Ethical Issues with Behavior Change, Leaks and Transparency: Robin Schell and Stacey Smith

This week we have a first for Ethical Voices. I’m interviewing two professionals at once. Joining me on this week’s episode are Robin Schell and Stacey Smith, senior counsel and partners at Jackson, Jackson & Wagner. They specialize in strategic planning, behavior change systems, measurement, and crisis communications.

Robin and Stacey discuss a number of key issues, including:

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

Robin: We are both a little unusual in that we came to the firm very early on in our career. So, the bulk of our careers have been of-counselors at JJ&W. Stacey came from the University of Tennessee and I came from the University of New Hampshire. I first worked for the public relations newsletter PR Reporter, which was Pat’s weekly public relations newsletter that he had with Professor Otto Lerbinger. And after about a year and a half of working there, he started giving me JJ&W projects, and the rest is history.

One thing I would just say is, and I tell people this all the time because it is a little unusual to have so much time at one place. But one of the things that I’ve always loved about working at JJ&W is that because it’s a smaller firm, we all got to work on some really exciting projects right out of the chute. It wasn’t like this big firm where you were kind of pigeonholed into a specific industry. Throughout the course of my 30-something year career, I’ve gotten to work with every type of client, I feel, from nonprofits to Fortune 50 companies on just about every issue. It’s been great and we’re still having fun.

Stacey: My story is a little different. I actually started at JJ&W, and the reason I got my foot in the door there was I ran into our founder and senior counselor, Patrick Jackson, at a professional development function. It shows that networking is really important. And even though I was just out of school and only had my undergraduate degree when I ran into Pat and listened to his views on what public relations really is and the whole behavioral slant, I was like, this is what I want to be doing.

I talked to him and he’s like, “Oh, we love undergraduates blah blah blah,” and I’m like, “Yeah, but how many have you hired?” And he kind of had the deer in the headlights look. I kind of goaded him into the fact that you talk a good game and if you like undergraduates you need to hire some. And that’s how I got my foot in the door. The rest is, you know, like Robin says you have a hundred careers in one firm because you’re doing all kinds of interesting projects, all kinds of fascinating clients, industries.

Thinking back over your work history, why don’t you tell me about the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Stacey: Actually, that happened actually not that long ago. We were working with a client whose organization, this particular professional felt, was being targeted by competitive organization, which had relationships at the very highest levels of their organization with some of the local media and the statewide media at their highest levels. Without actual proof, but with some knowledge, this person felt that they were being targeted unfairly, even though that competitive organization was suffering from the same maladies that they were.

They came to us and they said, “We want to leak something we have found out that has been bootlegged to them about that other organization. We want to send it to the media. So they see that they’re doing the same things, and the coverage expands to include everybody.”

And we looked at each other, and we talked about it with the client, and basically laid out that it is truly unethical to do that because they wanted to just send it without any attribution. They wanted to just put it in the mail, or email it, and we talked about all the problems with all of that. But the client was pretty firm in wanting to do this.

After a good 45 minutes to an hour of conversation around it where we wove in how unethical this is and all, we said, “Well look, this is not something we are willing to do, and we are urging you not to do it, but ultimately it’s your choice. If you want to share it, we at least urge you to share it up front. Put your name on it, put it out there, and let them know who it’s coming from and why.”

And that was how we left it with them. And we walked away quite concerned that this was going to happen, and that we had not been successful enough in persuading this person not to do it.

I talked to them not that long after, gave them some space, and the person finally said, “Nope, I heard you, and I didn’t do it, and we moved on.” And so it was an interesting in your face kind of ethical dilemma for this person and counseling them, and then the question as we drove away is what do we do now if they do this, do we stop working with them? Luckily we were persuasive enough that we talked them out of doing it, and so all is fine. But it was interesting.

I want to dig a little bit further, Stacey, into what you just said at the very end about, if they do something unethical against your advice, do you stop working with them? What is your advice to practitioners if they encounter that situation where we give the advice and say, “Don’t do this,” and then they do it?

Stacey: Well that comes back to something that Pat always taught us about balancing what’s in the best interest of the organization versus what’s in the best interest of society. And I think, in that case you have to look at this and say, is this only hurting the organization or is this something bigger? For instance, am I the practitioner, am I sitting at the management table, and counseling them that this is not what we need to do. Society’s going to be hurt by that. And if they don’t change their way, they don’t do something differently, society’s going to suffer. So, at that point, yes, I would say you sever relationships, and you walk away.

