What to Do When You Are Asked to Protect a Large Donor’s Reputation – Shonali Burke

Joining me on this week’s EthicalVoices episode is Shonali Burke. Shonali is a growth strategist who helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life through social PR and improve their reputation. She also tirelessly gives back and has helped thousands of communicators improve their social media prowess through her Waxing UnLyrical blog.

In the interview this week, Shonali discusses:

Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career journey?

My career path is anything but traditional. I never went to school for PR. My education is in economics at the bachelor’s level and then in theater at the master’s level. I was a professional actress and director in India where I also started working in PR. I moved to the US after I got married to my now late husband, and I honestly just did not want to start from scratch with theater. So I figured I had some experience in PR and I would see if I could make my career there. So, I had moved to the Bay Area and networked my way into a job with a boutique PR agency that fortuitously primarily did PR and marketing for Bay Area engagements for Broadway shows.

The theater commonality was wonderful and that’s how I started to get my feet wet in PR. Then a few years later we moved to the East Coast and kind of went from there. II earned my accreditation from IABC, I’ve been teaching at Johns Hopkins for many years now. I’m adjunct faculty for the MA Communication Program.

I recently went back to school myself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program because I reached a point in my life where there were quite dramatic changes and I needed to reinvent myself, which I think we all need to do from time to time. So I’m not quite sure what the next iteration of my career will be, but I do know it will have to do with using and leveraging business analytics to work with purpose-driven brands because that really is where I find a lot of joy.

My hope is that my PR communications and marketing experience to date coupled with what I have learned and will continue to learn in the Harvard Program will really help me help purpose-driven organizations put their best foot forward.

Looking back over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I was thinking about that and I actually woke up early and I was like, “Oh my God, what is the most difficult ethical challenge I’ve encountered?” I don’t know if I’ve been very fortunate or instinctively, I chose good places to work and the stars aligned, but I have never been confronted with a challenge so significant on the ethical side that I actually had to think about whether or not to resign.

However, I used to work at the ASPCA. I ran PR for the ASPCA for a couple of years around the time of the 2007 pet food recall, the Michael Vick cruelty case, it was quite a seminal time in animal welfare and I learned a lot there.

Around the time of the pet food recall, it kind of came out of the dark as crises frequently do, there was certainly a lot of emphasis being put from a particular senior executive on sending out information that basically tried to reassure our stakeholders that a particular pet food company was in the clear – as in their product was not contaminated – because they were a corporate sponsor.

I said, “We can’t do that because we don’t know that.”

The concern was well, they’re a corporate sponsor. They give us a lot of money. We kind of need to watch out for them.

I’m like, “No, we need to watch out for our pet parents and our primary responsibility is to the animals of America.”

I was just like, “No, that’s just not going to happen. We can’t do that.” The Web person then came to me because she was concerned with these masses of pet food that were being recalled and everyday it was more batches being recalled. She came to me and she said, “You know, we really need to do something to address these questions that we’re getting.” I said, “You’re absolutely right.”

We had already started working on FAQs, things like that that we were sharing to anyone in contact with the public. Here’s what we know. Here’s what to tell people when they call you, whether it’s customers, whether it’s sponsors, whoever it is.

But because of this concern of pet parents around the country calling us all the time saying, “I don’t know if my pet food is safe. Can I feed this to my dog or cat?” we essentially created the Pet Food Recall Resource Center on our website, which was essentially a dark site. I knew nothing about dark sites at the time. We just instinctively did it. We started to plug the batch numbers or whatever you call the serial numbers as the FDA was releasing them and as many foods was releasing them to say, “Okay, this is what we know. This is the most up to date list of food that’s been recalled. Here’s what you do if your pet shows signs of illness, et cetera, et cetera.”

In the end that’s how we addressed both our stakeholders’ concerns, which was number one, and since our corporate sponsor did not have foods that were being recalled, we were kind of like, “Well, people can go onto the website and check if those serial numbers are there or not.”

It sounds like you had the challenge of how do you balance different stakeholders with competing interests and your duties to them?

Yeah, it is really tough. I understand that, but I guess that’s just something inside us that says we can’t make somebody happy because they’re paying us a lot of money.

The interesting thing was that in that situation, at least I never heard directly from the sponsor itself, though I had worked with them on partnerships and so on, I never got any direct requests from them, “Hey, could you please do this?” It came from this very senior person inside the organization. So that was very interesting to me.

Was pushing back to the senior person enough or did you need to go and find allies to help make the case?

I was in a very good position, if I say so myself, because I hadn’t even been there a year. I’d been recruited that previous June and had already put in place some pretty extensive changes, starting a new department, creating a news bureau within the organization and really starting to do media outreach, and build bridges within the organization. All of these are good things to do and important things to do. I was doing them instinctively because I just felt that if we didn’t have trust internally, how could we tell the stories of our organization well and engender trust externally if you don’t even have internal brand ambassadors?

I did not know any of this language at the time, I was just doing it. So my team and I had already built up a lot of trust within the organization and I had the backing of the CEO and my supervisor at the time who did actually give me the deference of a senior communications executive because that’s how they’d hired me. The CEO had been a client of mine at my prior agency. I’d known him for a long time. So he knew me and he’d seen me handle other situations. Nothing of this magnitude, but he’d seen me handle other difficult situations and challenging personalities, so he knew I could do that. So I wasn’t going in blind and I did not have to scream and cry to get support.

Thinking beyond pet food, what do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

We talk a lot about transparency and disclosure and I think they continue to be an ongoing challenge.  Quite frankly, I see it a lot with agencies. Also, I don’t know that public relations is ever going to shake its foundations in “spin” thanks to Edward Bernays.

