Joining me on this week’s episode to discuss why what’s legal isn’t always ethical is Garland Stansell, the Chief Communications Officer for Children’s of Alabama, the third largest pediatric medical center in the United States, and the 2020 National Chair of PRSA.
Garland shares his insight on a number of key ethics issues, including:
- Why sharing the bare minimum is often not the best course
- Why you must address issues head on when you are considered guilty by association
- Why we must resist the tyranny of urgency
- How every ethical PR professional can counteract negative perceptions of the profession
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I started out in college as an accounting major. I was in my third year of accounting and doing well, but it was about the most boring thing I’ve ever done. So I said, “I’m going to have to do something that has some creativity,” and we all know I accounting if you get creative with numbers, you end up behind bars. So, I decided I would change majors and looked at communication and decided that I would get a degree in mass communications, with an emphasis in public relations. I’ve never looked back. I got my start in PRSSA at the University of Alabama Birmingham and kind of met my match as far as a career and the people that I develop relationships with, many of whom I’m still friends with to this day.
I started my career in corporate communications at a mortgage banking firm, which was kind of ironic going from accounting to working in mortgage banking and primarily doing employee relations. After two and a half years there I was let go as part of a massive merger and then found my way to Goodwill Industries of Alabama and was there six and a half years. It was there I found that I enjoyed working in a cause related industry where you really made a difference to other people in their lives.
And after six and a half years there I set out intentionally to come to Children’s of Alabama. I knew the reputation, I knew what the brand stood for and knew a lot of the people at Children’s and that was a way for me to get in healthcare, which was a growing area for communications and public relations and also still meeting my desire to work with need based organizations. And I loved the mission of Children’s and I’ve been here now for 26 years. I started in the development area and as part of the advocacy education and health promotion program. It was a combination of fundraising, development and PR.
About 16 years ago I stepped into the Chief Communications Officer role. We have grown as a health system. When I started here, we had fewer than 2,000 employees. We now have 5,000 employees. We see patients from all over, not only the state of Alabama, but throughout the Southeast region, the U.S. and eight to 10 foreign countries in the year. We have a very active program in many foreign countries where our physicians go and do training for physicians in other countries.
Thinking about your career from mortgage banking to healthcare, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I’ve really been fortunate that I haven’t had any really severe ethical challenges, but I’ve had a few. There are two that come to mind, both in my tenure here at Children’s. We are a private 501c3 nonprofit, and we have an operating agreement with the university and many of the physicians and some of the other employees are employed by the university.
We had a university employee here on our campus that we found out was under FBI investigation. Some years before I completed the FBI Citizens Academy training, so the FBI actually called me along with our security to be part of a sting operation to uncover that this employee of the university was stealing guarantor information, their social security numbers and other information and selling that information. That was uncovered and we had some strategy meetings with our in-house attorneys, our risk management officers as well as university’s risk management officers and the communication teams to look at what we needed to do.
The attorneys were advocating for as little as possible. They didn’t want information to get out. But the media was already calling. Legal was wanting us to not share all of the details, not outright deny but not share all of those details and not really how the free flow of information as well as sharing the information that might be good for the public to know. And they were advocating that we take only what was legally required in regard to our responsibilities to those patient families in those guarantors who could have been compromised.
From the public relations side we took an ethical approach. We were advocating for sharing as much information as was prudent to share and that we could share. We needed to go above and beyond in working through issues with any families that could have been compromised. We ended up actually taking the advice of the communication team and sharing as much information as we could share and then had a plan in place strategically, which helped us a great deal from the media perspective because then the media was not delving any deeper because we shared what we’re doing.
We told the media we’ve contacted every family that could have possibly been compromised in this area. We told them that their information could have been compromised. We worked with Equifax to be able to pay for them to have their accounts monitored and then if they did have some issues, which I think we only had one or two, we did what we needed to do to make that right.
How did you work through that scenario? How did you end up deciding that your recommended approach was the best approach and convincing the CEO and others to go along with what you said and not legal?
