Ethics, Sexism, Racism and Research: Angela Sinickas

Joining me on this week’s episode is Angela Sinickas, CEO of Sinickas Communications, an international management consultancy, focusing on communication effectiveness, research and strategy. She’s been measuring the effectiveness of communications since 1981 and as many of you know, measurement is a passion of mine, so I’m really glad to have her as a guest.

Angela discusses a number of key issues, including:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I have a degree in journalism and my first few jobs were all doing corporate communications. I worked for a university. I worked for the Chicago Tribune doing internal and external communication. Then I went into consulting for about six years. I went back to the corporate world as a VP of communications for about four years. I went back to a different consulting firm for about six years. And then finally in 2000, I went out on my own. And I decided to focus on some of the things that became the most important to me in my career.

When I was at the Tribune, we had a CEO who was an accountant by background. That’s where I started learning how to do measurement. It was the only way I could communicate with him. And I kept incorporating that into every other job I had and did more of that when I was consulting.

Thinking back over your career and all the different organizations you’ve been a part of, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Well, I didn’t realize that it was an ethical challenge right at the beginning, but it just became more and more of a challenge for me to get myself up in the mornings and go to work. I had been working at a consulting firm for about six years and I was right on track to be invited to become a partner. It was a private company, not publicly traded, so being a partner meant you really owned the firm. I was just becoming more and more uncomfortable working there for a number of reasons – mostly due to racism and sexism.

Just as an example, I remember in the hallway outside of our communication consulting area, there was a very senior partner in our office talking to another very senior partner who was my boss and it was Christmas time. We had this Toys for Tots drive going on. We all brought in unwrapped presents to put under the tree that would all be given to the kids and what these guys were talking about was the black Ken doll that was under the tree and making totally inappropriate comments about black men. As heinous as that was, they were also having this conversation right in front of the office of one of my colleagues who was not black, but her husband is black. And they saw no problem with having these kinds of conversations and laughing in public with all other employees around. You can’t change how a person is deluded and sees the world, but you should be able to control what they expose other people to in the workplace.

Sexism was very similar. Very few women were invited to become partner and primarily only if they didn’t have children. There were a whole series of things going on and so I had begun raising my voice about, this isn’t right. And I don’t mean like in public, I didn’t call that partner out. I certainly was not in a position to do that, but talking with my own boss, talking with HR, and the result of that was they still wanted me to stay on the partner track, but they put me through counseling because the thought the problem wasn’t the firm or the partners they saw the problem is me. The counseling they put me through was to teach me how to do only what was my job to do and not to worry about the things that were not mine to do.

And that just really solidified it for me. They thought that they weren’t acting inappropriately. They thought I was acting inappropriately by calling them on it. That’s when I decided I needed to leave. I gave my announcement and the CEO of the company flew in from headquarters to try to talk me out because I was doing a really good job for them. I was bringing in revenue, I was doing billable hours, training people. And I explained to him that I really couldn’t stay for all these reasons. And he said, “Yes, but we can change.” I said, “You might be able to, but it’s going to be a long, long time.”

The problem with being a partner in the organization was it went beyond just being an employee. These people also spend time outside of the office together. They’d buy their vacation homes in the same places. And I seriously could not see myself living in that world with those people even beyond work. And so it was really a simple decision when I finally came to it. The problem was, I walked away from a lot of money because those people not only made a lot of money, but they eventually sold their firm to a public company, a public consulting firm, and they all cleaned up huge. Do I have any regrets? Yeah, I wish I had the money, but do I have any regrets about my decision? Absolutely not.

What’s your advice to somebody else who may find themselves in that situation? How can they raise the issue while protecting themselves or come to the decision that it’s time to leave? What should they be thinking about?

I think you’ve got to decide what is the end result that you’re looking for. Because if you really do want to stay there, then you have to go to extraordinary lengths to try to change the place. And if I’d had more confidence in myself (I was only in my early 30s at that point, probably didn’t get that kind confidence until I was 40 knowing)  I probably would have gone into the office of those different people one on one and just said something more like, “I don’t know if you realize this, but I have a problem. My problem is when I hear these things being said, I feel this way.” It’s not like saying you’re horrible. You really have to find a way of bringing that conversation out.

And so I can’t change the way you feel about things, but please don’t do that in the workforce around me. And still that’s just a human to human conversation. It’s not a junior person to a senior person. It’s just saying this makes me very uncomfortable. And I’d rather, if you had these conversations, you didn’t do it in my presence. I still might not have been asked to become a partner, but it was actually better to choose not to continue down that path. I really say speak out, speak out, but say it one on one in a private setting and explain why it’s a problem for you personally rather than just pointing fingers at them because then they don’t listen.

