Ethical Challenges in Environmental Communications – Gary McCormick

Joining me this week on Ethical Voices is Gary McCormick, APR, Fellow PRSA. He is a past president of PRSA, owns his own consulting firm, previously worked in marketing and public relations for Scripps Networks Interactive, the parent company of cable networks HGTV, Food Network, and the Travel Channel, and has decades of experience in the energy industry.

This is one of the most fascinating interviews to date and Gary shares his ethics insight on topics including:

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

I’ve had a great career and had a lot of opportunities presented to me, but principally I had two different areas of focus. I worked in the media and environmental communication, so they’re about as divergent and as hard to connect as a career path as you could probably find. But what I found is that one really clearly prepared me better for the other. Working in media made me a much better partner for the media and knowing how to help tell the story for our clients, understand the concerns and the interests of their audience, and most importantly, the role that credibility plays overall.

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

I was very fortunate to pioneer some of the first public participations and largest public participation programs for the federal government, and they were in areas that were highly complex and highly controversial. Programs involved communities that faced possible impacts to their health and their lives if the work that our clients were doing wasn’t done well. So, let me tell you, when you’re doing that kind of work, your work’s scrutinized and criticized by people daily, and if you aren’t completely confident that you have the right information, that you’re doing the right thing, and that you are ethical in your work, it becomes evident very quickly, and you really don’t survive

Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I think the biggest ethical challenge has been facing the extreme controversy and poignant criticism from activists that questioned my own character and truthfulness in working with the communities. It came with the turf, and even though they didn’t know me or my work, they attacked the client with an intended outcome that they wanted to achieve. I’m not saying that their outcome was not a good outcome or wasn’t an achievable outcome, but the manner in which they did it sometimes questioned your ethics and your own performance.

I had to maintain my professionalism, not take those attacks personally and continue to reaffirm and commit that we were doing the right thing, communicating with the citizens, representing their interests with my client, and not reacting personally in the attacks. It was a very challenging time almost any time we got into the communities, one-on-one or in a public meeting.

What’s the advice for you when somebody is dealing with that advocacy group with a definite point of view? What’s the way to help convince them that you’re dealing with them ethically and honestly?

Well, I think the first thing is, and this is one of the things that I always tell my clients to do, is regardless of what you think of their opinion or their outcome, you must sit down and have a discussion with them. There has to be a two-way dialogue. That’s the only way that you can bring some information to the conversation that may help them to understand either the time or science constraints and what has been done and the data that you already have. Many times, there’s a reaction before there’s a review of the data, because people don’t understand the scientific data, and they’re defensive because they don’t. They don’t want to feel as though they’re not intelligent or not capable, and I think this is human nature. Anything that we don’t really understand, we tend to react negatively. We reflexively think you’re not better than I am, or you don’t know more than I am, or you don’t live here, you’re not responsible.

You have to get past a lot of the emotional barriers to communication. If you’re willing to just sit and listen and continue to provide support to their opinion, to basically justify that they have every right to get the information, that they have every right because this can impact their lives. You need to basically affirm that you will help their information get to the right people and get the answers. You have to become a liaison, not a representative for the client, and that’s one of the things in environmental work that we make very clear when we start with a client, is while you’re paying me, you need to understand that what I am is I’m a liaison to the community. I am the way in which they get a seat at the table with you to talk about their concerns and for us to address them and to move forward to the outcome that protects everyone.

How receptive were most clients to that point of view?

I will say at first, it’s difficult because it’s not the way they are used to doing business. One of the things I tell a lot of the communities is that I’ve worked with a lot of these people in a lot of environmental organizations with scientists and researchers. All of these people come to work every day to do a good job. They are passionate about what they do or they wouldn’t have gone into this type of work. So, they’re not trying to do wrong things or bad things. They are trying to do the best job they can.

What we need to understand is what are the outcomes that are the most favorable to this community and the client can deliver? Because sometimes the science is not there yet for what they would like. The other thing is it’s a long time to do most environmental cleanup, just like it’s been a legacy to get to that point. Most of these environmental issues have built up over decades, and it won’t go away overnight, and that’s very frustrating for communities. It is important to make the client understand that they have these frustrations that we’re going to have to work through, but it’s going to take time. I tell them if I look as though I’m just speaking for you, there will be no communication and we’ll be right back where we started before I came to the table.

Looking back as you’ve dealt with these situations, is there anything you would change or do differently?

