Ethics Advice From Peter Shankman: Thriving Ethically In a Climate of Lying

Joining me on this week’s episode is Peter Shankman, an entrepreneur, author, and amazing connector. He is also the host of Faster Than Normal, the Internet’s number one podcast on ADHD. I first met him right after he founded HARO, but he has done so much more than that.

In this interview he touches on a number of ethics issues facing entrepreneurs and communicators including:

  • How to ethically thrive in today’s climate where lying is expected
  • Are businesses really walking the walk when it comes to ethical behavior?
  • The impact of new technologies on ethics and communication

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

I got lucky. I worked my ass off, and I’ve gotten lucky. I started my career at America Online. I was one of the first founders of AOL News back in New York in the late 90’s. I started consulting, opened a PR firm and sold it a few years later during the height of the dot com boom.

Tried to take a year off, that lasted about a week, and I got bored. Came back again to New York, which is my home where I was born and raised. I consulted for several years, and eventually, you know … I have massive ADHD so I just talk to everyone. And if you’re misfortune in life is to have to sit next to me on an airplane, by the time we land, I’m going to know everything about you, because I love to let people talk. I love to listen.

And so, the end of the flight, I know everything about you, and over time, I just created this huge Rolodex. That’s the beauty of ADHD is that you wind up talking to everyone, you have this incredible Rolodex, and reporters who knew me from my PR days would call me and ask, “Hey, you talk to everyone. You know, I’m doing a story on blah, blah, blah. Who do you know?”

Over time, that led to what became HARO. And HARO was eventually acquired by a company called Vocus, now Cision. Ever since then I started to pivot a little bit, and I focus now on the concept of the neuro-atypical economy.

I talk about the customer experience, I give keynotes all of the world. But I’m also focusing on the neuro-atypical economy, which is the concept that anyone in the mental health world, whether it’s ADD, autism, ADHD, anyone on the spectrum – anything in mental health needs to be included when companies think of diversity.

Because neuro-diversity is a massive growing segment of our society, and about 35% of the workforce, and 35% of the people you’re selling to in the next 10 years are going to be neuro-atypical. It’s important that you are aware of those people.

I wrote a book called “Faster Than Normal” about the benefits of ADHD, and that led to a podcast called “Faster Than Normal.” We’ve had Tony Robbins, Seth Godin, Joe De Sena, Theo Fleury, Danny Meyer and other amazing people on this podcast, all of whom have ADHD, and all of whom believe that it’s an advantage to them.

So my goal is sort of tell the world, “Hey, you’re neuro-atypical, and that’s a good thing, and you should embrace that.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?

You know, it’s funny. I don’t really know that I’ve had tremendous ethical challenges, because the ADHD in me is all or nothing, right? So I make decisions pretty much on the fly. Like, “Yes. No. Yes. No.” I don’t really waiver.

And so, I think I was raised in such a way that when if there was a choice between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing, you do the right thing. But there was a time when I was running HARO, when I had a chance to take on an advertiser who had a product that I knew was pretty much a gimmick, and didn’t work. And they were willing to pay a lot of money up front for several ad spots, and it would’ve been nice. I mean it was a lot of money, at that point. I’d really, literally, just started this business six months.

I remember talking it over with my cat, because I talk about everything with my cat. And, as a cat does, the cat looked at me and walked away. But, I remember turning it down. And I just didn’t feel right about it. And, I think my entire life has been lived by my gut, right? If it feels right, I do it. If it doesn’t feel right, I don’t do it. And so I think at that point, it didn’t feel right. And, I don’t regret that.

You know, you never regret not doing the wrong thing. I’ve been trying to teach this to my daughter. She’s turning six, and a couple days ago, I caught her in a lie. And, I tried to explain, “Here’s why we don’t lie. It’s hard to trust someone after they’ve been lied to.” I said, “But most importantly, it’s hard to remember.”

If you lie, it’s hard to remember what you lied about, and what you said, and what you did. So it’s easier just not to do it. And, I think she got that part.

What are you seeing as some of the ethics challenges for communicators today and tomorrow?

