Joining me on this week’s Ethical Voices episode is Felicia Blow, APR. She is the Associate Vice President for Development and Director of Campaigns at Hampton University in Virginia. Felicia consistently brings great insight and straight talk to every situation.
In our recent conversation, Felicia touched on a number of important topics including:
- How to make the ethical choice when your bosses issue conflicting orders
- What to do when your employer lies to you
- New areas of PR ethics concerns
- The best ethics advice she ever received
Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit about yourself and your job and your career?
I have worked in a number of areas from manufacturing, when I was a Caterpillar; to environmental services and waste management, where I served for a lot of years with our regional waste management authority; then telecom, where I worked with Cox Communications; and then I made a pivot to academia. First was in the in the two-year world where I served in senior leadership roles in community colleges. One was the very smallest in Virginia, and one was the 11th largest in the nation,
Now I am thrilled to be at a four-year institution (which happens to be my alma mater), Hampton University. Hampton is, I believe, just a special and unique institution. They’re one of the longest established, historically black colleges and universities in the nation, with a history that includes individuals such as Booker T. Washington, and a number of other really, really fabulous individuals.
In each of those roles, I have leveraged my communications and public relations background to the nth degree. In fact, I would say, and this is no equivocation, without my background and training in public relations, I don’t think I would be half as effective as I’ve been in any other role, and particularly the one where I focus on major donor fundraising.
What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?
This is one, so easy for me to raise, because it happened a short while ago. It was when I was a Vice President at one of those community colleges that I noted. Community colleges in Virginia have been going through an organizational transition based on external dynamics for a number of years. There is shrinking enrollment and they are trying to reach a different constituency in terms of donors. It’s just moving into a different type of environment where the community college hadn’t existed before.
As part of this dilemma, there was an important challenge that came up. There are 23 community colleges in Virginia, but there’s one chancellor who oversees all of them. Every individual college has a president.
The chancellor indicated he did not want media engagement around a specific issue. He had a call with all senior leaders around the state, he sent information out, and it was very clear that he was saying, “This is a party line. We will take care of this issue from the central office. Individual colleges do not need to take action. Just refer them.”
So, as fate would have it, I get a call around the issue.
I went to the president and I told him, “This is what I’ll be doing about this based on the guidance we’ve received,” not only that I received, but he received it as well.
At that point, he said to me, “No, this is what I’d like you to do.” He put it in writing. I called and said, “Sir, just to make sure we’re clear, I do not recommend we do this,” and I set up all the reasons and the rationale which he should have known as well as I knew, and after I sent the email setting all those matters out, he picked up the phone, called me and told me to come into his office.
When I went in, he closed the door and he repeated what he had asked me to do, which was actually a media issue. He wanted my department to craft an opinion editorial on the topic that we were advised not to talk about, and to get it into the paper as soon as possible. When I came into his office, I said, “I just want to make sure we’re aligned. This is the strategy I’m recommending,”
He stopped me and he said, “Let me ask you a question. Who do you report to?” I said, “You are my direct supervisor.” He said, “So you do what I tell you to do.” I honestly did not know what in the world to do. I was stunned. I just was one of the first times, I’m a loquacious person, I didn’t have anything to say other than, “Okay. Yes sir.”
What could I do? I just wasn’t going to quit my job or leave that, but here’s what I did. I called an associate in the chancellor’s office and told them “I recognize and realized what the chancellor said to do, but the president has indicated that he’d like to do this, and here are the reasons he’s indicated to me he wants to do it.”
They told me, “Felicia, if you do this, you will be going in direct opposition of what the chancellor has asked. Don’t do it.” I said, “God, why don’t you call the president and let him know how perilous this situation is and why he shouldn’t do it?” The chancellor has talked to him. The chancellor sent the communication out, he knows. So, I debated, I debated, I went back and forth, and thankfully a girlfriend who actually worked in a senior level position called me, because they alerted the chancellor to the fact that I called and said this was happening.
She says, “Felicia, here’s my recommendation. The president is right. You do report directly to him, I would advise you to do it but the chancellor knows that he said do not do it, and your conversations with us indicating that the president has essentially threatened you is an indicator he wants you to do this really badly, despite all the things that are going on.”
So, I did it. He asked me to ask one of my staff persons to write the op-ed. I didn’t do that. I wrote it myself. And I sent it to him, and asked if he wanted to issue it to the paper, and he said no. “Get Wendy to do it.” Wendy was on my team, and typically did these kinds of things. I said, “No, I’m not going to ask Wendy to do it. I’m going to do it.” I wanted to keep as many people out of this as possible.
Within one month of the President issuing that edict to me, he was fired by the chancellor. I was at a meeting at our local hospital and had a call on my cell. I was told “Here’s what’s going on. The president is no longer at the college. There will be an interim appointed by end of week. You are not to talk to the media about this.” Effective the next day, he would not be there.
I still wrestle with that issue. It wasn’t as if the president asked me to lie, cheat, or steal. He asked me to do something that was contrary to what his boss, and ultimately my boss if you go through the chain, said, “Don’t do.”
