Ethics, Communications and Technology – Avoiding Techlash: Brandi Boatner

Joining me on this week’s episode is Brandi Boatner, the Social and Influencer Communications Lead global markets for IBM and a past president of PRSSA. She is passionate about a number of topics including communications, technology and avoiding techlash.

Brandi addresses a number of communications ethics issues including:

Why don’t you tell our listeners more about yourself and your career?

I am the Social and Influencer Communications Lead for IBM global markets and corporate communications in Armonk. But I’m also the brand communications manager for our Senior Vice President of Digital Sales and Chief Marketing Officer, Michelle Peluso. I support a lot of her external activities. This is so hard for me to say because I’m not that old and Mark, you’re definitely not that old, but I have been at IBM, it’ll be 10 years on January 1st.

This is my first big girl job out of college. So, when I graduated from Hawaii Pacific University, which is where I was National President of the Public Relations Student Society of America when I graduated. This was my first job and I’ve been here ever since.

A lot of my friends job hop and went the agency route. But I can honestly say I’ve had an amazing career, primarily focused in social media and digital communications. And when I started at IBM, I came at such a time where Twitter was only two years old. Facebook had just kind of opened up from the college setting and getting into Facebook Pages for businesses, so, I came at a really, really good time.

And if you would’ve told me 10 years ago that social media would be where it is today, I’d be like, oh, I’m not really sure about that. Now, I’ve been able to kind of shape my career as it relates to digital communications and how social media really transformed PR as an industry and a practice.

Can you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

In February IBM was named as one of the most ethical companies in the world by Ethisphere Institute. So, I can honestly tell you here at IBM I have not had necessarily an ethical challenge that I have confronted at work.

But as you know in dealing with technology, whether you’re a practitioner who is promoting what we’re doing in technology or a new service there are issues from new buzz words, to the stewardship of how we handle data, to how we handle the emerging technologies.

People feel very strongly about technology and technology-related topics when it comes to things like data privacy or cybersecurity. And when you have TV shows like Westworld on HBO wand the  Terminator, even though I think Gen Z knows who Arnold Schwarzenegger is to some degree…when you have shows like Westworld that show robots having very human lives, it rattles people and they think, oh, technology is the bad guy.

If I think back to movies like War Games when Matthew Broderick was just a baby, the machine was always the bad guy, right? It was evil. So, I can just say a key ethical challenge, not necessarily for me as an individual because I work for a highly ethical company, but in technology PR is how much is too much when it comes to data privacy, or AI and having a machine simulate the human brain.

Can you walk me through what are some of the discussions and some of the ethical issues you feel that companies should be paying attention to when it comes to data privacy or AI?

Absolutely. Some of these issues make people feel a certain type of way and kind of rattle them. Anything that happens politically we get backlash. Well, in the technology space, we get techlash.

We have this backlash of technology where there are those who feel that computers, mobile phones, all the technology is taking over our lives and people have such a dependency on it and we’re kind of fueling that dependency. So, we might put out something about data privacy and again, how we believe responsible stewardship, transparency around data, even what’s going on in Europe where data and your privacy is a law even though it is not a law here in the United States.

Even in other places where it is a law, people still feel like, why are you asking me for my name and Social Security? When you go to any retailer and they ask you, “Can I get your email address so I can send you sales and offers?” You’re like, “No, I’m already on the list.”

All of these things make people a little uneasy and so companies need to know that there’s going to be an element of techlash when talking about data privacy and transparency. We have principles of trust with data that we use for our clients and we even willingly give it to other companies and say, “Hey, you can look at our principles of trust and transparency. If you want to design something similar, please go ahead.”

We do the same thing with our social computing guidelines. We created our guidelines 15 years ago and we would tell people, “If you want to make your own social governance guidelines based on what we did, here you go.” Same thing with data privacy. Techlash is very real and people are very vocal, because it’s this notion of us versus them. Us versus the machine. The machine’s going to replace my job. The machine is going to think for itself, and it’s going to run the world.

