and mentor, Ray Hornak and I decided to launch Forge Communications and just as they say, forge ahead as opposed to forging a check.

So, over the years I’ve worked with a wide array of local, national and global clients in virtually all sectors, and really, really I’m enjoying the life today in this business because it’s so interesting to be learning so many new things and how the strategy has evolved as our culture has changed with media on the way down, at least right now. Hopefully the pendulum will swing back.

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

Interestingly, the most difficult challenge I’ve confronted was coming up with one for this interview. I’ve been very fortunate not to have many huge things come our way where it’s just a matter of, oh gosh, what do we do in this situation.  

But there have been a few things along the way that presented at least a question about where our loyalties I suppose lay. We always told clients that, if you mess up, fess up and if they didn’t, well, we didn’t want to work with them. We also hired great people and trained them. And if there were ever any ethical violation, they were fired on the spot.

But in looking back over the years, one incident stands out.

We were working an environmental issue many, many years ago. It involved a waste management facility and trying to site it in North Carolina. We were asked to conduct a public relations assessment and evaluation of the potential sites and to provide, basically just profile information, demographic and whatnot to our client which was working with the state as well to provide profile information on those areas of the potential sites, what’s around them, the local papers, who are the local leaders and whatnot. We also were asked to include a section written by a political consultant, not in our firm, but a political consultant that did a basically political assessment of those sites and who the players are and if one of them gets picked, here’s what to expect. So a standard public relations assessment.

And what happened was, a draft was leaked by someone (not us) to the media and it became a pretty high-profile story. One of the assessments that I wrote, I worked on two of the five sites, one of the assessments I wrote had some words in it that I used…”rural North Carolina will probably like the fact that this would saddle the ‘city slickers’ as I put it with a waste management facility because historically in the state, most environmental waste facilities had gone in the rural areas.”

Well, that got pulled out of course big time in the story because it was a great sound bite and then just the whole political thing came out and we were confronted with questions from our clients and questions from prospects. We were a leading environmental communications firm and our credibility was questioned.

But it was a matter of client confidentiality that we couldn’t discuss it, we couldn’t say, yeah, we didn’t write the political section, that’s somebody else. We elected to honor the code of professional standards of course. We were always huge supporters of the code, Joe in fact, one digression here real quick, Joe Epley, basically said when you were eligible and take the APR exam after five years in the business, you would take the exam and you would pass it. If you did not pass it, you would take it again. And if you did not pass it then, you would write when you found work because he wouldn’t keep you if you weren’t accredited. That’s how seriously he took ethical standards and professional standards.

This leaked report had an impact on us. I lost a prospect I’d been working on for 18 months, that was environmentally related, but in a totally different area. The contact said, you know, I know you’re supposed to present to the board on Monday and this was a Friday, but I think I’m going to have to ask you to pull out because it wouldn’t be fair to you because all of the questions would be about this story and the op ed, and there was an op ed cartoon and all that kind of stuff. It was tough, because it impacted our reputation, but we preserved client confidentiality and I know we did the right thing.

How as an agency did you work through this situation?

Well first and foremost, we internally had to own up and say we’ve learned a lesson. This changed how I practiced a lot of my work in particular in media training because I now understood what it was like to have your company, your brand ridiculed and held up as unethical. So internally, we used it as a chance to learn and to teach. I was relatively young at the point, I think I’d been practicing for about five years, but we used it throughout the years to teach saying, you know, be really careful what you write. It changed how I edited other people’s memos, which of course then were written, typed and mailed versus what became more electronic with email and social and texts and all that where obviously things were taken out of context because of the brevity.

We then talked about what do we do publicly. Our focus was 100 percent on, we know we have a good reputation, we know we are, we practice public relations the right way ethically and professionally, and this is something that just comes along and that we unfortunately are caught in this, but we will not violate our standards, nor will we panic, but we will adhere to the code and also we will take client confidentiality very seriously. It’s above all else for us, and therefore, we couldn’t discuss it, and at the same time we could say that what we did was a standard public relations assessment, nothing out of the ordinary, and the decision of where the facility would be cited is 100 percent based on science and technology and geological data and that kind of stuff.

