Tips for Creating an Ethical Decision Framework: Cheryl Procter-Rogers

Joining me on this week’s episode is Cheryl Procter-Rogers, APR, Fellow PRSA, a PR and business strategist, and executive coach for A Step Ahead, and a former PRSA National President. Cheryl is one of the most thoughtful and deliberative PR executives with whom I have ever had the pleasure of working.

In this interview, she discusses:

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

Well, I have been very fortunate to have been in public relations and communications for 39 years. I actually started in public relations thinking that I would specialize in a particular area, and I was fortunate enough to have as my mentor, Chester Berger, who recommended, knowing my personality, that I should be a generalist. So, I’ve spent a great deal of my career really honing a great deal of skills under the public relations umbrella.

I have worked for corporations. I started my career at an insurance company in Los Angeles where I was given free rein to implement all of the kinds of public relations strategies that came to mind for me as I was pursuing my professional designation in PR. I quickly gained the reputation of implementing citywide programs that had great impact.

As a result of that, I was asked by the managers, or directors of marketing for Coca Cola and Anheuser Busch, if I would consider opening my own firm, and they would be my clients. So, I started my firm pretty early in my career, and on three occasions had the unique opportunity to suspend my consulting practice to go into organizations to either create a new public relations department where one had not existed, or to transform an existing department. And I did that, not only at an insurance company, but at Nielsen Marketing Research, HBO, and DePaul University.

Will you tell us about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Often, we don’t even realize that we have faced an ethical dilemma until the stuff hits the fan. Then you realize you’ve stepped in something and you’ve got the mud all over your shoes. For me, the most challenging issue was when an executive of an organization I was working for asked me if I would make a call to a reporter at a major publication to spread some bad things about one of the leaders of our competing organization.

At first I thought it was a joke, and when I realized the person was very serious, I really didn’t know how to position my answer in such a way that I wouldn’t get fired immediately, or that worse yet, I would lose credibility, because I felt up until that point that I was becoming the go-to person. I was very young in my career, and I just didn’t know what to do.

So, I didn’t answer right away, which I now realize was a mistake, and I went and I called my mentor, Chester Berger and told him I felt very uncomfortable, this was not something that I wanted to do. Even though the information may have been true, I had no evidence that that information was true.

I got really great advice from Chet, and that is, “Always align with your values, never your bank account.”

So, I went back into the office and I said, “You know, I’m not comfortable doing this. This goes against who I am as a professional, and if that’s going to be an issue for you, let me know now.” I was not fired, but it was a valuable lesson for me in how I felt that I didn’t have the power to say no when in fact I actually did.

Did that negative information gets spread via other means?

It did not. I went on to explain that this would start a culture that the organization may not be able to recover from.

What’s the advice you’d have for other young professionals if they’re asked to do something that doesn’t quite sit right with their ethical compass?

I would suggest that they take a deep breath, and if they feel it’s important to talk it out with someone, if they felt like it’s a borderline ethical issue, to have a mentor that they can call, as I did, to walk this through. The Public Relations Society of America has done a great deal of work around ethics, and the frameworks that support those ethical decision-making opportunities that we have in our profession. They give a pretty good model of how we should think this through, and how we should approach individuals that are asking us to behave unethically.

I would say for the young professional, it’s a very scary moment, but do not to feel that you have to respond right away. Much like we say in media interviews, don’t be afraid of silence, and take a moment and think it through. If you’re having some feeling in your gut, or in your heart, that this is not right, ask for a little time to step away, and consult with a trusted advisor that can give you some guidance, not just on what you should or should not do, but how you should communicate your response to the ask.

Looking back on that situation, is there anything you would’ve changed or done differently?

Oh, absolutely. What I realized then is that I didn’t have a framework for decision making, and that without it I was actually being very indecisive, and my communication was really poor. There are so many different frameworks for decision making that are there. Google the topic, and find a framework that you can use that will help you. For instance – the first thing you’re supposed to do is make sure you have sufficient information, and then the knowledge and the skill to make sure that’s all aligned.

So, if someone is asking you to do something, for instance, that is not in line with your background, knowledge, experience, you don’t have the skill for it, and it can have a significant impact on your organization, you must speak up and state it. Sometimes we have this hesitation, especially when we’re young, we don’t want to seem dumb. So, we don’t want to say we don’t know, because maybe the way the supervisor, or the manager, is presenting the information it’s as if you should know.

You should always be transparent and be honest, and let them know that this is not your area of expertise or knowledge.

Next, always think about all of the possible outcomes and not just the outcome that you want, because sometimes we have a tendency to be in, what I call, situational ethics where the situation calls for some action, and you could possibly do a misstep, or do something terribly wrong, of course, but for a greater good. So, you must make sure that you’re not in that kind of dilemma where you’re so focused on that you don’t end up saying “Well, you know, all we want to do is make sure all of these starving individuals are able to eat, and the fact that we’re stilling the food, well I can’t really matter right now.”

Yes, it does. So you always want to be mindful of that.

