How to Act Ethically When Managers and Competitors Overpromise: Mike Neumeier

Joining me on this week’s episode is Mike Neumeier. Mike is the CEO of Arketi Group, an integrated marketing consultancy that helps B2B organizations generate revenue and accelerate growth through intelligent strategy, writing, marketing, and public relations.

During our interview, Mike shared his insight on how to deal with ethics issues, including:

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

I’ve spent the majority of my career in B2B technology, and most of it in the agency world. I attribute that to my early college days at the University of Florida where I had the privilege of having three roommates that were all engineers. So, I take a great amount of pride in the fact that I was able to socialize them to the point where people understood what they said, and they’re all productive executives. I just kind of fell into technology back in the early ’90s, pre-internet days, and never found my way out.

And because Atlanta, which is where our agency is headquartered, is really a hub for business to business technology versus consumer technology, that’s kind of the area I grew up in. Nitty-gritty things like enterprise resource planning systems, supply chain management systems, CRMs, and now marketing automation. We’ve always been a hub for business grade technology. We like to say, you know here in Atlanta B2B technology isn’t necessarily sexy unless you like making money and in that case it’s really sexy.

I like how you were talking about being in tech before the internet. I was going to say, do you still remember your MCI Mail number?

I do not remember MCI Mail number, but I certainly remember setting up some very interesting programs back in the day with Bell South and Southern Bell in terms of being able to blast fax news releases, to 25 fax numbers all at the same time. That way someone didn’t have to stand up at the fax for the better part of a day trying to fax out a news release.

Pivoting away from our tech reminisces, can you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I guess I’ve been fortunate that I haven’t had the huge monumental ethical issue over my career. I’ve run my own agency for the past 10-12 years, but there definitely have been times when I worked for other people that possibly ran into some business ethical issues. Less though with our clients. I’ve never had a client, for example, that’s ask us to lie about something or stretch the truth or create a shadow organization that would advance a point.

But, I have worked under a few folks that probably made a few overreaching promises as far as what an agency can or can’t do for a client. Those are always tricky situations, especially when you’re early in your career and you’ve got a business owner that’s all but guaranteeing something will happen and all you can do is work your butt off to try to make it happen – and you know, it’s not a guarantee. In the PR world we can’t guarantee placements. We can’t guarantee that that elite media outlet is going to take interest in a story or that they’re even going to sit down and have a cup of coffee with someone. But it puts a young professional in an uncomfortable position where all they can do is try as hard as they can.

Also, I did work for an organization once where on the consumer side of things they had possibly set up an organization that was not so transparent as far as who was representing the client and it was slightly hazy in terms of disclosure of information. It was back in the ’90s and it became a big deal in the trade press. But I never worked on that line of business and I was so young that it almost, I don’t say it didn’t concern me, but it wasn’t a direct impact on me. Looking back on it, it was direct impact on maybe the ethos of the agency itself, in the agency leader who was a great guy, but he liked to push the limits pretty hard.

What are the guidelines you follow for proper disclosure?

The guidelines are pretty straightforward. There’s nothing wrong with setting up trade organizations or coalitions or alliances of like-minded companies. You just have to be public about who’s behind it and who’s funding it. I mean this is seen all the time in industries like the beverage world where they will stand up an association to advance the message.

We’ve worked very closely with the NTSC, the National Technology Security Coalition, which is headquartered here in Atlanta, and it represents the voice of the chief information security officer nationally, particularly in Washington DC. It is founded by the Technology Association of Georgia and its members are basically blue-chip companies, CISOs across the US so it’s very transparent as to who’s involved and where the funding comes from and what the mission is.

And quite frankly the mission is simply to advance understanding among policymakers of what the business world goes through as it relates to information security because we have a lot of policymakers and a lot of bureaucrats which are trying to create policy rules and regulations and don’t necessarily understand the implications on business. And then we have a lot of national groups even within Homeland Defense that really want to be very well connected into the business side of what they are seeing with regard to information security. So, it can be a little bit of a canary in the coal mine if you want. I think that’s a good example of setting up an organization that advances an agenda but has total transparency and disclosure of information and free flow of that information.

So, you’re talking a lot about information and security and one of the key issues over the past couple of years obviously is the rise of GDPR and then the California Consumer Privacy Act. Are you seeing ethical issues around security and privacy that you’re grappling with as an agency owner?

That’s a great question. Less so on the public relations side, more on the marketing communications side. There are organizations that are big believers in batch and blast. Let’s buy a list of 5,000 emails, throw it in the email engine and send stuff out and see what happens. That’s no longer an effective approach in marketing and communications. Also, it really violates many different laws and regulations even going to CAN-SPAM. And it puts the organization in in an awkward place. So, we would, of course, counsel folks not to do that. Take the time and labor to build up a list of prospects and folks that want your information. It boils down to having really good content that people want to get from you.

We’re only going to see tighter and tighter restrictions in this area. It is going to be problematic for our industry and for our organizations if it’s not really addressed at the federal level because trying to remain in compliance with 50 different laws is just going to make the marketer go crazy. So, it really is better addressed at the federal level so there’s guidance in one area. At this point in time I think California is the most likely to be the most restrictive, so probably adhering to what California decides to build in terms of regulations is going to keep marketers on the straight and narrow.

Are there other issues?

In my day-to-day work I do more on the front end of the business and obviously talk to prospects and CMOs. I do a lot of education around working with agencies and what agencies can and can’t do for you. And the line I’ve been using really for the last 15 years now pertaining to Arketi but also to previous firms that I was executive at is that I like to say we talk about money early and often.

