How to Save Your Soul as a Public Relations Professional in an Unethical Company: Joe Trahan

Joining me on this week’s episode of Ethical Voices is Dr. Joe Trahan. Joe has more than 30 years of public relations and public affairs experience in governmental, association, educational, and nonprofit public relations. He media trains more than 3,000 people a year and is a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army Reserve and a former commander of the 314th Public Affairs Operations Center located in Birmingham, Alabama.

He discusses:

Why don’t you start off by telling our listeners more about yourself and your career?

I’ve been doing this a long time. I started in 1981 the Army as an armor officer. I killed people for a living, like my Italian grandfather who worked for an organization that begins with an M. He did it illegally. I did it legally.

Then the Army said, look, you really write well, you speak well, how about we make you a public affairs officer? I’d always want it to be in communication. Unfortunately, Tulane University, my bachelor’s alma mater, did not have a public relations department, which is still does not, so I took all the communication classes I could. I was a major in history and the Army said, we’ll train you, we’ll send you to the school, the Defense Information school at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, and by the way, we’ll pay for you to get a master’s in public relations at the university of your choice…and the rest is history.

I did 21 years as a public affairs officer, retired as a Lieutenant Colonel and I got a master’s from Ball State in public relations under my mentor, Dr Mel Sharpe. I decided I wanted to do more and I did nine years, as a Department of Defense media relations trainer and DOD civilian. It was a great job. I traveled the world training people in media relations. I actually trained Rumsfeld and failed miserably in my four hour block of instruction with him in 2000. However, I loved it, and then in 2003, I said, Hey, I had this entrepreneurial spirit to give it a shot to go out on my own, which is really scary for a person who, I’ve worked all my life where I got a regular paycheck and the DOD paid me very, very well.

I decided I wanted to do it on my own. People thought I was crazy and the rest is history. I’ve been doing it now for 16 years and I would imagine in the next few years I’ll probably retire. But it has been a fantastic ride.

I also want to point out before I go onto your other questions, I’ve also been a member of PRSA since 1981. I started as a PRSSA student at Ball State. Being a member of PRSA has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, not only professionally but personally, meeting people like you. I’ve got some tremendous friends over that time frame and I just love every second of it.

Thinking back over your career from being a 19 Alpha armor officer on through everything else you’ve been doing, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Well, I had a bunch of them as an Army officer. However, I made a, I don’t know, a lapse in judgment, but not really. In 2004, a good friend of mine was working for a federal organization that oversees the oil royalties for the US government. There was an opening, I’d moved home to New Orleans and it was an opening as a GS-14 public affairs officer in New Orleans. I thought, I’ll get to go home, so I sent in a resume and I got rejected electronically. They said I wasn’t qualified. Found that fascinating, PhD and all that experience, but I wasn’t qualified. Okay. So, I called my friend and said, “I got rejected.” He said, no, reapply.

So, I did reapply and I went through the interview and I actually got the job and Mark, it was the most soul wrenching nine months of my life. I was paid extremely well. I lived across the causeway from New Orleans. I’m sure you know about New Orleans. Lake Pontchartrain is the longest bridge in the world, 23 miles, and I drove that every day. The people there, it was so horrifically nasty and ugly and the things they were doing were very unethical. That kept coming up and they kept coming up and matter of fact, the deputy I had was constantly backstabbing me because I had gotten the position and she hadn’t, because she was not qualified for it. She couldn’t write her way out of a paper bag with a map. It was really bad, and finally I decided I was going to resign.

I went in in July of 2005 and I walked in and I told my boss at the time, I said, All right, here’s my letter of resignation. I’ll give two weeks or a month or whatever it takes to get somebody, I’ll gladly stay. He stood up and I’m not going to use the words he used, but it was a pretty colorful language. He told me in no uncertain terms to clear out my desk today and leave and he was going to send security up to escort me out of the building. To me, it was a decision that had to be made. I look back on it though, I really wish I would have waited to after Katrina hit, maybe done it in September, because that building got flooded and all those people got a year to work remote.

That could have helped me, I could have had more time. I could’ve had a full year as a GS-14, could have been restated as 15, but it was the best decision of my life. It was also horrific. However, the unethical things that were going on, I told him that I saw, and I would get blasted every single time. I was just the public affairs officer and, of course, the person underneath, my deputy, was also backstabbing me. Now I had three other people that worked for me that I really enjoyed working with, but however, it was just such a terrible, unethical environment. As much as I was getting paid, it just wasn’t worth it.