Then I would say finally, after you think of all the possible outcomes, then you want to make sure that any decision that you’re making aligns with your personal values and the values of that organization with which you’re working.

What do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges that communicators are facing today and tomorrow?

We say this all the time, but the internet. Ethics plays a key role in our communication process, and when you think about how quickly information flows in and out of the different communities that we’re connected with, a lot of that information is not vetted, and a lot of that information is designed to create some either feeling or action by the individuals who are receiving it.

Then, worse yet, are things like the Russian impact on creating false information around our election process, and how do you harness that? How do you, as a public relations professional, chase that down, and find a way to create some truth around it, and to inspire those to look beyond the obvious and seek truth.

I think that we’ve become a little lazy as a society in that we don’t seek truth, and as a result, many times we fall for scams, we fall or start acting on misinformation.

We have this very competitive landscape. It’s not like it wasn’t competitive before, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago, but it’s much more competitive because of the speed of information. So, it becomes very important for every individual to do is to have that moral compass, to be clear on what is important, and to take that second step that requires you to hit the pause button to validate and inform your thinking.

Make sure you’ve gotten all of the information, make sure that you’ve thought about all of the possible outcomes and not just the outcome that you want.

I talked often about confirmation bias, and to make sure that you’re not just absorbing information that aligns with your own beliefs and values, but that you are listening, and you are of the world, and are absorbing other points of view, and understand how others think, which is not always in line with our own thinking. It helps us to be more mindful as we’re being the moral compass for our organizations.

Then lastly, Mark, I would say globalization is another challenge, because what is ethical in one part of the world can be seen as totally unethical in another, and vice versa. I also feel like that whole ethical line continues to move even in the US.

We have to be students of ethics, so that we understand how the changes in society start to impact what is viewed as ethical and what is not.

Will you elaborate a little bit more on what you mean by the ethical line moving?

There was this whole idea that using marijuana was kind of a taboo. So, as we see the laws changing around the use of marijuana, there are some ethical standards that were held to be true before the laws changed that would not be true in some parts of the country now. The shift is starting to happen.

When you think about how organizations are structured, you think about organizations such as Amazon. For so long you could order something, and there was no tax implication. That was wonderful, you could just order things and just pay for shipping, unless you were a Prime Member. Now, there’s this shift – how ethical is that for you to have an organization that is not contributing to the tax base. So, what was just fine before is starting to shift a little. It’s starting to also shift how citizens look at organizations who are not contributing to the tax base of the state or the city in which they live.

I want to circle back to one thing you said about confirmation bias and the challenge that we’re facing there. Do you have any advice on how people can avoid confirmation bias?

It’s absolutely being present in the world around you, and to turn on that curious button that we rarely push often because we’re so busy. For example, it was maybe 10 years ago, I was surfing for something to watch on television. There were three channels that I went through that had NASCAR races on them, and I just blew by them, and then it hit me, “Cheryl, practice what you preach.” So I went back to one of the channels, and I really paid attention and noticed that there must have been 100,000 people at that NASCAR.

Why would 100,000 people gather at these arenas to watch cars go around a circle, and who are they? What’s the profile of those individuals, and what opportunity was I missing as a public relations professional to have one of my clients, or if I were in an organization, customers, how could I connect better as the NASCAR being a conduit for that, correct?

That’s an example of not really noticing what’s going on in the world around you and only participating in events, only listening to things on the radio, or Sirius, or XM, or only watching programs that make you feel good, because those people think and talk like me, to come out of your comfort zone.

I’m not suggesting that someone does this every day, but come outside of your comfort zone on a Sunday afternoon, while you’re looking for something to watch, and actually watch something that up until that point you would have never even considered, or to listen to a radio broadcast, or a television show, that is counter to your own beliefs with the understanding that you’re going to approach it with an open mind, and listen for some learning for yourself. Those are the kinds of things that we do to avoid confirmation bias.

I think that’s some really good advice, and so have you turned into a NASCAR fan, Cheryl?

I kind of have, yes.

Who’s your driver?

I’m old school, the Andretti boys or Danica although she’s just retired.

Every now and then I will stop and I will watch, and it’s the same thing I say about golf. Until I started to play golf, I had no idea what the game was about, and then I got an interest of course when Tiger Woods entered that whole golfing arena and changed the way everyone looks at the sport.

You don’t have to get on a plane, sometimes you can just walk in your own neighborhood and turn on that curiosity button so that you’re able to open up the way that you think of about the world around you, and there’s always something new to learn.

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

Being true to your own values and not to your bank account was one, but I think also is knowing that you should never ignore the voice in your head.

If the voice in your head is telling you this is not something that you should do, do not ignore that voice. If you find yourself battling with yourself, then that’s when you seek a seasoned mentor, or best yet, a peer mentor, to talk this through and to come up with a communication strategy that’s going to work, so that you’re not offensive, and that you’re in a position to actually defend your position.

To listen to the full interview, including bonus content of recent ethics discussions we had with our children and the examples we set, listen 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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