Why Saying “That’s Unethical” Isn’t Enough – Marisa Vallbona

Joining me on this week’s episode is Marisa Vallbona, the founder and president of CIM, Inc PR, a public relations firm with more than two decades of expertise, having worked with more than 90 companies, ranging from world renowned brands to startups. She is also a co-founder of the PR Consultants Group, a national network of PR firms with offices in every major market in Puerto Rico and is a Houston member of the organization.

Marisa discusses:

Glad to have you here

I’m so excited to be here and I just love that you’re doing this. It’s so necessary because ethics is something that a lot of people think is a boring topic, but it touches everything that we do and it’s just such an important topic and a lot of people don’t realize all the different ways that ethic plays, not only in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well.

I agree. I think I was talking recently at PRC International Conference and I said, ethical dilemmas are the greatest humans soap opera over the past 3000 years.

Yes. And they cause so much stress. When I was thinking about this podcast and being on your show and I’m really excited about it and thanks for having me. Looking back over my career, which now spans over 30 years, and I was thinking how many ethical dilemmas I’ve been involved in. They all have stressed me out so much because I have to say the toughest PR projects are not as stressful as the toughest ethical dilemmas. Those are so stressful.

Why don’t you tell us about your most difficult ethical challenge?

The most difficult was very recent. And I can’t go into too much detail because I want to protect my client involved in this.

I adore the client, but I think it’s a really good lesson to learn because a member of the client’s organization asked me to do something that was clearly unethical. We were sitting having cocktails with one of the managers with this client’s organization and the member of the organization looked at me over martinis and asked me to do something that was unethical… I was actually pretty shocked.

And the reason that this was such a stressful dilemma is because this client means so much to me. It’s a substantial client for me. The manager looked at this individual and said, “She can’t do that. She’s an APR. She’s a Fellow. She will lose her credentials. Not only that, it’s illegal.” And I sat there looking at it and I thought, I operate offices in Southern California and in Texas. All of a sudden, I can see myself just completely leaving Southern California going to Texas, having to resign this client and just being done with it because I can’t do this. But I was so happy that that manager protected me.

But here is the thing that I thought was really interesting, and I think this is a lesson for all of us. This individual who was asking me to do something completely unethical, this individual is a very ethical person. And I don’t think this individual realized what they were really asking me to do. So, after cocktails, I thought about it for a while and I thought, what was behind this? What was this individual’s pain? Where did this request come from?

And I started thinking about it and I thought, what was this person’s end game? What was gnawing at them and keeping them up at night? When I realized what their pain was, I was able to come up with a work around that was ethical, that was legal and I was able to solve their problem while maintaining ethics and legality in the situation. I think that what we can all learn from this is sometimes clients and employers and organizations might ask us to do something that is shocking and comes across as unethical, but they’re not necessarily coming at it from that perspective. We need to take a step back and understand what is their goal? What exactly do they want? Because they’re not communicating as clearly as we are because we’re communicators.

What are some other examples of unethical behavior you have encountered?

I was ethics officer for the San Diego chapter of PRSA and I was called frequently to police ethical challenges. And there were a few that were quite frankly pretty shocking.

  1. I was called about an individual who called a PR firm and started spreading rumors about the owner of the PR firm so that the employees would leave that firm and then he would recruit those employees. They were lies, malicious lies. People started finding out about this and the owner of the PR firm contacted me when he found out that this was happening and he reported it to me as ethics officer. I actually contacted this person who was spreading these lies. The person, of course denied it, but we had proof. I contacted the employees that had been the recipient of these malicious rumors and we got to the bottom of it.
  2. And I’ll tell you a couple more. An agency submitted work and passed it off as their own when clearly it belonged to someone else and that someone else reported it to me and proved that it was their words. It was stolen. Clearly it was copyright infringement and that just blew me away.
  3. There was an employee who silently collected data while employed by her agency. And then she did everything she could to sabotage that agency. She was discovered and then she was fired.
  4. I had another situation where a San Diego agency was just getting started and they contacted me and they said, “We would like to hire you as a consultant because we’re fascinated by what you did, founding PR Consultants Group. And we just want to hire you as a consultant because we want to learn what you did and we want to learn from you because we want to understand that model.” And I told them, I said, “Okay, this is proprietary information. I’m not going to give you the exact model, but I’ll explain to you what we did.” What was interesting is I didn’t share with them exactly what we did. There’s proprietary information that we put in our contract. I founded PR Consultants Group in 2000 with two other partners. I gave them the bare skeleton of it.

