Public Relations Ethics, Loyalty and Serving the Public Interest in a Multicultural World – Ana Toro

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ana Toro, APR, a Senior Partner of Multicultural Communications with Clearview Communications and PR, an international marketing public relations agency. She is also a member of PRSA’s National Board of Directors.

In this interview, Ana shares her insight on a number of important issues, including:

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

I’m a public relations expert and I have been 25 years in the industry. I began my career in Puerto Rico as a contributing writer to El Mundo Newspaper, the leading and oldest newspaper in the island. And then I transitioned as a press agent for the one and only, Oscar Nominated filmmaker in the island, Jacobo Morales. Then, I went to grad school, studying public relations and I had the chance to work as a communications officer at the Ana G. Mendez University System.

And, from there, I started my way up in the agency world working for six PR agencies and consulting firms until now. I’m a Senior Partner of Multicultural Communications at Clearview Communications, which is based in Tampa. In my career I’ve managed campaigns for Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Shell Corporation, Chrysler, Royal Caribbean, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Merial Central American & Caribbean.

Today, I also serve as Director at-large for PRSA, and also as trustee for the PRSA Foundation and a member of the Commission on Public Relations Education.

Why don’t you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I was faced with a difficult ethical challenge last year, when I was brought to lead a program while overseeing the work of three additional subcontractors. As the work progressed, and I was fully immersed in everyone’s roles and responsibilities, I came across two subcontractors that were demonstrating unethical conduct and inappropriate behaviors.

These companies were not serving the best interests of the client. And, in my eyes, they were not following the high standards of accuracy and truth. So, after careful consideration and less than a week after I began on the role, I had to fire one of the subcontractors.

My company and the contractor’s officers were very scared about my decision, but I took a stand and walked them, with clear examples, that supported my arguments. I even had to call former employees to gather additional history on the situation I was dealing with.

At the end of the day, my supervisor backed me, and we were able to do it. If I look back, on the long run, the decision proved to be the right decision, when my client thanked me a few weeks later once they learned about the decision I made.

Can you tell me more about what were some of the ethical concerns that were raised and how you worked through the process and came to the decision that you had to terminate one of the subcontractors?

The subcontractor was not being truthful to the client. We were having calls on and off, conference calls with and without the client and I could tell there was no truth in their arguments. Not only that, some other elements that show you they were not prepared.

When you are dealing with certain types of contracts and client work, particularly federal funds, it represents a bigger weight on your shoulders and you know this is taxpayers’ money.

I felt that I had to act to stop this before it got into a worse place.

How did you work with your current employees and teams to explain the rationale?

The big decision was that the work that this subcontractor was doing we were going to do. So right after that decision was made, three weeks later I had a team in place, brought other folks from other groups to support us to be able to complete the work.

I had to be very honest with the team and tell them what happened and why the decision was made. It’s not a decision that is often done in the company, or was celebrated particularly because there’s always that scare of, “There’s going to be a lawsuit. Now they’re going to come after us. Now they’re not going to want to work with us anymore,” but I was so firm and so convinced it had to happen.

There were many, many top-level calls with senior executives in the company and they said, “Well, if you are so convinced this is happening-,” And I said, “Yes, it is.” And yes, you have your doubts as well, but since I had so much information and I already had the team in place, I felt, “Okay, we can make this happen.”

To answer your question again, tell your team, be honest with your team, and tell them the why because you don’t want this to continue if someone else that you bring to the group happens to have the same style, et cetera.

Looking back, is there anything you would change or you would’ve done differently? Would you have acted sooner?

Well, I was tempted to get rid of the second subcontractor, but I decided it would severely affect our contract deliverables and the timeline, so I decided that with this second one that I mentioned, I would just pay closer attention to their work and get more involved. But if I would have the chance to do it again, I would have fired both the contractors on the spot.

Are there ethics guidelines or ethical issues communications practitioners should be aware of when engaging across cultures?

One area that I always remind multicultural practitioners regarding ethics is in regard to loyalty. We have to be faithful to those we represent, but we must honor our obligation to serve the public interest, and this is an area that, based on my experience, is forgotten.

I’m also a believer that multicultural PR pros, for example, have a responsibility to be advocates on behalf of those that are not heard, and I talk on behalf of my own experience. We serve the public interests by acting as responsible advocates for those we represent, and many of us help serve and manage multicultural programs and we should not allow others to dictate what is the right thing to do, or the messages that we should put out there, or ignore an audience because there’s no budget for that.