You have to prepare for the techlash by educating your audiences, educating your clients, and educating your employees, how it’s not this is not an us versus them. This is not an us versus the machines. The machines are not bad. This is a Big Hero 6 moment where the character in Big Hero 6 is the little boy who is being bullied best friend. It’s us with technology, not against the technology.

How do you see us ethically using AI in the future for communications?

One of the things about AI is it can help remove bias. You need to make sure that the people who are feeding the AI and feeding the machines, have the right skills so that their biases don’t go into the machine. There’s a lot that we as communicators can be doing and should be doing to ensure we eliminate bias when it comes to AI.

I don’t know about you, but I have to educate everyone about what is really AI. It is constant education, what it is and what it can do. But I really think when it comes to biases and making sure that the data is correct, those who are training the systems to automate various things, we need to make sure they have the right skills to eliminate bias.

What are some of the questions communicators should be asking both with this system and other areas to make sure we’re eliminating bias or even unconscious bias?

This is a loaded question. There are so many we should do.

Bias impacts pretty much everything that we do because everyone has beliefs about various things. But when you get into unconscious bias, we can see some unconscious bias just in the communications field. We can see in just some of the campaigns and ads that recently have come out.

I’m going to give a very public example so I’m not naming or saying anything that people don’t know anything about. But, when I look at the former chief communications officer at Netflix being relieved of his duties, given some racial slurs he used in meetings. The first time it happened an employee reported it and it made its way CEO Netflix, Reed Hastings and they did nothing about it and he knew about it and other people knew about it and nothing was done.

When it happened multiple times then finally, he was relieved of his duties and he left the company. But then Reed Hastings did an op-ed explaining. I applaud the effort that he went through to explain his position why when it first happened, he didn’t do anything. And I appreciated that. I didn’t agree with it, but I appreciated him addressing that. And if you look at it was an unconscious bias, yes, but it was conscious awareness that he realized as a white Caucasian, successful CEO talking to another Caucasian male on his team, almost like a hand slap, like white privilege. You shouldn’t do that. That was wrong. But we’re not going to really talk about it, and then it keeps happening, right?

So, it’s like unconscious bias, but kind of conscious awareness, what have you. I know a lot of companies, including our own have unconscious bias training. I have seen Gucci and Chanel both hire chief diversity officers, one of whom I know very well, on the same day. There’s been a rash of CDOs popping up because of these ethical dilemmas that have been faced because of unconscious bias around a group of people who are sitting in a room coming up with a campaign and there’s nobody there to say, “I don’t know if this is the right thing that we should be doing.” Right?

We need to have an infusion of inclusion. Say that three times real fast.

An inclusion infusion. You have to create a culture of inclusion to help with conscious awareness. I mean every week we are reading about a chief diversity officer being hired because this happened, there was backlash from this or from that. This continues to happen. It’s continuing to happen. So, I think having an infusion of inclusion is one way to fight this. Now, look, Rome wasn’t built in a day so I’m not saying it will stop overnight, but one way to change this behavior if we really promote more inclusivity.

I think you hit on the key point. It’s not going to happen overnight as much as we want it to, but keep on doing it. And I’m glad to finally see more action.

So, getting back to actually your specific role. As asocial and influencer communications lead what are some of the ethics issues you’re seeing in the industry? So, not at IBM, one of the most ethical companies in the world, but the industry.

In the influencer space everyone wants to play the numbers game with how many followers you have. And how influential … “Oh, this person popped up on my list when I ran the 17th algorithm of this influencer company that says that they have the formula.” Yeah, yeah. Okay. So that’s not accurate, but whatever, whatever you’re selling, that’s fine.

So, you have these influencers that have all this huge reach, right? But then at least for us, because I’m not selling Oreo cookies, I’m a B2B brand. Even the B2B brands, you can’t have an influencer who isn’t necessarily well versed in what it is you’re trying to get them to influence simply because they have a lot of followers.

