Being an Effective Counselor During Difficult and Heart-Wrenching Ethical Situations – Michelle Egan

Joining me on this week’s episode is Michelle Egan, the chief communications officer of the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. She has dealt with many difficult and heart-wrenching ethical decisions in her career.

In the interview, Michelle discusses a number of key ethical issues including:

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

I was educated at Boston College, and I bring that up because that good Jesuit liberal arts education definitely factors into how ethics plays into the work that I do. After that I returned to Alaska and I worked in the nonprofit sector for a while and enjoyed that quite a bit. My degree was in psychology, so I wasn’t exactly sure about communications or PR. It wasn’t a direct path for me.

Eventually I ended up at the Anchorage School District, which is about the 80th largest district in the country, and you wouldn’t think that because we’re here in Anchorage, Alaska. But we actually have all of the diversity and urban issues and challenges that any large school district would have.

That was really exciting place to work. It was where I really discovered that PR was what I wanted to do for the rest of my career. I got my APR during that time, and that was also a very formative experience for me. Discovering the PRSA Code of Ethics was probably the strongest standout of that process, in that I realized how grounded our profession is when we practice the Code of Ethics. I worked for the school district for about a decade facing every issue you can imagine – employee comms issues, negotiations, school violence and school strikes. We had a lot of challenges. It was a very exciting and challenging job.

One thing about that job that was influential in the rest of my career is that, because it was a public institution, there really was no information that wasn’t shared with the public. I learned very early in my career the importance of transparency – the need to make information available. That’s also where I really discovered that our work is so central to our democracy.

People in our society who receive an education are entitled to have information so that they can make good decisions. That’s how our democracy works. And if we as practitioners don’t play an important role in that, then we have problems. As a public organization, you really don’t have a choice. I learned that very quickly and I learned to really value that.

After about a decade in that role, a job came open here at Alyeska Pipeline, and this is the company that operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system, the pipeline that runs from the North Slope of Alaska to Valdez. We also support the tankers that move in and out of Valdez. This company has long iconic history. It’s very, very well known in the industry and in Alaska. We get a lot of attention from congressional committees, and lawmakers and people interested in the transportation of oil everywhere. Because the Exxon Valdez happened here on our system, we have been under a lot of scrutiny over many, many years, and we’ve transformed really into a company that others look to for best practices. We have a very strong code of ethics and the practice of that code here at the company.

We have been one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, which is an Ethisphere award for about six or seven years running. And it’s a really complicated process to get that award. They look at everything from your financial practices, to your legal practices, to stakeholder relations. I say that because being heavily regulated and driven to reform shapes the ways that we do ethics. We’ve got whistleblower violations in our past and lots of things that brought us where we are today.

Thinking about your career, and it sounds like between both the pipeline in your work at the school district there’s been a lot of ethical discussions, but what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The most difficult challenges are not ones where there is a clear black or white ethical situation. Especially when we’re working inside a company or an organization, it’s really about questioning the way things are being done or looking at an issue and asking questions about the ethics or about whether things that we do are consistent with our brand or who we are.

And so, I don’t really have a very clear example of an ethical issue, except for one that came really early in my career before I got my APR. I was working for a nonprofit that was kind of a quasi-governmental organization, and the executive of that organization starting to get a little sideways with the board.

And we had an event, and at that event the Mayor was upstaged a little by this executive and didn’t appreciate that too much. Part of it was on me, because in my eagerness to get the mayor there (I was 30 years old at the time and pretty new at this), I didn’t think he needed as much time at the event as he probably did. So, he ended up being really tight on his schedule, and maybe even missing the opportunity to speak.

A couple of days later, the executive decided to leave the organization, and he blamed me. He told me, if you hadn’t done this thing that made this mistake that led the Mayor to lose faith, then I wouldn’t have been encouraged to move on. I knew that wasn’t entirely true. I felt badly, but I knew that there was more to it.

That was a little bit of an irritation for me. And it was a good thing, because a few days later when he was about to pack up to things and go, I asked, “What are your plans? What are you going to do?” He said, I’m going to do some consulting and I’m going to do it in this area of the organization that we were responsible for. He said, if you want, you could work a little bit with me and help me with developing the materials that I’m going to use in this organization. I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” He said, because you know, we’ve developed quite a lot of material here at this nonprofit, and it’s really aligned with what I want to do – we could just use some of that.

And I said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Wait a minute!” We had worked hard. I had put a lot into those materials, making them creative, attractive and doing the research. I knew they were valuable, but I also knew that they didn’t belong to me and they certainly didn’t belong to him.

I said, “That is not going to happen. Thanks for the offer, but these materials belong to this organization.” And so we parted ways.

Someone was asking me to do something that was wrong and unethical.

You see that quite a bit, especially at agencies when people leave and they ask for a media list or document they created? You need to remind them that no, it doesn’t belong to you, and that it does belong to the client and not to you.

There was a case recently where you can do it ethically. I was looking for a case study for one of my college classes, and contacted my old firm and said “You have the perfect case study for this. If you’re willing to share it, let me know. I’ll strip the client’s name out of it and I won’t use it in any of my professional work, just in educational work.”. Thatt gave the brand a chance to decide if they wanted to or not.