I find persuasion theory absolutely fascinating. But a lot of what happened in the early part of the 20th century in the early days of public relations and a lot of Bernays’s early campaigns that put him on the map were dubious, in my opinion, from an ethical point of view. Literally he basically got women to smoke more.

Absolutely. Torches of freedom.

Yeah. Torches of freedom, the green ball. It’s like, whoa. Why is bacon and eggs considered the all-American breakfast? I love bacon. So I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but literally, wow. You have to hand it to him in terms of what he was able to do. But the ethics part was in my opinion, questionable. I feel that that history of “spin” is never going to leave the industry unfortunately.

What you brought up in terms of that and transparency and disclosure, I think it’s still an issue today. I think a lot of brands are falling victim to it even on social media.

What is very interesting to me, particularly because in my program at Hopkins, we have students from all over the world, is how practitioners in different countries have completely different approaches to ethics. It is reflective of the larger ethical situation in the country. I’m not going to start naming names here, but in certain countries pay for play is very much accepted. In certain countries it is possible to place an advertisement on the cover of a major newspaper. So, ad value equivalency kind of is valid there in a way.

No, it’s not. It’s horrible bastardized metric, Shonali. Horrible.

Well yeah, it is. You know what my thoughts are about that. But you know what the other problem with it is? Nobody has to date has been able to come up with a good alternative and please, I know all about AMEC and everything else. You know what? You and I are equally plugged into all of that stuff, but hello. No one has come up with an alternative, which is why the damn thing keeps on going.

Getting back to transparency and disclosure, what’s your advice to practitioners when they’re getting the pressure not to be transparent or not to disclose? How do you really make the case for being ethical in these areas?

Well, the good thing is that the FTC is really kind of coming down hard on brands that don’t disclose and that are not transparent, so at least now we do have guidelines. So I think the smartest thing anybody could do is say, “Well, I just want to make sure you’re aware that if we don’t do X, Y, Z, here’s what could happen.” And by now there are enough use cases to point to.

What are some of the areas you’re concerned about tomorrow with regards to ethical challenges?

 I don’t think PR pros have any idea of how far artificial intelligence and machine learning has spread and how deep they will continue to go. They’ve taken over and most of us don’t even know it. I think as that continues to proliferate, because it will, there will be privacy issues. There will be I ethical concerns that spring up around using AI or not. We don’t even know what those are going to be right now.

How do you keep yourself informed to stay on top of these trends and issues?

Well, I’m in the Harvard Business Analytics Program, so that’s where I’m learning about it. I think you just have to put together your reading list and there’s certainly some very interesting writers on Medium. I would highly recommend practitioners start educating themselves on data science to understand the language and terminology. We should start paying attention to what’s happening with developments in AI and machine learning.

I was at a Harvard symposium actually a few months ago on AI and self-driving cars and the ethics of it and it was fascinating.

It really is. If you look at it – all of the industries that are going to open up or new industries that are going to come up because of how AI is literally changing our lives. I also know I said it before, but we haven’t even touched the tip of the iceberg yet.

I tell folks, I think this will be more transformative than the internet.

Way more.

It’s just such a fundamental shift in both business models and how you operate and the insights and you’re right where the privacy concerns are going to be huge.

It is fascinating to me just how technology has completely disrupted business. That’s the other part that many professionals in our field people just don’t get. It drives me nuts to see agencies, doing the same old, same old, same old, same old. It’s like oh my God, could you please stop acting as if this is 1970?

So how should agencies be acting?

Well, they certainly will not be calling me to be a consultant or maybe they will. That’s what they should be doing. I still see a lot of territorialism and I see a lot of kvetching around “millennial behaviors” and entitlement and this and that.

First, get over it, because millennials are all grown up now. Gen Z is coming into the workplace for heaven’s sake.

Can we please stop bitching about generations? This is a sign that we’re growing old and we’ve become those get off my lawn people.

Second, and this is a huge learning actually from my Digital Strategy and Innovation class at Harvard, one of the significant ways that technology disrupted businesses is to really kind of change the architecture of a business. So you go from vertical integration and silos to horizontal integration and really a modular approach. I think if an agency is to survive in the next few decades, it’s going to have to do that, which really means it needs to let go of control and it needs to be much more willing to act like Lego. You know what I mean? So, you have your building blocks and you chop and change and that means being more open to a wider network of consultants, mix and match, that kind of thing?

I think that would be really smart because agencies are struggling and we’ve already seen the agency landscape change so much in just the last few years. I don’t know that they have the capacity or even the ability to really invest in deep learning and AI and ML and things like that. So you’ve got to start learning about that from people who know it. Either help them educate your people and create those little modular pieces that can work together like pieces in a Lego formation.

Every one of these changes is going to be bringing up ethical issue. We’ve got to keep in mind Kant and are we treating people as an end in themselves, not just a means to the end.

I agree with you and also, we need to ask who are we doing this for? What is the benefit? That’s why my focus is on purpose-driven brands. When I worked on my own personal mission statement and all of that and I looked back at my career, I realized that that’s what I’ve always done. Those are the kinds of organizations I’ve gravitated towards, whether it was the ASPCA when I was in-house, whether it’s clients that I’ve had at agencies on my own and purpose-driven.

Purpose-driven does not mean nonprofit. It means that you’re focusing on purpose and people in addition to profits.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve ever received?

I’ve never received it on the professional level, but I guess my mom shared two.

One was the golden rule – Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Then she would always tell us, “You will be as polite to your school principal as you will be to the janitor.” Perhaps it’s not an ethical piece of advice per se. But I think it does help create your own personal ethical framework. That just never left me and I’m sure my siblings as well. So I really try to inculcate that in how I approach anyone, whether it’s personally or professionally.

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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