Robin: It would have been interesting,

Stacey: I think we would have had to think a little bit more about it because ultimately it hurts the organization itself. Does it hurt the bigger picture? The societal picture? I don’t know? That would be… I would be calling you Mark and others.

That is that third party piece I think is really important to have, which is why we all are members of a society like PRSA, to have those people out there to lean on when we have problems like this, and we can’t decide for ourselves.

Robin: I would just add to that as I think back to what Pat would say to us in terms of bringing clients on board, his general viewpoint was that everybody really deserves a voice in the court of public opinion, just like everybody deserves a voice in the court of law. So he would hear everybody out, and one of the rules or guidelines that he used, he said, “Look, nobody has to work on anything,” if we’re working on an issue, and they are just absolutely opposed from a personal standpoint, he would say, “Look, you can excuse yourself from working on that, but everybody deserves to at least be heard in the court of public opinion.”

Stacey: Some of our most interesting clients, the ones where we used our highest skill levels, our clients when at first we said, “Gee, is this a group we feel is contributing positively to society, and do we really want to do this for a variety of reasons?” And yet, that giving everybody a voice, you sit down, you recognize that they’re people with particular points of view, but they’re good people with good intentions, and they deserve to have that counsel. It’s interesting.

I was talking to Kim Sample, head of the PR Counsel for Ethical Voices. She was talking about the same thing and how today we are seeing the younger employees don’t like that statement because they believe we shouldn’t, as a company, work on this because they are so opposed to.

Robin: I think that’s up to each company to decide in terms of how they want to present themselves, and it all goes back to what we talked to clients about all the time, which what are your guiding principles, right? How do you want to run this organization? How are you living on a day-to-day basis? And I do think that the folks coming up, the new generations, they’re a lot more vocal about it. So the landscape has changed to some degree.

Robin, is there any ethical challenge you’d want to share that you faced in your career?

Robin: I was thinking about that, and I’m not sure it was really a question of ethics, but more a question of transparency. We would work on these controversial issues like landfill expansions. Those are not the most popular thing. Sometimes I would go into the communities, and just do some underground research. Just literally sit at some of the cafes and the popular spots in town, talk to people about how they felt about the landfill expansion that had been proposed, for example. And just get their gut reactions without telling them that I was actually representing the landfill. If they asked me would I tell them? Absolutely. But I didn’t necessarily present myself that way because I was really wanting to get an unbiased reaction from them.

I’m not sure it was a question of ethics, but probably I could have been a little bit more transparent about that. And I think, this was many, many years ago, so when I think about today, I think that it’s a lot more acceptable to go out there in a very transparent way, and introducing yourself as, “Hey, I’m interested on behalf of XYZ company. They really want to know what you think.” And I think it would have been perhaps a little bit easier to do it in today’s landscape. What do you think, Stacey?

Stacey: On the flip side, this is the whole piece about research. We were simply being sponges to hear what public opinion, what individuals were thinking on a subject. We weren’t advocating, we weren’t talking about it, we weren’t pushing any particular thing. We just wanted to hear, and that’s a form of research. And I think today, research is getting harder and harder because people either don’t want to share anything or they want to share everything, and they’re going to tell you, and they’re so over the line.

So, I’m a little worried about the ethics of where our research is going to go to try and figure out, or find out, or understand, our publics in such a way that is truly done in an ethical way. And right now, there’s so many polls about this and that out there that you know they’re not being done in a statistical fashion that’s unethical. It’s just, when the my local paper is running, “Oh, call in and tell us how you feel about X, Y, and Z.” And they get a hundred responses, and they’re putting it out there as fact, that 75% said this and it’s the worst poll. So I think there’s this whole piece around research that we’re really going to have to focus on the ethics of how to do good, honest, ethical research going forward.

What are your recommendations to professionals in how to do good, honest, ethical research?

Stacey: Well, the first thing I tell people in my strategic planning course is go find a good research course. Go learn from the professionals on how to conduct good research, how to pick a good sample that’s balanced, how to ask questions that are not leading, how to look at data in a way that is truly honest in terms of how you’re interpreting that data. Even if you’re not going to be the one that’s actually doing the research, you will have the skills at that point to be able to look at research that you are buying, and know that it is done in a good, ethical fashion. That’s my first thing. It’s not easy to do that. I mean there’s a lot of details on how to get a good project done. That’s usually my counsel.

Robin: I would say that it’s right in the Barcelona Principles, right? You have to have transparency as to what were the parameters of your study, and was it statistically projectable or was it qualitative research, and what was the margin of error, and all that kind of thing. I think it’s been identified that this is something that you want to be able to talk about with transparency.

