Ethical Voices

A Global Ethics Perspective: Taking Care of the Truth – José Manuel Velasco

Joining me on this week’s episode is José Manuel Velasco, the Past President of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management. In February, the Global Alliance hosted its global Ethics Month. I wanted to have José on to discuss global ethics, communication, the truth and this initiative. 

In the course of our fascinating discussion, he addresses a number of key issues, including:

 

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

I am 54 years old and four years ago, I decided to remake myself. I was not doing badly, but I felt the need to challenge myself and to find out if I was able to work as a freelancer. Before, I had been working in communication and public relations in several companies for 25 years, and I had previously worked in journalism. Really, I don’t like to talk too much about what I was, but about what I do now and what I would like to do in the future.

My purpose is to elevate the public relations profession. I serve that purpose from two aspects. The first side is by training managers to be better communicators, and also to train communicators to become better managers.

The second is through my association commitment. I am the immediate past chair of the Global Alliance, and I am also still member of the executive committee, and the board also of the Global Alliance for Public Relations Communication Management. Also, I am chairing the European Regional Council.

Really, I share 100% my purpose with the Global Alliance. It has been a great school for me. In addition to learning to manage our organization, I have the opportunity to meet people in the communication industry all around the world It is for sure, is the most enriching and exciting experience of my professional life.

I also was the chair of the Spanish Association before starting in the position of the Global Alliance. I think I am serving my purpose in a strong way through associations.

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

I think the most difficult challenge was the publication of the so-called Bárcenas papers which is very, very, very famous in Spain. It was a case of illegal financing of the popular party, the Conservative Party in Spain that is currently being tried.

The company for which I was working then appeared in those manuscript papers. I remember that they pushed hard to have an internal investigation, and once there was data about our behavior, we recognized that the company had actually made payments to this illegal network. We were the only company in the sector that recognized the payments although they did not coincide with the notes that appeared on the papers. It was different payments. But really, we did pay to this illegal network.

All other companies that appeared on the papers denied the payments or shut up. It was very difficult to convince the top management to do something different from the competitors and speak up. I think we did well, and now we are going to attend the result of the trial. In my opinion, many companies are going to be in trouble because of their behavior.

Why did you believe it was important to speak up where your company had done something, illegal or wrong, instead of denying it, which it sounds like most of your competitors were doing?

Because, I think the best communication strategy is truth. It was a very deep research investigation about the relationships between many construction companies and marketing companies that were also working for the Conservative Party. There was a strong link between the payments of the construction companies and the events that the party was organizing them. In theory they were paying with this illegal money.

The decision was between following ethical or the legal advice. Finally, I think ethics weighted more than the legal view. The legal view was really very restrictive. The main goal was to protect the company. I also wanted to protect the company, but I thought we’d have to tell the truth because sooner than later, the truth will appear.

Just because it’s legal, it doesn’t mean it’s ethical. How did you convince your management team to do what’s right?

It was very helpful that the CEO of the company was appointed recently, and obviously it was an issue from the previous administration. He was convinced that he had to make a strong decision.

For the company, thinking internally, it was a very good opportunity to make a strong decision about ethics, because the decision made by the CEO telling the truth and telling that we have to make some payments to this network, it was completely unusual. In that way, I think he used the opportunity to change the mindset of the company and to show that we have to keep different values.

Looking back in that case, is there anything you would change or do differently?

Many things. Many things. But as the Frank Sinatra song says, “I don’t regret anything.” I don’t regret anything not because I don’t have things that I could regret, because I have several, but because it’s not worth punishing yourself for something that happened in the past and you cannot change. You cannot change the past, but can change the way you did something in the past, that this changes the behavior. In my opinion, you have to learn from mistake. That is very important, to recognize that you have made some mistakes in the past. It’s a very good opportunity to learn from mistakes, from failures, including bad things.

Going beyond your own personal life, what do you personally see as the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow around the world?

The most challenging job for us as PR managers now is to take care of the truth. There is a question that is arising; how can communicators take care of the truth?

First, I think it’s respecting the codes of conduct that we voluntarily assume. One of the goals of Ethics Month is to reinforce the ethical perspective of our profession. Secondly, we must make a strong commitment to the vigor in the content we generate.

