How to Thrive Ethically in an Era of Disruption: Ray Kotcher

I am honored and humbled to have Ray Kotcher, the former CEO and chairman of Ketchum, as my guest this week on EthicalVoices. He is now a Professor of the Practice of public relations at Boston University.

Pull up a chair and grab some coffee. In this freewheeling interview, we discuss.

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

To tell the story, I really need to rewind the clock to when I was a little kid starting in junior high school and then on into high school, I’ve always had a passion for communication. When I was in junior high school and high school, I wrote for the school newspaper. We built the first high school radio station when I was in high school. I made films. Those days they were eight and super eight. I would actually make films and splice them manually. I did slideshows and synchronized them with soundtracks. I read everything I could about the news business and I would visit radio stations and television stations and hang out and I just always was fascinated by it.

The other love of my life, besides my family, was theater and I always have been engaged and loved that too. In my undergraduate work, I focused on theater. I had a double major in English and theater and when I graduated, I taught public high school English for four years.

I enjoyed it. I was young. I was single. I’d saved up a little money even on a teacher salary in those days, and believe me, teacher salaries are still under pressure, but in those days, it was really meager. Being a young single guy, I didn’t really have that much to spend money on. I managed to save up a little money. I said, you know what? I’m going to take a shot here. I’m going to pursue one of those passions. I applied to graduate schools in theater and graduate schools in communication. I was accepted in a number of places, but the two places that really were of high interest to me, one was the Yale School of Drama and the other was Boston University’s College of Communication.

I really had to think hard about which road I wanted to follow. I guess I chose the more practical path. I was equally passionate about both. I thought that studying and pursuing a professional career in communications might be a little bit more practical. At that time, I had met my fiancée and we were engaged to be married. I’ve never looked back and I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve been very blessed to do something that I still have tremendous passion about.

To the topic of your webcast ethics, I had a really profound experience when I was at Boston University. Now we’re talking about the late 1970s, early 1980s. I had a teacher there who truly changed my life. He’s long passed. His name was Al Sullivan. He had a class called values and ethics in public relations. I think that your class now is the modern version of what Al was doing back then. What he did, he skillfully and masterfully and gently took apart our value systems, and made us question our values. We really had to question who we are and what was important to us and think about it, look at it, examine it, and put it back together.

That was an extraordinary experience for me. I was very fortunate in the sense that I’m grateful to my parents for a lot of things, but one of the things I’m most grateful to them for is ethical standards that they instilled in me from being very, very young. That’s one thing I’ll always be grateful for is instilling in me the importance of being honest and being ethical and doing the right thing. It was amazing really years later to have Al take that apart and help me put it all back together.

I would say between my parents and that extraordinary experience I had at Boston University with Al, that really helped cement who I am from a values perspective as I got ready to go out there and work in the public relations profession where there are always going to be challenges and today I think that the challenges are more profound and weightier in terms of the implications of the decisions that you make than they’ve ever been.

Thinking about your career, what helped you confront ethical challenges when you faced them?

There were moments and challenges along the way. I learned from each one of them. The more senior I became, the weightier, the more difficult challenge became. Using those fundamentals and following the compass that had been set for me really helped regardless of the magnitude of the decision that you made. I was very lucky to spend almost all of my career inside of Ketchum. The reason that I say that I was lucky is because the culture of Ketchum is one of trust and mutuality and high ethical standards. Well before I ever came to Ketchum, there was a policy at the company that I walked in and inherited about not taking gaming companies or tobacco companies.

One of the things that I think helped me move through the organization as I did was the resonance between my value system and the culture and the value system of the company. I didn’t have to check who I was at the door in the morning when I walked in, nor did I have to change who I was when I walked in the door at home at night. They were so compatible that my decision making because my value system was core to me and so similar to that of Ketchum’s, it helped me tremendously in terms of the decision making that I confronted that I had to face as I moved through my career there.

The culture permitted me to move through the organization because the value system is so important at that organization that they said, “Okay, you’re somebody who is going to protect our culture, who’s going to advance our culture. Okay, we’re going to trust you to do that.” It’s palpable and when people came into the organization who didn’t resonate and weren’t able to operate under those values, they got rejected from the organization very quickly. It’s almost like an organ transplant rejection. The culture really was self-policing in many ways.

What’s your advice to communicators when they find themselves in a conflict between their duty to the organization and their duty to their own personal values? What were some of the tough challenges you faced?

I can tell you about a couple. One I can be specific about. One I’ll be more general about. One was around the National Rifle Association. I was the President of the agency in those days. I was not the CEO yet and we received a letter. (In those days you would get letters in the mail asking if you were interested in talking to a company about their account or an organization about their account). It was a very lucrative proposition, extremely lucrative, and we did not pursue it. I kept that letter in my desk for years as a reminder. The reason that we didn’t pursue it is that we had people who supported gun rights but we had more people that did not, but we had people who did.