I always feel that we must be the voices of that marketplace, even if other disagree.

How do you go about convincing management to focus on an area when they claim they have no budget?

That has been my life story.

As a multicultural practitioner, I believe that, in the past and still today, the first budgets cut are the multicultural budgets. If PR complains that advertising caused a cut in their budget, imagine the multicultural communicators complaining that our budget is cut.

When you have a limited budget and client comes to you and says, “Well, I want general market awareness,” or “This is the only one that you’ve got,” I always raise the concern and say, “You’ve forgotten this market,” or we should. I try to just build the case. I think that having my team, or the leading person in the certain project that is maybe the person having the relationship with the client or prospect, selling the proposal, selling the services, I have to have them on my side.

I have to let them know why this is important, why this will help the brand, or why this will help in awareness or engagement and to defend that project for me. Because if not, when you are at the discussion table, and they are really negotiating and deciding, “No, this is all fabulous, but I just need to pick three instead of the five,” they will probably cut me. And I’ve seen it working in big global companies, and it could be frustrating.

What do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Well, I would say that some key PR ethics challenges could be the race for relevance. Many groups out there that are demanding more from our clients and organizations. That disclosure of information is and will be faster than ever, especially when you’re competing with so many people adding fake content in social media, how do we get that accurate and truthful information out there as fast as they are putting content?

So, to me, that is a big PR challenge: the fake news versus the facts. I feel that fake news is becoming the real news for people and then the real news, people do not believe it. This represents a challenge as communicators, in terms of the amount of content out there and the truth and the data and that fluff information that must stay on, and on, and on, and on in multiple channels in multiple channels, in multiple places.

How do you fight that?

You have to put systems in place, people in place, and the resources to create a machine of information more than ever, and really try to minimize the wrong information. There will always be people putting out wrong statements, spreading rumors and attacking a company for many reasons. Some you will have to ignore. But you must own the conversation.

I believe that sometimes many companies, decide to just let the conversation keep going, but it has to be managed. You have to be a participant in the conversation. Otherwise, you could be destroyed in a matter of hours. We see so many companies react in a few days later, and you think, “Okay, they were discussing recommendations, they were with their internal people, they were discussing strategy,” and they have recovered, but speed and resources are important.

It sounds like what you’re saying is we need to get faster, we need to have more people or use technology more effectively, then respond to all the different issues that make crop up.

Correct.

What do you mean by the race for relevance?

I got that term from the book for associations but I do believe that we all are competing for relevance because what exists today didn’t exist five years ago or ten years ago, and some companies that were on the bottom a few years ago might be the climbing. So everybody’s competing for relevance, because the marketplace, it’s crazy between the millennials being connected 24/7 in their mobiles – we just grab a cell phone and just scroll through come news and “I’m done” in the morning, like some people are, and to me, everybody is racing for that relevance of, “This is me. This is my story.”

This is what we’re saying: “Hey, hear me out. Hey, this is my new program, this is my new service.” Everybody is in a constant race for attention. How do you break into this global community of news, of information, influencers and content other people share? It is becoming more complex, more interesting, more challenging; You have to be smarter to really get to the right people, in the right place, the right moment, and with information they really will value and use.

You mentioned the rise of new groups that are expecting more from companies. How can businesses ethically engage in this area beyond just making statements and making donations to certain causes?

I believe that it has been precisely the technology and precisely all the channels that are available at our fingertips and the way we are connected and hyper-connected that companies are hearing more from all of these groups and organizations and communities … and the world, just saying “Be good to the environment. Save the whales. Save the monkeys. Save whatever,” or “Help us with water conservation” or “help us with energy” or “be a good neighbor.” And these are things that, for years, we all, as Public Relations Practitioners, learned that those were also some of your audiences and stakeholders, so this is not new for the communicators.

To me, the new thing is that because they are all together and they all can connect to each other, then the pressure is bigger. So, I believe companies have to really engage with those that align with their values and principles, that’s for sure, but really do it because they mean it and because they care, not because they have to do it. Companies, we know, are global citizens, and we expect from them the same behavior that us, as individuals, have to also do for this planet, the world, society, every market, everywhere.

So, that’s why, when I mentioned you the bigger pressure from groups, I mean, politically, look at what’s happening nowadays. Everybody’s screaming for attention. Everybody wants to be heard. So, there’s so many areas that organizations have to say, “Yes. Okay, these two buckets are going to be mine. We’re going to own A, B, C,” and really team up with their own, define their own path. Define, “This is where we’re going to and we’re going to work with these people and this makes a business case for our company.”