We put together a message matrix for all of us to use with clients, prospects, colleagues, friends, others. Eventually it passed. Over several weeks, it kind of just dissipated. Some people who were really interested in this particular issue remembered it for a couple of years, but it didn’t impact our reputation individually or as a company. It was a good learning experience.

What was your boss’s reaction to your colorful language?

To what I wrote? ‘Saddling the city slickers’. Well, my immediate supervisor had approved it because we didn’t think it was going to go anywhere and it was a draft. But afterwards, it was kind of let’s not try to be so cute in what we write for something this serious. That’s not an ad, that’s supposed to be cute and collect attention. And while that concept, the phrase of that, yeah, rural citizens probably would have been pleased if it had been put near a large city, it was more of a disappointment I suppose that we didn’t think ahead of time about this. As things moved into the digital realm, this lesson helped guide all of us I think, and particularly me, to think really carefully about what we write.

Is that your biggest takeaway or are there other pieces of advice that you’d have to share?

We knew we had done the right thing. We knew in terms of good work and conducting it ethically and then protecting client confidence and all of that and that’s sometimes how it goes.

Something that certainly I learned is how to work with clients when there’s something that has not gone as well for them that they hoped – this too shall pass. In the middle of any crisis, it’s important to stop, walk out in the hall for 10 seconds and think about, okay, what will it be like when this is over, and then what do I want that future to be? What’s my magnetic north?

Let me stay focused on that and think about that future state. Walk back and think about what criteria will I use to make decisions along this path that I’m focusing on, that future that I want right now, the future state, so I’m not immediately caught up in the middle of all this. That’s the sort of question you ask when you’re presented with a questionable prospect. I had this happen just last summer in fact where I was asked if I would work with a property management company that had been managing, in a metropolitan area in the state, a number of low-income immigrant housing. There were well over 600 code violations that had been discovered.

But the real kicker was, and it had nothing to do with the code violations here, but five children had died in a house fire, it was a kitchen fire, but it was unattended cooking. So it didn’t have anything to do with the code violations but it brought up the question about this company’s behavior and how it treated the property and the residents there. We were asked to help out and we declined because we were not convinced that the outcome that we wanted for our firm, the future state of how we want to be viewed would sync with that company and that company as a client, even though we could have made fair amount of coin on that one. We just didn’t do that.

Was it tough to walk away?

This business gets more competitive every year. More organizations, more individuals are moving into this space as public relations has morphed into more of a just big communications business where there’s social, marketing, advertising, advertorials, blogging, this and that. Sometimes it’s like, well, I need to get clients, or if you’re in corporate communications, my department has to shine and I’ve got to do what it takes to hit those numbers. It’s very hard sometimes to stay grounded in the long-term goal that you have for yourself or for your organization and keep that front and center.  But you need to.

To start the interview, you mentioned that culture has changed over the years. Are there new areas of ethical concern that you’re running into?

Well, I think the basic question of is it ethically right or wrong, those things don’t change. However, the tools that we have, the technologies, the channels, all of that changed. Humans, we don’t change that much. We’re still persuaded by just three things, logos, ethos and pathos. We’re motivated by pain, fear and hope. Our archetypes are the pioneer, the sage, the joker, all of that. Those things don’t change. We just have different toys that we play with, whether it’s an iPhone or it’s a quill pen from hundreds of years ago or a chisel and a rock. So that the basic elements of how we conduct ourselves in our lives and our businesses, those haven’t changed yet. But like Alvin Toffler wrote back in the 60s in Future Shock, the pace of change is speeding up and it’s harder to keep up.

We have that where we have new technologies that come up that present questions, for example, AI or digital tools that can really change reality. There was an article on Ad Age a short time back that had the top 10 campaigns of 2018. And one of them really fascinated me. It was the Times of London and a firm in the UK that found the text or at least notes of what John F. Kennedy was going to say on November 22, 1963, in Dallas. Of course, he never got to give that speech. What they did is they took that text or parts of it, they analyzed a hundred of his speeches recordings that they found and they put together that speech using his voice. And it was a speech that was never given.

