What to do When Your Client Asks You to Leak Confidential Documents: Beth Monaghan

Joining me on this week’s episode is Beth Monaghan, the co-founder and CEO of InkHouse, one of the very best PR firms in New England. She is a passionate advocate and has been recognized as one of the top women in PR by PR News, the Top 24 Innovators by the Holmes Report and is an Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. I’m proud to say she is also a fellow S.I. Newhouse alum.

On this week’s episode, Beth discusses a number of important topics, including:

InkHouse is about 12 years old. Before that, actually I got my first job because of you through the internet bubble when I graduated from Newhouse and worked at Schwartz. After that I went to the venture capital world for a couple of years before the internet bubble burst. Then I was working at a generalist PR agency in downtown Boston and social media started taking over and I thought, you know what, this is really going to have a huge impact on PR. At around the same time my former business partner started calling me and asking me if I wanted to quit my job. I finally said, you know what? I actually do.

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself and your job and your career?

So we started InkHouse. It was just the two of us. Now we’re 120 people and we have three offices and I don’t really know how that happened except that we worked hard and we innovated in some places and then we hired the right people and it kind of took on a life of its own.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I have two of them. I will lead with a client one and then one I have as a manager of people.

I had a client who will remain nameless, but who was the CEO and wanted us to leak confidential documents to the New York Times. These were documents that his board did not want released, that the other management team members did not want released – so he just thought I should do it. He gave me the package by dropping it off at my house one weekend. His rationale was that he had a confidentiality agreement with the organization. I said well, so do we.

The goal was a noble goal, which was to uncover some things that he thought were not ethical that were happening there, but the means to that goal were unethical. There were lots and lots of discussions about who we have an obligation to and what we should do in this particular situation. I drove around with that thing in my car for like two months because I didn’t want anybody else to have their hands on it. At the end of the day we decided not to do it. I said if you want to do that, it’s very easy to figure out how to deliver a package to the New York Times, but I’m not going to do it for you. And it was the right decision.

How did you work through it and what were some of the repercussions you were concerned about?

The main repercussion that you always have to consider is that you have to close your own eyes at night. I knew I didn’t want to do that because it felt unethical to me as a human. It wasn’t my thing to leak either. It was his and he had a personal agenda around it. We were his agency. But also, outside of just my personal inclinations, we had a legal agreement with the organization that he was associated with. I did not have permission from the entire management team or the board to do that. I was worried about getting sued. Their parent company was this huge organization. It’s a household name and we are small business at the time and we couldn’t afford to be sued by anyone, never mind somebody who has all the means in the world. So those two things came together.

It sounds like an easy decision, but it’s not when this is a close contact of yours and he’s really on you to do it and you don’t feel like it. He used to be a mentor of mine, so you feel obligated to help the person who has helped you in the past, you know?

Is there any lesson you learned from that?

I wish that I had agonized over it less because I knew what I wanted to do from day one and I just had to get to a point where I was like well, if I get fired for saying no then so be it. But it’s a hard thing to come to early in your career. I’d like to think that I’d come to it a lot sooner now.

What was your ethical quandary as a manager?

This comes up every once in a while, but this is when it gets hard. Conventional wisdom is that one negative person in the office can kind of ruin the entire office culture. And that is something that every leader knows. And so that the guidance is that you should coach them out or fire them if that’s not possible as soon as you possibly can. Where this becomes tricky is when that person is also one of your top performers. Perhaps they bring in a lot of business, perhaps you’ll lose clients because of that. So in this ethical situation you are forced to choose between immediate financial ramifications and the people who work with that person all day long. Sometimes that can be a very hard decision because every business has very real bottom line issues to attend to.

How did you approach that situation?

Well, we got rid of the person and we’ve done it more than once. I guess I would just say that it’s always been the right decision, always. And even in a few times where I thought, wow, this person might have a bunch of people fooled, I’ve come in the next day and the entire atmosphere in the office has shifted.

It’s so hard to make those decisions. And it’s again, one of those things where if you choose what is right for your people, the rest will follow. It’s kind of like a karma situation where you have to hope that if you do the right thing, the right thing will follow you around. I believe that to be true.

This applies to clients as well. Early on we fired our largest client when we only had no eight clients and that was a huge decision. But our team really valued that and they became a lot more loyal because of it, because they knew that we had their backs. You just can’t put up with people being abusive to your staff, otherwise you won’t have a staff.

Beyond those issues, are there any other key ethics challenges you’re seeing facing the industry today and tomorrow?

