Why Ethical PR People Must Be Careful Who They Trust And Always Be Skeptical – Lou Capozzi

Joining me on this week’s episode is Lou Capozzi. He’s an instructor at the University of Oregon, the former chairman of MSL, and the former president of the PRSA Foundation, where he refocused the foundation on diversity and inclusion. He shares some great insight including:

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

I like to give my Twitter bio, which is, “I used to run a global PR firm. Now I teach.” I’ve had a long career in the communications business.

For the longer version, I went to journalism school in the 1960s, and PR firms weren’t very popular during the Vietnam War era, and so there was an internship at a firm I had never heard of called Hill & Knowlton. They were a PR firm, and I had no idea what a PR firm was, but I knew it was on the bulletin board at the journalism school, and it paid three credits and tuition, so I took the job. And turned out to be the world’s biggest and, at that time, most prestigious PR firm in the world. It was quite a good credential to enter the profession, and I never did turn back to journalism and never looked back from there.

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

That’s an interesting question, because there have been a lot of them. Much of my professional practice, has been in crisis management, and so there have been a lot of challenging situations, but the one that comes to mind is something that happened to me when I was chief communications officer at Aetna.

I had a big staff, and one of the folks that worked on the staff handled local media. He called me at midnight on a Wednesday night, and said that he had gotten a call from a local newspaper in Middletown, Connecticut, where Aetna had a remote facility where about 7,000 people worked. The reason he got the call from the local newspaper is that two Aetna maintenance employees had been checked into the emergency room with chemical burns on their hands and feet, and did we know anything about that?

The answer was no, we didn’t know anything about it, so I gave him the contact info. I have a crisis notebook –for in those days before computers, we did all this on paper. I gave him the contact information for the guy who was in charge of the facility down there. He called the guy and the guy said, “Oh, it was routine maintenance for the air conditioning system. Nothing to worry about.” We made that statement and life went on.

The next morning, Thursday morning, I had a PR team down there that did internal communications for the 7,000 people that worked there, and the head of that group called me and said, “You know, we’ve got a problem here. People have buckets on their desks and there’s leaks all over the place. They’ve closed the salad bar in the cafeteria, because there’s something dripping out of the ceiling.” And I thought, “Hmmmm….two and two makes four.”

I called the guy myself who was in charge of the facility and told him that we’d experienced this issue, and he, again, repeated that there was nothing big wrong. Everything was fine. A few leaks and they were working on them. Later that morning, I get an anonymous call from somebody in Middletown, I don’t know who it is, who says, “This is a bigger problem than they’re letting on to you. There’s mold growing in the pipes of the air conditioning system which circulate in the ceiling, and it’s eating holes in the pipes.”

Mold, well what kind of mold? I didn’t know anything about that, so now I called the head of the division, my peer on the executive committee. I reported to the chairman and sat on the executive committee, and so I called the guy who ran the employee benefits division, and I said, I’m not getting a straight answer from your guys. Something’s wrong. He called me back and said, “No, no. Everything’s fine. Just a routine maintenance problem.”

I dug a little further. I had my staff guys dig in to this. What kind of mold exactly are we talking about? It turns out it’s the mold that carries Legionnaire’s Disease.

Oh geez.

And it’s dripping on people’s desks in this facility with 7,000 employees. I go down the hall of to the CEO and say, “John, we’ve got a serious problem here. Your guys aren’t being straight with me. There’s a potential that we could have a real serious health issue with our employees. We need to shut that facility down.” Now it’s Thursday afternoon at 4 o’clock. John calls the head of the division into his office. He and I and John and the maintenance guy sit down, and I said to them, “You’ve got to call the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. You’ve got to tell everybody not to come to work tomorrow. You’ve got to put a gate up at the entrance and send everybody home. And by the way, we’ll talk about the fact that you guys lied to me another time.”

The CEO turns to the division head and says, “That’s what you got to do.” And so that’s what happened. We sent everybody home the next day. Luckily, the environmental protection guys came over the weekend and found that it was indeed a harmless stuff that was growing in the pipes and it wasn’t a risk to the health of the employees there. We reopened the building on Monday, but the thing about that lesson is that, if you don’t have the CEOs support in the job that we do, you’re in a lot of trouble. And if you do have the CEOs support, then that’s the magic sauce that makes this a job that can actually be done.

Beyond having the CEOs support, what other lessons did you learn from that?

