The Three Biggest Threats to Ethical Behavior in Public Relations Today: Mark Dvorak

Joining me this week is Mark Dvorak, APR, Fellow PRSA, the executive director of Golin Atlanta and an expert independent consultant. We had a great discussion which touched on PRSA BEPS research and the three biggest threats to ethical behavior in public relations.

He discusses:


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

I just spoke to a PRSSA program last night at Kennesaw State University last night, and I described myself as a journeyman PR professional. I went to college in New Orleans at Loyola University and got my first job working for the Mayor of New Orleans which, when you’re 21 years old, is pretty heady. Doing everything from writing speeches for him to press releases and press conferences and putting together events like the Super Bowl or a head of state visiting. I love to say that I used to be able to pick up the phone, make four calls, and have four TV stations in the lobby in 30 minutes. That doesn’t happen anymore. After that, I went to graduate school and decided I wanted to live in Atlanta. It was a booming place, the Olympics were right around the corner and it’s proven to be a great decision.

My first job in Atlanta was for a small boutique advertising agency. I was technically hired to be the PR guy, but was really fortunate to get to learn the other side of the business as well, and I think that’s been a great grounding and helped me be more well-rounded.

I’ve had this love affair my whole life with United Way. I had done my campaign project with them in college, then an internship in grad school so I went to work at United Way and eventually became the CMO here in Atlanta. Then, just to do something different, I was thinking about going out on my own 13 years ago and a friend said, “You need to go back to the agency world and remember what it’s all about, how to do time sheets, how to do proposals,” so I joined Golin thinking I would be there for a year, and it’s been 13 and a half years. It’s been an incredible ride.

You’ve done a lot from heads of state to agency to United Way. Thinking back over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I would say that I’ve seriously been very blessed on that front. I can’t think of a major ethical challenge that caused me to consider whether this job was right for me, and I hope I never have to. I like to think that the places I work and the clients I choose and the organizations I support help make that possible, but overall any challenge that I’ve had for the most part has been all around disclosure. It’s those gray areas, particularly as media evolves about what’s okay and what’s not okay, how much does somebody need to know about who you are and what you represent and what your background versus what they don’t need to know.

The one example that comes to mind most clearly was I had just gone to work with a new client and she had a background in communications and public relations before becoming the CEO of this group. I thought, she knows her stuff.

We’re sitting in a meeting one day with a couple of her staff, and multiple people had posted negative comments about the products she represented on Facebook. I remember her saying, “All right, guys. I want you to go create fake accounts” She didn’t say the word fake, of course. “And refute those. Comment back to them. Talk about the positive things.”

I believe public relations for me is all gut. It’s intuitive, and my gut said, “No, no, no. That’s not right,”

But it was in the very early days of social media and using social media as a business tool and there weren’t clear guidelines. Fortunately, we were able to get her off that subject and moved onto something else, but one or two other times she said the same thing. Now we have very clear guidelines about that, about how I post something on my Facebook page about a client, I make sure I represent that it’s a client. Back then we didn’t have those, and that would have been a serious challenge. I thought about it and fortunately I did not have to confront her, but I think because it was early, I didn’t have the tools or the words to be able to articulate why it’s not right like I do today.

When a client’s asking you to do something that your gut tells you is unethical, what are some of the tools and the words you’ll use to try to bring them to the more ethical decision?

It’s funny. As you progress in your career, there are things you will easily do at 40 or 50 you will not do at 25 or 30. I know myself. I hate confrontation. But it is our job absolutely to speak truth to power. If the CEO or whoever the client is does not like it or it upsets them or it messes up their plans and they get angry at me or my agency, I really don’t want them as a client. They didn’t me to be a yes person.

I think part of framing a response is to say, “Look, we’re here because you want the best counsel possible. You want to be known as an organization that is honest and transparent and ethical, and I’m going to tell you that’s not right. And if you insist, I’m going to say ‘I’m not going to be a part of it’ or you’re going to have to find somebody else to represent you.”

I seriously believe that I could do that today much more easily than I could have done before. Part of it is maturity and experience and realizing that the world is not going to end if you have this discussion. The other part of it is understanding your value and competency as a professional. God forbid if I was out of work tomorrow, hopefully I’ve done enough in my career to build the kind of networks and reputation that I can find things to do. I can support myself. That’s really hard to do when you’re 25.

What about that 25-year-old in that situation and they don’t have your skills and our experience to speak the truth to power? How can they elevate that issue? What’s your advice?

So first I want to put a little the onus on their managers, supervisors, and others further in their career. You have to create a climate and an environment where your folks can come to you and discuss that with you and really have a heart-to-heart about what’s the right approach.

Good managers don’t have teams of people who are afraid to have a conversation. They need to be able to say, “All right, we’ve got to figure this out.” When you do that, first of all, then the junior employee has an ally, and perhaps and probably most likely it’s not that employee’s job to elevate the issue. It’s the supervisor’s or the manager’s job, and hopefully that can help diffuse the situation because the weight of the world should not be on that 25-year-old’s shoulder.