And it’s like, okay, on the one hand, that’s kind of interesting. On the other hand is, how many people might listen to that and never know it didn’t happen. The ability to use private data from social or from digital to communicate with people, I mean, all of us know, and it’s almost like you’re talking to somebody in your office and then suddenly you get back to your computer and you go onto Google and suddenly there’s an ad for something you were talking about it seems. That presents tremendous challenges as well as when there’s been a decline of professional journalism in the sense of following the code of journalist ethics that stood for so long and we don’t have that as much. We have more, everyone’s a publisher and there’s so many sources of information. It presents us with tremendous challenges I think in terms of what we recommend to our clients or our organizations about publishing information or putting out content and that it needs to be fact based. It needs to be something that is verifiable. If it’s third party comments, we need to make sure those third parties are credible.

And certainly more today, it’s everything’s pay for play it seems in the media and I understand that certainly. They’re not getting the same cognitive traction and advertising and whatnot that they’d gotten before. But that presents some ethical challenges for us as well. So, all of this I think plus obviously the current political situation where we’re so, oh, what’s the word? Diverse. That’s probably not the right word. Maybe at war with one another. That creates challenges for us as well as to where do we draw the line about what the organization should and should not say, should and should not do and those sorts of things. The story of the Chinese scientists who used CRISPR to basically design a baby, how do we communicate that? Something that we need to think about from our perspective or from society’s perspective are what, those sorts of things that technology really does create a lot of extra challenges for us.

The example I think you gave of JFK is amazing. We were all blown away when Natalie Cole sang with a hologram of her father back 25 years ago. But that’s something that took a major effort. Now, anybody can do that with some basic editing software and we’re going to see that continue to evolve.

Exactly. And photos used to be just photoshopping or photo editing, now it’s potentially real life. I mean, we’ll eventually get to holograms. We know that we’ll get to AI where stuff is implanted within us. We don’t want to be carrying phones in 20 years I’m betting, and it won’t just be on our wrists with an Apple watch or whatever. There will be implants, there will be other things that will come up we don’t know. And for us in communications, one, we’re going to be asked to market it, to discuss it. We’re going to be asked by the competitors to work on that. We’re going to be asked by scientists or government agencies or enforcement organizations or others to work with this. And it is really, really, really challenging.

Guidance kind of all boils down to one thing, which is the mirror test. Will you be able to look at yourself in the mirror that day, the next day, the next week and years later and feel comfortable with the choices you made. And it’s difficult certainly in the moment to always be thinking that way but that’s our job. We get paid to see things from all different angles. We get paid to think about what’s the worst case scenario here, what could happen that could threaten our reputation or hurt the organization or its employees or society in a way that we could prevent if we make the right choice.

What about the people that don’t have a problem looking themselves in the mirror after doing certain things? How do you protect your brand and your reputation and help recover it after they made those decisions?

Yeah. That’s a really good question. It’s like employees who work for large companies or small companies or whatever who get caught in some ethical dilemma. What do you do? Do you stay? Do you go? Because there are, we know, of course, people who don’t care as much. They have different views. I’ve talked to many professionals through the years, colleagues who have ended up resigning from either an agency or a company because of decisions that were made. That takes a tremendous amount of courage, of course, to move on. Also, I guess it takes a lot of pre-planning in that you want to make sure you have savings just in case.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

Well, it’s one actually that I think goes back to what Rabbi Hillel said about the Torah, the Old Testament, which is what was the golden rule as it was first translated or as it was first written, which is,

Do not do to others what you would not want done to you.

It’s a negative, basically saying, don’t do something if you wouldn’t want it done to you versus, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, which is more active. This one is, think about what you’re going to do, and if it’s not something that you would want to have happen to you, you wouldn’t want to be lied to, you wouldn’t want to have your personal data used for profit without your consent. You wouldn’t want all of these type things, then don’t do it.

And that is our job as public relations professionals. We are among other things, we should be the conscience for the organization, whether our clients or our companies. And, if we want to have a seat at the C suite table, then it’s that level of thinking and that level of really, sort of strategic thinking, and the big picture is being able to assess a choice for the organization, look at it from all potential angles, think about what’s the worst that could happen, what’s the best that could happen, weigh it and look at all of these things, put ourselves in other people’s shoes and then offer the council to the decision makers about here’s what we think you should do and here’s why, and to be able to provide enough analysis and enough substantiation to justify that this is the best course to take.

That’s our job. That’s what we need to do. It all comes down to, if you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to anybody else.

Listen to the full interview 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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