The other lesson is watch who you trust. This is an enormous challenge for both internal communications folks and for consultants, and that is that somebody in the organization tells you something, and you don’t really know if it’s true or not. Figuring out what’s true and what’s not is tricky. One of the pieces of advice that I give is, number one, be a skeptic. Always scratch your head and say, “Am I really getting the straight story here?” And the second thing is learn to listen and read people. Learn the listening skills of understanding body English and facial expressions so you can read somebody who’s talking to you, and get a sense of whether or not they’re being straight.

Looking back at this issue, is there anything that you would’ve done differently?

For sure. I think that initially I was too trusting. There was a guy who’s making a lot of money, a lot more money than I made, and who’s a senior executive of the company, who’s telling me something that’s not true. And I trusted him and I shouldn’t have. I think the other thing is that a whole day went by with us knowing this. I think if I hadn’t been so trusting, I would’ve acted faster and more decisively, because a lot of times in crisis, speedy action is really required, and I think I waited a day too long. Thank God it wasn’t Legionnaire’s Disease, or we would’ve had a real problem.

You mentioned you encountered a number of ethical challenges throughout your career. Is there another example you’d want to share?

I don’t even know where to start. We represented the American Medical Association. They had a problem. Doctors were not rejoining the AMA, and instead were joining their specialty associations, and leaving the AMA altogether. As medicine got more and more specialized, that meant they had declining revenues, so the head of marketing and the CEO and the chief counsel cooked up the idea that they would endorse medical-related products. The AMA seal of approval, if you will.

The first group of products that they picked was Sunbeam Appliances’ home health products. Well, there’s a photograph of the CEO and CEO of Sunbeam, holding their hands up in celebration of this great alliance. And it turns out that the CEO of Sunbeam is Chainsaw Al Dunlap, a notorious corporate raider who had taken the company over to clean it up and sell it, and the products, it turns out, were rated unacceptable by Consumer Reports.

Of course, all that makes the news. Now, the board of directors of the AMA calls us in to say, “What are we going to do about this?” It was a very difficult situation, and we ended up firing the CEO, the chief counsel, and the head of marketing. Those are situations that really test your character, because again, you’re dealing with people’s lives and you’re dealing with he said/she said kind of situations, and those are the really hard ones.

Beyond your personal examples, what do see as some of the top challenges communications managers are facing both in-house and at agencies?

Let’s talk about in-house first. I spent 10 years as the chief communications officer at Aetna. In those years, I had a lot of experiences that challenged me personally, because when you’re the chief communications officer, you’re in a situation where you can make recommendations to the rest of the management team, but you don’t make the final decision. The CEO makes the final decision, and oftentimes, those decisions are colored by factors other than the reputation of the organization.

My Middletown example would’ve been a good example. If the boss hadn’t backed me on that and said, “Nah, Lou. You’re overreacting. Let’s get them to work tomorrow,” is there a point at which the organization you work for is doing something that you just can’t live with ethically? Then you’re going to quit, and so this is a risky profession from that point of view. You’ve got to be willing to put your job on the line and say, “If you do that, I’m out of here.”

I like to tell the story of my friend, Barry. Barry was working in New York. He had teenage kids and he got offered the chief communications officer’s job at the Maytag Corporation in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Pulled his kids out of school, bought a house on Lake Michigan, got his wife a big SUV and started living large in Benton Harbor, Michigan. His office was next door to the CEO. He flew on the corporate jet. Life was good, right?

But if the Maytag Corporation is going to do something that Barry Holt can’t live with, there’s not another job for Barry in Benton Harbor, Michigan. He’s pulling those kids back out of school, packing up and moving back to New York. It can be a risky job, and I think we need to recognize that there are times when an organization’s going to do something you can’t live with, and you got to walk away.

What about on the agency side?

It’s a little easier if you’re in the agency business, because you simply resign the business. Although, even there you face other kinds of ethical challenges. We had an abusive client at MSL once, who was torturing the team, who was being abusive to the receptionist. If he couldn’t get his team leader on the phone, he’d call the front desk and he’s scream at the receptionist, “Find that guy right now.” That kind of jerk, and so the account director comes to us and says, “I think we have to resign this client.”

The client was billing $800,000 a year. It was covering the salaries of three team leaders, so we said to him, “Well okay, but which of your team members are you going to fire, because we can’t afford to keep them if we don’t have the money.” And so you face that kind of ethical challenge in the agency business. The difficult client or the client that’s really hurting the firm in some way is a constant ethical challenge in the agency business.