Do you recommend companies focus on a few that directly impact them, or should they be talking about a broad swath of social issues?

It all depends. We see some global brands that own a few big initiatives because they’re directly associated with the product that they develop, or who they are, so I believe it has to make sense to your company, because that way, if I had a client I would look at their company and say, what areas do much with them. I don’t think you have to just choose for choosing. The same way, it could even come from their employees, saying, “Okay, we have a big base of employees that have children with X disease. Maybe, then, that’s also good area to focus on.”

So, you have to know the company inside and out and from what they develop or what they offer their product to and then I would go into some areas that really are a match. Otherwise, to me, it’s stretching it. That doesn’t mean that a company can’t be involving other things here and there, but their big buckets should really be aligned with their mission.

Ethically what more do we as communication professionals need to be doing for diversity and inclusion? If you could wave the magic wand, what should we be doing in the next year to two years?

We have to go to the root of the problem and it’s to go to schools, high schools, and do PR for PR. We’ve heard the “PR for PR” mantra for years, but if our students don’t know what PR is and how cool it is, they won’t join. If school counselors don’t know what this function is, how this profession benefits society and the many roles a PR Practitioner can have, we won’t have the number we want of diverse students entering to universities to study this career.

As you talk to so many students out there, some of them enter by chance. They talk to someone and then they told them about their PRSSA chapter. They went to a chapter meeting. They liked it and then they switched majors. Many other students, and I can talk in regards to Latino students, for example, it’s the expectation of your parents that you will have to be either an architect, a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer, one of those professions that will make your parents proud because everybody knows what those professions are. If you tell them you are going to do PR, they’re like, “What is that, and why?”

There’s a cultural aspect of it, but also, it’s just the lack of knowledge of the many opportunities. I was telling someone the other day, “Wow, I’m glad that after I studied journalism in my bachelors, I did my grad school in PR, because right now, I’m glad that I’m doing PR.” The years have proven that it was the right decision and I’ve done more: more fun work, more interesting work. I’ve learned so much. I’ve been supporting so many industries. I’ve been talking to seasoned executives, to marketing folks, to sales folks, to communities. I’ve engaged hard to reach and low-literacy folks to very educated communities, so … it is great! It is a challenging profession. It is a never-ending learning experience and that has to be shared with students in our schools.

If we go to schools, I think we’re going to see a greater number of students entering as years go by.

If you look at PRSSA Chapters, you look at those rooms and they’re starting to change in color, in diversity, and I feel that in a few years, we’re going to see that change in the industry. It has to happen. It has to happen. We just have to keep helping all of them to stay in the industry, to see the opportunities, to see mentors and see faces and leaders that represent them so they’ll be inspired and say, “I want to be that person in ten, fifteen years,” Some of us, I feel, are really breaking the ice and opening doors for the next generation. I remember when I moved to Georgia, it was tough for me to say, “Wow, where am I?” Tough to find Latino practitioners here and to find colleagues I would really talk to and share the same challenges I was facing.

Speaking of inspiration, what is the best piece of ethics and advice you were ever given?

I had a Public Relations professor and mentor in grad school who made us learn the PRSA Code of Ethic. When you were hired to work for him, and I worked with him, that was the first thing he gave you when you joined the firm. It was so funny. He gave you a card signed by everybody on the staff and the Code of Ethics and I believe this set of principles set my mindset early on in my career, which, to me, is the best piece of advice. In other words, learn and make the Code of Ethics part of your day-to-day work because the code is the set of values we should base our work on and how we should work with our peers, our clients, the media, the community. They are The Commandments of Public Relations. So that, to me, was a very sound and solid piece of advice, in terms of ethics.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

I am concerned, a little bit, about the number of individuals entering our profession without the knowledge, respect, or credibility to conduct public relations. You know, this issue of convergence of disciplines and how all the marketing and journalism folks, and other professionals, are performing communications and public relations functions, that line is not differentiating us anymore.

I’m worried because are they protecting our profession? Are they educated about the best practices in our profession? Are they declining representation of clients or organizations that urge them, or require actual violations of our Code of Ethics? Are they over-promising results that cannot be accomplished at all, that we know cannot be done?

Most importantly, are they setting up a good example for others to follow? And, to me, these are genuine concerns. It applies to everyone out there conducting public relations.

Listen to 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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