I learned early on that your employees, particularly in a professional service firm, are your most important asset and anything that is going to create dissonance and start to tear the fabric of the organization apart and create tensions are something you really have to think about really carefully.

Early in my career, I read a book by James Autry. I met him as a client. He was the editor of Better Homes and Gardens. The magazine was one of our clients at Ketchum in the days when I first joined. We helped them from a marketing public relations standpoint to help them with their circulation.

James was a brilliant man. He was an incredible writer, a journalist. He started his career as a journalist and moved through the ranks of Better Homes and Gardens. He eventually ended up as the president and CEO I believe of the parent company. He wrote a book and you can still find it. It’s called Love and Profit. What he did basically through his career, he kept a diary. They were poems, they were essays that he wrote. They were very short. They were kind of his life lessons. There were stories about critical moments that he faced. For example, when you have to tell somebody who’s been working for you for 25 years, who you know very well and who might also be your next-door neighbor and whose kids probably played with yours that he was being let go.

I mean, how do you do something like that? What do you do when somebody who you’ve been working with the 25 years walks into your office and says they’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer? What do you do? I mean, how do you handle something like that? What I learned from him in his book is that he thought of himself as the mayor of a small town. His decision making was based on that idea. That he always made a decision that would be right for the common weal of the citizens of the town. Now did it mean that you were going to have to accept people who perhaps weren’t performing at the level that they should be?

Maybe, under certain circumstances. I mean in any community there are going to be people who you have an obligation to support. You have to support them. Society has an obligation to help people that can’t help themselves. So there may be times when you’re going to have to make tough decisions like that. Are we going to extend ourselves? Are we going to help somebody because they deserve the help and they need the help? If you look at it that way and you look at it as a place where people who are contributing, people who are paying their taxes, people who are helping the growth, people who adhere to the standards in a community, the laws of the community and the standards of the community, those are the people who you have an obligation to protect and to support. That was a really profound book for me.

I still have a few copies of it and when people ask me what was the best management book you ever read, I lend them my copy. I was an important learning for me. Knowing James and reading his book and having had the opportunity to spend some time and talk with him, that helped me tremendously.

So that NRA decision I was talking about, that would have been something that would’ve started to tear the fabric, the cohesion of the community apart. So, the decision wasn’t as difficult as it might be if I didn’t have those guidelines as a foundation for my decision making.

Another example is we acquired an agency that had a tobacco client. The existing Ketchum employee base was not comfortable with that. Of course, the agency that we acquired believed that why should we change in mid-course. We’ve been working with this client, they’ve been fabulous, we’ve done great work together.

Why should we make this change? Why should we discontinue working with them? That was tough. That was really tough because we had a whole new bunch of constituents that came through this acquisition who are not all that happy about the decision that we had to make. Again, it would have been something that when you make these decisions, you’ve got to make your decisions and you’ve got to prove it with action and that’s one of the Page Principles that also are important learnings for me later on in my career. You not only got to say it, you got to do it.

I think that’s a good point. Ties into what the Business Roundtable said in August last year. Right? When they were talking about how we need to finally move beyond shareholder value to look at stakeholder value. Right now, it’s words and as you said with the Page Principles, they need to now show it with action.

Fast forwarding to today and the environment that we’re in, I think that behaving ethically is more important than it’s ever, ever been. I think there are some really important things that are happening out there that are giving it the importance that it has. First of all, of course the technology and the transparency that is out there in the environment today. People can find out anything at any time. So you’d better make sure that you’re doing things the right way because if you’re not, somebody’s going to know about it sooner or later.

You mentioned the Business Roundtable. What they said was, yes, shareholder value still is important, but societal value also is important. So now you have over 180 chief executives of America’s biggest companies saying that we have a couple of purposes for being in business and creating societal value is one. So when top management is beginning to give voice to that idea, that is profound. The new generation of employees, students coming up behind them, ethical behavior and societal purpose on the part of the organizations that they work for is more important than it’s ever been. My generation, I’m a boomer, that’s what they say, OK Boomer. We tried, we tried. We didn’t do very well at that. It is one of the disappointments. We were going to change the world. Thinking back to the 60s and 70s that I grew up in. It didn’t go so well and this generation, this time they’re serious. I think you can see that in the classroom.

They’re going to get it done. So, you have those coming up through business and through the institutions that they’re working in. The top management is very serious about it. You have customers demanding transparency, you have consumers who are demanding it.

I think that in addition to the technology and the transparency that we were talking about before, you have three really important constituencies. You have top management, you have the new generation of employees, and you have your customers not just asking for it, they’re demanding it. I really think that this time ethical, purposeful behavior on the part of our institutions is here and it’s real. It’s here to stay. To your point about the Business Round Table, I think that was a gigantic kind of shift that’s truly going to have an impact along with these other things I had been talking about.

