Joining me on this week’s episode is Tim O’Brien, the founder of O’Brien Communications and host of the Shaping Opinion podcast, which is coming up on its hundredth episode. He is also a member of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.
- Putting your job on the line to do the right thing
- The danger of relative and situational ethics
- The ethical challenges deplatforming creates for communicators
Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
I went to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh where I majored in rhetoric and journalism. I started out in journalism working for the student radio station on campus, which was an NPR affiliate, WDUQ. Before I graduated, I got a job in commercial radio and TV working at KDKA, a CBS affiliate.
After that, I transitioned into PR in my early twenties. For many years after that, I worked for Ketchum in corporate communications. As part of, that I did a lot of crisis and issues work. After I left Ketchum, I went to the corporate side. I handled investor relations for a company that was involved in the whole rollout of broadband. That would have been in the late 1990s.
In 2001, I started my own corporate communications consultancy. Essentially, I’m doing the same type of work I did when I worked at Ketchum and when I worked on the corporate side. I do corporate PR, corporate communications, crisis and issues work.
Since 2018, as you mentioned, I have my own podcast, which is about people, events, and things that have shaped the way we think. It’s not a straight PR podcast. It gets into broader issues, but it’s one that I wanted to listen to myself, if I could have found it.
I’ve been active with the Public Relations Society at different levels. I was on the board of the Pittsburgh Chapter years ago. I’ve been a regular writer for the internal publication for membership. And as you mentioned, I’m on the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards and also the Governance Committee.
Thinking back over your career and all the different roles you’ve faced, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you confronted at work?
That’s really a good question and it’s not a hard one for me. I was working with a publicly traded company, that had a crisis, and it happened over the weekend. I learned about, what seemed be very clear to me, a material event. Something happened that I thought was material.
A couple of managers did not want to be the ones to say anything, to preemptively recommend making a disclosure, because the news really wasn’t good. I knew we had to make a disclosure before the market opened on Monday. So, I contacted the management team. I didn’t ask them. I essentially told them that, “I’m going into the office. I’m preparing a statement, we have to get this out before the market opens on Monday.” And I knew that if I did that, that would make some people uncomfortable with the advice I was giving. But at least I felt that if I were overruled, I did everything I could.
I also knew this could be career-limiting. People don’t like being forced to do something they don’t like. I had to accept that going in and I did. It worked out, actually. As it turned out, I prepared the disclosure, I ran it through all the proper approvals, including legal, and we made the disclosure before the market opened up Monday.
And as we often say in hindsight, when we talk about case studies, the effect was minimal on the stock price because we did preemptively do the right thing. It turned out to be one of those things where the senior managers were glad that I pushed them to do it, and it was a happy ending, but it didn’t feel that way going in.
In fact, I remember when I was leaving for my office that Sunday, my wife looked at me and said, “What are you doing?” And I said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I have to go to work. I’m worried about my job.” That’s pretty much the way I felt going into it, but it turned out to be okay, and I worked with those people for many years after that. We have a great relationship to this day.
What’s your advice to other communicators in a similar circumstance?
The lesson that I learned from that, you kind of know you’re doing the right thing when you do it. You just don’t know what the fallout’s going to be. But what it taught me was, to stick to my guns in future situations. It actually gave me confidence.
I have to point out, I wasn’t going rogue. This was about working in good faith, within the protocols of the organization, to do the right thing. And I think that’s what I would tell younger people is, “Don’t feel that you have to go outside the protocols too quickly.” There are systems and processes within most organizations, especially public traded firms. So, I would say do that, but make sure that you have a strong set of values, that are uncompromising, and be willing to make the sacrifice. Maybe the ultimate business sacrifice, of possibly your job, if it’s the right thing. Because in the long run, I don’t think you’d regret it.
You mentioned you had to get a lot of stakeholders involved, from your managers to legal and things like that, on a Sunday, to get it ready. Did you have a plan in place for handling this or was this an ad hoc situation, that you had to find ways to get everybody and reach them over the weekend?
It was not ad hoc. I did have a plan in place for that. I had a plan and so did the group. I wrote the plan and the group had it, all the people in senior management. So, there was a plan for what we might say is a crisis.
But I think that’s an interesting question that you ask. Because we can have these academic plans on paper or on our computers, but it’s one thing to have the plan in place and it’s another to activate it. I think people can get cold feet. And that’s our job – to make sure that when people start to hesitate, maybe it’s appropriate to hesitate if you have to think things through -but other times there is a time to act. We have to be the ones to know that first, and to push the group to do the right thing as quickly and as timely as possible.
Are there any other incidents from your career you’d want to share?
