Ethical Voices

Ethical Challenges with the Growing Cancel Culture – Paul Omodt

Joining me on this week’s episode is Paul Omodt, the principal of Omodt and Associates. Paul is a 25-year veteran of the Minnesota public relations and communication landscape. He’s known for handling some of the Midwest biggest crises in critical communications situations. From the 1998 Northwest pilot strike, the 35 West bridge collapse, to product recalls and corporate restructuring, he’s one of America’s preeminent experts on crisis communications.

Today, Paul discusses:

Why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and your career?

I feel like I’ve been doing crisis work my entire life. I grew up in a house where my dad was a County Sheriff here in Hennepin County, which encompasses Minneapolis. And so back in the “old days”, we had police scanners on every floor of our house. We would listen to police calls, then we’d listen to what got dispatched out and then we would watch hoe the media played it.

Back in the old days, you had a morning newspaper and afternoon newspaper, but you only really had live TV newscasts at six o’clock and 10 o’clock. So you could watch how news got metered out, how police officers, like my dad, used the media to solve certain things or to put certain messages out and see what came back to them.

So I’ve been a crisis student for as long as I can remember. That naturally evolved to working for police and fire organizations right out of college. I then spent 10 years in the airline businesses, which is really a crisis every day…it’s a 24/7 worldwide business and it’s full of people that do sometimes dumb things.

From there, I went to a big agency for 12 years where I headed up the crisis practice. For the past seven years now, I’ve run my own agency here in the twin cities, Omodt and Associates. And my focus is on helping people solve business problems, whether it’s a slow moving one or a fast moving one.

Thinking over your career, what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Well, it is funny because you face those on a more regular basis than you probably think of. But let me just give you a recent one. I can’t use real names, but I’ll walk you through it.

Back in the old days, it was okay to bury old drums of solvents in a field as a disposal mechanism. Well, over years those solvents have leached into the groundwater and now that that leaching is moving through the groundwater system throughout the Twin Cities. And so, we have these very plumes all across the Twin Cities. It doesn’t matter the demographics of the community; the water goes where the water goes.

And you are sometimes faced with getting that initial report where a city will call and say, “Hey, here’s what we have in the water supply. We haven’t verified this, but these are bad chemicals in the water supply. We need a communications plan for it.” And really the ethical dilemma is, do we need an action plan first or a communications plan or both at the same time?

You have to ask are the scientists right or wrong because you get an initial reading? Should we be sounding alarm bells and going right to not having people drink water. Especially when you look at like the Flint, Michigan thing, there’s a whole water system that had contaminants in it. Should that have been someone’s ethical concern as a communications person that should have been raised faster and why did it take so long to spill out?

I’m very sensitive to those concerns. My clients know that I will press them is they say “Hey, if this is just an initial reading, we need a confirmation reading.” We’re going to treat this as if it is a bad reading and take those steps right away and not wait. Because I think there’s that component of do we put people’s lives at risks or not? And when we don’t quite know yet, and the costs associated with it.

You run into those ethical dilemmas as a communicator all the time, where you have to look broader than the problem that’s presented to you and actually redefine the problem and ask is this something that we need to move faster on? You have to feel comfortable having that discussion with your clients.

My times clients are concerned when you face these situations and there’s bad news and they’re worried about legal risk. How do you work to identify the key ethical issues involved, and why they actually need to move fast?

I believe in a straightforward approach with clients. I’m a very low key person, I don’t yell and shout, but I’ll be very direct in my approach and the way I talk about it. And you learn the language of a consultant, that’s not a PC language. It is a language of being able to honestly and effectively lay out the options right away and not sugarcoat them. Be honest with your appraisal and give them options for them to consider – and of course, then your recommendation of what they should be considering.

I was talking to Jim Lukaszewski for the podcast and he was a firm believer in giving people options. And really making sure that they know, here’s what you need to do and you need to do one of these things.

Exactly. And Jim and I are friends and you he lives in Minneapolis so I run into him all the time. And it’s funny our approaches on a lot of that type of consultative nature, the way you do that, Jim has a whole strategy of the words and phrases he uses, which are words and phrases that I’ve used naturally. Because I’ve watched that and I’ve listened to that. Just growing up in a household where my dad was doing that consultative type stuff with police and fire operations. You learn that lingo, you learn that structure, and I totally agree with the way Jim does it as well.

For a person that didn’t grow up in the police and fire household or military household, how do you recommend they go about learning that structure and language?

These are ideas and words you can learn. I had also the benefit of not only growing up in that structure, but I went to the University of St. Thomas, which was here in St. Paul. The person that led the journalism and communications department then was a gentleman named Father James Waylon.

