How One Innocent Question Can Cause A Huge Ethical Challenge – Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Joining me on this week’s Ethical Voices episode is Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Tampa and a PR pro with 35 years of experience with the federal government and non-profits.

Kirk provides some great advice and anecdotes including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself, your job and your career?

People will probably fall asleep about halfway through because I’ve been working for 100 years. But theoretically I am retired. I’m living the life of Reilly here in Tampa, Florida, but I basically segued from full time teaching up at Curry College in Massachusetts to part time teaching down here at the University of Tampa. My professional career prior to getting into education was 35 years. I did active military. I was in the Air Force for eight years.

Then I did seven years civil service working for the Army and that helped me hone my PR skills and really gave me a look at how communication was important in our business here. Then I spent 20 years in probably every imaginable aspect of the private sector; technology, non-profit, agency, member service, healthcare. You name it, I tried it.

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

Well, fortunately I have been blessed for the majority of my career with employers who understood and supported ethical communications. So unlike some folks, I don’t have any “horror stories” to share. But I did have an interesting encounter very, very early on in my career that drove home the point of ethical awareness and fast thinking and how little things and seemingly innocent questions can get you into sometimes a little bit of a fix

Early in my career, I was the public affairs officer for the US Army Intelligence School up at Fort Devens in Massachusetts. As the name might suggest, we were pretty super-secret, chain link fences, frosted windows, armed guards, all that kind of stuff.

But our student soldiers lived and worked and shopped in the local communities and wore their uniforms off base like any good soldier would.

My phone rings one morning in 1979. It’s the editor of the local newspaper. He’s got a question and it’s still in my head 40 years later. “I understand that you have soldiers from, country X going to your school. Is it true?” Simple enough. But I knew that if I answered it as asked, I’d be guilty of releasing classified information.

So kind of a no-brainer here. I can’t do that. If I try to dodge the question, the editor is going to get his answer anyway. He’ll know that I’m doing it. I’ll still be accused of having released the information. To make matters even more interesting. I’m looking out my office window. I see a group of soldiers from country X walking across our parking lot.

Here’s what I said to the editor, “I have never been told that we have soldiers from country X enrolled here.”

This response was the absolute truth. I had never been told by anyone that we had soldiers, or students, from other countries. If the editor decided to go ahead with it, he had an evasive answer, but a truthful answer from the school’s public affairs.

I ask my students; how would you deal with this? Was I lying? What was I doing? The good news, side bar on this is, the editor decided not to go with the story because he knew he was getting into some deep water.

But there are lessons to learn here. As a person responsible for an organization’s public relations initiatives, I absolutely have to be aware of everything that my organization is involved in. And I have to be able to communicate it in a way that will maintain my own professional credibility while protecting my organization’s right to privacy.

I wasn’t doing anything illegal, but it’s always one of these things, for me the ethical side is what would you do? How would you be honest?

I come from a Navy family and the Navy’s response is often “I can neither confirm nor deny” (i.e. I can neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons on vessel X), Why did you not do that and say “I’ve never been told we have…”

I wanted to give him an honest answer. You can pick nits all you want to on this thing, but confirm, deny … eight years in the Air Force part of this, just what you said, confirm, deny, you’re saying yeah, we’ve got them. Nine times out of ten, and I didn’t want to get into that briar patch on the thing. So just say nobody’s ever told me about this. To give some quick perspective here. This wasn’t a tiny little school. We had a total of 3,000 staff, faculty and students. 1500 students, 1500 staff. So it was a big organization.

We were spread out. Obviously we were an accredited educational institution, so we are regularly bringing in, educating and graduating students in various areas. Nobody’s going to sit down and say, “Oh by the way Kirk, we have soldiers from Country X coming into the school today.” It was a good, straight answer and the editor was savvy enough to know okay, I’m not going to get any other kind of answer … he was used to dealing with us and he’s heard the confirm, deny exercise all the time. So he knew what he was being told. To me, it felt better because I was in my own way telling the absolute, unvarnished truth. Nobody ever told me.

So was the intent, while you were being 100% accurate to also try to give him something that would make him more disinclined to write the story?