In the agency client relationship, if there’s not a clear understanding of what the client’s paying for, what they expect to get for what they pay, then there’s a huge disconnect. So, having those conversations really right at the onset of starting a relationship makes it clear what can and can’t happen within the realm of public relations, marketing, digital marketing, and what folks are paying for. And I think that helps a lot in insulating the agency and the client from starting to tip toe into ethical grounds that are shaky.

Circling back to the very first point you made about over promising. What do you do as an agency owner when you’re in that competitive new business pitch and you’re seeing other firms that you know are making claims that are not based in reality? How do you ethically compete against people where you know other folks are fudging the truth and a little bit?

You can throw on top of that the paid media opportunities. So many respected media outlets have paid contributor opportunities, which I have seen other agencies present as straight-up earned media opportunities when we know they’re not. So, all you can really do is point that out to prospects and point out that it’s not a guarantee. I was just speaking with a colleague this morning about a media placement that we have secured for a client and apparently the reporter we are working with walked out of the media outlet yesterday and left their job. That happens more and more. We have fewer and fewer reporters.

So, the opportunity for content is smaller and smaller. And I always get worried when a brand is looking to buy a relationship based on who people know because the media landscape is changing so quickly that whereas 20 years ago you might buy an agency based on their Rolodex. Now I think you have to look to purchase an agency based on their understanding to craft and create a compelling story that they know is going to resonate with media outlets if you’re looking for media relations and understanding that framework and then that can be applied to any industry or any outlet because people are changing jobs so quickly that relationships are great but they’re just not bankable like they used to be.

People are going to promise what they’re going to promise. We can only, as practitioners, speak to our own truth and what we know ourselves and our teams can deliver. So, anytime you start stretching outside based on what someone else is going to promise, I think you get yourself in trouble. And you know, at the end of the day, many times it comes down to cost. And you have to feel comfortable looking someone in the eye and admitting we’re not the low-cost leader in this area of providing services and we’re good with that.

I think when you’re talking about the relationships and people over promising on it, is I always say yes, I have a lot of relationships built up over 25 years. That means they’ll tell me no to my face. If the story is not right, it doesn’t matter how good the relationship is. They may have listened to me but it’s not going to guarantee a story ever.

Absolutely. I was going to say once you start getting into the crisis arena and actually handling crisis communications, which can be closely aligned with ethics because people can get themselves in trouble. I mean you really just need that north point or the center post that guides you on knowing what a reasonable person would appropriately expect a great organization or a leader to do when they’re confronted with a situation like the one at hand. And if you use that just as your simple guidepost, which is a simple area to focus on, then I think you’re almost always heading in the right direction.

Beyond Arketi Group and beyond your own personal experience, what are some of the key ethics challenges you’re seeing for today and tomorrow?

I think we’re going to continue to see the bleeding of paid media being pawned off as earned media straight up in the media relations world. In the digital marketing world, it’s not over with Cambridge Analytica. The vast amount of information that’s being collected on consumers to be able to re-market things that they might or might not want is a pretty slippery slope.

I remember, and this was even a few years ago, sitting in our back patio with a group of friends talking about a very benign subject. Someone asked how many presidents of the United States have been divorced and no one knew and we were talking about it and of course our age-old phrase comes up, which is if only we had the ability to hold the world’s knowledge within the palm of our hands. Oh, yes, we do. Somebody Google it.

And the fact that someone picked up their smartphone and started to Google how many presidents and before they even had finished the word presidents, Google had kindly filled in as a suggestion, “Presidents have been divorced,” was just a smack in the face that you’re being listened to.

We do a fair amount of consumer research even on the B2B side and what we’re increasingly finding, especially with the millennials, is they are very willing to give away their information, even personally identifiable information. We’re starting to see a swing with Generation Z pulling back a little bit. So, it might be interesting, but we might get to the point where all the information is out there and people don’t really care.

As an agency owner, how do you make sure you hire ethical employees?

Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know that there’s an ethical test out there but some of it comes down to gut and then it comes down to observation over time. I think that we’re still in an environment where we should trust people at face value and let them disprove us. If you have hired someone that seems to have some ethical issues, I think you would want to address that sooner rather than later.

And I think a lot of people miss during the hiring process talking to references, whether they be given provided references or backdoor references. LinkedIn’s a great thing. You can always see who you’re connected to and finding that out from trusted third parties is important. Maybe we’ve been really blessed, but I still choose to believe that 99.9% of folks out there have nothing but great intentions in mind.

What about ethics training? Is there anything you recommend for doing that to keep people aware of these rising issues?

I have to give a plug to PRSA. PRSA addresses the topic of ethics on annual basis within their programming and within their publications. Circulating, sharing that information and talking about it within the agency is something we always do. But we make sure that we have our own internal compass so people understand what are some of the values we as an organization believe in and what is the purpose of the organization.

One of our values is around we have voices for a reason and that’s to use them internally and externally. Hierarchy doesn’t matter. Title, tenure and talent doesn’t matter. If you have a great idea or are worried about something, you should speak up and speak out. And I think that making sure that your employees understand things like that is important. One of our other pillars is built around being your best self and people need to understand what being your best self means. And we want everyone empowered to do that and give them the tools and time to make it happen. Then hopefully you’ve hired great people and they’ll deliver.

Is everyone entitled to PR representation?

That’s a great question. My gut would say yes, but not like it is a court-assigned defendant. Every PR firm does should not feel like they have to take on a client if it doesn’t fit within their own structures or interests, I think that’s fine.

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

It’s probably the same piece of advice everyone that you’ve had on your podcast gives, which is what if what you were doing was turned into a headline in the daily newspaper that your mother reads. I think that’s the best piece of ethical advice. If your mother were to read about it in the newspaper tomorrow morning, would she feel proud of you or would she be ashamed? And at the end of the day, I think that that simple test lets you know whether you’re going in the right direction or not.

Listen 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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