The Ethical Importance of Discernment in Public Relations: Blake Lewis

Joining me on this week’s episode is Blake Lewis, the Principal and Founder of Three Box Strategic Communications. One of Blake’s favorite words is discernment and we discuss its growing importance as well as a number of other key ethics topics, including:

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

I’ve worked in the public relations and strategic communications profession for nearly 40 years in a pretty broad mix, everything from corporate and nonprofit to agency and government. I’m a graduate of Iowa State University, and it’s interesting, for those of us in the communications disciplines, there are plenty of great schools that you can go to, but I chose Iowa State at least in part as a result of its ownership of a commercial TV and radio broadcasting operation. The TV station was an affiliate with the ABC network, on the radio side, of course, NPR. And while the school ultimately decided to exit the commercial broadcasting business long after I graduated, I believe that the exposure, the access and the opportunities that the facility created for students like myself was significant.

I think the other thing that’s major in looking back over my career is I’ve been a member of the Public Relations Society of America for 37 years. I’ve had the privilege of serving at every level in the organization in some form or fashion, from chapter officer and volunteer positions to being a member and chairing the Universal Accreditation Board, being a national board member, secretary and treasurer, and currently I serve as a member of the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, the Advocacy Committee, and I co-chair the National Investment Committee. That’s kind of a mouthful of responsibilities, but I owe so much of my success to my fellow members of PRSA over all those years, and this has been my opportunity to pay it forward.

The last thing that I think is important is I earned by accreditation in public relations in 1985, and I was named to the College of Fellows in 2005.  

Thinking about your career and all that you’ve done, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I would call it interesting more than difficult. I was working for a major multinational agency early in my career. I got a phone call from someone that I didn’t really know, who said, “I’d really like you to meet my boss. We’ve got some challenges that we’re facing. We think that you and your organization can help us resolve those issues, and would you come have lunch with me?”

At that point in my career, I probably didn’t know what I didn’t know, and so I agreed to go to lunch, and ultimately what we had was a highly visible televangelist who had gotten himself into trouble on any number of fronts. They were seeking to whitewash the facts of his operation and his approach to his work and make everything go away.

And clearly, there wasn’t enough paper and ink in the world to write down what was wrong with what they were asking for. And so that, to me, at some point you’re like one, not interested in lunch. Two, you don’t want to be in that meeting and three, you’re trying to figure out how can we get this terminated as quickly and as efficiently as possible.

That was really difficult, but when I went back to the office and really thought about what I had just experienced, it was an amazing learning lesson, and fortunately one that didn’t cause any harm to me,  the agency for which I worked, and it didn’t cause any harm for the public, who would have been, I think, significantly impacted had we even contemplated with any degree of seriousness taking on this individual as a client. And so the list of learnings were really a bellwether point in my career development.

What’s your advice when you look back at this?

I think there are several really big picture things that I took away that I would share with listeners today. First of all, information is your friend. Now you have to think about the fact that this occurred in the 90s, and we didn’t have access to information in anywhere near the level that we have today through search engines and other resources. So today, it’s really about, first of all, doing all the investigation that you can into the organization, into the individual, into the situation or the issue, really understanding the meat of it. And not just understanding it from what the prospective client or employer, expects. It’s more than just looking at it from that individual or institutional position. It’s also about thinking about who are the publics that the organization has a responsibility to, and using that information and your perspectives to arrive at what’s the right thing to do here? You learn to be strong in capturing and assessing and categorizing all these data points that will allow you to make a clear and appropriate decision.

I think the other thing is, over time you develop a bit of an internal database, if you will, of just general information that drives what a lot of us in the profession call a gut reaction. Early on, your gut reactions are not informed by very many data points when you’re a young professional, but as you develop experience and breadth and depth of your work in this field, you build that ability to start trusting your gut. If something doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t look right, it doesn’t smell right, that should give you cause to either dig deeper or come to the realization that whatever someone is seeking you or your organization to do on their behalf has something critically flawed. And you’ve got to be able to look at that.

I think also this experience validated that if you can’t simultaneously wear the hat of advocacy for an employer or client and at the same time for their publics, you really can’t function in a professional role.

Those were really the big things that I think I took away specifically, and what I would encourage others to consider when they encounter these situations. Because frankly, you cannot work in our profession and not encounter a situation that has an ethical component during the course of your career.

