Ethics, Communications, Business and Fake News – A Conversation with Fred Cook

Joining me on this week’s episode is Fred Cook, the Director of the USC Center for Public Relations and Chairman of Golin, one of the world’s largest public relations firms.

In a wide-ranging conversation, Fred discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

Well, it goes back a long way. I’ve been at Golin for 33 years now. I started in the LA office as an account supervisor. Then I ran LA and the West Coast, and about 18 years ago I moved back to Chicago to become the CEO, and then I did that for about 13 years. And then when I took the job on at USC, I transitioned into a chairman role at Golin where I still reside. And then for the last four years I’ve been teaching at USC at the Annenberg School. I teach public relations and leadership, and I also run the USC Center for Public Relations, which is sort of a think tank that connects the university with the industry.

What is the most difficult ethical situation you ever encountered in your career?

In the agency world, our ethical situations are mainly based around who we represent and who we do not represent, and there are often clients that approach us that we have some question about whether or not their business or their values are a good fit with our values and our people

For example, as a company, Golin has never represented a tobacco firm or anyone associated with tobacco. We do not work for politicians. We do not work for religions. And when we’re approached by a prospective client that we think is at all controversial, our board of directors reviews that particular opportunity, and then we vote on whether or not to proceed, and we do that with some regularity. I would say probably once a month something comes up that rises to the level of the board and we determine whether or not that makes sense for us to move forward.

How do you work through that? What does the board consider?

Well, some are easier than others. If it’s a cigarette company or anything to do with tobacco, it’s an automatic no, because that’s just been our policy for a long time. Other organizations can be more challenging. For instance, recently we were approached by a very well-known men’s magazine, and they asked us if we wanted to work for them. That was a debate, and our board is half men, half women, so there was a debate about whether our employees would feel proud to work for a brand like that and whether we would be happy to be associated with it, and we ultimately decided that that wasn’t a good fit for us. Sometimes we do this on a conference call where everybody gets together, and sometimes we do across email, and people essentially just vote thumbs up or thumbs down, and they give an explanation of how they feel about it, and then we tally those votes and make a decision based on that.

Looking beyond situations you face at Golin, what do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think PR has changed a lot since the early days. I think crisis management used to be very straightforward. You’d recall a product, you’d pull it off the shelves, you’d apologize and you’d remedy the people that were impacted negatively by that product. Now the issues that corporations and our clients face are way more complex and there is no real playbook to follow that says, “Here are the steps you follow if someone has been accused of financial wrongdoing, or sexual harassment,” or any of the topics that we see happening in the news today. I think those require a much more sophisticated sense of judgement… Because you’re dealing with a lot of complex groups and complex opinions on very controversial issues, so I think that the judgment of the communications person has to be much more highly honed in those kinds of situations. And the fact is, you’re making these decisions in realtime, so not only are they tricky to navigate, you’ve got to do them very quickly without the benefit of focus groups and research.

How can PR professionals best prepare to thrive in this environment?

I think first of all, you’ve got to be very much in touch with the values of your client or your agency. The more that you can codify your behavior in advance, the easier it is to make a decision when something happens, because you know immediately if this is a good thing or a bad thing or how we’re going to respond. Second, you must find out all the information as quickly as you can. I think sometimes these issues get prolonged and aggravated because the people communicating about them don’t know the full story in the beginning, and they have to keep retelling it over and over as the information comes out.

Oftentimes with a sticky issue, you’re better off resolving it as quickly as you can, and I think it means that people in communications have to understand what is at stake in a conversation about gun control, or a conversation about climate change, or a conversation about immigration. These are very complicated topics, and employees are asking companies what their stand is. Customers want to know what the organization believes about these topics.

So it’s not just enough to know about communications. You’ve got to understand everything you can about these individual issues, and many of them are quite complex and have very compelling stories on both sides. I think as you look at the current debate about Roe versus Wade, this is going to be something that companies are going to be asked to take a stand on, or employees are going to be inquiring what their company thinks. These are very complex and very emotional issues, and I think it requires a great sense of knowledge and keen sense of judgment on the part of the people who communicate about them.