I think several things. The first one is we’re going to have to be aware of the fact that even though in today’s, let’s say political climate, lying has been almost approved. Which is really kind of sad. I think we need to understand that’s not actually the case. And that you will get caught. Right?

That’s what amazes me about this world that we’re in right now, is that everyone thinks it’s okay to lie, and they don’t think they’re going to get caught. It’s so easy to get caught. The key is, America, the world, has a much shorter attention span, so we don’t care that much anymore, but there are people who do.

And, because the bar is so ridiculously low, when it comes to what we expect from companies, from public officials, from whatever, that I try to teach my clients that I don’t need them to be awesome. I just need them to suck a little less than normal, right?

If we expect everyone to suck really, really poorly and be terrible, then I don’t need them to be great. I just need them to understand that they could be a little bit better, and they can succeed.

But the problem is and it really is not a problem, but we do live in a world where people don’t care. And so, again, I just need you to be a little bit better, and if it comes down to an ethical dilemma that you’re facing, doing the right thing is going to pay off.

And again, it sounds like I’m a sixth grade teacher, but we shouldn’t have to have these conversations, yet we do.

You said “Our standards are so ridiculously low,” but you see studies that show millennials and others are increasingly putting a focus on businesses doing good. How do you reconcile that?

Everyone says they are. But, look at where the money is, right? Look at where the money’s going. People still aren’t choosing an airline, millennials especially, are not choosing an airline based on the fact that it’s a green flight. They are choosing the flights based on how much money they can save.

So, I think a lot of people are saying that they want, you know, triple bottom line companies. They want to work with companies that care about the earth, people, environment. But if you look at the major purchases that many people are making… it’s not that much. It would be great if everyone thought with their environmentally conscious brains, but we haven’t gotten there yet.

Are there any technologies that are out there that are shifting the landscape when it comes to ethical decision making?

I think that we are aware of AI. And the benefits and drawbacks of what AI can do. We’re starting to be aware of what happens when facial recognition is used improperly. I can take $60 worth of software and create a pretty good facial recognition program, which I can then use to put my friend’s picture, my friends heads on porn stars, or whatever. I think we’re going to have to be aware of what that does. You know, Microsoft, very interestingly, just came out and said that law enforcement wanted to use their facial recognition software, and they just said, “No.”

So I think there are companies that are starting to pay attention. Apple I think is doing the right thing in not installing a backdoor so police can unlock an iPhone. So I think tech breeds its own set of challenges.

But, specifically, the stuff that we’re looking at now, compared to the stuff that we’re gonna see in 10 years, is still crazy. We can’t imagine it.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and businesses about ethics?

I think it comes back to what everyone was taught as a kid. You know, the golden rule, right? And it sounds ridiculous. The problem is self-generated. Fifty years ago, you would show your stockholders reports of projections for the next 25 years. Now you’re showing your stockholders projections and reports for the next quarter, and if they’re not positive, as a CEO you’re out.

So it’s very difficult for a CEO to say, “I want to put ethical performance of profits. Or at least on the same bar as profits.” Because shareholders, they know that doesn’t work, “You’re fired.”

And, that’s a shame, right? But, in the end, if they don’t start doing that, we’re not going to see it change. And so, companies need to take that risk, and say, “I’m doing this for our kids.” But, will it happen? I honestly don’t know.

At the Ethisphere conference senior executives were driving home the mantra from their point of view, that if you’re only focused on the bottom line, you’re not going to have a really good company.

Exactly. And everyone says that, and everyone’s, “Oh, that’s great.” Then they go back to their offices and they’re being told by their board that they need to improve their stuff immediately, and if they can’t do that they’re in trouble.

And it’s like, “Well, dammit. What did we just do?” Now have to do more than words, and put it into action.

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

Be honest. Own it. Be transparent. You know, we’re going to screw up, we’re human beings. That’s the beauty of carbon molecules on this earth, on this planet, is that we’re going to screw up. And when we do screw up, we have two choices. We can own it, or we can lie. And, I’ve just always found that owning it is just easier.

I wish I could say it was some wonderful, ethical thought but it’s just, “I won’t remember what I say when I lie.” It’s easier to tell the truth.

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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