Exactly. In this case, he had the knowledge, he could have used the concepts, but he wanted to shortcut it, and we just weren’t going to do that. I probably was bold enough to really put my foot down because I was angry about the way he had blamed me. This was before I really knew about or understood the PRSA Code of Ethics. I was just sort of navigating that on my own, and then things became clearer when I went through the APR process and really explored the PRSA Code of Ethics.

Now you mentioned Ethisphere and the world’s most ethical companies. They pointed out the being a World’s Most Ethical Company doesn’t mean you’re perfect. It means when you make a mistake, you respond ethically and accurately. Can you tell me about how you handled a situation like that?  

I have a situation with an ethical and company values undertones. I think it’s an important story because it’s about the alliances that we build.

The company that I work for now has a lot of heavy equipment and trucks out on the road. And one afternoon I was in my office and a vice president came in and said, “I’m going to need your attention right away. This is not a good situation.”

A large truck had been involved in an accident with a bicyclist, and the bicyclist was a middle school student on his way home from school, and the student didn’t survive the accident. It was a very sad and extremely unusual type of event to happen in our organization because of our safety focus.

The accident wasn’t the driver’s fault. It wasn’t due to any equipment malfunction. But on the day of the accident, we did not know that. Just like any other crisis, you know very little about the facts.

We have what we call a no surprises approach to communication here, that’s our strategy. And it means that we immediately go out with information to the appropriate stakeholders as soon as we know something. And so we notified our employees right away of the incident and our stakeholders, and I responded to media inquiries.

Then of course an investigation was launched immediately by law enforcement, and we participated in that. And all of that is consistent with our company values around truth and transparency. Also that day, our senior leadership gathered to talk about what actions should be taken, keeping records, cooperating with the investigation, reaching out to the contractor – for it was actually a contractor of ours that was driving the vehicle.

And in this meeting, I recommended that our president make contact with the mother of this young boy who died. The recommendation wasn’t about public relations. I had no intention of sharing with anyone that this call was made, but it felt like the right thing to do in terms of the compassion that we want to show for the people that we impact. That was my recommendation, but for many good reasons, other executives counseled against any contact at that time. They had lots of good and legitimate reasons, and I wasn’t sure that what I was suggesting was the right thing to do other than it felt like the right thing to do. I wasn’t sure if making the phone call was the right thing to do in terms of what was best for the company, but it just felt right.

Everyone else on the executive team thought this wasn’t the right thing to do. And they had a lot of good reasons. Reasons like, we don’t know the facts of what happened. We don’t want to interfere with the investigation. We might be facing a lawsuit and we don’t know what that will be about. And probably most importantly, we don’t know if this is a sensitive or an insensitive thing to do. We don’t know how this mother will take it. Everyone’s experience and grief and shock is different. And so, for about 48 hours, I talked to each of the execs and got their opinions, and our president still was unsure whether he wanted to do this or not.

But he had a long career in the military, he’d had many occasions to reach out to people who’d lost someone. He’s a really kind and thoughtful man. And so talking to the mother was consistent with who he is and consistent with our company and our values. It just seemed like it was the right match.

So in the end I worked with all of our executives to find a way that he could make this call. He wanted to reach out to this woman. And so we worked together and we agreed that I would sit in on the call, that it would be brief. We agreed on basically what he would say, and also that I would take notes so that we would have a record of this call. And it was a real privilege to be included in that.

So we did compromise and we found a solution everyone was comfortable with, and in the end it was the right thing to do.

But one thing I think is really important for practitioners to know is the people that we work with all bring an important perspective to the table. Because this wasn’t an ethical or a legal issue, there wasn’t a right or wrong way to approach it. There was a lot of perspective that needed to be considered. It was a difficult phone call because of the pain that the mother was in, but mostly the call was just listening to her talk about her son. And it felt like we had been the compassionate organization that I know we are. So it was a very touching, difficult moment that I was pleased to be part of.

When you counsel a senior leader, and this has happened to me many times over my career, and you really have the trust of that individual – you get to see them in some pretty, pretty raw times. It’s really quite a privilege.

I think that’s a really good point and it does show the importance of knowing the values of an organization and living them even in difficult circumstances.

Exactly. Mark, there’s some work by Dr. Marlene Neil that’s really very powerful where she looked at senior practitioners and how they navigated ethical issues, and one of the strategies that she found that practitioners are using most often is building alliances. So this was an example where the alliances that I had built over many years of working with people came into play. 

I use that all the time, because again, we don’t always have the best answers or the best solutions. And I’ve been lucky to work with some people in our legal department who have the perspective. We say “Let’s talk about what you want to do, what you think we should do, and then let’s find the way to do it that all of our risks are going to be considered, not just reputation risk.”

When you’re talking to others across the industry, what do you see as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think there’s a lot that’s happening in our environment today that is not new, but continues to be the ethical challenges of our profession. One key thing is protecting the free flow of information.

As we start to see confirmation bias takeover and people have so many choices in the media and information they consume, we are getting in a position as citizens that we’re getting typically only one side of an issue, one kind of information.