What do you personally see as the key PR ethics challenges for consultants today and tomorrow?

I think there’s a couple of places there are pitfalls. One is on the proposal side of it before you get work and what you do or don’t do to try to get it. The other issues deal with questions as you’re conducting a project.

Let’s start with three pitfalls of the proposal process. Some of them are kind of clichés but they’re still a wrong.

  • One of the clichés is that when you’re hiring a PR firm or an agency to do some kind of work, you meet different people and they typically send you the senior people and then if you hire them, you might never see that senior person again. You’re going to be working with a junior person you may never have met.

    And so that’s the cliché is that people sort of say, “Well that’s what you should expect.” But that’s wrong. At the very least, yes, you should still have the senior people going to those proposal meetings, but you should bring in the junior people who will be the actual project managers so that the client gets a chance to see, do we have a good personality connection here? Is this someone I can work with? Because that’s who they’re going to be having to work with.

  • Another thing is I see people bidding on projects they’re in no way competent to do. I do research and measurement; this is what I do full time. At first I noticed that PR firms would start doing employee communication consulting, not using specialists and employee communication, just saying, “Hey look, we can do this too. It’s just communication. What’s the big difference?” And then they would start doing research even though they had no research background at all. But hey, how hard can it be to just put together a survey on Survey Monkey? They’d be bidding on things they really had no capability to do.

    It’s an easy fix too, if you want to expand into that direction, you hire someone with that skill or you get a subcontractor to work with you in doing that kind of project. It’s so easy to avoid that problem but that’s another type of bait and switch. And then the quality of the work you get is abysmal.
  • And then the big elephant in the room is cost estimates for proposals. And I sit on both sides. As I mentioned, I was a consultant, then I went back to the corporate world where I hired consultants and I went back to consulting and that was a really good refresher on how to work as a consultant once you’re back on the side of hiring them. What I do when I do proposal estimates, I provide very clear assumptions. If these are the number of questions we have on the survey, the number of languages, is it online only or online and print.

    Given these assumptions, this is what the range will be and it will not be exceeded because a lot of times what people will do to get the work is…they’ll come in with a really low-ball bid, not necessarily put all those assumptions in there. Then you get the work and they go into the project planning meeting. Oh, you wanted more than 10 questions on your survey? Well then, the budget has to be much higher.

    It’s like, oh that’s slimy. But they do it to get the foot in the door. And at that point the client is probably going to keep working with you because they’ve made a commitment and people don’t like to admit that they’ve made a mistake in their decisions so they’ll continue working.

    If you happen to be a vendor whose budgets maybe are a little bit higher, you can explain why that is. You can say, “This is what you would typically get from another vendor. But the way I do this work, you get not only this report but you get this report, this report, this report, and you get recommendations. Not just here’s the problem. Really explaining that if you are in that situation where you’re not likely to get it on just the dollar value, explain what it is that they get for that additional value and if they don’t want all that additional valuable well then you can reduce your own costs.

What are some tips for ethically conducting the research and reporting the results?

First of all, you have to make sure that your client has a pure heart. For example, I had met somebody after I’d given a speech and they wanted to hire me to do a survey for them. And so, I’m going through the survey scoping process. And one of the questions I asked is, so are there any kinds of results that you might get here that you would not be able to act on? I asked that because that would be unethical to ask questions that you absolutely in no way intend to do anything about. And they said, “Well, the whole survey. We already have our strategy in place, we know exactly what we’re going to do. It really doesn’t matter what the survey tells us.”

First I thought they were joking, but they were serious. And I said, “I’m sorry, I really can’t do a survey for you under these circumstances. It’s unethical, you’re wasting the time of all these employees. You’re setting up expectations that something might change and then ignoring it completely.” That’s one of the problems. You have to make sure that the reason the research is being done is for the right purposes.

When you look at communication theory, there is symmetrical and asymmetrical listening. Asymmetrical is where the client or the company is listening for information, gathering research for the sole purpose of better manipulating the audience they’re surveying. This contrasts with symmetrical where you’re gathering that information but you are willing to make some changes based on what you’ve heard. And then presumably the other side, the employees or the external audiences are willing to shift a little bit as well. If they’re not willing to listen to what the research says and do something about it, there’s really no point in in doing the research.