Are there other ethical issues you’re concerned about today?

I think that the challenges are greater today. I think the implications of behaviors are greater today than they have been. Again, it goes back to technology and the speed of communication and the impact and the power of communication today. We are now in the third year of a Bellwether Study with Boston University and PRWeek on the state of the public relations industry.

When you take a look at the results of the study, 72% of corporate respondents say that they are the ones in their organization who are responsible for setting the ethical standards inside their organization. One issue they identified as particularly important is the era of disinformation. In this era of manipulation of information, those of us in the public relations profession, have a very, very important job.

The other thing I would say too is that in this study, 55% of all respondents (agency side and corporate) say that they are now somewhat or fully integrated with marketing. They say it’s going well. More than 50% of those say that, yeah we’re integrated and it’s going well, but here’s my point. Marketing people have traditionally seen the world and the guidelines for communication in a different way than we in public relations and corporate communications have.

It becomes even more important for us because of that integration to make sure that we’re educating the marketing side about what you need to do to communicate in today’s era of disinformation and misinformation and the manipulation of information and how important that is to communicate well, but communicate honestly and truthfully and ethically, and I think we have a tremendous responsibility to make sure that the marketing people understand that. You take a look at what’s going on at the U.S.. Are there some things that are happening out there that makes the responsibility that we have, the ethical responsibility even greater? I would say, yeah.

I mean it’s the very, very dangerous information environment that we live in and making sure that we’re helping navigate that correctly and then making sure that our new partners in the world of integrated communications on the marketing side understand how important that is out there.

What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I would have to go back to my mother. Never tell a lie. I would say I heard that from her at least once a week. Never tell a lie, Raymond. That was really inculcated into my belief system. Then I’ve got to go back to Al Sullivan at Boston University. He challenged our belief system and had us read all kinds of literature and science and philosophy. We would then have extraordinarily spirited in-class discussions about those readings and what they meant to us personally and did we agree or not and how would it possibly change our thinking. That experience really made a difference to me in terms of my outlook and my thinking.

I love the never tell a lie. It’s probably one of the two or three most common answers and I have fun traumatizing the students at my ethics class about all the times they do lie and realizing, well we want to say it categorically, but what happens if somebody comes in wanting information that could hurt somebody you love. You’re going to lie for it. So how do you reconcile with two? It is great seeing half of their minds just explode as we discuss different gradations

Yeah, that’s a great question actually. That’s a great question.

That reminds me of my interest in theater. One day I was in an antique shop and they had a whole bunch of old LIFE magazines and there was one where Marlon Brando was the cover story and he was hot. It was 1950s and he had been in A Streetcar Named Desire and he just kind of burst onto the scene. They were interviewing him about his acting technique. He said, we all act. We act every day. What do you say to your daughter when she comes down the stairs dressed for the prom in a dress that she made and she looks terrible?

He said, “Oh you look beautiful dear. Have a wonderful time tonight.” You’re acting.

Back to your point about advice…I would say character counts. I carry those two words with me and they help me think about what to do in any situation.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to go over?

There’s one thing that I would add. In this era of disruption, every institution and every business will be disrupted. It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when. Some leaders of organizations and companies are not waiting, they’re disrupting their own organizations. Some are waiting but are preparing and some are not preparing at all. What’s interesting is that as you look at all the data that’s out there and you look at some studies that the Arthur Page Society or consulting firms have done. Chief Executive Officers are saying that the greatest challenge that they’re facing is disruption and that’s what keeps them up at night.

What concerns them is are they going to be able to make the cultural shifts inside their organizations quickly enough, whether they’re leading the change in advance or whether they’re just reacting to it, are their employees going to be able to move quickly enough?

The reason I’m bringing this up because I think it’s relevant to the conversation. Change management and change communication is growing in importance in terms of the jobs of communicators and the growth in appreciation by top management. There is growth of opportunity in the field, but what I would add to that is that you need to build the trust of your employees. We spoke before about the impact of the new generation and we spoke about top management, we spoke about your customers and consumers, and why all of that’s leading us into change in the direction of being profoundly ethical behavior. Your employees today also are demanding that. They’re demanding the truth.

They’re demanding to participate. They’re demanding to have a voice, particularly in this job environment where people can move more quickly and more easily when there’s more opportunity out there. When demand is outstripping supply and the employment market. People are choiceful about where they’re working and the kind of organization that working for and the standards matter. Going back to that study we were talking about, the PRWeek study.

It was something like 4.4 on a scale of five when we asked employees what is the deal breaker for you when you’re considering taking a job or staying in a company on a scale of one to five with five being very important? The mean was something like 4.4 said the ethical standards and reputation and behavior of a company really matters to me. I think we’ve got to keep that in mind too, particularly in this era of disruption. That having your employees behind you and believing that you’re going to do the right thing and are going to move things in the right direction counts more than it ever has.

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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