I’d come in the office every day, Hey, how are you doing? Get on the elevator. People would literally stare at me and they said, wait a second, who are you? I said, well, I’m the new public affairs officer. I’m Joe Trahan. They’d look at me and they say, what’s wrong with you? I said, what do you mean? You’re so happy? We hate it here. I thought to myself, wow, I was all excited to be home in my home state, my home city. I get to help the federal government. To me it was a plus and it was, to me, a real heart wrenching nine months.

I just decided not to just report the unethical things that were going on, I also would give recommendations. I was shut down every single time.

However, I will tell you, it was probably the greatest decision of my life because when I drove those 23 miles back home from where it was, back across the causeway, it was the finest ride of my life.

I felt totally free. I really did. I felt totally uplifted, and to walk away from something, and again, being a GS-14, it pays very, very well in the federal government. However, the heart break was just unbelievable. Of course, by the way, a final footnote. You remember in 2010 when the BP oil spill occurred? Well, one of the platforms that it blew up on there was some really shady things that were happening out there. There were some people, let’s just say taking some stuff under the table. The people that basically yelled at me, were all fired. So, I guess there is justice and karma even if it takes five years.

When you encounter an unethical situation, what’s your advice to people in terms of how should they report that? How should they speak up to be heard and to be effective?

I was in a senior position, I was two doors from the boss, and one of the things I said when I interviewed with him, I wanted direct access to him, which he wasn’t too happy with initially. I told him, sir, I’m going to tell you when it’s bad and when you’re ugly. When I tell you that, I’m going to also offer you solutions. I think we have a responsibility as professionals and as much as it hurts, because I know and you probably know other professionals and friends, I do and you probably do, that have actually had the resign for things unethical. We bear that burden and it absolutely infuriates me to hear this in movies, on TV series, in books, people who attack our profession and say we’re nothing more than flacks.

It just hurts my soul because, again, to my knowledge, in all my career, I’ve never purposely lied in a news conference. I’ve been truthful and said I don’t know something. Again, we have a responsibility to advise our clients, our bosses, to say, Hey boss, this is what’s happening, and that’s what I would do. To me, the Army taught me, problem, discussion, recommendation. So I would identify the problem, I would come in and discuss, and then I offer solutions. I think we have a responsibility to do that as true professionals, not only today, but in generations yet to come. I have a nine year old granddaughter that wants to do this profession. My son works for the Dallas Cowboys, he’s Director of Media Relations, his 14th year, he’s faced it too. Again, I think it’s important that we do that as professionals.

So, to me, the key lesson is you have to be the voice. You have to speak up, and I’ve been shut down numerous times. I’ve been told to shut up, and that’s the reason I didn’t make full colonel in the Army because I spoke my mind. I remember general’s chewing me out, Trahan, all you do is bring me grief. I said, yes sir, but I’ll bring you solutions. Then I remember a General telling me, you always want me to do the right thing. Yes sir. We’ll never go wrong. Even if we make a mistake doing the right thing. I think our job is to be vigilant. Our job is, of course, to represent our organization. However, if our organization is doing things that are wrong or unethical, I believe we need to take it first internally.

I’ve had some other friends when I went through this years ago say, well, why don’t you take that to the media? Well, I felt a responsibility to my organization first. I was Don Quixote, charging windmills. But that’s the way I’ve always been. I’m an idealistic person. I believe that maybe one day we’ll have a world without racism. That’s my dream. I think we have to keep doing that. So I think as a professional, the takeaway to me is you go in there and you say, this is the problem I see, this is the discussion, here’s the three courses of possible recommendation and I recommend this course of action. I think that’s where we earn our keep. That’s where we make sure we’re sitting next to the boss like the lawyer is. That’s my deal.

The only thing that I’d add to that, aside from you’re right with a lot of duty of loyalty and conflicts that people might face, is in addition to problem, discussion, recommendation. The thing I think a lot of people miss a lot of times is afterwards, the evaluation, whether it’s a hot wash or a detailed investigation afterwards, you’ve got to make sure you learned from what that is.

I totally agree. I totally agree with you. I paid the consequences for me coming forward and I’d already decided to resign. I made that conscious decision and then, which is really interesting, when I resigned there, the new boss at the other place in DC called me and said, can you come up here and do it? I said, no sir, and I really liked him. His boss had resigned over some things too. So there was some political stuff that was going on big time that, I’m not the person that knew all of that. So I think you’re right. The evaluation, what did we do, and how did we do it? Did I do the right thing? I think for me, I did.

