FEELing is an essential part of ethical decision-making: Deirdre Breakenridge

Joining me on this week’s episode is Deirdre Breakenridge, an author, speaker, professor, and communication professional with more than 30 years of public relations and marketing experience, counseling senior executives at Fortune 500 companies about FEELing and other topics. All in all, she is one of the most insightful professionals I’ve had the pleasure to meet in my career.

Deirdre shares some great ethics insight including:

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

I am a storyteller at heart. I use strategic communications to build relationships, following my FEEL model. I’m also a relationship agent in the sense that over the years you realize the value and what it really takes to build a relationship and you keep your connections close and it’s so important. Everything in public relations is about relationships and people. And I’m an educator. Whether I’m in the classroom teaching physically, or online, or I’m mentoring on social media, I just always want to be sharing, learning, and growing. And I believe in reverse mentoring as well, so as I mentor, I am being mentored.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I’m going to take you back. There’s one challenge that probably changed the course of the way that I thought about decision making and ethics, and it involves the truth.

As a young professional, a senior vice president in the company gave me a specific directive. She said, “I want you to take this envelope and it needs to be hand-delivered on behalf of our client.”

Of course I said, “Sure, I’ll definitely do that.” And when I went to do it, in between the time that I had spoken with her and the time I was leaving to hand-deliver the letter, my direct supervisor came to me and said, “Where are you going?” And I and I explained and she told me, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s okay. Everybody knows that you can just drop that in the mail.”

The envelope had the address on it. The supervisor said, “Just put that in the mail because we need you here and we need you working on the event that was coming up.”

I was young, I was under the impression that that was okay and everybody knew. And that was the truth. But I didn’t know to question. I didn’t go back to the senior vice president. And so what I did was I listened to the supervisor, I put a couple of stamps on it, weighed it, and put it in the mail slot. And just as I was doing that, there was the senior vice president standing over me.

And she said, “Why did you do that?” And I said, “Oh, because I thought everybody knew.”

That was being caught up in something that wasn’t the truth.

But what I learned was that when somebody gives you a directive, you have to be true to yourself and  true to that person. If something’s going to change, you have to go back to them. And what interjected was power from a supervisor. So I didn’t speak truth to power in that situation. I didn’t say, “Oh, no, no, no, no, no, I have to do this.” I just said, “Oh, okay.”

The relationship between the supervisor and the senior vice president was never the same. They were always at each other’s throats. I was forgiven because I was the intern. But when I look at it, I learned that it was a really lousy feeling and to always make sure that there’s complete transparency.

Truth means that everybody is aware and knows, and that if anybody’s ever going to give me a directive, I’m going to go back to them and make sure they know what is going on if I’m the one that they delivered the information to. So that was my earliest experience with being caught up in something that wasn’t exactly truthful and it didn’t feel good.

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about the FEEL communication model you have developed?

After 30 years of strategic communication, and I had a very sad situation happen personally. My stepdaughter chose to end her journey with us. When something like that happens, you really take stock of your life and your career. And as a communicator, the first thing I asked was, “What did I miss?” And I needed some really serious questions answered.

Noelle was 24 years old when it happened. I wanted to talk to other Millennials to try to understand. So I embarked on a 52 plus week research journey just talking to Millennials every single week and I asked them questions.

  • How do you show up to your conversations?
  • Are you showing up authentically?
  • What do you value?
  • How do you want to be perceived?
  • What do you expect from the communication of the people that you look up to, the people you care about, whether it’s your mentors, your leaders?
  • What builds trust in that communication, whether it’s online or it’s in your company?

And all of those answers built a model. And the model came in four buckets. It was that Millennials wanted people to face their fears, which means to be open and inclusive. They wanted people around them, their leaders, to engage with empathy, so that’s the first E in FEEL. They really wanted ethics and better judgment in decision making when it came to communication. That’s the second E. And they also wanted to see the love, the passion that met their passion, the energy that meets their energy. Take a stance, really care about what your company does and who it’s affecting. So that’s FEEL.

How do businesses put FEEL into action?

FEEL goes into action in a couple of ways. You have to understand as a communicator how you feel. You have to feel first before you communicate at this intersection of, “I have a reason of sharing information.” Whether it’s thought leadership or some study or whatever. At that point, you have a passion. It has to be met with the passion of what people care about. Where that intersects, where you could actually have a connection, rather than just having a connection and a possible transaction, you can actually feel.

So, I built a test. It is and it scores you on every area within the FEEL model, including your ethics. And then once you understand, it gives you exercises recommended to increase FEEL. Once you do that, you are then more apt to take your strategy and your emotional intelligence and do the right thing with your judgment to all of your channels.

Maybe it’s your media interviews, maybe it’s your presentations on stage, or maybe it’s one-on-one meetings in your company. And basically what that does, it’s to get to those relationships that we want so badly. It’s the genuine, it’s the authentic, it’s the trusted relationship. You can do a lot of strategic communications, but if you don’t have a layer of FEEL, it won’t be as great as you think that relationship could be.

You mentioned this was based on 52 weeks of research with millennials. How does this apply and resonate with GenX, GenZ, and the Boomers? Does it work across generations?


Gen X is certainly not as vocal about what they want in communications. I’m GenX. But everybody wants and needs FEEL on some kind of a level. Millennials are just so much more vocal about it when they feel and trust. There is a reason why 79% of millennials would leave their companies today to go to a more empathetic company. 39% of millennials think their companies are acting unethically.

Now, when it comes to GenX and Boomers – the database that we’ve built looks by age. We found different ages within generations feel differently, There are FEEL differences by generation, by profession, and by industry, because some professionals in some industries also FEEL differently. What I found out about the generations, though, they want FEEL, but maybe call it something different, which you can’t, because it is strictly feel.