I know Millennials, Gen Z and younger professionals are a passion of yours. What are some of the issues you’re concerned with in regards to ethics in the millennials and Gen Z?

Several documented traits that make younger generations of public relations professionals a great asset can also be a bit of a downfall at times. Technology prowess, which we touched on just a moment ago, attention seeking, and achievement orientation, these are strong attributes that can really contribute to the professional growth and contributions that individuals can make, particularly in their earlier years.

But each can potentially contribute to perhaps being blindsided by obvious, or perhaps sometimes more nuanced, cues of an ethical situation. I think that younger professionals can have less fear, or maybe they don’t have as much apprehension about situations. On the other hand, we know from research that millennials and Gen Z’s have a strong team orientation and properly played and utilized that can be really powerful in determining what is the ethical quotient of a situation? Also, there’s probably a better broad community focus on some of your younger generations. As opposed to the Boomer Generation, they may tend to be a little more observant of what’s the broader community’s view of something. And if you use that as one of your sources of compass bearings on ethics, I think that that really is an advantage.

I think it’s incumbent on younger professionals to really raise their antenna up really high, not just in the situations that they find themselves being brought into, but look at how peers and colleagues are having to address situations. What they say, what they do, what the steps and actions are, and then take away how did that work? Was it in the best interest of the public as well as the individual that was under the microscope? It really is using all those great skillsets that younger professionals have to collect that information and to develop a broader view of what does ethics mean in our profession and how do I help enforce and instill that?

You mentioned how younger professionals have less fear. I tend to think of it as they have less scars than we do. And I mean, it interesting what you said, because you were talking about attention seeking and their being tech savvy, you know what I’d say? You probably could have that going back any generation. The Gen X-ers, you could say that exact same thing about when they were there. Of course, their tech savvy was different from the tech savvy of today. But I think the point you brought up about the team-oriented approach as opposed to the individualistic approach is definitely a shift that I think we’re seeing in the workforce, and that really does aid people. But my question is, if you’re looking at these teams, how do they raise those issues when they’re talking to other people? Or how do they get other people engaged and aware of the concerns they have?

Some of the things that have been unfolding in the last, call it five to 10 years, in terms of how we as a nation have become more divided, I think that really, it’s all about having the conversation. It’s about participating in professional development opportunities. Again, take it to what we’re doing right here and now with Ethical Voices. This is an opportunity to raise the topic. I think that earlier in our respective careers, because you and I are somewhat in the same space, ethics was something that it was, in my opinion, perhaps a little more compartmentalized.

You would occasionally run into something that oh, this lights that light on the dashboard that there’s an ethical component to this, or an ethical consideration. We need to deal with it. And then you seal that box up, you put it back on the shelf not to be revisited, perhaps, for months or even years. With all the complexities of the new millennium, I think that that’s not an option that we have any more. We have to have conversations and we have to have professional development. We have to constantly engage with our colleagues.

We spend time talking about ethics in our own agency. We spend time talking about ethics within PRSA at the chapter, at the district, and at the national level. And I think that can only help us better identify when we’re walking into an ethical situation and have a better sense for what do we do when we see one of those coming to make sure that the public interest is being properly served.

You brought up a key point, especially about talking about it on a regular basis. I say ethics and ethics training is like vitamins and going to the gym. If all you do it is once a year, you’re not going to have a good result. It needs to be an ongoing, regular process. And you said you talk about ethics at your agency. Can you give us some idea about how do you bring up, or how often do you bring up, ethics situations and discussions with your employees?

We spend a fair amount of time discussing it. We have weekly staff meetings of our team, everybody from the most senior position to interns. And generally, we frame that against what’s happening out in the world this week. We handle the agenda for the staff meeting in a really interesting way. It’s actually one of the rare instances where we allow ourselves as a team to use semi-public tools like Google Docs or Google Sheets to track work. Most of our information is behind NSA-grade security, but this is a case where anybody anywhere in the organization, whether they’re at home or on a job site or in the office, they can bring up the agenda and everybody has the opportunity to literally create an agenda item saying, “Here’s something I’ve seen that I want to talk about. Here’s a situation that I think we as a team need to be evaluating.”