Stacey: But even with the qualitative data, like the stuff on the landfill, or when you’re doing it internally with an organizations employees, the idea is that we won’t start an internal client’s project without making them commit to the fact that the data will be fed back to those who we are asking it of, so that they get that feedback of what’s been said. You always run into these organizations that say, “Oh we did this, and then they put it in the bottom drawer. We never heard about it again.” We won’t do that. That’s an ethical piece for us, where if they won’t commit to that we won’t do the project.

I was speaking with Angela Sinickas and she said she had a client that when she had asked them, “What impact will this research have?” And they said, “None. We’ve already made up our decision. We’re just using you to reinforce it.’ That was the one client she turned down.

Stacey: Absolutely good for her. Absolutely.

Are there any key ethics challenges you’re seeing for public relations and communications professionals?

Robin: I feel like we’re in a world that is increasingly cynical. We’ve got fake news, we’ve got scams, all kinds of scams come over the telephone, we’ve got electronic communication, where you don’t know whether the person on other end of the email is really who they say they are. My husband’s in the financial world and you’ve got people trying to tap in and order a transfer when they’re not the actual person. We’re living in a world where everybody has got to increasingly be suspicious.

And I think the sad reality is that there is an erosion of our ability to build those trusted relationships. And that’s what we always counsel clients to do. We’re like, “This is your opportunity, whether it’s through research, or whether it’s through community outreach, it’s all about building trusted relationships over time, so that you’re not just going to people when you want them to do something for you. It’s about doing that over time.” And I think the environment that we’re in is making that challenging. We really got to do some more face-to-face communication and relationship building in order to really be effective at that. That’s one thing that concerns me for the future.

Stacey: A lot of practitioners rely on electronic communication for everything. You can maintain relationships that way, but you certainly can’t start and build that trust from the get go. I mean you can go on a dating site, but ultimately you’ve got to meet that person face-to-face. There’s no two ways about it.

The other ethical piece I’m a little worried about is we’ve been big proponents of behavior from the get go. We’ve grown out of the Eddie Bernays school of public relations; we’re focused on behaviors. But as we have seen, that can be used negatively to create behaviors that maybe aren’t the best behaviors out there. And that’s a little worrisome ethically as well. I see it coming and I’m just wondering how we’re all going to work with that.

How do you ethically leverage those emotional appeals to shift behavior without crossing the line?

Robin: Well, I think that goes back to your decision to engage with somebody, and feel like they’re on the up and up. As things progress, and if you feel like it’s taking a more manipulative turn, you have to ask yourself, am I still on board? Are we still on board with offering our skills to support this or not?

Stacey: But the question becomes, you have practitioners out there who aren’t careful to think like that. How do we corral that? We teach as best we can. We talk about ethics as much as we can. I know there’s always been a push about licensing. I don’t think that’s ever going to come to fruition, but who knows? Maybe someday this will get to the point where that if there’s enough negative use of a lot of these strategies and techniques, that may be the way we have to go. So you know you’re getting somebody who is being held to ethical standards, and can be sanctioned if they use them in an improper way.

I remember a conference in the ’80s where Eddie Bernays and Phil Leslie went to town talking about licensing, and it didn’t happen then, I don’t know if it’ll happen, but who knows? Times are changing.

Robin: I teach the PR boot camp class, which is a two-day class that has a little bit of everything. But we do spend some time on ethics and I have a little ethics Jeopardy game that we’ll ask the question and say “Is this a violation? And if so, what part of the code does it violate?” Just to get people familiar with the code. Because I think, we all become PRSA members, and we sign off on the code of ethics, but whether or not people are thinking about it on a daily basis, I mean, that’s why we have ethics month in September to kind of refresh everybody as to what are some of these challenges and conversations like this that keep it real.

One that has come up in the class on occasion as we talk about the free flow of information is the travel and tourism industry. Whenever I have someone in the class that’s in the travel and tourism industry, they say, ‘Well yes, but in order to get the journalists to cover our resort, or have that experience, or make a good judgment as to how we do things, we’ve got to provide that opportunity. We can’t expect them to be paying for that out of their pockets. So is that a violation of the code?” And we usually go round and round on that. And the bottom line on that is, it’s not a violation unless you promise good coverage in return for them having had their trip paid for.

What’s the advice when you’re on the receiving end, when you know that competitors, or the advocacy groups that are opposed to what you’re doing are using some of those technology unethically, how do you respond to that?