There’s always been discussion or debate about folks who are 50 years old with how many years of experience versus somebody earlier in their career who has tons of technical skills and knows all the new things. But what you don’t have at 25 is perspective. It’s amazing how having done something once or twice, the next time you confront it, it’s much easier, and so I think you have to understand when you’re that age, back to what I said earlier, it’s not going to be the end of the world, and at the end of the day you have to be able to go to sleep at night feeling really good about what you do. You’re not going to be able to do that if you didn’t stand on your principles. It’s going to continue to eat away at you, so you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to be bold, you’ve got to understand that, you may not like it, like me you may not like conflict, but you have to do it.

Absolutely, as I say, the senior practitioners, we gain our wisdom by screwing up and seeing other people screw up, and we’ve done that over the decades.

Amen. Amen.

Golin is a great firm. I interviewed Fred Cook earlier this year. When you’re looking out across the industry in business, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The timing of this conversation is really good because I am working on some content around the biggest threats to ethical behavior today as part of my role on PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. For the past few weeks and months I’ve been doing some digging and talking to folks and pulling it together, and I have a couple of thoughts on that front.

But before we get into that, you mentioned Golin. I was really blessed to have the chance to work for Al Golin. Not directly, but be around him and listen to him for a number of years before he passed away, and most people know that Al was really the brains and thought leader behind the trust bank. About how everything comes down to that whole idea of trust and doing the right things on an everyday basis and building relationships so that when you have a challenge, folks are more likely to support you or at least give you the benefit of the doubt.

I presented these three ideas that I’ve worked on this in the speech to the students at Kennesaw State. I said, “What do you think the biggest threat is to ethical behavior for PR practitioners?”

This was an easy … to me, it’s a slam dunk, and that’s fake news. I’m sitting here watching the hearing on the whistleblower complaint with the White House and thinking, “Wow.” We have completely as a society screwed up the idea of what’s a fact and what’s not a fact. It’s an issue for public relations and public relations professionals is it creates more of this gray area in our jobs. I really believe it’s a slippery slope. If it’s okay to kind of not totally disclose here or to kind of be loose here, then it’s, well, maybe this next issue I can continue going down that bad path.

We’ve got to do something about it.

Fortunately, I was a double major in communications and history. When you study history, you realize that a lot of things are cyclical in the world and those who don’t pay attention are doomed to repeat it. What allows me to sleep at night sometimes is the fact that I have to believe we as a profession, we as a society are going to react powerfully enough that the pendulum is going to swing back to the other side, that journalists and journalism are once again going to be a very valued and highly respected profession, that there’s a reason you have multiple sources, there’s a reason you’d have three editors reviewing and fact checking, that you know what, you want to have a blog online and you want to post your personal opinions and your theories? Great. But that’s probably not the first place or it’s not the first place you should be going to find out what the truth is.

I can talk all day about social media and the benefits and the detriments, but I think we have to talk about this not just as a profession, but as a society, and we as professionals, particularly through PRSA, have to lead the charge on this. I have hope, as I said, the pendulum is going to swing, but we’re going to have to push it along.

How do we push it along?

First, we have to talk about it. I spoke about knowing yourself. One of the great blessings and sometimes curses of my career is I tend to be in the middle on a lot of issues and thoughts. I can see multiple sides of whatever the challenge or the issue happens to be. This helps when an organization is debating a problem and wants to think about what’s the right approach.

The downside is that most people in the world are not that way. We automatically go to this polarizing one side or the other. We really have to continue to push the dialogue around this and what it does to society and how it hurts our ability to get things done in government or be friendly with your neighbors. That’s a first step. I think some of it is just going to be people waking up and reacting, whether it be in the ballot box or whatever, just because we’re going to frankly get so tired of it. At least I hope we do before permanent damage is done.

You mentioned there were three kind of key ethical challenges, and you said the biggest was fake news. What are the other two?

The next one is the pressure for measurability. Anybody who goes through being a PR practitioner without blinders on knows that we are making great strides in being able to demonstrate the value and worth of what we do, but there are still a lot of times and or a lot of professionals who use methods to prove what the value of what we’ve done by measuring impressions. I told the class last night about the stacks of clips and they’re like, “What?”

I call it the thud factor.

Exactly. It’s all about being able to drop it on a table or a desk and make that noise. We have to do a better job. We have to continue to evolve. I believe that social media gives us way more tools than we had before, but it hasn’t fixed the problem in many respects, and in some cases, it’s exacerbated it. Does having a thousand people like my page really matter?

Having these tools is a plus, but there’s also more pressure. Everybody wants to see value more often and I think it’s only going to continue. It’s great to make progress, but we’ve got to continue to get sharper and sharper, particularly about tying it to business outcomes.