Yeah it was because he can’t say that the public affairs officer refused to answer my question or didn’t get back to me because I was literally on the phone talking to him. He knew, again from his own experience, he knew that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. Looking at that particular organization, yeah, that’s kind of a unique thing. And if you’re editor of a newspaper right outside of a base that has that type of an organization, you know that there’s stuff going on that you probably don’t want to dig your fingers into it because you’re going to uncover more stuff than you really want to know about.

So that was the innocent question that got you into a fix?

That was it. Fortunately, it didn’t go any further. That was early on. I was there for three years. Never, ever got one of those questions again. I got some outstanding coverage from the newspaper. They were very, very supportive of the stuff that we were doing. I guess it didn’t sever any kind of relationships at the same time. He was satisfied with the answer.

Taking this instance and applying it to broader issues, what’s your advice when you’re being asked to disclose information where a reporter knows something, but you’re not sure they know everything and they’re trying to go to you for validation. How do you recommend handling this?

What I typically do is make sure that I knew what the dickens was going on inside the organization. I knew everything. I poked my nose into everything so that I would be able to give stories to the public that really did highlight the good stuff that we were doing. That people would say yeah, they’re not the guys that live behind the chain link fences. They are people who are out in our community and doing valuable things. I think it’s a matter of thinking ahead, planning ahead. I literally, I do every organization I’ve worked with is I say what’s going to happen here that I’m going to be the one that’s going to have to answer the questions. What do I need to know about this?

And this is what I advise my students and everybody else is, know what it is that you’re doing and be ready with the answer. You never know when you’re going to get a phone call or even an email and say what does this mean here? You’ve already got your answer prepared.

Who do you usually involve in the process?

Let me flash forward to the next organization I went to, which was Honeywell Electro Optics division. We were defense contractors, so we had some different types of projects going on. First thing I did was literally walk next door and introduce myself to our corporate attorney and say, “I’m Kirk Hazlett. I’m the new public affairs guy here. I need to talk to you about what we’re doing and how far I can go with my responses.” I helped him understand that I was there as a support, not to be overstepping my bounds.

The next thing I did was meet with our director of operations. I met with people from each key area, explained to them why I was there, what I saw as my goal for the organization and assured them that when the occasion required it, I would bring them into the process before I went out with any kind of public statements. I would let them vet it. I did that at Honeywell. I did that in Hawaii with the blood bank of Hawaii when we had an issue that we were dealing with there. Just making sure that everybody understands that I’m not this renegade who’s just trying to blanket the world with information.

Are there other ethical issues you encountered over your career?

One that I still laugh about and I tell folks about all the time here. And this was a very, very simple and stupid basic thing, was one organization, I won’t throw them under the bus. The President of the organization came to me and said, “Its Christmastime. You need to go buys a case of booze and go to every editor in our area and leave him a bottle of booze and tell him that this is from us. Wish them a Merry Christmas.”

I looked at him and I said, “Do you have any concept of what you’re asking me to do?” I said, “Are you trying to assure that we never, ever get coverage by anyone ever again?” It’s a very, very basic kind of thing, but he thought it was perfectly normal. Fine, just go out and give people gifts and make them like you and they will make sure that they cover you positively and effusively from ever on. It just doesn’t work that way.

One more quick thing that I did. I talk about the blood bank of Hawaii all the time. When I went there, I knew there had already been issues that blood banks have experienced across the nation. So as soon as I settled into my job, I got on the phone and called the directors of communication for five or six of the major blood banks around the country. New Jersey, Puget Sound, New York, different ones. And I said what issues have you guys had to deal with that I’m going to have to be worrying about sometime in the future?

I was prepared. Later on, when the movie and The Band Played On, premiered, it showed in Hawaii, I had already briefed our board of directors and our staff on here’s what this movie is all about. Here’s what it means for us as a blood bank. And here is what we are doing that ensures that we won’t have those kinds of issues. I was being proactive in saying, “We’ve done this. We’ve taken care of this.” Then making sure they knew that if you get a question, all you have to do is refer them to me if you want to, or here is what our standard response is.

It was an education process.

Are there new areas about which you’re concerned regarding ethics in communications?

The new means of communication and the ability to communicate directly to the people without going through any kind of gatekeepers really does open up the door for unethical actions. Why don’t we say this and see what happens when we do it? You’ve got various people who I won’t call out on who use social media to communicate live, blatant lies or mistruths, untruths.