If I’m say, Coke, I’m not going to have an influencer talking about Coke, different flavors of Coke and then on the weekends they’re with their friends and they’re like, “Well, I don’t drink soda.”

Wait a minute. You’re an influencer for Coke. What do you mean you don’t drink soda? How are you going to influence any kind of buying decision but you don’t drink soda? And I think that that has happened to a number of companies. I’ve talked to some of my agency friends engaged with an influencer because they came up on a list. They had a lot of followers. They had a really strong quantitative kind of reach, but then when they started peeling back the layers, they were like, “Wait a minute, this person did what? Wait, they’ve been arrested? Wait, assault?”. It’s like, we don’t want this person representing clients.

I look at how engaged are people with the content they’re posting, not how many numbers they have, because we all know you can buy a list. You can buy Twitter followers. You can buy Instagram followers. You can beef your numbers. And that in itself is an ethical problem because some companies are okay with that and most companies are not okay with that.

You have to peel that back. Don’t go after just big numbers. You don’t know if all those are real followers. And make sure that your influencer really aligns with your brand. You don’t want someone who’s off brand because in and of itself, if they’re portraying one thing and you’re selling something else, that’s not a good look. Not a good look.

So, how do you recommend people determine the engagements and the fake followers?

There are some programs that you can use. You need better vetting to ensure that you have the right people. You need to ask the right questions. So, there’s software that can help with that. But you really need to be thoughtful.

Also, I will say there are some agencies, BCW in particular BCW, that actually weave diversity and inclusion into their influencer vetting process to try and eliminate bias. They actually have a list of 25 sensitive words. Even I was surprised. There are some code words used in social media that are very derogatory to a number of ethnic groups or sexual orientation.

I’ll give you an example. I’ve never heard of this in my life. Skittles. When I say Skittles, what do you think of when I say Skittles, Mark?

I think of a candy that’s not as good as SweeTarts.

So, SweeTarts are way better than Skittles. I co-sign that. But, on social media Skittles is a derogatory term for the LGBT plus community. I didn’t know that. So, if somebody, an influencer say maybe that you have engaged with might have Skittles in some Tweets or in posts on Instagram. You and I wouldn’t think anything of that. You’re like, “Oh, are they into Skittles?” Like you said, the SweeTarts are better, but without us knowing that’s extremely derogatory and homophobic, racist in some sort. But we wouldn’t know that.

So, Burson has a whole list of these words that ensure when they do their vetting of their influencers that the folks that they choose are inclusive. Diversity matters but it can’t be an afterthought like, oh, after we’ve signed the T’s and C’s, after we spent the money, then let’s go back and look at it.

What are you seeing as some of the best practices when it comes to disclosure and social influencers, especially on a lot of the networks that don’t give you much space?

You always have to be transparent. There is no wiggle room.  You just find a way to say it up front. Put it in texts. You’ve got to be transparent because in today’s three-second right swipe Googleable world, we are inundated with fake news. What’s trending? Is this right? Is this not right?

Transparency has got to be the only way. There are so many things that get so convoluted and untruths. I don’t know when we got to the point, but guess what, we’re here of telling of the, and I put it in quotes, “The white lies,” as Hope Hicks would say are okay. This is now acceptable.

You have got to be transparent.  I don’t know if you saw the recent Subway commercial that looks like a like a teaser for a foreign film. At no point except at the end of the commercial does it say it was Subway, and then come to find out once it generated all this buzz on social and did all this stuff, then come to find out this campaign was done four years ago. Or, this movie was done like four years ago and I’m like, what? I was so confused.

I don’t know what Subway was going for. If it was like a shock factor, I have no idea what that was about. All I know is that, yes they had it at the end. But again, to be very ethical and to do this the right way, you’ve got to be transparent. You can’t trick us and to be like, “Oh, and by the way it was this.”

Are there any other tricky areas or issues you wanted to highlight?