Well, every day is a learning experience. Every community is different, every technology is different, every client is different, so I think we all continue to learn. But a key lesson I learned is at the end of the day, I have to really, truly believe what I’m saying. I’m forced to educate myself in highly technical areas, but I also have to be willing to question authority, especially in the environmental area, because people’s lives, health and wellbeing could possibly be at risk. If you take that away from them, you can’t give it back.

Also, to that end, you can’t recover your own reputation if you’re caught supporting a falsehood or inaccuracy from your client or your cause. The end does not justify the means in this type of work, so I learned to ask:

  • What do you know?
  • When did you learn about it?
  • Who did you tell about it?
  • What did you do about it?
  • How can we improve the situation?

I learned to say those things before I ever left the client’s office and started interacting with the public. If they aren’t comfortable with those answers or you aren’t comfortable with those answers, then you need to make the change and move on, because if you can’t get the absolute truth about where things are and what’s known, if it comes out later, you have lost your reputation and you’ve lost your ability to do the job for them.

By the way, this same process works well for managing people and being a parent. In fact, when I started down this line of questioning with my children, I used to get, “Don’t PR me,”

How do you really dig in to make sure you’re comfortable with the data and understand it?

It takes a lot of reading and a lot of sitting there going, this doesn’t make sense. At one point I had 10 offices and 60 people working on one of these programs. So, clearly, you have to bring on and train up a lot of people. I told them, “You’re going to sit down and you’re going to read these documents today, and a week from now you’re going to look at them again, and a month from now you’re going to look at them again. Somewhere between three to six months, you are going to get it.”

There’s a definite learning curve here. I mean, once you’ve worked in this type of industry, it’s probably a little quicker, but for a person first starting in it, it’s very frustrating because you read it and it just doesn’t stick; it just doesn’t make sense.

I would repeatedly say, “Well, it says this. Could I also say this and it means the same?” You sometimes need to challenge the technical people to change their nomenclature. I worked with one client, and it was basically an incineration process. It was a high heat process for dissolving some chemicals, and there were certain terms that we were working with that we knew Greenpeace used very actively against the program, and so we went in and talked to the technical people, and we changed some of the vocabulary and how they talked about their technology, not because it was wrong, but because it would give the wrong perception at the first discussion. If you put up those roadblocks immediately, you don’t get past that openness that you need to have a dialogue.

I have found there are just certain words that cause barriers to communication. There’s certain actions that caused barriers to communication, and that’s something that you learn as you work in this industry. It’s not being untruthful, it’s really trying to facilitate that conversation and bringing it down to a level where you can start the conversation, and then you can build it just like I did with my employees. You start at a more basic level, and then you build to a more complex and a better understanding of technology and science. So, it’s bringing people along just like you would do in a school process. You must understand that those people you talk to won’t know it the first day and you’re going to have to work with them and bring them along.

You mentioned barriers to communication and really simplifying things. You’re dealing with some very litigious issues. How do you work with them to balance points of view?

Every company and every client has been different, but the folks that are in the legal industry are there to protect the company from outcomes. Once they’ve understood, as I sat down with them, that that’s basically where I’m working from as well, it gets a little bit easier. Now, they still have certain language they want to use and need to use. That’s a part of their profession, and I respect that. I have great respect for almost all the legal people that I’ve worked with, but the one thing that happens is you start getting a rhythm with them and building a trust with them as well. It’s almost no different than working with the citizens and the communities. At first it’s a no, no, no, you can’t say that, that puts us at risk.

Once they understand that you will work with them to make sure that doesn’t happen, that that’s an outcome that you want to avoid as well, it really becomes almost a rhythm. Almost all of the projects I worked on got to the point that we were at the table at the same time discussing the same issues and coming to a resolution. You have to build a partnership with them, no different than you have to build a partnership with senior management. If you have a board of directors that advises you, if you have outside investors, it’s a partnership with all of those people. Communication has to be prevalent across the organization, and consistent.

How are you seeing social media impacting environmental communications?

I think that’s one of the biggest challenges we all face, because while we used to be able to sit down with reporters that worked in this environmental area and had a basis of knowledge that you could work with, in social media, anyone can comment, however emotionally, however truthfully.

It really stirs the controversy and makes it much more difficult to come to the table and have discussions, because you get extreme points of view that are isolated and you don’t have any way of sitting down, and they don’t want either to talk to you or they don’t want to listen.

I respect their opinion. They have every right to have their opinion, but what it does is it hampers the community’s opportunity to get the full story and be a part of the decision. So, it’s definitely a challenge. I mean, I think we all have to deal with that in any industry. That’s not just environmental. I think that when we made everybody a citizen journalist, we made our industry much more complex

Ethically, how do you deal with those voices that may not want to listen or be off spreading incorrect information?