I think a lot of the other incidents are consistent with that, but probably not so dramatic. I’ve become more comfortable with seeing things further out and starting to sound the alarms earlier on, and making sure people are of the right frame of mind if I have to. And oftentimes too, I defer to legal.
I think that’s another issue, is a lot of people in public relations don’t like having to work with legal. I think legal can be a great collaborator, a great asset for us. So, I think working with legal is very important to me, and I’ve learned to find that as a very reassuring thing when we’re in the middle of a crisis. It’s even better when you’re working with a communication-savvy attorney.
What are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think there’s a mindset in society. I’ve run into this, not so much through my client work, but I go off and I give speeches on college campuses, and I talk to other people in the field and in business outside of the field. And I think there’s a mindset in society, that ethics are relative.
I have a good example of that. I was speaking to a group of MBA students once, it wasn’t too long ago. These aren’t just MBA students in college, these are people who go to a college that’s known for the spin-outs. It’s very realistic for some of the people in this class to envision themselves starting a business and selling it to Google or Uber or Amazon within the next two or three years.
So, we were having a conversation about crisis communications in the group, and there were students from around the world who were in this class. And one of the students asked me, “What about lying? Is it okay to lie?”
It was sort of a loaded question on his part, because he had his mind made up, and I said, “No, it’s never okay to lie.” And then he said, “What about other parts of the world, where cultures are different and it’s more acceptable to lie?” I said, “What do you mean by that?” And he said, “Well, what you think is lying here, and what someone else might think is lying on another part of the world, may be two different things.” And I said to him, “Well, let me ask you this. If your teacher here tells you you’re going to get an A, and your teacher gives you a C, is that okay?” That stopped him. He said, “Well, no, that’s not okay.” And there was a little bit of laughter in the class, because all of a sudden, if the lie affected him, it wasn’t okay.
That subject has come up in other classes, not quite the same way, but I’ve used that example since. It’s almost universally a reality check for people who might think that even something as fundamental as lying could be okay. So, I think that’s a challenge.
In another school I gave a talk, there’s a train of thought that I saw in the syllabus. It said, “It may be unethical to impose your ethics on others.” It was a variation of what this other student said to me, that your ethics are self-determined and are as individual to you.
Really, I think, in answer to your question as a challenge, I don’t think ethics are relative. I think ethics exists to provide a basis or a foundation. These are standards on which we all can agree. They may not be all of the standards, but there are at least the baseline standards on which we all agree are right or wrong. They aren’t relative and they’re not situational. Because if ethics weren’t standard in some way, then there would be chaos.
I think the biggest challenge in the world of ethics and in communications, is to reject the notion that ethical standards are relative. I know that might sound basic and obvious to some, but I think when you start to run into gray areas, where there really shouldn’t be gray areas, there is a difference between right or wrong. That’s one of the things we try to do in PRSA, with the Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. We use our codes of ethics and our codes of conduct as structure to deliver that message.
You mentioned the student was saying that there’s other countries in the world where lying is acceptable. Did he give any examples of that? Because I’m struggling to think about where not keeping your word is a virtue or something that is looked up to.
One of the examples he used, because I did probe it, was how you buy things. In other words, if you go in America to a store, you see a price tag on the item and you buy it. When you go to a market somewhere else, you might have to bargain or negotiate. So, the vendor might tell you a certain price, but that vendor’s always willing to negotiate it.
And that was a very simple example. But the student kind of said that, that way of doing business not only starts at the local market, but may work its way up into the boardrooms and C-suites too. I didn’t agree with him. I didn’t agree with him on that, but that was his point of view.
That’s interesting. I don’t see that as lying, is as a starting point. Just like anybody who’s done enterprise software sales knows, there’s a core rate, and then there’s going to be a whole bunch of discounts that become involved as you negotiate back and forth.
I think what he was also saying, because we did talk a little bit about technology, is this issue of discovering. Because his theory was, that if you don’t tell people what the pros and cons of a product are, or a piece of software, let’s say, then it’s up to the buyer to ask the questions and discover what could be wrong with it. So, it’s also an issue of working in good faith.
So, that was the debate we had. But as I said, once I used that one example it redirected it into where I wanted it to go. Which is, that there are some core ethical standards, and honesty is absolute, and lying is never a good idea.
Are there new areas that you’re seeing, that you’re concerned about with regards to ethics?
There is one and it’s actually very recent. I think the First Amendment is in play and that does concern me. I’ve run into that a little bit in my issues work, because I learned of this term. The term is one that I hadn’t heard before, in this context, but it was called deplatforming.