I think at a macro level there are two issues that are intertwined that I’m seeing, and I’m sure you are too. The first is that we’re storytellers at heart and that’s our job. But the ways in which the media has evolved, they’ve began encouraging us to lead with the fear factor because it makes more people click. I think that’s a very dangerous trend. I think we saw this in the election, and even outside of politics, it has leaked its way into social media where for you to be an “influencer”, you have to have a very polarizing point of view to get attention. I think that’s very dangerous because we don’t live in a world of black and white or good and bad. We live in a very complex world and I think that’s the best stories are complex stories and we’ve gotten far away from those.

The second piece of that that complicates it is confirmation bias.  Social media allows us to kind of escape seeing any views that are contrary to our own because it learns our preferences, it shows us other profiles that we might follow that are similar to the ones who are currently following. And that’s awesome if you’re an advertiser. It’s not awesome if you’re a citizen of humanity who thinks that we should be exposed to new ideas all the time. So I think that as PR professionals, we use those same tools every single day and we have a responsibility to use them for good.

How do you train your staff and how do you inculcate that culture of using them for good rather than for clicks and page views and downloads?

Last summer we hired a woman named Tara who is a former museum curator. She became our storyteller in residence. I sent her off on a project that we called Project Curiosity. She spent the summer going into places where people encounter new ideas in ways that opens them up as opposed to shuts them down. She actually found an empathy museum where they have stories of real people and their shoes, you can go walk in their actual shoes. She went to bookstores, film festivals, she talked to neuroscientists. We culled down all of her research to 10 things that inform how we do our jobs every day and that is fueling the kinds of programs we’re recommending to clients.

A good example is that if you’re having an event about a topic, it’s probably wise to bring in the other point of view on the panel. By the way, it’s going to make it a lot more interesting too. But I think that we’re recommending that if you have a point of view and you’re open to hearing the other point of view, it only increases your credibility in that room.

Now you mentioned panels and bringing in different perspectives. Can you tell us a little more about InkHouse’s pledge to panel diversity?

Sure, so PR as an industry, the last time I checked is only 8% diverse, which is pretty embarrassing when you live in a city like Boston, which is a majority minority city. Meaning that there are more people of color here than white people. I think that our staff should mirror the population in which we live if we ever hope to have the right kinds of ideas and be reflective of people who we work with. So we are really committed to that and we’ve beat the 8%. We’re at 11% which is still embarrassingly low and we’re trying to go higher.

But one of the things that we’re putting in place there to draw attention to it in the PR industry is our panel policy, which is basically that we will not sit on any panels that are all white or all male. So far, almost every time that I’ve told the panel hosters about the policy they’ve diversified the panel, which is really lovely.

Are there other areas you’re concerned about with regards to ethics, aside from the move towards negativity?

I’m concerned around access to credible information. We are all too familiar with the fake news issues. But outside of that I’ve seen some reporters become a lot more strict about whether they’ll take quotes that are emailed by PR practitioners. I think that that is a positive thing. I’ve sent in quotes that have appeared on the front pages of national newspapers and I never even knew that the reporter received my email. I just saw it the next morning on the front page. Those quotes were approved by my clients, but at the time nobody was checking. There is value in fact checking.

But there’s a whole population out there that aren’t schooled in public relations who don’t know what’s a credible media source. It’s really easy to fool people right now, especially with social media. We need an educated audience and we need to find new ways to do that.

So how are you educating your team and making sure they’re starting to bring that critical eye to the discussion?

On our team, they know. We have lists of publication. But we dig into who owns the publication, what is their point of view? Is it a neutral news source or is it leaning toward left or right? We started creating lists of these. But the general guidance is to dig and find out who owns it, what’s the skew? Is it a real publication with real reporters working there or is it somebody who’s just kind of cranking out content? It takes a skilled eye to see that, but once you know what you’re looking for, it’s pretty easy to figure it out.

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

The best piece of advice about ethics that I was ever given was probably from a dear friend of mine who also my editor for the book that I may or may not ever write. He said, “Don’t ask yourself what’s some other leader or some other CEO would do in this situation. You should ask yourself first and foremost because you are the one who has access to all of the information and you are the one who has to close her own eyes at night.”

Beyond this, is there anything else you wanted to highlight?  

I just think that sometimes it’s easy to forget that we have a dual responsibility. We have a responsibility to the news, to give them credible information and factual information, and we have a responsibility to our clients. We have to hold both of those in equal esteem if we’re going to be credible in the future.

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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