When the president came to you and said, “I want to do X” and you gave all the reasons why that may not be a good idea. Am I correct in assuming that you agreed with the chancellor in not engaging this topic? Or did you agree with the president about whatever the topic was, but just deferred?
That’s an excellent question. I’ll be honest with you, I disagreed with the approach, because the way the structure is set up, you don’t want to have a big brother in our state capital telling all the colleges what to do. But from where I sat, I could understand one, why they had the chancellor had made that decision, and two, why it was taking so long for them to take action on.
I guarantee you, it probably was the president of the college was thinking too, the other side of it, it was truly an ego contest. He says, “I’m the president here for this college and this region.” It was a contest between these two really interesting leaders. In terms of the strategy, it didn’t make sense to me why they were doing what they were doing.
I felt that if anybody had asked my opinion (nobody did), it would be a better sale, a better message coming from local because it would indicate endorsement of the strategy.
I think from what you’re talking about, it sounds like when you look at, if you go back to the PRSA statement of professional values, you definitely gave that independent objective counsel. You told the president, “This is what I think’s going on, this is why I agree, this is why I disagree. The senior advisor you mentioned, who called back in, seemed to really tie into one of the other elements which is loyalty. In the end, you represented, you worked to the president, so you served, you faithfully represented him and his views while making sure you were still giving that objective, independent counsel.
That’s how I looked at it, and I was honestly trying to keep him out of trouble. I knew that was not the way to go. You do not, forgive the phrase, diss your boss publicly. It didn’t make any sense to me why he wanted to do that. I just couldn’t figure it out to save my life, other than if this was one of those ego things. Still didn’t make any sense, he got fired it.
I mean, the article ran, you’re looking around to see if the sky is going to fall, nothing happens, and then you just kind of go, “Phew.” Then 30 days later it just happened so fast. It was just done. I still can’t believe it.
What’s the key takeaway you have from this experience?
At the end of the day, I still had to do what was right and what was right is … I don’t wear my cross on my sleeve, but I’m a religious person, and one of the phrases in the bible is obedience is better than sacrifice. That sometimes is a tough pill to swallow on a lot of occasions, but if I had to do it all over again, and a boss asked me to do something that was not illegal, immoral, wrong, and I didn’t think it was right to do, unless it was something really, really egregious, I would likely say, “Boss, I don’t think we should do this, but if this is what you really want.”
I guess I pushed so hard, he got angry and said, “Who do you work for?” He just didn’t want me questioning him. I would probably do the same thing again, but here’s another point. I don’t work for that college anymore. I definitely don’t work for that person. I would say I try to pick better going forward too, in terms of picking the organization.
That college, though, had a great reputation, and still does. I thought I was going to a wonderful institution and I thought I was going to work for a wonderful person. But I would follow the directives. I’m wondering if there’s something else I could have done, like call the board chairs to ask them to call him, but I think that would have been going out of line, because we’re not supposed to call board chairs.
When you said the question for this conversation, it really brought up a whole lot of terrible emotions. It was a difficult, horrible time. I didn’t want to get fired, but I guess if I’d gotten fired for a reason like that, I would have had a leg to stand on, you know what I mean? I would not have felt like I had just dome something really egregious.
It’s an easier issue when it’s subtle, when you have an issue like this, to do what’s right. When it’s, “Hey, can we fudge the numbers on our enrollment for this report a little bit? We round up anyway.” Those are the more difficult issues in my judgment, that are ethical lapses. When you start going down that path, “Oh, it’s only a little bit, only a little lie. Oh, it’s not that big of a deal.” This one was a little bit different in that regard, probably a lot different.
You mentioned fudging the numbers. Is that something where you’ve been approached on that topic in the past? Or, how do you deal with that?
I haven’t, but I’ve seen it, and having served on a number of senior teams, particularly when it comes to enrollment and academia, that is like the holy grail, and you hear these presentations by the IR folk and the enrollment management team about, “This demographic is up.” But when you really dig into it and see that in fact, what’s being presented is not. What I tend to do, because I think it’s the role of a senior leader in an organization, is to be the angel’s advocate, and to work to protect the organization.
When those kinds of things happen, I did exactly what I did with the president. As respectful a way as possible, communicate the lapses, and how it can come back to bite us if this is received, if somebody else that digs into it and sees what I see. That kind of thing does happen frequently in my judgment.
How do you go about giving that kind of respectful push back? How do you approach the people?
People don’t like being embarrassed. One of the things that I’ve learned to do over the years, you grow in grace, you grow in wisdom the older you get, is you learn to try to build relationships and talk to folks one on one. Not to do things to get attention, or to put somebody on the spot. Your own ethical compass must be in order if you want to be a really good leader.