As I tell my students again, I said, “Here’s the challenge for you as you prepare to go out into the public relations world is, you are going to, more so than I ever had to in my entire career, you’re going to have to check, double check, triple check, every piece of information that comes across your screen because you don’t know where it’s coming from. You don’t know what the intent of the individual was who communicated it and in so many cases, you don’t know what potential harm it could do.”

How are you recommending people try to figure out the difference between the fake news, real news and massaged data?

If the hair on the back of your neck rises up, there’s probably something wrong. But more than…today you can’t not be informed. You need to keep yourself up to speed, up to date on what’s going on. Which means a constant monitoring of the news pertaining to your organization to whatever it might be. When you see something, you’ve got to ask the question. You’ve got to ask, if it doesn’t mesh with what you’ve already yourself learned from all your other research, you need to back up and start checking. Where did this come from? It’s not easy to do that anymore, but do your best. If you can’t find some other source validating, verifying what you saw, don’t use it period.

What type of ethical questions are your students asking you? What’s really engaging them a lot in the classroom?

One of the things that I get asked probably more frequently than anything relates to political conversations today that we see both in the traditional media and in the social media. They’re asking who approves that? Why do they say that? What are they trying to do? I tell them you have to:

  1. Consider the source
  2. Ask yourself who are they trying to communicate to
  3. What does it mean for you or your organization? It boils down to that. If it’s something that has no bearing on what you’re involved in organizationally, put it aside. Don’t forget it, but just put it aside and don’t do anything else with it and most assuredly don’t spread it.

The question has always been why did they do that? Why did he say that? Take a look at what was said and take a look at who it was directed at and then ask yourself what are they trying to do?

What do you recommend they do?

I recommend, and this is going to sound so elementary here, I say, “Don’t just try to figure this out yourself. Talk to other people.” This is something that goes against their instincts now. Go ask people who are either smarter than you or older than you. Double check it. Ask a human being. Don’t just necessarily look at what your friends are saying on Facebook or Twitter or whatever it may be. If you’re a student, go to professors that you know and respect. Ask them what they think. If you’re working somewhere, ask your boss what he or she thinks. Again, it goes back to the double checking, fact checking and then deciding is this something that I should continue dealing with? Or should I just put it on the shelf and let it go?

One point you brought up when you were saying if the data doesn’t agree with other things you’ve seen, I’d say it’s even also as important if it agrees and seems to validate things you’ve been seeing but cannot prove. You have to treat all the data, whether it reinforces your position or undermines it with skepticism and really look at it.

You’re absolutely right. Sometimes there have been occasions when I go, “Oh gee. I never really thought about it that way.” And it’s changed the way I’ve gone about things. But, it’s also the result of talking to people, using my network and saying is it me or is the world completely messed up what’s going on here? What is your take on this? And then as I say again, looking to what … people, as I love to say, who are smarter than me, what they’re saying about this and making a decision from there.

Any other major ethical challenge you’re seeing for today or tomorrow?

I tell my students that somewhere in the next generation that when babies are born, there’s going to be a chip implanted in their head. They won’t need to have a radio, a television, a telephone or anything. They can automatically say, “Hmm. I think I’ll call Mark McClennan.” And just think Mark McClennan and all of a sudden, your phone rings, or if you have a chip in your head, you say, “Oh Kirk. I don’t know what’s going on.” You laugh and you say this, but anybody who’s been around long enough. Remember when Dick Tracy had a wristwatch telephone and everybody was like, “Yeah, right. That’s not going to happen sometime soon.” And what I do with my students is I reach in my pocket, pull out my cellphone and say guess what? They’re here. Communication is changing.

What is the best piece of ethical advice you were ever given?

I keep thinking about that. This is something I tell my students. Ethics is just this: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I try to demonstrate this simple thought every day of my life. Think about before you do something, before you say something, would you want others to treat you that way? I think if you do that, it’s going to help you. Then, one of these things that finally I tell them, in the end here, be aware of how you or your organization’s words and actions are going to impact others.

And I tell them this, you can run, but you can’t hide. I will find out.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, 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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