Well, we convinced them that if we only did the bare minimum of what was required legally, it could create more problems for us down the road. By being forthright and transparent and saying, yes, this happened. Here’s what we’ve done to put safeguards in place going forward and here’s what we are doing with the families that could have been compromised. We convinced them that that would satisfy the media, it would satisfy the public, it would not open this up to other questions. If we didn’t share and were not being transparent and forthright, they started delving in and asking more questions, it could make us look like we were trying to cover up or hide something. So fortunately the CEO of both our hospital and of the medical center at the university said yes, they agreed with us that we needed to go ahead and have that plan in place and proceed with that plan so that we wouldn’t open ourselves to more scrutiny and look like we were hiding something.
In 2009 or 2010, we were constructing a new expansion facility for our organization. And then we found ourselves one morning having some protesters on the construction site because it seemed that one of the contractors that we were working with had a history of using undocumented individuals on their sites and as employees. This was at a time the issue was growing into the forefront across the country. And so we had demonstrators, we had signs, we had meetings with the construction contractor, the general contractor, and our board and the hospital leadership, looking at what do we need to do about this? And then again, we had legal saying, well, we really haven’t done anything wrong. I don’t know that we need to do anything. It’s really up to the general contractor and the subcontractor who was employing undocumented individuals.
We said, no, that kind of response does not fit. We were still in the midst of a recession and we were one of the only projects in the state of Alabama of this magnitude that was being built.
That raised the visibility more, not only in Birmingham, but around the state. We were again saying we need to be proactive on this. We need to come back and say we were not aware of this and that we are demanding that this subcontractor verify that everyone that they have on their site is actually a citizen. And that they had taken the appropriate steps to verify that. And if there were someone on the job site that was undocumented, that they were released from the job site and replaced with someone who was either a naturalized citizen or a U.S. born citizen.
And that’s what we did. That was probably a week where we had that challenge and some communication…a week where it was of interest to the media. Now of course we decided on the steps and the strategy on the first day that we knew about it and we proceeded with that. But it took about a week for it to blow over. But I firmly believe that if we had not taken that stance and not kind of held the contractors feet to the fire in saying, “Hey, we’re not going to have this on our job site,” and asking for those assurances from the subcontractor, that it would have gone on for much more and it could have grown to be even larger.
That was an ethical dilemma as legally we had not done anything wrong. It was something that one of the subcontractors had done in the past, but you’re guilty by association, and need to consider what that looks like for your brand and your organization and your values as a company. Then that has to inform your decisions moving forward once you’re aware of that.
Beyond your own activities and what you’ve done a Children’s, when you talk to your colleagues, are there other ethical issues that come up when it comes to hospital or healthcare PR?
It’s great to keep in mind that what is always legal is not always ethical and so that many times we find ourselves in those instances where legal is saying one thing and what they’re proposing may not be illegal but it is also not ethical.
In healthcare, because we are a high touch industry, you’re also having to look at, what is the ethics of the issue? Physicians and other healthcare individuals take an oath to operate ethically with their patients. Well by extension that goes to all of healthcare to say we’re going to operate ethically with our patients and our patient families.
Keep in mind that what is always legal is not what is always ethical, which I think fits very well with PRSA and our Code of Ethics in standing up for truth and transparency and the free flow of information. We must always do what is right and ethical, which is beyond what is just required to be legal. I think in healthcare some of the legal challenges are no different from some of the other areas that we’re looking at just in general in the country and that there is more misinformation and disinformation. Sometimes possibly being asked by a client or an employer to communicate something in a way that is not completely truthful or is not completely transparent.
There are times, as we all know, that you can’t share all the details. But to share information in a way that is not truthful or that is misleading intentionally is becoming a challenge not only in healthcare but throughout almost every industry as far as the communicators being asked to communicate in ways that do not uphold the highest ethical standards.
You mentioned the PRSA Code of Ethics and you’re Chair of the Public Relations Society of America this year. What are you seeing as some of the larger PR ethics challenges we’re facing as an industry?
I think that misinformation and disinformation is a challenge we’ll continue to see. I do believe that we have some people who are holding themselves up to be public relations practitioners or professionals and they’re really not, they don’t adhere to a code of ethics, whether it’s PRSA’s or another organization and they do misrepresent themselves. They end up being more in a promotion or almost old-time propaganda kind of communications. I think we’re going to see more of that.
