Joining me on this week’s episode is Scott Monty, a neoclassical digital executive. He is a keynote speaker, advisor, a self-proclaimed recovering Fortune 10 executive, and one of the pioneers of social media. Welcome, Scott.
Our discussion addressed a number of important topics, including:
- The perils of obfuscation (or why to say fire instead of thermal event)
- The top ethics challenges facing communicators today
- How many tech companies are ethically challenged
- Ethics advice from the classics that is still relevant today
Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
People hear neoclassic digital executive and they’re like, “What the heck is that?” The way I like to tell the story is I am possibly the only person you know who led digital and social at a Fortune 10 company who was also a classics major in college. Classics is not something that people usually seek out. It’s usually something you fall into, and that’s how it happened with me. I was at Boston University pursuing a pre-med course of study and I decided I didn’t want to major in science, even though I was going to be steeped in science eventually, I thought.
I tried out a couple of courses in Greek and Roman civ and I just fell in love with this notion that we have so much to learn from the ancients. The thing is, and I’ve realized this more in my career, it’s constant. The stuff that we’ve learned over the course of thousands of years is still happening today and it’s human nature writ large. If you look at things like ethics struggles and power struggles and motivational factors for people, whether it’s in a personal relationship or a workplace situation, it’s still the same as it was 2,000 years ago.
When I was at Ford from 2008 to 2014 leading social media and digital communications, there was this great desire to get on any particular platform as it came out. I would put the brakes on and really understand the motivating factor. Why were individuals, departments, teams, et cetera, interested in doing a particular thing and try to uncover the motivations and the reasons behind it and then guide them forward with a strategy that would be timeless. That would fit regardless of whatever platform came along next so that it was really centered on the fundamentals of communication and the fundamentals of dealing with customers.
You mentioned timeless issues, and one of the timeless issues we all grapple with are ethical challenges. Will you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?
It’s funny because when we talk about ethics as a kind of a theoretical thing, and I know there’s a lot of business schools that teach ethics, they have an ethics course particularly for MBAs, it tends to be fairly theoretical. It isn’t until you sit down and you’re faced with something and it smacks you… sometimes it’s not as stark, it’s not as black and white as you might see in a case study. It just kind of creeps up on you.
There was an occasion where our communications team was addressing a safety issue and used a term that very clearly would not be a term that normal people would throw around in conversation and euphemistically referenced what would commonly, well, in this case what would commonly be called a fire.
It was referred to in the communications team as a thermal incident, and we were expected to go out and talk with people about this and to use that as our official message. I basically said, “Are you kidding me with this? I can’t with a straight face use the term ‘thermal incident’ when everybody is already talking about fire.” There are certainly legal implications there and it had to be handled with a wink and a nudge, but also with an acknowledgement that I knew where the concern was coming from.
When somebody is doing something you think, “That is not quite right”, what’s your approach to educating and advocating your position?
Well, in that case, and certainly with the advent of social media, the thing is you’re able to point out, not just from an internal perspective, from a single-person perspective, but from what the public is saying and what the public reaction might be. You can pull up all sorts of analytics and data and individual anecdotes to show people where trends are going and how the message is actually being accepted or rejected and how it’s being pulled through. There’s kind of a real-time A/B test going on in the marketplace that helps those executives are interested in getting feedback, helps them understand where they can perhaps do a little better.
Beyond your experience there, what do you personally see as some of the key communications ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Well, there’s a couple. I think one is that we see many companies now doing what they call customer experience journey mapping, and they tout how customer-centric they are, and then they take certain actions. Maybe it’s how they react to an issue or how they do or don’t stand behind a particular product if it has a defect. The actions in this case are sometimes not matching the intended phrase, the intended direction of the company, and for a company to say, “Hey, we’re customer-centric”, and yet do things that completely obliterate that phrase, it’s hypocrisy. I think that’s something we’ve seen since the earliest days of the Internet is people can see through disingenuous behavior. They can see a line of BS from a mile away, and when something isn’t authentic they’ll call it out.
The other thing, and this kind of is in parallel with that, is I think we’re seeing a lot of brands now grasping onto this notion of more than corporate responsibility, of purpose-driven marketing. Maybe attaching themselves to some political or social issue and bringing it into their communications and marketing. Again, if it’s not a core part of who you are or why you’re in business, it’s just appropriating a trend. People can see right through that and it makes you look worse if it doesn’t actually fit within the culture of your company.
Your advice to those companies is when you’re looking at getting involved in that cause-related communication, make sure it aligns to your core business purpose?
Absolutely. It has to be part of the core business purpose, it has to be part of the company culture. The employees need to understand it through and through, and it can’t be met with kind of a virtual eye roll, with a, “Here we go again. Here’s the latest thing.” It really has to be part of the core belief system. To me, there’s so much of what’s happening here in terms of ethics and potential ethics violations that has to do with a company’s culture, and it really does come from the top down.