For example, GenX and Boomers want a business case behind FEEL. They are more apt to take it to heart when you let them know your turnover is costing your company money. If you could just apply FEEL and put on your emotional intelligence in your empathy hat, well guess what? That would really help in retaining these younger generations. So you have to just put the business case first.

Beyond FEEL and beyond the example of the truth that you gave, which I thought was great, what are you seeing as some of the key PR and communications ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

So I think we’re in a really, really noisy landscape where unfortunately, once again, we have challenges speaking truth to power. What is truth? Our facts are becoming blurred. We’re hearing alternative facts. That’s an issue, whether it’s an alternative fact in the Facebook echo chamber, it’s out there in the political landscape. You’re trying to evaluate what is true, transparent communication in your company. What’s fair to everybody?

We need to step back and quiet all the noise and really start asking more questions and applying the ability to be more aware, present, and have emotional intelligence. It will actually help in the decision making and the way that we look at things and the way that our brains are wired. But it’s extremely difficult.

Also, look at artificial intelligence. I did an ethics marketing course for LinkedIn, and one of the examples is when there was a company that created a healthcare app. And it was actually servicing some older users who didn’t even realize that they were talking to the robot. Where’s the truth and the transparency about what that app does?

I think we have to be more vigilant in what is truth, what is fact, and how things are coming across so people truly understand and get what they need.

How do you recommend people trust but verify these facts?

As public relations professionals, I would recommend, no matter how noisy it gets, you need to check your sources. Don’t just trust one thing that you see and shared quickly. Don’t make choices alone.

When you make a choice alone, in today’s day and age, you’re putting yourself at a risk. And that could be your own integrity. And at the end of the day, what do you have left? All you have left is your integrity.

I would just say don’t make those choices alone. I had a client a while back who actually went to prison and talks about you should never make choices alone. He violated FCPA and anti-bribery laws. And when he was in prison, he read my books and he came out and he basically needed a new trajectory. He knew he was now making better decisions and he wanted to educate others. And part of his story and what he shared was he did make choices alone and that got him into trouble in third world countries. So that’s what I would say.

When you say don’t make choices alone, what type of network do you use or you recommend people turn to when they’re trying to run these ethical dilemmas past others?

That’s a really good question. You always want to rely on the smartest people around you. So within your company, you bring it out in the open if there are questions. You can question and give people the opportunity to question with you so that you can all make a sound decision. Sometimes we go to our outside network of confidants who are in our closest circle. There’s many a time that I reach out to an agency owner when I’ve been faced with issues, management, and crisis where I reach out to somebody for a gut check.

And that helps. It really does, because sometimes you’re in your own bubble of this is what’s happening and you’re moving so quickly. And yes, everybody can say, “Well, maybe I don’t have time.” But take that two minutes or five minutes, whatever it takes. When reporters are knocking on your door, it’s their job to make you answer quickly. They want you to jump on the phone and lose all sight of everything else. Take the 15 minutes, the 20 minutes, the two hours, whatever it is that you need so you don’t make a major mistake.

I was talking to somebody recently and they were discussing the tyranny of speed and the need to take a step back and realize that you must breathe and think for everything and not just get caught up in the social media now, now, now.

Exactly. So you said something about breathe. It is literally, I mean, I started meditation. I was meditating before Noelle passed away, but it really kicked into gear when she left us. 45 minutes every morning. I don’t care what time I have to wake up to do that so that I can be centered. And there’s something about the breathing, the clearing your mind.

I meditate at night before I go to bed. It helps because there’s just way, way too much noise. It also helps in decision making when you have that opportunity to share, and talk, and to be transparent, and to make better choices. Turn off the notification. If you have that important opportunity, don’t blow it by having your phone beeping and your smartwatch giving you notifications. Just know when to really turn it off and to be present because that’s how you’re going to move forward with better choices.

Are there any other areas you’re concerned about with regards to ethics right now?

Artificial intelligence is a huge area. I don’t know if I want to get political here, but there’s a lot going on in politics today. And I’m just going to take it from a point of how can we get to a point of getting to the truth, and open, and transparent when it’s so polarized? We’re so angry and frustrated. That is a concern where really smart people are just going into their corners.

Whether it’s politics or anything that you’re really, really passionate about, how do we get to a place of, “Let’s face our fears.” When you have a knee-jerk reaction and you want to run into your corner, it’s because there is some kind of fear of not being open, not being inclusive, not allowing this rich perspective to reach you.

Different people can open up. Even if you don’t agree, take the time to just say, “Why? How did you come to that conclusion? Just explain to me.” Do not retreat. Ask, “Why? What are the data points? What are your sources?” That at least has people feeling validated, even if you agree to disagree. I’d like to get back to a point where we are facing our fears and having conversations rather than just banging our heads and running into corners.

When we’re angry and frustrated and in our corners, being a part of some echo chamber with all the people who are like you, leads to poor decision. It does. And they could be unethical decisions as well.

That is great advice. What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I remember a PR professor saying to me that look at ethics as if it’s personal. Even though we deal with it in our companies and communicating on behalf of companies, look at it as it’s personal. You are ethical or you’re not. You can’t be sort of ethical. I remember that. And he also said that ethics comes from the heart. And your heart goes wherever you go.

That was just the big wake up call to say, “This is the part of your heart. Your ethics will be down every road you travel and every turn you make, and when you get to the crossroads, that’s when really that good judgment and ethical decision making will apply.”

So make it a part of your heart and you’ll do well.

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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