I think from an ethical standpoint, they’re going to be more challenges from just the compressed news cycle in the tyranny of the urgency to be first. We used to have a long news cycle, then it went to a 24-hour news cycle and now we may have 24 minutes or 24 seconds.
Because of technology, social media and changes in traditional media, there’s more demand to be faster, quicker, and the first. Sometimes we don’t make our best decisions when we’re trying to be fast, quick, first, and it may create some ethical issues. Are we making sure that we have verified all of the facts and the information so that we are speaking from a place of trust, a place of ethics rooted in fact and truthfulness. I think that’s going to be a challenge for us as communicators to make sure that we are being as responsive as we can be, but then taking the time to be thoughtful and deliberate, truthful and factual in our responses.
So, to avoid the tyranny of speed, we still need to make sure that we’re not sacrificing accuracy for expediency.
You had mentioned how propaganda is pulling it down or professions reputation. Is there anything more PR professionals can do to help counteract that negative perception or really show what is truly involved in being a good, ethical public relations professional?
Well I think the first thing is practice what we preach and make sure that we are practicing ethical public relations. I do believe that being a member of an organization where there is some accountability such as PRSA or another communication organization where you’re with colleagues who can help advise you and hold you accountable if need be. It’s important to adhere to a code of ethics. And if you’re going to adhere to an organization’s code of ethics, then you’ve got to also know what is your personal code of ethics and how does that align? Take the time to think through that.
And then I think that we can advocate as professionals, we can advocate for ethics, for truth and transparency like EthicalVoices and other podcasts that are out there. And PRSA’s Advocacy Committee is issuing some statements around the importance of ethics. As PR professionals, we have to look at the ethics in every decision we make. It must be part of the DNA of who we are as individuals. It’s not just relegated to one month a year or to certain activities. We are constantly advocating even in the jobs that we work day to day. You have to be willing to stand up against decisions that may not be completely ethical to advocate for doing what is right.
At times that can be a scary thing for some professionals. What’s your advice to professionals that find themselves in that situation?
You’re exactly right. It can be, especially for someone earlier in their career or in certain industries where they don’t have quite as much voice at the table. The more that we are able to elevate PR professionals and communications professionals in our organizations to the C-suite, lets us have more interaction with the board to push to operate ethically.
That’s where having an organization that you can point back to such as PRSA that has a code of ethics helps. You can say, “Okay, this is not just my opinion but these are best practices. And here is a code that has stood the test of time. Here’s an organization that stands behind this.”
You also have colleagues whom you can call on, who can help you with examples you can take to your own employer or clients and say, “Here’s an example of where this worked and an example of where it didn’t work.” This is the way that you can help advance ethics and advocate for ethics and be able to strengthen your position if you’re someone for whom that’s hard. You can say, “It’s not just me, here’s the data.” Here are some examples where you’re actually presenting facts because most of the time the C-Suite is looking for things that are evidence based, especially in healthcare. If you have that evidence and you bring the facts then that speaks a lot more than you just waving the flag and saying to do what’s right.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I go back to an adjunct professor from my days at UAB. He worked for Bell South when it was Ma Bell before the divestiture. I remember him saying, and I’ve shared this with students since that time myself, do what’s right, sleep at night.
Think about all of the things that keep us up as communication professionals, whether that’s a campaign that’s upcoming or a staff issue or how we’re going to satisfy a client request or whatever.
One of those things that it does not have to be is being worried about your ethics and or worried about whether you made the right decision and did the right thing.
It sounds a little trite, but if you do what is right, you know you did the right thing. That will not be the thing that keeps you up at night.
To listen to the full interview, with bonus content, click here:
- The Ethical Implications of Blurred Lines – Cheryll Forsatz - September 18, 2023
- This Week in RPR Ethics (9/14/23) – There is Something Rotten in….AI, Media Relations, and Government Overreach - September 14, 2023
- This Week in PR Ethics (9/7/23): AI Disinformation and the Evolution of Stakeholder Capitalism - September 7, 2023