We could spend a whole other hour talking about fake news and this new trend of white lies being okay. And if I go back to what my grandma, my grandma would always say, it’s never okay to tell a white lie. And then, you know, the Mark Twain quote that says if you don’t tell a lie you never have to remember what you said.

Tony D’Angelo addressed it as PRSA Chair because that’s what we see in the political arena and that’s what’s being touted as okay. It’s not. I’m very concerned about fake news because we are in the business of public trust.

And when that is broken and you lose that, but you tout things like alternative facts and what have you, it’s like what? What kind of … where are we? What are we living?

I remember growing up as a child the National Enquirer Was at every supermarket around the country and we all saw the Elvis, Bigfoot stories. We all saw it. I think my grandma might have bought some of the copies, but it was always known or at least to me growing up as that’s not real. That’s not real. Brandi, Bigfoot is not real. Brandi, Elvis is dead. Or, even Brandi, Tupac and Biggie are not on an island in Malaysia like some would say it, right?

It was just understood that I knew that that wasn’t real`. Now there is this shift and think about Generation Z, right? I’m a millennial, right? I’m holding onto my millennial status until these new ones come and kick me out of it. But I’m going to hold onto it as long as I can. But, think about Gen Z. They are growing up in a time where they think that it’s okay to lie because they turn on the television and they see, “Oh, look, the current administration, they lie. It seems to be all right. Oh, look, this company’s doing this campaign and they didn’t tell people. They lie. All right.”

Now granted, this generation is very, very strong willed. They’re very altruistic. They want to do good, so I’m not saying that these are bad kids, I’m just saying what they see and what they are exposed to is … I don’t know when this shift happened. Like I said, I always knew growing up as a child the National Inquirer wasn’t real. Always knew that. Now, anything goes.

It gets back to your techlash that you first started talking about because deep fakes and the ability to pump out content, we’re going to start seeing so much fake content. Think about if a short seller was using all this technology to absolutely trash a company. The tools are out there for people to use it maliciously, not just in politics but in business. That’s something I see as a big issue that we’re going to be grappling with in the coming probably few years. I’d like to say a decade, but it’s honestly going to start sooner.

I think it will be not even a decade. I agree with you. The fake information because it’s being, it’s so skewed. It’s so accepted. It’s so widespread. It’s so common. You go to a website and it looks real. It has all the ingredients, but it turns out that was a fake site.

In the presidential debates, Joe Biden he said he meant to say to text Joe3033, but he forgot the texts and just said Go visit Joe3033. A PR student in Syracuse bought the domain name and created a website literally last night.

As a Syracuse alum I’ll admit, I was kind of proud it was a Syracuse student.

He’s very bright. I will give the credit to him, and yes, it was very clear what he was doing but that was less than 24 hours he did that

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

The only way is the ethical way.

Before I became PRSSA national president, I was VP of advocacy, responsible for diversity and ethics. And I remember I was like; how do we tackle college students not making the most ethical choices when it comes to class or writing papers or group work. Sometimes students think they need to do something for a better grade or if there’s financial obligations that they might need to take a certain course of action that might not be the most ethical course of action.

When I was in that position, I thought to myself, well, I’m a college student and I want to make sure I understand the PRSA code of ethics. I’m communicating that to students, but really trying to prepare the students and myself for when we enter the workforce as PR practitioners, what does all this mean? What does all this mean?

And I remember I got the advice, Brandi, the ethical way is the only way.

There is no, “Oh, but I can stretch this. Oh, but what if I told it from this angle? Oh, what if I only disclose this much? What if I,” none of that was acceptable.

The only way is the ethical way.

And that’s what has led me to work for one of the most ethical companies. But even when I was in college, I made sure others understood this is the only way we do it. There is no if, ands or buts. There is no woulda, shoulda, coulda. The only way is the ethical way.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is the general manager of C+C's Boston office. C+C is a communications agency all about the good and purpose-driven brands. 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


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