And there are absolutely no filters. It doesn’t matter if you are a junior associate or an intern, you can put something on there. The only expectation is that you can come to the table prepared to raise why is this relevant, why should we care? And a lot of times ethical questions come up through just that observation of what’s going on around us our society, whether it’s the local community where we have an office, or anywhere in multiple countries where we do business.

When you set that sort of standard and you give that kind of freedom with responsibility, that’s when you can start these conversations of saying, “Hey, here’s something that happened. How do we feel about this? What would we have done differently? Why would we have done it differently?” And inevitably, part of that conversation comes back around to what were the ethical considerations and how were they handled?

What are you seeing as some of the top ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

People may see this as an overplayed topic, but I think trust in information sources is essential. I think where that may be even more critical, ironically, is with older professionals, older members of society. Because we think back to some of the bellwether reporters and news anchors of our earlier days … I mean, I had an opportunity late in his career to go to a very intimate evening session with Walter Cronkite. I was literally sitting probably 10 or 15 feet away from him. And to hear him talk about some of the events that shaped both his career and his professional outlook, but also shaped the nation and in many instances, the world, that was really an amazing experience.

So I think particularly when you look at more senior members of our society, we struggle with the idea that there are news outlets, and I’ll use that maybe in air quotes, but there are news outlets that do not always present what you would call an objective, fact-based position on a story. And we have gotten to the point where technology enables individuals with perhaps nefarious purposes to mimic the look, feel and functionality of a legitimate news story. And I can believe the number of times I will see somebody I know pick something up, take it to heart as fact, and these are people who otherwise I would call pretty intelligent, pretty grounded individuals, but they find themselves getting sucked into a point. It’s kind of that echo chamber theory that we talk about a lot of times academically, but it’s very real. That you get pulled in and all of a sudden you’re not asking those questions that you need to ask.

I work with a lot of young people, and my most favorite term, and one that I try to impart on them at every opportunity, is a single word, and that’s discernment. Can you discern what is truth from what is opinion from what is poppycock? You’ve got to be able to do that. So I really believe that that is critical. And I think the second point is while many of us in our profession have roots in traditional journalism, I think that the larger society of which we are a part must hold owners, decision makers, and frontline reporters accountable for unbiased fact-based reporting. Most of them do a good job, but their world has changed just as our world has changed just as the global world has changed, and it’s really important to be able to maintain that high level of credibility.

Because frankly, the story … the buried lede in the story here is that absent that sort of strong basis of data-driven, information-driven fact, our society doesn’t function well, and we can’t afford that right now. There’s too much at stake for us to be artificially divided because we can’t seem to get together on what should be facts and not opinions.

Discernment’s a really key point. I mean, my oldest son gets most of his news from Reddit, and I talk about we’re entering the fake information age. So how do you go about testing it, or responding to the fake news when you encounter it?

Well, clearly facts are your friend, but something that we all learn early in our professional experiences, I can’t put out a fact and just attach my name as the source to it. That’s not functional. If we are going to do a tutorial on how to discern accurate news from disingenuous or inaccurate news, is to drill down on what’s the source of the information? And it’s amazing because again, people who are really intelligent can be bowled over by some sort of official-sounding name of an organization. And that’s an area that we have to resist when we uncover it; we have to fix it. But it really comes down to, what’s the source of information? How are we using it? How are we positioning it? Does that come from an entity that has earned trust?

And so I think that that’s really where it starts, and it’s a slippery slope. There are a lot of complexities to it. If this was an easy topic then we would’ve fixed it and it wouldn’t be an issue any more. But it’s full of shades of gray, and that makes it difficult. I can tell you earlier in my career I was moving from one office to another and you know, what do you do when you move from one office to another? You go through all the stuff that you’ve put aside and you said, “One of these days I’ll have time to read this.” And typically you’re doing it on a Saturday and you’ve got a little moment. And so, I had a pop quiz that PRSA had provided probably 20 years ago, at least.