Again, looking back on it and I probably would’ve done it again. I guess I maybe waited a month so I would’ve gotten more money, stayed after Katrina, maybe resigned after Katrina, but it just hurt my soul, Mark. It hurt my soul to do that. But I think we as professionals, that’s our job to do that. You know as well as I know, our advice sometimes not taken. May say we’re not going to do that. We’re going to do something else. As an Army officer, I wore a uniform representing the greatest nation in the world to me, the greatest military in the world. When that boss said, this the way we’re going to do it, wasn’t unethical, Yes sir, I’ll go out.

I was a soldier. Now I was relieved the number of times for refusing to do things that I thought were unethical, and again, another reason why I didn’t make full colonel, but it’s the way it is. So I think your evaluation’s a really good idea to add to that. I totally agree.

What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges we’re facing as a profession?

I think this thing called fake news, which I have no idea what it is. I grew up in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s. My mother was editor for her high school newspaper and she taught me there’s truth and there’s lies. I didn’t know anything about the fake news. I think that’s a real risk for our profession. I am concerned what I’m seeing at the senior political level that is troubling to me. The press secretary before this one, it just hurts my soul because that was my area. That was my dissertation for my PhD was James Haggerty, Eisenhower’s press secretary, the greatest press secretary in the United States history. He did eight years. I think fake news, I think distortment and the spin, the propaganda are issues.

I think the third thing, because I’m a certified FEMA instructor for basic public affairs all the way to master’s and I am concerned over the attack on the news media, so-called enemy of the state, which also hurts my soul because I’m a big believer in freedom of the press, that troubles me because we as public affairs officers, we put out information that people go, Oh, so what? We’re not going to do it. Like the mandatory evacuation, that island in North Carolina, that the people that, we’re not leaving, and then they had to go rescue them. I think that’s a big thing for us because we’re still seen as flack doctors, as people who spin. Again, it comes from the top, at the top federal level. Well, I guess I’ll call it the way I see it, the White House, and it’s very troubling for us as professionals.

I know presidents that followed you and you’ve also done the advocacy to attack that. But I am just really troubled by what I see and I see that. My brother, my dear brother, he goes after me all the time about things. We have a great relationship. But I said, you don’t understand, that’s wrong. We as public relations professionals support freedom of the press and freedom of speech. That’s what we protect. That’s what makes a democracy a democracy. So I think those are the areas I think that I am very concerned with for the next generation. We talk about that in media training. How do you cut through it? How do you make your source, how do you make your Facebook, your Twitter, your Instagram, your stuff the source they go to? I think that is the biggest challenge because media relations to me, the business is just booming. It’s growing. There’s so many avenues to talk.

So how do you make it your source a go to source?

Well, to me, you’re consistent. Number two, you go to the high ground. Number three, you provide information in a crisis within one to three minutes. You give them the who, the where, the what, the why, the how. You give them everything you possibly can in one to three minutes and you also repeat the message. Research tells us we must communicate something six times, unless you’re from my home state of Louisiana, then it’s 10, before people get it. People understand it and you have to prove to them that you are the source by your actions and your messages are out there. I think, again, you have to have access 24 seven. I just sent out a tweet two or three days ago now and I’ve trained a bunch of public affairs officers in the past year and I said, I want a big thank you to all the public affairs officers from The Bahamas all the way up the East coast.

Somebody put in there. What about Alabama? That was funny.

 They did a great job communicating to people. Again, in North Carolina, the island, they didn’t leave. Well, okay, that’s their choice. But they did a great job communicating to people and even people said that. I think that’s what we need to do. We need to become the source, and now, differently from 1981, we had to go through the media to get the information out. We do not have to do that anymore. The media is just another tactic. I can put it on my Twitter account, I can put it on my Instagram, I could push it out on YouTube, my own message. But by God, it better be factual.

It better be correct and it better be timely. If it’s not, we lose. We lose, especially in a crisis like active shooting, heaven forbid, or in a hurricane or tornado. By God, final thing is we need to keep it simple. If you don’t want stupid, sugar pie, sweet potato pie, sweetheart, doesn’t matter to me, it’s got to be simple. The message isn’t simple, I’m confused.

I watched the Weather Channel a lot for Dorian, and there’s one guy on there, I can see him with glasses. He was always confusing to me. Then another guy came on and he was excellent. He was succinct, he was timely, he was spot on, and he told me what to do. The other guy, from what I understand is the big guy, but he confused me. When you confuse your audiences, confuse your publics, they move away from you. So I think media relations today, this is your opportunity to push your message out, and by God, do it a lot.

