What to Do When Your Boss Asks You To Spread Dirt on a Competitor – Jessica Graham

Joining me on this week’s episode is Jessica Graham, APR, Fellow PRSA, the president of Fionix Consulting. She has spent more than 25 years designing and leading strategic communications and community outreach initiatives to companies throughout the Carolinas and beyond. She’s provided award-winning successful programs for a wide range of organizations in the retail, telecommunications, legal, healthcare, and education industries.

She discusses:

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

I have been in the public relations arena my entire career, just in a lot of different roles and a lot of different industries. I started with a very small nonprofit and went on to do events for a library system. Then I jumped into corporate and really got into the corporate communications role. My jobs have all been based out of Charlotte, but two of the three corporate positions have been national in scope, so I’ve dealt with a lot of different issues that you can imagine – many in the retail space, which brings its own challenges. I took a detour over to telecommunications, was PIO in higher education for a little while, and then went out on my own about two and a half years ago.

Thinking about all the different spaces where you’ve worked, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I’ve thought a lot about that knowing that I was going to be on this podcast, and I would say probably the first one I encountered before I knew about the PRSA code of ethics. I was very young in my first corporate job, and my bosses, they told me that a competitor was doing something with their product that was damaging to other people.

For example, and this is not the case, but let’s just say they made plastic cups and the competitors were putting BPH, in the plastic. They thought the media might want to know this and so I ought to go try to get the media to cover this. And I thought, “Oh, well that’s horrible. I can’t believe that they would do that. And that’s really horrible and scary. And Oh yes, the media would love to know”

I mean, I fell for it 1000%.  Luckily. I had an agency and I said, “Hey, we have a great story for the media. You ought to pitch it because I think if I do, they’re going to just think that I’m making it up because we’re a competitor.” And they were like, “No, no, no, no, no. That’s not right. You’re crossing ethical boundaries here and that’s, that’s not right. And that’s not legit.” And anyway, they kind of set me straight and I was just flabbergasted.

I fell for it. Hook, line and sinker. I didn’t pick up that it was true, but it wasn’t really damaging to consumers, and the people in my company were trying to set me up to spread not entirely accurate information for competitive reasons. Any way, it wasn’t right. And I just completely fell for it. And that was a hard lesson for me because again, I was young and I thought, “Oh, I’m going to save the world.”

It taught me a lot and it taught me to really go back and rely on that code of ethics. I didn’t get in trouble for not doing it. I basically just said, “Yeah, we’re not going to do that.” And they were fine and they didn’t push it beyond that, but it was awkward and it was quite the learning experience for me.

Since then, I think most ethical issues I’ve dealt with involved people outside of the PR profession, including media, doing some questionable things.

Do you want to elaborate on what some of those media and outside the PR profession doing questionable things?

A lot of the media that I have had to deal with don’t seem to follow quite those same ethical boundaries that I find myself in. The most blatant example of that was one of the companies with which I worked had someone with a very serious illness and the health department had to get involved. We did everything right. We followed all the guidelines, got him off the front line and nobody got sick. I mean, it was not at all cause for concern, but it was a big news story. It was a big deal. And I had a local reporter call and basically accused us of knowingly putting him on the front line to expose people to illness. I mean, he literally said, “So why’d you put them out there knowing he was sick?” When we had no idea.

I mean, it was horrible that we had no idea. We never would’ve done that.

And lately with social media, I’ve had a lot of media who pick up on tidbits that aren’t at all true and they don’t seem to care. I actually had a reporter with a very well-respected national media outlet. And I told her, “The things that you’re reporting aren’t just not true.” And she just didn’t care. That’s concerning to me, but definitely a newer trend.

Both of the examples you shared deal with health. Specifically causing harm to others, which we all want to prevent. So, in that first case, I want to understand more, your bosses told you, “Hey, the product the competitors have is hurting other people.” Why wouldn’t you, as a duty of care, want to start sharing that information with people? Or what would you do to kind of fact check and make sure you’re being accurate with it?

Well, I think that’s the problem is it wasn’t really harming people. I’m trying to think of a closer example that I can give. For example, sugar is bad, right? But we all know now sugar is bad and we shouldn’t eat sugar, but we do in small doses. So, they said, “Oh well they dump all this extra sugar in their soda.” Again, I’m making this up, but their soda, they put extra sugar on their soda and it’s, it’s terrible. They were just trying to say that … They were trying to make a health issue out of it when it was more of just a controversial topic.

To answer your question, what I should have done is more research on the actual product, like sugar, to see if it really was damaging and it really was an issue. I mean, they weren’t calling out a public health concern, they were trying to bad mouth a competitor. It wasn’t anything that was harming people. It was just they were picking up on kind of the public potential to change consumer behavior.

That makes sense. And it also shows you why you need to trust and verify. Others I’ve interviewed have said you got to be skeptical of all the claims you’re given and really dig into it before you advance it. On the other health example, if you deal with an issue where you have an employee with a communicable disease, what are the steps you should take ethically? Both respecting the employee’s privacy, but also need to notify the public.

In a lot of those cases the health department takes over, and that was our case. This particular individual was diagnosed with this particular illness and literally the health department stepped in and said, “This is what you have to do.” We followed all of that to an absolute T, which is what you should do. This was again, 20 some years ago, so there was no social media or anything like that, and we never said who the individual was because, again, you want to protect that person’s privacy. Although the media found out anyway and showed up on his doorstep.