Stacey: Well, I think Robin had said it best. If you have built solid relationships with the people who are important to your organization and they’re based on trust, and you have your opinion leader, influencer, network solid, you can then have the credibility to share what’s going on or at least what you are observing others doing to you or about you, and find ways to call them to account in an ethical way. It hearkens back to the client I was talking about, I mean, there were other things that we discussed with this person that they could do to make it known that they were being manipulated or being used to just focus on this one organization. But one of the things we talked about is get out to your own public so that when they read this stuff in the newspaper or online, they’ll recognize that it’s being said, and it’s being twisted, and that there is another side to this story.

It’s bulletproofing, and that’s about all you can do. In this day and age, you’re going to have people who will never, never change their mind about you and that’s just the way it’s going to be. And people, as firmly and as committed you are to your position, there’s going to be people who are that firmly and committed to their position and think you’re crazy as much as you think they’re crazy. Sometimes the best part is just to walk away from that and talk to those people with whom you have those relationships, and built trust, and move on.

Robin: We spend a lot of our time counseling clients against getting in a war of words, so to speak. Sometimes it’s just smarter to let something die a natural death and not feed the fire.

Thinking about Pat Jackson, a visionary in the industry, what are some of the ethical challenges when you’re dealing with behavior change and trying to influence behavior? What are some of the lines that you find people may accidentally cross without knowing it?

Stacey: Well, one of the things Pat always said is that you’re really not going to get people to do things that they don’t want to do. I mean, look how hard it is to get them to do things they want to do. I’ve been wanting to lose 10 pounds for 20 years. I want to desperately to do this and there is all this information, all this stuff, and new programs, and apps, and all the stuff that’s out there, and I still can’t do it. We first have to recognize how hard behavior change is and when people are set in their behaviors, that changing is really not easy to move.

If they are leaning, if they have a latent readiness because of some, what we call affinities, things that might encourage them to want to do that, or things that they can’t do because there are barriers in the way, structural barriers like money, or time, or they don’t live in that part of the country, or whatever it happens to be, they’re simply not going to do it. So we have to recognize that behavior change is incredibly difficult. So we are actually working with people who more than likely have an affinity for what it is, are probably going to want to do it.

We have a client, it’s one we can talk about, one of the ethics of the firm is that we don’t talk about who our clients are because we work on very sensitive stuff, but this one I can talk about…We work with Lyme disease prevention up here in New Hampshire. New England is riddled with it, and we are working very hard to educate people about ticks, and how Lyme disease is transmitted, and what to do when you’re out, et cetera, et cetera. That’s behavior change. Putting DEET on your children, covering them up when you go, and covering them up or yourself up when you go out. Those are the kinds of things that we do. So we look for groups out there. We look for republics who have an affinity for wanting to avoid this. Were we going to talk to the entire state of New Hampshire? No. We’re going to talk to people who are most likely to be outside. Landscapers, lawn mowers, Camp counselors, parents with kids. These are people who already are outside. Then we look at those people who want to think about being healthy and staying healthy, and who can influence them. So it’s a matter of you’re not really manipulating them. These are people who are wanting to do this anyway. You’re just trying to find ways to help them take that next step on that behavioral rung to where they want to go.

Robin: When you are advocating behavior change, how do you know when a behavior that you’re advocating for is crossing a line? I would go back to a piece of advice that was given to me that I always just use, which is it has to feel right in your gut, like be true to yourself. So if something is taking that direction that you’re not comfortable with, and I think perhaps it’s easy for us because we’ve been in the field for 30-something years and it’s like if it doesn’t feel right to us, we’re just not going to do it. And I think getting everybody to kind of be on board with that feeling, that’s not an easy thing.

I go back to the guiding principles of your organization, and we have one client was an airline client, and they used to have employees with lanyards around their neck with their IDs and stuff, and they would keep the guiding principles on the back of that name tag. And the behavioral outcome of that was when they were making a tough decision on behalf of the organization, they could use those guides, they could actually physically look at them and say, is the decision I’m about to make in line with these guiding principles? And so I think it’s a matter of just keeping that front and center for you personally, and then for the people in your organization, and that’s going to guide you when you think something’s taking a left turn that you’re not comfortable with.

I think that’s really good ethics advice. Stacey, what is the best ethics advice you were ever given?

Stacey: The best advice I was given, is to realize we are not only there for our organizations, but we are there for society as professionals. We are the ones at the senior management table, the only ones, who are thinking, need to think, and are responsible for thinking, about the good of society, as well as the good of the organization. Everybody else is focused on that bottom line. We think broader. And that has been the thing that has stood by everything that I’ve done, and I think the firm’s done all these years. Think about the good of society, as well as the good of the organization, and when those two are in sync, you’re in a good spot.

Listen to the full 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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