Well, you know to thank the folks in Alabama, you just got to write them a thank you letter in Sharpie and you’ll be all set.

That’s right.

Are there things, aside from being truthful, that you’re recommending that we should be doing to improve the perception of public relations and public affairs?

I’ve always been a big advocate of advocacy, and a big supporter of the APR. I think all of us should be APR. I’m a real believer. I think we should be constantly pushing out our message and challenging, and I did this when I was teaching. When I taught the intro public relations class, I had them do a reading every week to find something anywhere where they used public relations in a negative way. I told them I wanted them to do a report on that and then I wanted them to send the definition of public relations that I use to the person who said this about us. I just think you need to be vigilant and we need to go after people.

We just going to tell them this is what public relations is. There’s so much misconception about it. I remember when I was working on my PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi, had a young lady come down. She was Miss Mississippi and I was a graduate student and I was teaching intro classes for my graduate assistantship. She came in and said, Oh, I want to be in public relations. I said, well, why would you want to be in public relations? She said, I love people.

I said, really? So do cannibals.

She looked at me and I said, can you write? She said, I don’t want to write. I said, really? You don’t want to write? No, I don’t. Well then, I’m sorry. I think you’d need to go up to upstairs because this is the wrong place for you.

We need to monitor every media that we see, and every time it comes up negative, we as public relations professionals, like Tony had tried to do, need to say that’s wrong.

I would use a tactic of going to the high ground, where you say, let me point out to you what we do and how we make a difference. Let me tell you that public relations is a management function.  I think we need to be really aggressive. I think we need to be pushing that. I really do. We hide and accept this and the time has come for us not to accept it anymore. That’s just me.

I’m obviously a huge believer in advocacy and our members seem to love it as well. I’ll say frankly, of all of us, Tony probably was the most aggressive and the most successful, really both taking the high ground and calling out the issues. I focused on JCOPE when I was chair PRSA, and there are other issues but no, you’re right. We got to keep on educating people and holding the ground.

I wanted to circle back to something you said when you were talking about issues and you make the case and sometimes they take it and sometimes they don’t and sometimes you resign and sometimes you get relieved. How do you decide? What’s the recommendation, whether you shut up and soldier and move on, or when it gets to be a case where you need to say, you know what, I’m out of here. What’s that critical dividing line for you?

I think it’s a personal ethics that you have. I think in the case of the organization I’ve talked with you about with me, it was nine months of this and I would talk to my friend every night. He’d be my therapy session guy. Yeah, you’re doing a great job, and I would lose battles time and time again. I probably lost more than I won, and I think it began to rub on my, not so much my PRSA code of ethics, but my personal moral compass, my personal, and I think it just got to me after nine months. I think in the Army, you’re a soldier, you wear a uniform, you take orders and I understand that and thank God in the Army, the public affairs officer is a personal staff officer of the commander.

The public affairs program really is the commander’s program. We do that on purpose. So I think in that case, when I would fight and then get relieved, I got relieved of being a spokesperson. I didn’t get relieved of being an Army officer. I just got relieved of being a spokesperson. So I think to answer your question, if it’s ethically so wrong, like somebody kills somebody or somebody covers up … If you cover up something that doesn’t really hurt anybody, that’s still bad. However, you might say, well, okay, I’m going to stay here, whatever, and just move on. But I think to me, the nine months of constant, constant, unethical, constant, it just really got to me, it really tore my soul apart.

I think everybody’s good, and that’s a problem I have. I’ve had that all my life, because people backstabbed me all my life, and it infuriates me. I rather you tell me to my face, Trahan, you’re an a-hole. Okay. At least you tell me to my face. That organization was nine long months of unethical that, to me, bordered on almost criminal in my book. I’m not a lawyer and so I think the fine line is, again, what are they doing? This is a long winded way to answer this. I think it becomes a personal thing. It becomes a personal thing for you, and like I said, I let it go nine months and it began to affect my health and it began to affect me and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

By his reaction that day, really taught me that I did the right thing because I was going down the trail with him.