The narrative of our organization has to be very solid, and be grounded in very vital facts and circulate together with its context. It’s important to put together the main message, and also the context to give people the opportunity to understand the whole picture. I think the context sometimes is a very important part of the truth because it helps to understand why, under what circumstances, and for what things happen.

Thirdly we must open conversations that allow reality and perceptions. Now, sometimes we are dealing with the perceptions more than facts, and facts as related to reality.

Stakeholders should have the opportunity to ask the organization to inquire into the reason they made a decision. That’s why, for me, it’s essential that the organization creates a system on emphatic listening. It’s not about telling the stakeholders what they want to hear, but what is useful and true so that they can make their decision in relationship with the company.

How do you recommend organizations take care of the truth?

Truth is made up of facts and also emotions. But because emotions are part of our reality, emotions are very important in our lives. So, emotions are also rational things. To feel fear is because you are fighting with a different situation or a dangerous situation. In some ways, fear is also an emotion. We must not separate facts from emotions. You know, for truth, is to separate facts from emotions. I think an organization must take care of facts and you have to certify in some ways that, that facts are true.

Secondly you must organize conversations with all the stakeholders. You have to create some safe spaces to host that dialogue, that conversations with the stakeholders, because sometimes we create channels to speak with the stakeholders, but we create those channels from our perspective, from the perspective that the company is issuing messages, but we are not taking care of the conversation and we are not taking takeaways from the conversation.

I think it’s very important to show the stakeholders that our channels, our space to talk about the company and about the challenges of the company and the interest of the company are very safe, and you are taking consideration the things that all these are saying.

I think the third is being aware that as PR managers, we are serving our organization, but at the same time, we are serving to the social confidence, to the social trust, because we are creating trust. We have a social responsibility that goes beyond our companies. That is the ethical side of our profession.

This ethical side, sometimes that could put us in an uncomfortable situation regarding the interest of our company, but I think I this is a very important job because we are serving our company, for sure, because they are paying our salaries, but at the same time, we are serving the public interest. Serving the public interest means also to think that we are creating an impact in the society and we have to assess the impact that we are creating with our communications.

I loved how you were talking about emotion, because the discussion that I see so much is we’re moving to database decision-making, and the power of analytics and data analytics are essential, but I think in many cases, emotions and feelings get left out, and that’s really a key point to help people understand why you’re doing things, is to deal with their emotions.

Emotions are important, but sometimes, especially in political communication, some people are using emotions in a bad way. They are using emotion to trigger some behaviors and they’re not taking care of the facts that are related to those emotions.

Besides that, I think we belong to some generations that have been taught rationality. The main philosopher for us was Descartes, and Descartes was a mathematician. He was also philosopher, but he was a mathematician.

Today the educational system is based on reason and rationality. I think we should learn how to deal with emotions. Also, companies should learn how to deal with emotions-the emotion of the shareholders, the emotion of the employees, the emotion of the customers, and the emotion of the clients because it’s a very important side of our life.

It is also important to keep emotions in the same bottle as reasons, and reasons mainly are facts.

You mentioned emphatic listening. Could you tell us a little bit more about that? What do you mean by emphatic listening and how can companies put it into practice?

It’s really very difficult, but it’s very difficult for people in general to be emphatic listeners. Emphatic listening, I think, is one of the main skills of PR managers, or should be one of the main skills of PR managers. That means to understand the reasons of the stakeholders, of the different stakeholders, it’s not enough to be sympathetic with the stakeholders, you need to be empathic with the stakeholders. That means to understand the reasons and to bring those reasons into the company, because the company, the management has to make decisions based on data, for sure, but also based on the expectation of the stakeholders. You have to collect those expectations to be sure that you are serving the interest of the stakeholders. Also, it’s very important to keep the balance between the stakeholders.

I remember the statement of the Business Roundtable last summer. It is very important because they are calling for a new balance between the different stakeholders, not only thinking on the shareholder because they are providing the capital to start the company and also to feed the finance within the company. It’s very important too to consider all the stakeholders, and also to consider a global stakeholder, that this is the society in general. This must include taking care of our planet around us.