You look at what happened with Wells Fargo in the past few years and the things that were going on with additional accounts that were being signed up, the pressure that the local managers were under to increase the number of accounts. That came from somewhere, and we’ve seen back and forth and fingers being pointed. That is something that’s more than just, “Oh, it happens to be a couple of bad apples in a certain market, in a certain region.” That’s something that was driven through the culture of that institution and that’s what I mean when I say it has to be part of your culture in order for it to be authentic and in order for it to really take.
You’ve been a senior executive at a Fortune 10 company and you’re talking about the importance of instilling ethics throughout the organization. How do you go about doing that as a leader yourself?
I think it first comes from modeling the appropriate behavior and being very open about it. When being faced with decisions, helping people through the decision process that you’re making. Help them understand what the implications are, lead by example, and bring it up in meetings and town halls and whatever forums are appropriate to really hash this out. Quite frankly, there may be other points of view that you’re not taking into account, pro or con in this case and having a spirited debate, being willing to accept opposing forms of viewpoints and hearing people out is really essential, particularly internally.
The thing is, some of these bits of support or objection may come from corners of the company that you really didn’t expect. Maybe it’ll come from somebody on the front line, somebody who’s dealing with customers. Maybe it’ll come from someone in the back room in IT. I think all points of view are valid when it comes to ethics, and when you’ve got a company that touches customers and employees and shareholders, you really need to take into account lots of different viewpoints to hash that through.
When you’re working globally, how do you deal with some of the different accepted business practices in different countries while still maintaining your high ethical standards?
I think the first comes from having a strong compliance program. There are certainly laws and customs and regulations about things like bribery and favors and whatnot, but I’ll tell you a story about an instance we ran into in the early days in digital and social, particularly in China.
I won’t say it was condoned, but it was a cultural norm in China for companies to hire netizens, anybody online, to create fake reviews or fake forum posts that were derogatory about their competition. There’s certainly laws against that, or at least norms about that here in the United States, but in China it was truly the Wild West.
We couldn’t necessarily do anything about the negative behavior. We could certainly counter with what we were actually doing to make sure that people were aware, but the first step that we took was to say, “Look, we are not going to engage in that kind of behavior regardless of customs, regardless of what our competition is doing because we have a standard, a very high standard, and that it works at a global level, not just in certain regions.”
When I was looking at your website, when I saw that you recently wrote a blog post about how tech companies are ethically challenge, would you care to elaborate on that a little bit?
This has been playing out in the news certainly over the last two years or so. We know about the various platforms that we’ve heard about as far as manipulation of information and even hacking over the course of elections, and Facebook looms large in all of this because it is the largest platform out there, but it is also the most lax when it comes to its ethical standards. Facebook has over the course of its short history been governed by apology it seems. They will put a toe over a certain technical/ethical line, whether it’s invasion of privacy or how they deal with your data or a whole number of things, and then there will be a great big blowback, a collective gasp from the online community and Facebook will say, “Our bad, we’re sorry”, and then they’ll step back and yet then they will creep forward eventually back to that step when they think that the storm has blown over.
I think that’s a dangerous way to do business because all they’ve done is get called on things and then apologize. It’s very clear that they’re doing quite well as a company and yet they’ve got people that are in almost sweathouse conditions looking through some of the most vile content online. Casey Newton did a big expose on this in The Verge about the PTSD that their contractors are going through. They’re not employees, they’re contractors at Facebook to get through this content. The company doesn’t seem to have an empathetic bone in its body. It seems very engineering driven and very dispossessed when it comes to understanding the human emotional toll that some of these behaviors are taking.
You’re counseling about more companies taking into account that human emotional toll and what they’re asking of their employees?
Yeah, and to me this is where I come back to where we started, talking about classics. Facebook I think could have done a lot better if it had more liberal arts folks on staff rather than just engineers at its earliest days. A very technically-driven company to do what it did, that’s great, but there was no one there who understood sociology, who understood psychology, at least at a deeper level, and who understood what the potential implications might be when this rolled out and how humans have acted over time. The stuff that Facebook is exposing now isn’t new. Again, this is human behavior that’s been embedded in our psyche since time immemorial. It’s just amplifying it.
I think having that view towards a more human side as well as the technical side, and it’s where the two pieces fit…It was Albert Schweitzer who said, “The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.” This gets back to the customer centricity thing. If you’re making decisions but you actually aren’t going through the purchase process yourself, if you aren’t experiencing it through a customer’s eyes, if you aren’t feeling the same kind of pain that someone feels when something goes wrong, then you truly aren’t being as empathetic and being in solidarity with other humans as Schweitzer said.