Here’s the perfect example. I think I mentioned this in the paper that I sent you and this is a question I actually saw on a survey that was being done by PR people for some Master’s thesis. There was a series of questions where the range of options was strongly agree, to strongly disagree, and with a no opinion option in the middle. And here’s an example of one of the questions. Women are more ethical than men. Agree, disagree or no opinion? I don’t know how you feel about that, but I would have to disagree with that, but I would also have to disagree that men are more ethical than women because I don’t think it’s a gender issue. I’ve seen ethical and unethical people of both genders. But I also can’t say no opinion because I do have an opinion on this. But when I took that survey, I stopped right there, I did not answer that question.

I wrote a note to the person doing the survey saying, “I hope that you properly interpret the results you’re going to get here.” Because here was my concern. If most people disagreed with that statement for the same reason that I did, that I don’t think it’s a gender issue, they could very well have turned around and said, not that the majority of people disagree that women are more ethical than men. They could have said majority of people think men are more ethical than women. And I’ve seen that kind of thing happen over and over and over where they purposely skew a question. They make a statement that almost no reasonable human being could agree with, but neither would they agree with the opposite. But they make it seem as if people do agree with the exact opposite. That happens all too often in the way questions are phrased and then interpreted for a purpose.

How can communicators be wary of this? Are there questions they should be asking when they see data to be skeptical? How can they make sure their surveys are truly balanced and effective?

There are two things they need to do. One is get an actual copy of the questions themselves and the and the answer scale. That way you can see how it was asked. But the other big thing is the methodology. How did they conduct the research? Because that’s another way to skew it is maybe you’ve got a perfectly fine question, but you’re not asking a random sample of this entire audience. You have skewed it. You’re only asking certain types of people and you’re not disclosing that when you present the results, that you’ve asked the skewed base of respondents. Do those two things, get that clarity on how they conducted the research and then what the actual questions were.

And there’s some really crazy research that’s been out there and the problem is even journalists don’t ask enough questions about this. I still remember when I was much younger, there was research that came out that made all the news headlines because it was just such a dramatic image. And the research finding was a woman in her thirties is more likely to be hit by lightning than to be married for the first time.

If you look around, how many women in their thirties do you know who got married for the first time versus been hit by lightning? It’s patently absurd and yet nobody questioned it. And I’m sure that if they just looked at the methodology, they would have figured out what the problem was.

Here’s another example. I was back at Chicago Tribune, managing internal communications and there was a PR firm that had been hired to do an overall assessment of internal and external PR and marketing communications for the newspaper company. As part of the process, they interviewed a number of people and the project manager who interviewed me asked if I minded if he would tape record our conversation. He assured me it would only be used for his note taking purposes, to make sure he quoted me correctly and nobody at the company would ever hear them. Well, lo and behold, one day my boss’ boss, the VP of our department comes back after a leadership meeting and says, “Angela, you should know that this company just presented their results and their recommendation.” And in the course of it they played excerpts from several interviews with people, including me.

In my role as being manager of internal communication, I interacted with every single one of those executives on a regular basis and they all knew my voice. Even if they didn’t identify my name, they knew who I was. Luckily I don’t think I said anything that could get me fired because I wasn’t fired. But that was so unethical. And the kicker to it is the project manager turned out he had been PhD. in ethics.

This kind of came back to bite them in the future. Years later I’m in the business of hiring a PR firm and I’m in Los Angeles. One of top firms that I really liked was this very firm that had created this problem for me back in Chicago. And so I pulled the account manager aside and said, “Look, I really like you guys. You’ve got a really good chance to win, but I have to tell you, I’ve got this bias against you because of this horrible experience I had.”

She called the Chicago office head and then she related to me the conversation. His first reaction was, “Oh no, not that project again.” Apparently that project had been coming back to haunt them for the decade since this had all happened. But because she did the right thing, she pursued it. She wanted to see what had happened. She told me that that gentleman had been fired for a couple of other reasons, including this ethical breach. I did hire them and I was really happy with them.

Confidentiality is so important that when I do focus groups or interviews with employees, I never record them because if a recording exists, one way or another, it might get out. With external people it doesn’t matter. A customer has nothing to lose by being candid with you, an employee has their job to lose.

And this actually happened once, we were coming out of a focus group meeting and the local manager was waiting for us outside the door and said, “I need a copy of your tape. I need it right now.” And I went, “Well gosh, we don’t record.” Thank goodness, because he would have physically wrestled it out of my hands if we’d had a tape of that meeting.

Any other advice on research projects and ethics?