It’s not all about you, it’s about the organization. That’s one of the first things to remember. You pull ’em aside, you give ’em a private note. You say, “I’m happy to have found” and then you provide that rationale. It’s when in spite of this, you see a media strategy that’s going to be rolled out that says X, when you know Y exists. That’s when you have to say, “Um, Bob, you and I talked about this, and I shared a few thoughts via email. I really feel it’s important that this point of view be addressed” and that’s the way I typically do it.
That’s my style. One-two punch, and if I need to, I call it a sandwich approach. Sometimes you go from the top, so you go to the leader, and then you go from the bottom, and then you work in. But at the end of the day, I’m trying to as a communicator in many respects, avoid issues.
Like, look at the situation going on at Eastern Virginia Medical School and the governor. Who was his communications person that didn’t go to the president of Eastern Virginia Medical School and say, “That yearbook, it needs to be ended or we need to have some guidelines around how that thing is produced, because it is going to come back and bite us. It does not align with our shared value, with our commitment to diversity,”
So I’m saying like, “Who was in the role that did not provide better counsel over these last 35 years?” It’s crazy. Group think is a fun thing, when things are going great. When reality hits, and you didn’t have the counsel along the way, that’s when people suffer needlessly. Right now, we in Virginia look like complete crazy people to the nation because of a few folks’ actions.
I know folks who’ve gone there, the medical school, who are diverse, and I’m saying, “How did they feel going to this institution where this was endorsed, supported?” Because you wouldn’t do the yearbook, all these years, and the most recent was in 2013 when someone was standing in front of a Dixie flag, or a Confederate flag. I just find it fascinating and EVMS has got a lot of work to do now.
Are there any other ethical issues you’ve encountered that you’d like to share?
This one ranks almost next to the one where the president asked me who I worked for. When I was a public affairs specialist, many years ago, I was on camera weekly, maybe more than that, because we were a high-profile organization and we had a lot of things going on in the community, and what we did was of interest both to the media and the citizenry.
There were at least two separate examples where, and this is horrible, it really is, senior leadership misinformed me about a matter. And then I went on camera, reported one thing, only to have to go eat cheese, or do a mea culpa the next week or day when it was discovered that actually what I indicated was not true.
This was a whole Sarah Huckabee Sanders thing, and it happened at least twice that I can remember, and the last time it happened, it was damaging to my personal reputation. So much so that I really debated leaving. I mean, this was one I just said, “I can’t work with them” where they keep telling me lies. Then I go on camera and report the lies. There were a couple of individuals who made the decision, “We won’t tell her that. We won’t tell her.”
I honestly didn’t know, and so in those instances, I called the board chairman and said, “I refuse to do this anymore. I am not going on camera to talk about X” … It was an environmental organization so issues from our Department of Environmental Quality, or Occupational Safety and Healthy Organization in Virginia, Just serious stuff.
In those instances, I got personal assurances from the executive director, that I would never be put in those circumstances again. Further, I just never certain folks in certain departments, ever again, and I would qualify, meaning, “As you can see in our annual report, it is noted X, Y, and Z. Should this change, I will follow up.”
With some of the reporters, my credibility never was restored.
Are there new areas in the industry overall that you’re concerned about with regards to communications and public relations ethics?
Absolutely. They all are in the technology space. For me, I’m concerned about the pace of the news cycle, getting information out that gets updated by the millisecond, and the improper use of technology tools to advance messages and stories. I don’t know if we have even begun a conversation around AI and how that will be changing what we do as communicators, and how computer generated responses and analytics and other things like that will influence our work.
I don’t have my mind wrapped fully around it, but I think there is some serious implications on all different levels. In terms of content creation, in terms of media spokespersons, in terms of automated messaging, that we need to be very careful of, and just have a plan for. Meaning, let’s make sure we don’t get caught flat by this.
Let’s make sure we are aware of what these issues could be, and try to get in front of them, because technology could be our best friend, or again, like I say, it could be an area where we have some challenges.
How are you working to educate yourself from these issues, and what do you think professionals should do to get up to speed on AI and the pace of social change?
Well, I happen to work at an educational institution, and that’s one of the benefits where I talk to our researchers and scientists that are looking at these different technologies. I mean, things that are just cutting edge, and I apply those to different areas. Further, I do my own reading, because right now I haven’t seen much in the way of training or professional development in this space.
I do a whole lot of reading on it, but at some point we’re going to have to try to come up with some kind of taskforce or think tank, or somebody to assess what does it mean to the public relations and communications profession and how do we get in front of it?
What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve been given?
Be honest at all times. If you don’t know something, don’t embellish for the sake of others, and make up something. Tell folks that you don’t know, and be honest with them. Try your best to be transparent, meaning don’t speak on a topic where you have a conflict of interest. Let folks know where you stand, but again, to me this goes back to the golden rule. Be honest, treat others as you would have them treat you.
Check out the full interview, with extra content, here:
Latest posts by Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA (see all)
- Building an Ethical Agency Culture: Kim Sample - September 16, 2019
- Ethics, Communications and Technology – Avoiding Techlash: Brandi Boatner - September 9, 2019
- It’s Labor Day – But Ethics Carries On - September 2, 2019