What’s your recommendation to companies about taking a position on these causes and polarizing issues?

It’s interesting. In our research at USC, we asked CEOs this past year whether they were likely to speak out on a societal issue, and more than 60% said they were not. We asked communicators whether they were likely to speak out on a specific issue, and 60% of them said they were. So there was a little bit of a disconnect between the CEOs running companies and communications people. Keep in mind, they weren’t at the same companies, but at different companies.

I think the average CEO in the United States is not anxious to jump into the fray on these controversial topics. When we asked them the follow up question, which topics were they most likely to speak about, those were the ones that were closest to their business, and they were education, data privacy, diversity, and things that really impacted their actual business.

Controversial things like gun control and immigration were way down the list in terms of the priority for most CEOs to speak about. I think it’s because of two things. One is because they’re controversial, and that some of their clients or customers may feel differently about it, and secondly, they don’t have any impact on their business, so it doesn’t seem, for some of these senior executives, appropriate for them to be speaking on behalf of a company on a topic that they’re really not involved in.

In 2018 USC Annenberg released a global communications report on the evolution of ethics. Can you share some of the key findings from that report with us?

Overall, we found that it’s becoming more and more of a topic for people in our business to deal with, and we found also that very few companies feel prepared to deal with ethical issues. Many of them have codes of ethics, but they’re not widely known or widely espoused inside these organizations.

A lot of people felt that these ethical issues were going to be more prominent, but they were not necessarily prepared. We also asked students and professionals what industries they felt had ethical issues. There were a number of industries where people felt uncomfortable working in them because of the ethical ramifications of their business. Firearms and tobacco top that list. A lot of people are really uncomfortable working for political candidates and religious organizations. Nuclear power was also big on that list, so there are a number of industries that are having a hard time finding top communications people joining the industry or who want to be involved in those particular conversations.

How can communicators better prepare themselves to deal with these issues?

At the same time there’s all these ethical issues, there are changes in the media landscape, and right now there is a rising importance of paid media, owned media, branded content, native advertising, all of which I think people feel have some ethical issues associated with them.

Years ago, there was this Chinese wall between editorial and advertising in most media outlets, but because of the revenue model changes, that wall has been pretty much eliminated. So, I think that as we communicate, we have to be doubly careful that the information that we’re putting out there is accurate, because many times we don’t have the media as the go between to confirm these facts and to analyze and report on what’s true and what isn’t. The information is coming directly from a company or an organization through paid channels, and social channels, and branded content. I think it puts an onus upon communicators to be even more rigorous in terms of the truth of the information that they’re putting out there in this kind of environment.

I noticed in the study the distribution of fake news was ranked by more than 90% of respondents as one of the biggest ethical challenges facing the industry.

Right, and there are different kinds of fake news. There are some that are just plain falsehoods that are put out by teenagers in Macedonia who are trying to make money off social media, and there are others that are more subtle points of view that you have to look at very carefully and decide whether or not it’s coming from a credible source. Sort of the scary part is, we asked professionals in the PR field whether they thought that in the future, in the next five years, people were going to be able to distinguish between paid content and content that was written by a reporter, and the vast majority of PR professionals think the answer is no. That in the future, the ability to distinguish between what’s being paid and what’s being written or what’s an opinion piece and what’s a reporter’s article will be very hard to tell. And most people also think the average consumer won’t care.

So we’re in an environment where it’s very difficult to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t, and a lot of people are going to not really care anymore. They’re just looking for information that supports their own point of view. This means we have got to be even more rigorous about our approach to communicating in an environment where the old rules just don’t exist anymore.