I think you raised an interesting point about duty and obligation to the organization and devotion to them and I think you go into an organization and you want to be supportive of the organization and I think that’s a great thing. To me, when I worked for DOD, both as an Army officer and the Department of Defense civilian, every morning I got up, this sounds really cheesy, every morning I got up, I thought as a public affairs officer, I was helping to protect my nation. Every morning I thought to myself, whatever I do today, I felt, not that I’m out there shooting somebody, but I’m helping to protect my nation and I think the Department of Defense, and I’m going to give a big kudo to them, both as an Army officer and a civilian, they have a tremendous goal and objective.

It’s to defend United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and I just think that is a tremendous response. The other organization I worked for didn’t have the same kind of objective of goal or unifying goal. Does that make sense? I don’t know.

It does. I think that’s one of the things I think is a key is to clearly articulate in any organization what is your task and purpose. Too many organizations don’t always do that or have everybody singing from the same hymnal and moving in the right direction. The ones that do are special and people stay and they succeed.

I agree. I loved being a DOD civilian. I traveled the world. A little boy from New Orleans, Louisiana, went to 300 miles North of the Arctic Circle in Norway. I did media training in Russia with a Russian interpreter, which was a fascinating moment. I remember the Russian General asking me a question, how do you handle hostile reporters? I had my team from Britain with me, had four Americans and four Brits with me. I remember through the translator, I said, well, we try to work with them. So does our allies, our good friends, the Brits. We try to work things out. The Russian general didn’t even blink. He said in the olden days, we just shot them. I said, well, that’s a solution. You solved it, solved the problem. I never thought I’d ever go to the place, and it was just such a wonderful thing.

I trained NATO people, from France, Belgium, Italy, all over the world. I went down to South and Central America. so you got a good point. I had a mission, I had a goal, I had an objective and everybody bought into it and I think that, to me, makes a fine organization in my book and I miss that. I’ve never been able to replicate that after that. I worked with them. Absolutely wonderful people, just top notch. We still stay in touch with each other. By the way, when I was there, every one of our instructors became APR qualified.

Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I think it came from my mother. She always said, do the right thing. Even if it’s hard, do the right thing. Be the first one to speak up if you’re wrong and admit it. It’s really interesting…my father who is now 89 never admits he’s wrong. But I’m of a different generation, and my mother taught me that. She said, always do the right thing. Always be the first one to admit you’re wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re wrong.

Third, she taught me treat all people with respect and dignity. I’m the oldest of three and in the negative, segregated South of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, 80’s, we grew up in, and my parents taught us that every person, every person, deserves respect and dignity.

For me, it was really an eye opening experience because the South had some terrible things. The KKK visited my family when I was 13. We moved to Chalmette, Louisiana, east of new Orleans, and my dad and my mother were very open and friendly with everyone – black people,  Hispanics, and transvestites.. My dad played music with Pete Fountain and Al Hirt.

I even sat in with both of them as a trombone player. I was not that good but the trombone player was drunk, so I got to play. But I remember that night like it’s yesterday because I remember we had moved out in the middle of nowhere at the time. We had a ranch house. I remember my dad shaking me and I remember him loading his shotguns and he said, Meet me on the porch. Get the bat. My brother got a whip and he met us out there. I remember these five ‘things’ in white sheets with a burning cross. It was like something out of a movie.

I remember them saying to my father, Blitzy. It’s my dad’s nickname. We’re going to rape your wife. Going to rape your daughter. We’re going to kill them in front of you and we’re going to kill all three of you. My dad picked up the shotgun and pointed at the guy and said, Steve, I’m going to make your head a canoe. Keith, I’m going to make your head a canoe. John, my son Joe is going to beat you with the baseball bat. Chris, my son Tommy, he’s going to whip you with the whip, and John, you’re going to urinate all over yourself and run away. Then there was a silence. Then they walked away and I remember my dad saying, go on and go get the ax, and we were cutting down the cross, he had two axes, and the sheriff pulled up and said: Blitzy? Looks like you had a little problem?

My dad says, if you ever come on my property again, I will kill you. The guy looked at him, but the sheriff had been one of them. But I never forgot that, that has stayed in my mind, it’s so vivid as if it’s yesterday, and I think it taught me a lot about ethics and it taught me a lot about standing up for what you believe in and it’s not easy. It’s not easy.

I had some great mentors. I had Dr. Mel Sharpe, Dr. Jean Wiggins, Edward Bernays was my reference for five years before he died. I had some great … John Beardsley, one of my favorites. I was on the board with him. God, I’m miss him terribly. Another great mentor. Some great people in my life that have just been inspirational, but my mother was probably the guiding one.

Listen to the full interview, with a ton of funny 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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