The final thing on the project is recommendations. If you’re going to hire someone to do research for you, you should be able to expect that any recommendation they give you is a valid one. One that rises out of the research and whatever other experience that consultant has. But when I worked at big consulting firms, I cannot tell you how much pressure was put on me to write recommendations after the research, for other things that that consulting firm could offer to the client whether or not the data supported it. And I refused. I said, “I’m not going to put it in my recommendations because it doesn’t flow out of the research. I cannot stop you though when we’re in that meeting from your own perspective as an account manager, for all these other services to say, now we could help you with these other things. You can do that. It’s not going in my report.”

This is one reason why in my own consulting firm, I don’t do execution or implementation. I stop at the recommendations, developing a strategy. I do not execute any of those things just because of that feeling of potential unethicalness of possibly recommending something that could make more money for me. The only thing that I recommend that could make more money from me is to repeat the survey at a certain time to see if you’ve moved your baseline, which is a completely ethical thing to recommend. But nothing else.

A classic example of this is that I’d actually sold a project for a communication effectiveness survey to a client. I had to drag the client manager along with me because that was the thing, so he could learn more of the people in the company. We’re sitting there, this client and I, we’re planning the survey project and he stops us and he turns to my client who’s the VP of corporate communication and he says, “Do you really want to spend $60,000 on this? Do you know we could do a benefits comparison study for you for that amount of money and you get so much more value out of that.”?

She turned to him, God bless her, she said, “I’m sorry, I don’t give a blank about benefits. My job is communication. This is the project I want. If you’re not satisfied with that, you’re free to leave the room.” Yay!

What other ethical challenges are you seeing?

In the broader PR field, I think there’s a lot of challenges. Whether it’s managers who want you to say something to the media that isn’t true. It’s another thing to withhold something that could be a problem. If there’s no other reason to say, “Gosh, our bathroom is dirty.” There’s no reason to make a press release about our bathroom is dirty. But once something comes out, it’s how do you handle it in an appropriate way? And I think a lot of times the issues are not just on the PR side, it can also be on the side of the media that you’re working with because most of them are completely ethical, but there are people who are trying to build their careers.

I’m remembering there was one reporter in the Seattle where the first time that we heard that they were going to be doing a story on our local company there, was when our local people saw an ad on TV promoting this expose they were going to have on Monday. Mind you, in the meantime, they had never even talked to us about what they were going to do the story about. We scrambled, we got all kinds of information, we had tape recordings, this was an ambulance company and we had tape recordings of the actual conversations that had occurred on the phone. I met with them. I went through it all. I not only gave them the tapes, I gave him transcripts of it. I explained what the real situation was and how it was not what they were promoting. And I literally saw him term pale in our meeting as he’s looking at this stuff and I realized at that moment he was going to go ahead with that story as planned because it was already being promoted.

Luckily, we gave him a fix so the only story the next day was that here’s what they did that fixed it. But what do you do in that situation? You can’t call that journalist’s ethics into question because then he’s going to be dumping on you every other possible story they have. But the funny ending to that story is not only did the story go away because it really wasn’t a story, but he and his news crew were involved in a car accident later that same week and it was our ambulance company that came to treat them and take them to the hospital.

How do you deal with it ethically when people have an agenda?

I simply presented the facts, indisputable facts on what had happened because there were tape recordings and transcripts. It’s really just do what you can to address the issue head on with that person one on one and just hope that they know that you’re not going to be a patsy going forward. We had to do something like that with 20/20 as well.

They were going to do something on our security company and what they were saying about what we did or didn’t do was incorrect because we had three different levels of service for clients and this particular client had the lowest level of service he paid for and we exactly did what we were supposed to do, not what the 20/20 said we were supposed to do. Because that’s not the contract the client had. Then they ended up having to delay the story and they had to go find another security company to dump on. You can deal with it if they give you a chance to talk before they have their story written.

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

I can’t even remember who told me this, but the advice was really listen to your gut, listen to your stomach. If feel something isn’t right, it probably is not right. And don’t try to make excuses for it. Don’t try to justify it in some way. If you get that feeling, it’s probably for a good reason. And I think especially, I’m a woman, I used to be a young woman and we’re always raised to be nice and to think the best of people, be that Girl Scout. And so I found myself doing that a lot. I would get this little sick feeling in the pit of my stomach the way some man at work was interacting with me. And I’d say, “Oh, well, no, he doesn’t really mean it. I’m imagining things.”

No, if you feel that little niggling uncomfortable feeling, there is something wrong. Do not try to excuse it. Do not try to find some other justification for it, listen to it, get yourself out of that situation or address it directly if you can’t just get out of it. But you really have to listen to that feeling and don’t try to make excuses for it.

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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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