I think the days of not revealing the people are over, but I think you have to be very adamant that they’re not going to find out from you. The most important thing, though, of course, is protecting the safety of your customers and your employees. We removed him immediately, he had absolutely no contact. To our credit and to his credit, he had followed all of the safety guidelines that we had in place so no one was ever at risk. He was wearing gloves and he was doing everything that he was supposed to do. That’s something that everyone can and should do right now is make sure that you have stringent policies in place for gloves, hairnets, whatever it be, and make darn sure your employees are all following that to a T.

That’s the kind of thing that people don’t realize it when they’re not in that sort of corporate comms environment. But the public relations professionals really can play a role in that, and I think we have a duty to make sure that that is happening. Because at the end of the day, that’s just one of the most powerful tools you have to defend yourself, is that everyone’s trained, everyone’s followed the protocols. That way we have mitigated the risks as much as we possibly can.

What is the need to reveal the name rather than just the location?

I think that we should protect the employee as very best we can. My point is only, I think the time of that employee not eventually being revealed by other sources is long gone.

Beyond your own personal experiences what do you personally see as some of the PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think the public persona of our profession concerns me probably the most. There are people out there under this sort of PR banner who are doing things that aren’t always on the up and up. And that bothers me. People still think of the PR person as kind of this sleazy “get coverage at all costs kind of person.” It’s just so much incredibly more than that. That really concerns me, because I think in some instances internally people try to use that to their advantage. I mean, we’ve all dealt with this. We’ve all had people come to us and we ask a question trying to get information and somebody says, “Well, I don’t want to say that outside.” And I always say, “Listen, you’re not talking to a reporter, you’re talking to me and I’ll determine how we handle that and how we get the information out, but you have to tell me everything.”

It puts up a real ethical barrier for us when people don’t accurately understand the depth of true communications professionals do and how we carry ourselves. And frankly, that’s one of the reasons why I do like organizations like PRSA and the PRSA code of ethics so much, because I think that really lends credibility to our profession that just really needs it.

How do we go about combating this challenge?

I feel like I’m on a commercial for PRSA, which is not my intent, but you know, the letters that you can have after your name certainly help. Also, if anybody ever guarantees you coverage, or frankly if that’s all they’re coming to you talking about, I would question it really seriously. Got to do your research like everything else now.

You don’t just look in the phone book and find a plumber anymore. You have to look at reviews and get personal referrals and that kind of thing.

I don’t think we’re ever going to get completely away from it because of what we do. We deal with the media, we do have very public facing jobs, and so we’re always going to be a bit of a target. ‘

Another area where I think we have some challenges is how video is changing the game of what we do, and the trustworthiness of how we do it. I often tell people, and this is horrible, but it’s true, that video trumps the truth.

I can tell you as a corporate representative, that we didn’t do something, or that’s not how it seems, but if you have video showing something, it’s very difficult to challenge that. And I’ll give you the example of the guy on the United flight that was dragged off a few years ago. There really wasn’t much United can say. I mean, he could have been screaming his head off. I mean, I have no idea. I don’t remember frankly why he got dragged off the plane. I just remember the video of him being dragged off the plane, and it really didn’t matter what led to that. I mean, of course it does matter, but in the realm of public opinion, it really didn’t.

The video showed this elderly man being dragged off the plane, and it’s hard to combat that. Video trump the truth. And remember video can be edited. That’s a big concern. People, again, forget that what they’re seeing isn’t the whole story necessarily. There may be a lot more to it, but at the end of the day it puts our profession, I think, in a real precarious place.

You’ve hit on kind of one of my top concerns, and I talk about it in terms of we’re entering the fake information age and it’s not just video trumping the truth. It’s fake video trumping the truth now. And as the technology gets more widespread what do you do to fight this? How do you combat people that have agendas and are sharing edited video?

In some cases, believe it or not, I think it’s better not to say anything. I’ll give you an example. I had a situation, and this was a while ago as well, but a family member of a client had taken a highly inappropriate picture many years ago and put it online. People tied it to the business even though it had nothing to do with the business, and the business, understandably freaked out. People were threatening boycotts. There are people today who seek instances of inappropriateness, and they capitalize on it and they threaten. They want you to go public and make a bigger deal out of it, and sometimes it’s empty threats.

I can be in Chicago and threaten to come boycott your business in Charleston, South Carolina and you would never know that I’m not next door calling the local media and making a big stink out of this. Sometimes you don’t need to put out any sort of statement. This doesn’t have anything to do with you. This is people trying to make you go public so you are creating the story about it.

In this case the business didn’t do anything, nobody ever showed up and it went away because, again, it had nothing to do with the business. I think in some isolated instances, not doing anything is the right way to go.

I think we’re going to see more and more of it. I think the most you can do is be transparent, and that’s where, believe it or not, relationships with traditional media still matter. And we forget about them, right? Because we say, “Well, that’s going to go wild on social media.” And it can and it might. But if you have that relationship with local media where they trust you and they know you’re going to tell them the truth, sometimes you can mitigate those circumstances. I’ve certainly seen it help. It doesn’t help online with the activists necessarily, but it does help with the life of the story.

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

I have three pieces of advice.

First, I sound like a commercial, which is … Yay PRSA. But I do think, frankly, just the code and following the code is super helpful, which you can do whether you’re a member per se or not. I find that the elements of our code of ethics are great guard rails and really powerful guidelines.

Beyond that, it’s absolutely the idea that if you don’t want it on the front page of the paper, don’t do it. That’s just common sense. Especially today as the page of the newspaper has turned into a Facebook post.

I would say the third one that that has always spoken to me, I was a member of Rotary for a while, and they had the four-way tests. And believe it or not, it is a great tool and a great way to look at things.

Is it the truth? Is it fair? Will it build good will, and will it be beneficial to everybody? That’s just sort of fundamentally a good driver when you’re making decisions.

Check out 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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