And there were 10 questions and they looked very innocuous, and so I ran through the 10 questions. And let’s just put it this way, I’m not sure that I would have passed on a curve. None of the answers were egregiously wrong, but when you looked back at what the correct answer was and you contemplated it, you said, “Okay, for the most part I can say wow, I see where that was going.” And again, that goes back to what I said earlier in our session today, that you are like a self-learning, auto-learning device. That the more information you bring in and you categorize and you shelve in your brain, the better you’re able to respond to situations you may be facing. Initially, I took it with great frustration or concern, and then I just backed up and said, “No, this is part of the process of perfecting how you look at things and to try and make the right decisions.”

You work in the global energy industry and a number of other regulated areas. What are some of the ethical issues you’re running into both either in your industry or globally that you think are important for people to be educated about?

This is where I think the United States has maybe a higher level of responsibility. We are in a truly competitive global environment, and when you’re in that sort of situation, there are lots of pressures on the C-suite and the people who support the C-suite, to perform. And it’s really, really easy when you start saying, “Well, I can shave this. I can reduce my commitment to this value that’s core to our DNA,” and it’s like anything else, if there’s a standard and you reduce that standard by one percent, is anyone going to be hurt? Practical answer, more than likely not.

But how many one percent slices can you take off of something before all of a sudden you’re no longer who you are, you are no longer what your values are, or your DNA is? And I think that’s a big challenge, to say, “Look, these are our values.”

Our entire team departs for a day and a half or so of strategic planning. We do it once a year where we get out of the office and we sit down and talk about what really matters. And we spend a significant piece of our time reviewing, revisiting and validating what is our culture? What are our values? What do we expect to stand for? What data points do we have from our clients and the publics that they serve that we’re doing the right thing?

And when we’re not, we have to take action. Because if we give in on that, then that’s a very slippery slope to, basically, extinction. And I think that that’s a challenge that we all face, is in that quest to be financially relevant, perhaps, we have to remember that we must be socially and culturally relevant as well.

I think that’s a really great piece of advice. Thinking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

In our agency world we’ve moved from a very kind of closed environment where okay, here’s my team, these are the people I always work with, to bringing in consultants and ad hoc people that have specific expertise, and you kind of set teams up and take teams down on an as-needed basis.

I had an opportunity early in my own agency career here at Three Box where I got to work with someone and she made a really, really good point, and it’s become one of my north stars…no matter what the situation, it’s never too late to do the next ethical or the next right thing.

As humans, we make mistakes. Errors are just kind of part of the way we’re constructed. Because if not, we would all be cyborgs and there would never be any problems because we would do everything exactly and precisely right. But really each of us have made mistakes, most of which we hope we know about, some of which we may not know about. But again, when you stop and say, “Wow, I am not on the right course,” it’s the first opportunity you have, once you know that, to do the next right thing. And that sounds horribly simplistic, but sometimes … particularly with less-experienced professionals, all of a sudden it’s like, “I’ve gone too far. I’m in too deep. This is not rectifiable.” But that’s not right.

You identify where are we now, where should we be, who do we have an obligation either legally, ethically or morally, to communicate and let’s make that communication, and then let’s set that roadmap that says here’s how we correct it.

Some of the greatest presidents in the 240-year history of this country made some pretty big mistakes. But the ones who are really recognized for greatness are those who said, “I had bad information. I made a bad decision. We didn’t head the right direction. This is what we’re doing to fix it.”

And I think that that’s a huge lesson.

Is there anything we didn’t talk about that you think it’s important to highlight with regards to ethics?

I think I would wrap a ribbon around much of what we’ve talked about in saying that there was a time even during our own professional experiences where, as we kind of mentioned before, ethics were an afterthought. Ethics were an episodic situation. All of a sudden, something’s going on that you can’t deny and you’ve got to go in and you’ve got to fix it.

What’s best is that we are seeing ethics as a daily behavior. I really liked your example of it’s like vitamins and the gym. If you do it once a year, or once a month, it’s inadequate. It will not do what you need to do.

All of us are works in progress. All of us have the opportunities to hone our knowledge, skills and abilities in ethics, and I think that’s the great news. I always have this tendency to say, “Well, what’s the positive outcome of some of the things that otherwise might be completely labeled as negative?” I think that’s the positive outcome of some of the difficult circumstances we have found ourselves in over the last five or ten years or so as a society here in the US. I think that we can have that opportunity to say, “Let’s do the next right thing. Let’s keep this topic front and center, visible daily,” and I think that nothing but good can come from that process.

Check out the complete 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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