I think that’s a good piece of advice, and speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I think it comes from my parents, who told me a couple of things. One is to trust your instincts. You’ve got a good sense about you, so trust that. The other thing is, “If anything goes wrong at school or in your life, we want to hear it from you first, not from a third party.” Boy, isn’t that the truth? When a company these days has some kind of transgression, let’s say it’s a data breach for example, it’s important to their customers if their customers want to retain the sense of loyalty and trust in that company to hear it from the company first, for them to say, “Hey, we messed up.” Whether it was a huge screwup or a minor one, for a company to own its mistakes rather than delaying and waiting until they’re called out by some regulatory body or some Freedom of Information Act, people appreciate that notion of being upfront and just having a sense of candor.
Is there anything else you wanted to talk about with regards to ethics?
Well, I think ethics on its face, it can be a little dry or uninteresting for people, and I’ve long believed that we need more accountability, more ethical behavior. Certainly with the advent of social media, we know that people are likely to find out what’s going on behind the scenes, and quite frankly, they like knowing how the sausage is made in some cases. They like to be part of the process, and if you’re doing something untoward or something unethical, guess what? It’s going to be discovered eventually, and particularly in today’s political environment, I look at CREW, The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and I love what they’re doing because they are holding people to account that might not otherwise be held responsible.
I think we need that. We need that in government, we need it in business, and we need leaders who actually get out there and show their ethics, show how they act responsibly and own behavior and think about the consequences of their actions. We need to have a collective conversation about that and make ethics something that is not an afterthought. Not something that you address when you’ve got a problem, but something that you do every day and lead in a way that is inspirational for people, not demotivational.
Based on what you’ve seen so far in your work and your research, Mark, have you seen any behavior in customer transactions or customer feedback when a company acts in a more ethical way?
I’d say I still have a relatively small sample size where I think it’s more interesting actually is if you look at Ethisphere. I was at their conference and they’re showing that people want to work with more ethical companies and they are definitely showing a lift in business when they can understand that companies are ethical and behaving in a right way. The thing about being the most ethical company isn’t you’re perfect, it isn’t that you’re not making mistakes. It’s that when you make mistakes, you fix them and in the right way as quickly as possible. They have a lot of interesting data points showing the business value of being ethical.
When I was at Ford, I think we were awarded some annual award from Ethisphere for quite a number of years, and it got me to thinking, that at Ford it was more than just about mechanical issues. There was a wave of standards, a wave of ethics that went through the whole supply chain and Bill Ford, the Executive Chairman and the great-grandson of Henry Ford is and was a huge environmentalist. You think, “Well, how does a car guy get to be an environmentalist? How does that fit with ethics?”
He said, “Look, if we are putting so many cars on the road, then we need to be as mindful of the environment as possible”, and that’s why Ford has been leading a big push to electrify its fleet, which means not just electric cars, but hybrids and plug-ins and a whole host of things that serve most people because they realize just having a high-end electric vehicle like a Tesla, that’s only going to serve a luxury market. Henry Ford, he wanted to… you talk about ethics, back from his time, and he’s a flawed individual, no question about that, but he wanted two things. He wanted to make transportation affordable for all, and he wanted to make the products that his people were making affordable to them. He paid them a higher wage. He doubled wages in 1915 I think it was to $5 an hour at the time, which is unheard of.
He made sure that his car was affordable, and similarly, Bill Ford wants affordable, environmentally-responsible transportation for all. It goes even down to the Rouge factory, where they make the storied F-150. It has a green roof and a parking lot that siphons off rainwater for reuse in its grounds. There are all kinds of steps that companies large and small can take that can be ethical that aren’t necessarily about just making a decision about, “Well, do I lie about something or not?” It’s much broader than that.
If people want to take steps to educate themselves about human nature 3,000 years ago, are we talking Herodotus or are we talking Ovid? Or who do you recommend?
One of my favorite sources for that, and I keep it right on my desk here, is good old Marcus Aurelius. He has a work called Meditations.
He was a Roman emperor and he really reflected on his upbringing and the influence on his life and what he could control and what he couldn’t. I think that’s a big part of the Stoics, who are seeing a resurgence these days, is understanding what’s within your power to control and what isn’t and focusing on the things that you can control. Check out the Gregory Hays translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.
Listen to the full episode, with bonus content, here:
- This Week in PR Ethics (10/22/20): Disinformation, Misinformation and Deepfakes - October 22, 2020
- What Ethics Lessons Can You Learn from 50 Cases of Beer, Football and Food? – Jay Baer - October 19, 2020
- This Week in PR Ethics (10/15/20): Making tough choices and avoiding bad ideas - October 15, 2020