What was interesting, is two months later, this PR firm launched an exact model. They used our map of the United States. They used the exact tagline that we had. They copied it exactly the way we had it. We had to file a lawsuit against them for trademark infringement. And in what just blows me away is how, I don’t want to say how stupid people are, but how they just don’t think.

You know what? I do want to say that. They just don’t think things through. They’re not inventive enough or confident enough in their own capabilities to do their own work. They have to steal other people’s work. It’s crazy.

What’s your recommendations for how you address IP theft when you uncover it?

In the past, I’ve been kind enough to contact the individual and say, “This is my work,” or “This is my team’s work and I am respectfully requesting that you remove this from your website or that you stop telling people that this is your work.” But unfortunately, I have found that it doesn’t always work that way. I have a really good corporate attorney who writes, as we say in Texas, “Bless your heart” letters and that seems to work.

I had a situation once that really blew me away. This happened to a few members of PR Consultants Group. This individual had tapped a few of us when she was starting her agency and she noticed that there were a few of us who worked on teams and collectively our teams had won a few Silver Anvil awards from PRSA. And she thought, okay, this is going to be a great way for me to get in and get some new business. She was really good at getting new business. She brought us in to help her get new business and she brought us into these accounts. Now, this woman was a nightmare to work with. You know, we’ve all had clients like that.

But what was interesting is, she put on her website that she had these clients, that she had won these Silver Anvil awards. When we discovered that, we asked her, please take this down. You did not have these clients. These were not your clients. These are not your Silver Anvils that you won. You can say that some of the members of your team have worked with these clients. Some of the members of your team have won these Silver Anvils, but you can’t say that you did. She didn’t see the distinction.  

Beyond the false claims and beyond the clients putting you in unethical situations, what do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges we’re facing as an industry for today and tomorrow?

The biggest challenge that I see, and I’ve seen this from day one, is the lack of enforcement of the PRSA Code of Ethics. And I know, and I’ve served on the committees that have tried to change the Code of Ethics, but it’s not enforceable. It’s never been enforceable. And that’s a huge problem. I saw that when I was ethics officer. And here’s the other problem, is if somebody’s not a PRSA member, if they don’t have their APR, what are you going to say, “Oh, I’m going to kick you out of the PR profession for being unethical.”

I think that ethics are something that you either inherently have or you don’t have. What is your character? And some people just don’t have a good character and they just don’t care about ethics. They think that if nobody sees it, then it’s all good and they think they can get away with it. And that’s just sad. But I think our Code of Ethics really is the biggest problem, how do you make it enforceable?

I think it’s an interesting statement and I’ve seen it from a number of other people. There’s talk about credentialing and there’s the PRCA, in the UK, where they kicked out Bell Pottinger. What’s the difference? Why isn’t it an enforceable code?

Well, I think the way the UK does it is fantastic. I mean, look at the way the accounting profession does it. Look at how the legal profession does it. I think if we move toward a model like that, and we’ve talked about that. I was chair of the UAB (Universal Accreditation Board) and served on the UAB for nine years. And we couldn’t enforce that either with APR. I think that there was one instance where a chapter treasurer was caught embezzling funds and he resigned on his own because he was in serious legal trouble when he was caught embezzling the funds.

That is a situation where he lost his APR. He resigned from PRSA, but those situations are few and far between. There are so many instances like that where practitioners, where PR professionals, they will engage in egregious activities, but we might not ever know about them because if somebody doesn’t find out, and as far as they’re concerned, they’re not doing anything wrong. I think that actual certification, not necessarily credentialing, but certification, like an attorney passes a bar and accountant gets a CPA, I think that moving toward a model like that, that would go a long way toward enforcing ethics.

What’s the next step for making that a reality?