You mentioned global stakeholders. What is the Global Alliance doing during Ethics Month and beyond to raise awareness of ethics and communication globally?

In February, 2018, the Global Alliance hosted the first Global Ethics Summit in Madrid in which international and national organizations participated including many, many, many association members of the Global Alliance.

As a result of that summit, we created a taskforce to review and to refresh the global code of ethics. As a result of that, we created 16 new ethical principles for the practice of public relations. That document really complements and enriches the global code. To become a member of the Global Alliance, you have to sign that Global Code.

The first decision you have to make if you want to be member of the Global Alliance is to understand and to assent the Global Code. Then you must follow the 16 principles.

Today we are collecting business cases to spread not only the principals, but also practical information on how to deal with this principle. We are very proud and happy because several hundred thousand public relations professionals from all over the world are receiving now the message that #ethicsmatter. In my opinion, it matters a lot.

I think it’s also important to think that after February, comes March and April and we have to keep the same idea about ethics, and we have to keep the tension and also the pressure about the ethical side of our profession. We have to take care of ethics no matter the time, the place, or the circumstances. The Ethics Month is a way to remember that, to remind that.

As you talk to companies around the world, what are some of the struggles they’re facing? Are there differences across geographies?

Not too much. Really, not too much. I think this profession is a very globalized. For instance, I was in China, I was doing some visits to companies there working with the top companies there and speaking with many professionals there, and I didn’t see too much differences.

There are some common issues the profession is facing. For instance, I think the borders between marketing and public relations are blurring, and now we are starting a new era of cooperation with marketing, because companies are asking for results after a short time, and we have to serve that need by the companies. We have also to provide leads to marketing or to provide leads to sales, to the sales department. There is also an issue around governance.

I think, as a PR professional, we must be concerned about the importance, the relevance of governance for the reputation of the companies. We must think how to provide ideas, how to take care of governance, how to improve the governance of our company, for instance, is very easy. It’s transparency, and transparency is very important for the governance of a company.

There is also another concern about the impact of new technologies. For instance, artificial intelligence because we are approaching to the technological singularity and we cannot imagine at this moment the future, it’s like science fiction, and some ethical issues are arising around the artificial intelligence, machine learning, big data and data protection.

I think, in that sense, as PR professional we have the opportunity to lead that debate about the ethical challenges we are approaching.

You raised a number of key topics and the ones I’ve addressed in earlier interviews. How do you recommend PR people educate themselves and stay up to speed on all of these fast-moving changes?

We must be very agile. There is this concept that is very important – learn-ability. It is a combination between adaptability and agility. Learnability, is a key skill now to be ready for challenges in the future because things are going very fast, and I must be faster as well. We have to be very ready, be very prepared to change very quickly, to understand the new landscapes, and to understand the new environments.

In that sense, for me, the key is to study or to know a lot about general trends. Not only trends for our industry, but social trends are very important, because I think public relation professional is like a social psychologist. It’s important to de-codify, to decode the environment. That means that we have to be very aware about the trends that are impacting in our organization, including the trends that are impacting in public relations.

Another challenge is for PR managers is to be trained in management. We are telling the companies that we want to be part of the C-suite, we want to be part of the top management. When we are speaking about the top management, we are not speaking about our function that is communication or PR, we are speaking about management.

That means that we need knowledge and the skills related to management. For instance, it could be team building, it could be project management, it could be agile techniques. Perhaps, the most important thing is how to deal with people. It’s about human resources, and how to create teams, and to engage teams and to engage people for the goals of the companies. There is a combination of learnability, learning management, agility and to understand the social trends that are impacting in our profession and also in our work.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

I remember a very simple sentence that my father used to tell me when I was a child. The sentence was, “You have to do things well.” To do things well has two dimensions. The first one is to be a good professional, and the second dimension is to do things for the good. In my opinion, it also means how they should be things.

The second advice, I found it recently in a trilogy, in a book. The title of the book is The stories of Tierra Mar. Throughout the sentence is a fictional character, a wizard, said in the novel, “We who have power over the world and over all men, we must learn to do what the leaf, and the whale, and the wing do by nature. We must learn to maintain balance. We are intelligent and we must not act in ignorance. We are able to choose and we must not act without responsibility.”

Listen to 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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