There was a survey I read (we didn’t do it at USC) that examined different age groups and their ability to determine what is news and what is opinion, what is fact and what is an opinion. The interesting thing was, it’s not millennials that are having this confusion. It’s actually older people who have a harder time distinguishing between fact and opinion. I think a lot of that is because the news channels that they watch and read are very biased in their points of view, so they’ve gotten to the point where they’re hearing someone’s opinion and thinking that that is actually the truth, when in fact it’s just the opinion of that particular news outlet. Younger people seem to have a little bit better radar for some of this than older people, which I found was really interesting.

You mentioned it’s more important than ever for PR professionals to educate themselves. So where are you going to get up to speed on these key issues?

Well, the beauty of having this second job at USC, it just allows me to spend time thinking about these topics which I never had time to think about before, so then I’m surrounded by a lot of super smart people that work in journalism communications, and public relations, so for me it’s been an eye-opening experience to be part of the prestigious Annenberg School and to learn from all these different sources and to sort of be able to pick these topics and decide we want to explore them, whether it’s technology, or whether it’s ethics, or whether it’s what students are learning. Then I’m in the classroom with millennials, and it is mind boggling to see their approach to some of these topics, which is so different than what you might imagine. So, I think this academic experience for me has been a really powerful way to stay relevant and to also be exposing myself to new information all the time so that I can sort of be up to speed on what’s really happening in the world.

What are those topics that are really getting everybody energized over at USC?

There are a lot of things happening at USC these days that are getting people energized. Probably the most recent one was the college admissions scandal, which has been really an amazing phenomenon, and it has really struck an enormous nerve across the country. USC is not the only school involved with that, but watching that unfold and seeing the commentary about how people have been admitted to schools, or this wealth gap in terms of wealthy people having advantages over other people in terms of college admissions has been really an amazing experience, and I’ve learned a lot just from seeing how the various universities have been involved in that and the reaction of the students and the reaction of the faculty. It’s fascinating. The academic world, the dynamics there on all kinds of issues play out in a really interesting way, and it’s fascinating and very educational to be part of it.

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

The best piece of ethics advice I think probably would be from Al Golin. Al was always a sort of a guiding principle for us here at Golin, and he was the one who sort of set the standards on the kinds of companies we would work for. His message would be always just to tell the truth. And anytime we’re working for a client that we don’t feel good about, then we should resign that client.

He was always interested in people over profits, and that’s sort of the way we operate. We make decisions based on what we feel is right for our culture, not necessarily what is going to impact our bottom line, and we try to live on Al’s principles even though he’s not with us anymore.

That’s definitely a tough challenge that managers face, because when you’re resigning that client, if it’s a large client, then it could also mean you’re needing to reduce head count.

Yes. All of these decisions are difficult. A lot of the controversial clients pay a lot of money, because they need to, and so sometimes it’s hard to walk away from somebody that’s offering you millions of dollars to represent them on an issue. But if you don’t feel good about the nature of that issue or whether or not that fits with the culture of your company, it can be very damaging. Even though it’s financially rewarding, it would be very damaging to your long-term culture and to your employees.

I agree. In the end it’s going to be your reputation that takes a hit too and your employees trust in you.

Yes. Exactly.

Are there other thoughts or issues you wanted to raise or discuss about ethics?

I think that one of the things that struck me when we did this ethics report was this story about Bell Pottinger in the UK, a very storied PR firm that had been around about as long as Golin had, for a long time, founded by Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary. They were doing some work in one of their offices in South Africa that was deemed to be fake news. They were using fake Twitter addresses to put out information about a certain issue, and they were discovered to be doing that, and the people in South Africa went to the UK and filed a formal complaint with the PRCA. They were kicked out of the PRCA, and that agency was out of business within two weeks.

I think that’s a very eye-opening story for anybody that works at a PR firm, that if you’re not using ethical practices and standards in all of your offices and all of your accounts and all your people, that can have huge ramifications for your business. I thought that was a remarkable situation, to see a company that had been around 60 years be out of business in two weeks because of the sort of actions including using fake social media accounts.

We all have to be extremely cautious in the kinds of clients we work for, and the kind of things we do for those clients, because ultimately, our reputation can be damaged worse than our clients in situations like that.

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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