And he made sure that if you were in the communications or journalism department, you had an ethical bearing to everything you did in terms of what you communicated. You could not graduate with a degree without taking a half-year ethical capstone course on exactly how to think through problems, how to be an ethical decision maker and how to go live a good productive life.

They gave you the structures to look at and consider and apply, so that you actually had a structured thought process to how you would make decisions in the business world or the communications world. And I think that’s something that actually helped me refine my approach.

You can learn that structure. It won’t maybe come to you naturally unless you’re really in it every day as I was growing up. But you can do it and I do recommend that people take their time to do it. The other thing I think that’s important is, I’ve been PRSA member for 25 years. I’ve also been a member of IABC for 25 years. Both of them have ethical standards.

And I think having the APR or the ABC after your name says that this is the way you live your life and I think that’s an important component of our profession. I wish that more people would take the time to get that professional designation, which comes with it an obligation to follow an ethical code. I think learning that actually makes you a better practitioner.

Anybody out there can put their shingle up and say they are a PR practitioner. It’s the people that take their time to do it the right way and make sure they’re doing it in such a way that they are doing in an ethical manner that really is the badge of honor.

What’s your advice on how people can best recover from ethical mistakes?

Here’s the funny thing. I say my business is an evergreen business because any organization that employs humans is going to have an issue. Humans are inherently flawed. They will inherently make mistakes. The easiest thing and what I always my clients is, look, if you want to handle this the best way forward, I want to make sure that we apologize, we figure out what wrong and we can account for it. We can kind of atone for it, and we can move on.

What we find is that the human capacity for forgiveness, if you do that, is really high. The capacity for forgiveness, if you don’t do that and you just go against what you say you are and what your values are, is also very high, but in the negative sense.

When I write crisis plans for clients, they can’t go to page two of the plan without going through their mission, vision, and values I set on the front page. You can’t go into the rest of the book until you commit to living how you say you’re going to live. And that helps you understand whether you’ve made a mistake or not. You shouldn’t start your thought process without acknowledging where maybe you fell short.

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

I think there’s a couple of things. It’s become so easy to communicate so rapidly. And at the same time the level of our societal discourse has become bifurcated. There’s kind of two big tribes of with similar social political views. And it’s very easy to engage in that type of thinking. And with the speed of it, you can make a mistake and blame someone else for your mistake because that gives you value within your tribe. That it’s very easy not to fall prey to your own trap.

And so I think it’s very important that people look at, am I communicating what I really want to believe and what I really do believe? Am I communicating in a way that makes sense to the broadest number of people? In that case speed can kill you. In crisis response, speed is your ally. But in there is a chance of you doing something stupid, speed is not your ally because you can go virally stupid so fast.

So how do you balance the conflicting demands? How do you better prepare for handling that, to avoid the big pitfalls?

I had a client, a CEO of a major company here, right before the 4th of July holiday, who tweeted something in that social political vein thinking it was kind of funny. Kind of a prelude to the 4th of July and all this kind of stuff. And of course, literally within 10 minutes, the communications director’s calling me saying, “Oh my gosh, look at this. How do we go in and fix this?” And I said, first we’re going to take a breath.

We’re going to both deescalate because you’re escalated and I know the speed of your escalation needs to come down. I always tell my clients, you’re smart to hire someone else to manage your crisis. My rule of thumb is that you should never manage your own crisis because you’re more objective in that way.

I tell my client, even though she may be great in a crisis, she shouldn’t manage her own crisis. And this essentially was her crisis because she viewed this as a reflection of her communications efforts on behalf of this client. So, it was about, let me take the burden off and let me be objective for you. Let me deescalate you, and then we’re going to respond. But I can’t have you do it in the moment.

That de-escalation is super important because you’ll make better ethical decisions when you yourself are calm. And you need the check and balance of another person, ideally a friend, to tell you that. I’m the most honest with my friends. My duty as your friend is to be honest with you. A friend will tell you the things that you probably don’t want to hear.

Are there other ethical challenges you’re seeing?

It might sound a little controversial, but sometimes I think the piling on onto social issues ethically is something that we have to look over. This is a growing “cancel culture”. It’s very easy to go to social media and say, this person did something wrong and therefore they should never work ever again.

And to me, there’s an ethical component to that as a communicator we are not allowing other people to recover or to do the things they need to do to make amends because the cancellation is so fast. And I believe in the idea of people seeking forgiveness and asking for forgiveness and getting redemption when they prove that they deserve it.

But some people think that person should be canceled forever. I think human beings are capable of change and capable of doing good things in their lives after they’ve done something wrong. And I think we’ve been too fast to cancel people forever.