The related topic in consulting is which clients do you serve? In other words, what clients are acceptable to your firm and which clients are not? And who makes that decision? When I first took over the firm, when I first took over as CEO of MSL, I wrestled with that question, because we were asked by one of our agency partners to represent the United States Army. Well, I don’t like the Army. I spent six years in the Army, and I’ve become something of a pacifist. I wasn’t crazy about the job of recruiting people to join the Army.

But of course, it’s a legitimate client and it’s a legitimate cause, and many people think it’s a noble cause, and the team that was going to work on it was very enthusiastic about the opportunity. It was then that I realized that, if you’re the CEO, if you’re the owner of a small PR firm, sure, you can decide who you want to work for and who you don’t. But if you’re the CEO of a major worldwide firm, the CEOs opinion should not be the deciding factor in what clients the agency represents and which it doesn’t. That really ought to be up to the people that work there, with some boundaries obviously from the center.

We didn’t represent foreign dictators. We didn’t represent politicians. We had a major healthcare portfolio and had learned many times that our healthcare clients objected to anything that was related to cigarette smoking, so we crossed them off the list. But other than that, we left it up to the teams. And of course, they had to check with us, but by and large, it was the team’s decision as to who we’d represent and who we wouldn’t.

There’s so many issues, there’s strong feelings on both sides. Again, you got to be careful. You got to do full disclosure, but by and large, choosing who we represent … Because to some extent, the clients you represent define your firm. You want to be careful to have a portfolio of clients that a prospective client would look at and go, “Yeah.” Or an employee would look at and go, “Yeah, that’s an organization I’d like to be associated with.

You’ve been teaching students in the next generation. What are they concerned about? Or what are you finding resonates the most with the students?

I think there’s really a profound change going on in communications education. Particularly in, I teach in graduate school, and it’s particularly at the graduate level, and much less of a focus on tactical areas of expertise and much more of a focus on strategy and creative development. I think that’s reflective of what’s going on in the profession, which is that we’re more and more seeing the tools of the trade as tactical, and counting things like advertising as a tactic as opposed to advertising as a profession if you will. The profession, the appetite with students seems to be that the professional skill they want is the strategic planning, audience analysis, creative development kind of skills that could be applied to any tactical aspect of the communications field.

But are you seeing any ethical issues resonating with the students?

All of our students in the grad program that I teach in at University of Oregon take a required course in ethics, and we put an ethics component into every one of the sections that we teach. Lately, I’ve been teaching business courses, so last semester, I taught a course in communications management for communications professionals, and it was about general management skills, and then, as they specifically apply to both consulting and in-house communications management.

But I taught a course on ethics and talked about the ethical issues related to the management of communications, things like underperforming employees and how are they handled, things like equity and inclusion and those kinds of issues. No matter what we teach, we always include an ethical component. As far as the students’ concerns? I’d say generally speaking, the students don’t have enough experience with our business to really be able to identify those concerns, other than the popular ones that are in the news every day in America.

I know diversity and inclusion is a passion of yours. What are some of the ethical issues we’re facing in this area, and how can we help move the industry forward?

That’s a terrific question and a challenging one. I think that light bulbs are coming on all over America and elsewhere about the reality that we have not done enough. That is certainly true in the public relations business, as it is in pretty much every professional services consulting category. Law firms, advertising agencies, accounting firms, management consulting firms all have the same challenges, and the difference is that those firms tend to be 10x the size of even a very large PR firm, and so they have financial resources to put against this that we just don’t have.

We started doing a lot of work at the PRSA Foundation on this topic. One of the major accomplishments was a study that we commissioned at CCNY of young professionals in the business. I think the big insight there was that not only are we not doing enough in terms of recruiting underrepresented groups to join our profession, but we’re also not doing enough to keep them once they get here. One of the biggest challenges that you have is that a young person of color, for example, comes in to a PR firm and looks around, and there’s nobody else like her there, and she says, “What am I doing here? And who do I trust? And who do I talk to? Who do I tell my insecurities to?” And so forth, and so that’s spawned a whole new emphasis in the profession on retention, not just on recruiting.

Taking a step back and thinking about your career and your life, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Be a skeptic.

I think that, early on in my career, learning to probe and dig and really try to get to the heart of the matter was something that my boss Paul Alvarez, back in the Ketchum days, taught me and that I think I’ve carried with me all this time. And that’s why my journalism training was really very helpful, because that is some of the primary raison d’être when you’re a reporter is to keep digging and try to look, seek the truth.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content on diversity and inclusion 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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