As public relations practitioners, the challenge is to try to present both sides, even though your company, your organization does have a perspective. It’s harder in a private organization like the one I’m in now to see that than it is where I was before in a school district where you really don’t have a choice. It is your obligation.

We really have to guard against people only receiving one side of a story, only getting one perspective. Because how can we expect people in our society to make good choices when they don’t have all sides of an issue? And as this advances and accelerates, for me, it feels like we often don’t know where the truth really lies. And then if you want to throw on top of that disinformation, you’ve got a much more complicated situation.

What’s your advice to practitioners to help make sure they can articulate both sides of the issue?

We must continue to seek out different perspectives. We have to work extra hard to get out and listen to the other side. If your company is trying to advance a particular idea or particular product, it’s really easy to stay in your echo chamber and hear from all the people who support it and think it’s a great idea, and then try to influence people who are on the periphery of that. But we really have to spend time with people who are critics. People who completely disagree with us, and we have to listen and build relationships there. If we can’t do that, if we can’t be inclusive and transparent in that way, we’re unable to do our job. And not only is it an ethics issue, it’s harmful to our companies.

What do you do in those cases where you want to be transparent but there are legal or other issues keeping you back? What’s your advice on how to really share the right amount of information?

When I worked for the school district, we faced this all the time. We wanted to be transparent and provide information, but we also have some laws that protect people, and sometimes those laws that protect people make it difficult to tell your organization’s point of view.

An example would be the school district’s being sued by a family of a student. The lawsuit alleges that the district did terrible things and expelled or suspended the student when they shouldn’t have been. You have the facts, you know about the student, you know about the family, you try to respond and help people understand that your organization didn’t do something wrong, yet you’re held back because for ethical and legal reasons, we don’t out students.

We don’t get to talk about that student’s background. We don’t get to talk about the fact that they were a bad actor or they create a lot of problems at the school. Because there’s a law that protects student privacy.

The way that I worked through it was really two things when those would come up. The first was really to have frequent conversations and contact with our legal counsel to say, what applies here, what law applies? And the FERPA, which is the privacy law for students, applies in most of these situations. So I ask what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds? I say “Look, legal counsel, what I want to do is make sure people understand that the district was being fair. The approach that we took and the ways that we went through it, and the students decorum and history is related. How far can I go or how can I help to paint this picture?” And I found that enormously helpful, because again, we had that alliance, we talked about what we wanted to do and then what was the best approach.

The second part is, sometimes you just don’t get to do it. Sometimes you just have to take the hit, and that’s okay. And it might be naive, but if you’re working in an organization that’s doing a lot of good things, and you continue to put that information forward and you continue to be transparent, you can take a couple of hits.

In those cases, or say in the case of employee information, which is this very similar circumstance, we don’t get to talk about employees and the things that they’ve done on the job that might have led to them leaving the organization. That’s because it’s not the right thing to do and we’ll just have to ride this one out. Hope that the good will covers us in the long-term.

And you talked about some of your concerns over confirmation bias. Are there any other areas you’re concerned about regarding ethics?

My biggest concern is that it’s an erosion of our profession. We as members of PRSA and people who follow the code of ethics, and the work that we do is really under attack. When we have people in “communications” roles, who twist the facts or share only a portion of them, I think we really have to guard and protect our profession. I’ll go back to what I said earlier, the reason we have to do that is because it really is an integral part of our democracy. We see journalism become something different where many people can call themselves journalists, many people can create news and sources of information. Our role is even more important to help keep that ship steady.

I think that’s some really great advice. And speaking of advice, over your career, what’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I had a man who worked for me, when I worked at the school district, and he’s the one who dealt with the media all the time and it was virtually all he did. His phone was always ringing about something. And this was back in the day. He had a scanner in his office so that he could listen to police calls, because we didn’t have Twitter and all the fast response ways that we could find out that something was going on at a school. He really was kind of on the edge of doing all the things that we needed to do to be transparent and keep a good relationship with the media, because again, that was one of our primary vehicles for reaching the community, parents and students.

One day we had an incident at a school that we heard about, this was before Columbine, it was before violence in schools really had taken of and before there was a clear pattern about what information you would release and how quickly you would get information to parents about a threat at a school.

We found out that there was a gun had been found at a high school and everything was fine. They had taken the student into custody and no one was harmed. The press didn’t know about it, et cetera.

He came into my office and he said, hey, we had a gun at XYZ school. We really need to put together a news release and share that information. I asked if he was sure. The incident was resolved and we haven’t had any calls from the media.

He looked at me and he said, Michelle, you can’t polish a turd.

What he meant by that is difficult information is just difficult information. You have to just tell it like it is.

And so we did the news release, we put it out there. We had many opportunities to do that in the years to come. But that sticks with me and I tell it to my team all the time. You can’t polish a turd. Bad information comes and you just have to share it. You can’t hide it. You can’t cover it up. And I’ve heard a lot of people on your podcast talk about truth, and that tell the truth. That is absolutely at the core of this, and there’s no way to make a difficult message better. So you just need to get it out there and be transparent.

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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