And I may be an outlier in that, but I do see instances where good people have gone down for things and I don’t know that it’s fair to them because I do think that component of cancel culture they don’t respect is the bullying that goes on and the taking on of these people on a personal basis, even though they did a personal transgression. I sometimes think the bullying gets a little too far and I don’t think there’s an open checkbook for you to cancel a person out.

In earlier interviews, I discussed the challenges of de-platforming. I always say, the pendulum’s going to swing the other way eventually. You may be in the majority right now, but what’s going to happen when you’re not?

Right. And we’re starting to see that. We’re seeing that in different aspects of life and where maybe the pendulum hasn’t even started to swing and other places where it’s swung too far. It’s funny, anybody who knows me knows that I will talk hockey with you day and night. I will talk youth hockey, college hockey, professional hockey.

And what you’re seeing now in the hockey world is finally the pendulum’s swinging to coaches that have been abusive or use derogatory language or physically or mentally emotionally abusive of players, which has been part of hockey culture. Now the culture that I have been very embedded in my whole life is starting to grapple with that. I’m going to be interested to see how the hockey world responds to it because hockey’s always been a community.

The last couple of years, hockey has taken on the abusive parent that yells in the stands and works to mitigate that. Now it’s looking at the coaching part of it from the youth to the pros.

And I’ll be interested to see ethically how that gets communicated and do we allow people the chance to admit that they made a mistake and it’s a new world out there. Maybe what we did 20 years ago or even two years ago was not the right approach and we need a new one. But do they get canceled forever? I think time will tell on that because it’s just started.

How do you recommend, aside from that apology, people seek redemption with they made an ethical lapse in today’s cancel culture?

I’ve worked with individuals and brands who’ve done unethical things. And I tell them after the apology, you have to work from the inside out. And typically, I’ll actually do this with them, is to throw the rock in a puddle of water and watch the ripples go out. And we’ll identify those closest people that you need to go reach out to.

There’s a theory of communications that says the people that are hurt the most, they deserve the closest, most personal type of communication to them. I will have those people reach out personally to those people and have a conversation. That’s a very difficult conversation to have. It really will stress them out. But once they do it, they feel slightly less burdened by their emotions and if they’ve gotten that forgiveness and then they move onto the next one and the next one and the next one.

I had a client who had used the N word when he was a younger person. It was captured on a video tape that surfaced 20 years later. It cost him his high-profile job.

He said, that is something I said in that moment when I was 19 years old. And now I’m a 40 year old man. And I need to own that. And he went out to all the people that have been impacted by that and then all the churches in the area, and he slowly worked his way back up and literally five years later, he got appointed back to that post because people saw real contrition.

But it was a step-by-step process of us identifying to apologize to both personally or in letters or in one-on-ones or in group settings, it was a very metered out. The clients that I work with on situations like that, feel better about it over time and they feel like a more complete person.

And the odd thing is that the person that maybe they’ve hurt the most from it, they’ve literally become friends in a different level. Or if not exactly friends, they see each other’s point of view and I think the world needs more of that, people seeing eye to eye with each other.

You gave some great advice there. What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Father Waylon’s class was taught in such a way that it was kind of a call and response. He would walk in front of the class and we’d have our reading and then he would challenge you and talk to you. And I was always probably one of the more, I don’t want say vocal, but I was not shy and would debate him back and forth. He would call me the Ripper because he was like, “Oh, he’s going to rip apart my argument right now.”

And it was very interesting that sharpen my debate skills with him. The best advice he gave me was “Don’t be afraid to challenge your own ideas.” That taught me to rip apart my own mindset and my own argument to make sure I was really arguing it from the right point of view.

I will often think of my response to something. And then I rip it apart and take apart the component parts of it and make sure I’ve done it in such a way that it is what I mean to say. I make sure I haven’t caught myself up on my own emotions or my own patterns of thought.  

Is there anything else you wanted to highlight or talk about with regards to ethics?

We need to look at ethics on an active basis. We need more ongoing debate and discussion within our own community. Too often, I see people that will denigrate the public relations profession or the communications profession. And again, I think we have to operate under a higher standard and hold ourselves up to a higher standard. And I think that’s a challenge for this industry. It is so easy to put out your shingle. It is so easy and so fast to have a broad platform on social media these days, that I think we need to continually shine the light on what we do.

And I think we as a profession owe it to really look at that in a broader sense. There’s been some great work done, but there needs to be a bigger, broader community conversation about that. We have to admit to our own faults. And there have been faults in the past with some of the techniques and practices of people that were before us, and we have to come to grips with that.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here:

 

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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 EthicalVoices.com

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