Well, I don’t think you should ever be confrontational in our industry. That doesn’t ever benefit you. If they don’t want to sit down and have a discussion, if they don’t want to be part of a public meeting, a panel, those type of things where people can basically judge the two at the same time, if it becomes a narrow cast, if it becomes an isolated voice in a certain area, then what you have to do is be proactive in just putting out information that not necessarily contradicts it, but as much information about the program that you can have, and make it widely known that it’s available. Not that you force people to go to it, but that you make sure they understand that it’s there for them to do the evaluation.

It’s up to the individual to go look at the balance in the news, to go look at the other side of the story to determine whether it’s real or it didn’t really happen. It’s a challenge, and it takes a lot of time, and that’s why we have citizens advisory groups or liaison committees or a group of people in the community that are charged with working with our clients to get the information firsthand, and they become then a third party source back to the community.

That really has been the most successful, as opposed to the isolated voices. I think on the average, at least from what I’ve seen, the community overall doesn’t look at extreme voices. They come back to that bell curve and look in the middle to see what parts of it they think they need to look at more, as opposed to just taking the extremes verbatim and assimilating that as a fact to move on.

Taking a step back, what do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges today?

One concern I have deals with social media and public relations persons being active on their own channels. I’ve long asked the question about how effective a counselor or a public relations professional can be to their clients when they’ve already established their own social media personality with deliberate political or social views or opinions. I just question (and this is, again, my personal opinion) but are you able to be equitable and balanced in your work for clients when you already have a pronounced opinion?

When you use your own social media and become a voice in a certain area, I think it really will limit the clients that you can be a strong advocate for, and your own ability to see alternate views and opinions in counseling the client. I think we all, as professionals, need to be very careful about our own channel and how much voice we put into that. I mean, all of us, of course, like a lot of things, and it’s very easy to see a person’s probably personality and opinions and beliefs. But I think there’s a fine line there when you cross to become more of an advocate and less of a counselor.

Let me dig into that a little bit more, because I think that’s interesting. What you are saying is be careful about the point of views and make sure you understand how it may impact your business, but it’s still okay to have opinions on Facebook about sports or things of that nature?

Correct. It’s very fun when you’re looking for those follows and you’re looking for those likes. I mean, there’s a lot of behavioral science around this that shows it’s an addictive thing.

There’s a certain amount of endomorphs that come with it, and I think you can get caught up in that. I say this much more to probably younger professionals than more seasoned ones.  I think that those coming up, especially when the profession is looking to those people to manage and work in their social media channels, it becomes a natural thing to them, and I’m not sure they understand the extension that it puts out there that is very easy to evaluate by clients.

I mean, granted, most people would never go to work for a client that they aren’t compatible with the culture or the beliefs or the product or the reputation. I don’t have any research to back this other than empirical, of watching some young professionals and even some more seasoned professionals have very, very vocal opinions and voices on their social media, such that they really are limiting many of the clients that they might be able to serve, or limiting the clients that would hire them because they’ve seen their opinions on social media.

I think you need to think it through. If, ethically, you’re fine with putting that out there and know it’s going to limit you professionally or personally, I say go for it. But I think we need to just stop for a moment and say, “Yeah, we don’t ever put the ethical part of what you say on social media and on our earned platforms.” Clearly, we do it for our clients. We talk about it all the time when we managed their social media. So, it’s just kind of what is your brand and what can you do on social media that may impact it. Ethically, it deals with how well can you represent your client?

Are there other issues that are of concern or you’re seeing people struggling with?

With the rise of paid, earned, social, and owned, it’s just very difficult, especially in an industry like environmental, to get messaging out to people. It’s just a very complex and hard thing to manage. We used to be able to streamline communications. There were only a couple of ways to get to people. There are so many ways now that it’s very difficult to get to all of them and to put the message in the right format.

It’s a very difficult way to communicate with the public because so much is coming at them and they filter it.  You go back to Plato and Socrates. If I don’t believe your opinion, I don’t hear it anyway, so it’s just made that whole process of communication more difficult

In terms of helping make it less difficult, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I repeat this every day, but it was told to me your ethics are who you are, not who you want to become.

You can’t aspire to be ethical in this business, because you’re out of business if you’re not ethical. You can improve it, but if you’re not ethical already, you can’t aspire to be ethical. I think that’s something that’s innate to the person. If you just operate that way, it’s part of who you are. Now, can we become better about it and recognizing it? Yes, but it’s not an aspiration.

Listed to the entire 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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