I think that changing the way that the UAB is structured, changing the exam, changing how our profession is structured. Because right now anybody can say, “Okay, I do PR. I’m a PR pro.” And the sad thing is many just call it publicity instead of public relations.

Because you know as well as I do, PR is more than publicity.  We work with HR, we work with attorneys, we work with the C-Suite. There’s so much more that we do in advising organizations on communicating with their target audiences and on the image of a brand, a service and organization. It’s so much more than publicity which is just a tiny fraction of public relations. Anybody can say that they are a Public Relations Professional because they just do publicity. That I think is where we’re in a slippery slope and where we have a lot of problems.

And I think that’s what needs to change. I think we need to have a better image of what our profession does. We’re getting there. I think PRSA has done a great job of educating the public on what public relations does and what public relations is, but I think we need to do a better job of it. And I do think that we need to move toward a solid professional credentialing. The APR has done a lot, but I don’t think that that’s the answer.

The code of ethics is great, but how do you enforce it? That’s the problem I’ve always had with it from day one. I joined PRSSA as a student back in 1985 and when I joined it, the code of ethics was a lot stronger, but it wasn’t enforceable. If you violate it, you’re not going to get kicked out. How are they going to kick you out? It wasn’t enforceable then. It’s changed a lot now, but it’s not enforceable. It’s really the honor system.

I agree. I’m teaching an ethics course at Boston University and Don Wright has been talking about just the lack of enforceability in international codes of ethics for going on 30 years now as being one of the key issues. I definitely think it’s something worth exploring more in the future.

Are there any other areas you’re concerned about beyond the enforcing the Code?

Well, journalism ethics, is huge because journalism has slipped so much and it’s just become even more evident in the last five years. One of my first PR jobs was working for the America’s Cup Yacht Racing when I moved from Texas to San Diego. I worked for the America’s Cup and I was in international media relations.

I got my degree in journalism with an emphasis in PR from the University of Texas at Austin, (hook’em horns). When I came to San Diego, I was shocked at how unethical the news media was in foreign countries, like in New Zealand and Australia. Because you would give them a news release and they would twist the facts and write whatever they wanted. They would change quotes. It was so difficult working with them because they had a different set of ethical standards than we had in the United States.

Back then, a lot of these international media didn’t have to name their sources. I would get to work and all of a sudden, they would say, Dennis Connor said this, that, or the other.

And I would call them and I’d say, “What the heck y’all. Where did you get this information?” They say, “Oh, we don’t have to name our sources.” And I said, “What do you mean you don’t have to name your sources, you have to name your sources.” Well, they would say, “That’s your rule in the U.S. We don’t have to name our sources.”

Well look at where we are now. The media today says those are our sources. I know who my sources are, but I don’t have to name my sources. Look at where we are today and I think with the demise of journalism ethics, has come a slippery slope for PR as well, because if they don’t have to adhere to a strict ethical standard, then some PR professionals will argue then why do we?

There was a really interesting session at the PRSA International Conference this year that compared the Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics to PRSA’s Code of Ethics and where the differences and similarities are. And I think you’re right, being making sure everyone is acting ethically is essential to having robust and fair debate.

Right. And I don’t want to belabor on politics, but look at where we are politically as well. That’s also a slippery slope. It’s just society in general has become a lot less ethical.

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

Always tell the truth. Nothing the truth can reveal will ever be worse than being caught in a lie, ever. No matter what kind of trouble you’re in. And I tell my clients this all the time, especially when they’re facing a crisis. Just tell the truth. Be completely transparent. Number one, you won’t have to keep track of your lies. You’re going to live a much less stressful life if you just tell the truth, because no matter how bad the truth is, it’s never going to be worse than being caught in a lie.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight today, Marisa?

I really just want to emphasize that you should seek to understand others when you feel that they’re being completely unethical. Understand them, understand where they’re coming from. As I’ve matured in my life and in my public relations practice, I’ve realized that I used to see things so black and white and I used to just jump to conclusions and think, “Oh, that person is unethical.” And now, I instead seek to understand and seek to find out where they’re coming from. And sometimes they either just don’t know that it’s unethical or they’re trying to get to a specific goal and maybe helping them to redirect their behavior is a better way to help them grow instead of flat out accusing them of being unethical.

Check out 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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