When you’re doing issues work, oftentimes you have two sides on an issue and there’s a great debate. And this strategy of deplatforming, is a calculated effort by some, to frame their opponents as fringe. To marginalize them, to silence them by getting them removed from digital platforms like Facebook or YouTube or Twitter. And in the media, to marginalize them and frame them as the creators or deliverers of dishonest speech or hate speech.
We were just talking about lying, and this is when someone accuses somebody else of that. And I think the difference between real hate speech and real lying is something we kind of know. But in this case, when people use it as a strategy, they are positioning themselves as these self-appointed speech enforcers. And what they do is, they broaden the definition of what should be prohibited speech to suit their own strategies. I have an example of that.
Recently, the Harvard Crimson ran a story about protests over the federal ICE department. The issue was immigration. So, the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, covered the protests against ICE. And then, they went and they tried to interview ICE, and they did something that we see a lot in the news media. They approached them. They didn’t get a response from ICE. So, what they said in the final article was, “ICE could not be reached for comment.”
The students who were protesting ICE, then turned on the newspaper and went after the newspaper through a petition. There were a few groups and they said that the newspaper should never have even approached ICE for comment. That became an issue. It also then escalated, and some of the larger news media picked up on it.
So, I think that’s an extreme example though, but I think there are people who want to deny those who oppose them the chance to speak. And they do it by attacking them in ways that may not always be accurate.
If you’re a business finding yourself under attack and trying to be deplatformed, or you’re considering doing it to another company, what’s your advice to those businesses?
I go with the age-old mantra, the key to dealing with speech you don’t like is more speech. And unless it’s truly defamatory, unless it’s truly slanderous, I think we have to respect the First Amendment.
There is speech out there that’s ugly, and it’s not speech that we would respect in any way, if we have ethics. But that doesn’t mean it’s our job to seek to silence them. Because once you do that, then where do you draw the line?
And maybe more importantly, who should be given the power to deny speech? Do we want that to be in the hands of the government, or another special interest, or somebody that opposes us, or a politician, or a company? Do we want the digital platforms deciding what speech is okay or not? And how do they do that? What criteria do they use?
So, I think it’s a slippery slope. I started in journalism and I’ve been in public relations all these years, and I feel that the First Amendment is sacred. And as ugly as it is when people sometimes exercise their free speech, I still think having the freedom of speech is something we need to protect.
As communicators, what can we do to push back against this?
That’s a good question. I think it takes a little bit of courage. It’s the old see something, say something adage. I think if you see someone’s trying to deny someone else their right to free speech, I think it’s almost incumbent on us as communicators to speak up. And I think if it’s a planning meeting, or even for those of us in the public relations business, we have a lot of say in what goes on our social channels and our websites. There may be times when people say things, or want to say things through our platforms, that others want to silence. And I think we have to allow that, as much is reasonable.
Now, if it’s on our own channels, like a website or let’s say a Facebook group that we control, and someone’s being truly disrespectful, yes that might need to be moderated. But I do think, in other cases, we have to really respect freedom of speech, because we don’t want anyone to do the same to us.
There is another issue, I think, that comes to play in crisis and issues work. There’s a code of ethics for people that run social media sites, that you never want to moderate your site. It’s almost like, if someone comments on your site and you delete that comment, that’s breaking a major rule. And in a lot of cases, under normal circumstances, that is.
But when you’re dealing with an extraordinary circumstance, and you’re dealing with a crisis or an issue, there may be times to be more active in moderating your own channels, only because you have to think of that greater good we talked about. Is this going to hurt the organization? Is this going to hurt somebody else?
So, I think the criteria is, is the speech slanderous or libelous? That’s first. Does it break any kind of compliance rule? Is there a disclosure of a material nature? Is there something that might fly against the regulations of the FTC or some other group? Does it include information that discloses information that would be otherwise proprietary or protected or confidential? Those are the baseline things.
And then, there are the issues of respect. I think most forums have rules in their forums. You must respect others and there mustn’t be any profanity or name-calling. And I think all of those things are worthy of enforcing, to allow for a more constructive dialogue.
But on the issue of whether someone simply disagrees with you, and if they’re able to do it respectfully and ethically and honestly, I think we need to try to safeguard that to the extent that we can.
Thinking over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?
The best piece of advice I was given, and it kind of drove a lot of the things we talked about here today, a mentor to me said that, “A principle is not a principle until it costs you something to uphold it.” That’s what they said, and I’ve come to live by that.
That’s what I was thinking that da, that I thought I might put my job at risk, when I proactively went and acted on doing a disclosure with management. I think a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something, while quoted, is something that has driven me. You must be willing to put your career on the line or your job on the line to do the right thing, I think in the long run, you become more confident of when you have to take stronger stands and when you may not.
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