Sometimes it’s easy to do, sometimes not, so we’ve got to not take our eye off of that moving forward.

The reason it’s an ethical challenge is it has always been an ethical challenge about what we present and represent as success or impact, and it’s our duty as professionals to teach younger pros what is true, valid, reliable measurement, and our clients as well. It means not presenting clients reports that have a lot of numbers in it that really don’t make a difference. We’ve got to be bold enough to say, “If you really want the kind of measures that we need, it may take a little time. It may take some money to do it. It’s not as easy as just photocopying stories out of a newspaper,” but we’ve got to continue to push to say if it’s important, we’ve got to resource it.

Absolutely. Something I’ve talked about a number of times, and I believe you got to tie it to business outcomes, you got to tie it to behavior change, you got to stop using a lot of fake metrics that people are getting addicted to.

I get it. I’ve worked in a number of nonprofit environments or not-for-profit environments, City Hall in New Orleans the United Way. You don’t have the resources there to do a lot of the kinds of things when it comes to impact, and I’ve even had that with for-profit clients, but for those kinds of clients, you still got to say, “The North Star is this. This is where we want to get to.” We can’t go out and do a longitudinal study today – but let’s know that that’s the ultimate end and let’s be smarter about what we do, measure what we do present, and then when you do have a client that has those resources, be really firm about making sure that that’s included in the budget and that you focus on that when you are sharing impact.

I’ve got one client where we have helped them move their level of understanding and competence on the measurement front because we’ve pushed ourselves and that’s pushed them, and so now what we share with them today is way better than what it was five, ten years ago. We’ve been on a journey together and I think clients will appreciate that and shoot for the stars but also be realistic, and don’t settle for just whatever you can pull together at the last minute.

You have fake news and measurement. What’s the third threat?

This is a little bit out there, but, and not as fully defined, but the pace for change in the world today. I told the class that they are going to graduate having learned more during their time in school, far more, than I or anybody of my generation received during their four years. I graduated knowing how to write a press release and a media advisory and a pitch and put together events and identify stakeholders and do basic analysis and things that are core to the profession. I didn’t take classes in design and video production and certainly didn’t have social media, and we didn’t have this great campaign structure where many schools actually have agencies that the students can participate in. Students are just so much more equipped, I think, than we were, but at the same time, our profession and the world today require so much more out of us.

The pace of change is a greater challenge the further you go on into your career. In any career in the past, you’ve always had to stay up with trends. Some professions more than others, but it’s an absolute mandate today, and I know that periodically I start to get overwhelmed with what’s out there. Do I need to know this? How deep can I get in it? If you’re going to continue to be a successful practitioner at any point in your career, you have to stay on top of it.

One of the things that I think is a potential tool, and it seems to be working at least on a small scale where I’ve seen it, is redefining our use of mentoring. For example, here in Georgia we have tried since the earth cooled to have a strong mentoring program for members of the PRSA Georgia chapter, and finally we’ve gotten something off the ground that I’m really proud of.

We stopped thinking about mentoring as somebody with 30 years of experience mentoring somebody with five years of experience. You really have to look at it as a two-way model. A senior practitioner gets as much out of the conversation with the junior practitioner as the junior practitioner does in terms of understanding new media tools and what millennials and Gen Z are thinking, and that constant check-in allows the senior practitioner to stay a little more on top of what’s hot, what’s new, what I need to know.

It’s been amazing how senior practitioners are, for the most part, very generous of giving their time and wanting to be involved, but the energy and excitement that we’re seeing from people who understand that that’s the paradigm we’re creating has been so much greater. It’s our first year. Early results are great and I feel very good that this is the path that’s going to succeed for us, but I think that’s a microcosm of where we all need to be going. You can’t possibly, especially when you’re further in your career, you have families and kids and all those things in your life, you can’t know everything, but you do have to stay current, and I think that and other approaches can be very helpful.

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

It’s funny. From the very first day of my very first public relations class at Loyola University in New Orleans, it just made intuitive sense. I don’t know if it was how I was raised or who I am or what’s in my DNA, but I don’t have a hard time knowing what’s right and what’s wrong. I mean, I may question some of the gray areas. Additionally, Loyola gave me was a Jesuit education and I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I didn’t go to Loyola because of it was a Jesuit school, but I took courses on ethics and learned different ethical paradigms.

My upbringing and the educational opportunities that I had at Loyola ground me and give me a framework so when I’m having a discussion, that’s utilitarianism, and I certainly wouldn’t use that word, but I understand different perspectives that folks bring to the table there. It’s always exciting when you are in a conversation and you can actually use something you learned in school practically.

Any final thoughts?

I really encourage folks to read and listen to what’s the thinking out there and join the conversation and add to it. I think this could be a really great opportunity for our PRSA and the greater society as a whole to stand up and do something to edge along this idea of how do we get along and talk to each other and get things done rather than live in this constant state of blaming and gray areas. Stay tuned in, pay attention, and get involved.

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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