What to do when your client is accused of espionage and his life is threatened: Hasan Zuberi

Joining me on this week’s episode is Hasan Zuberi. He is the president of the PR Council of Pakistan, Chairman of Mensa Pakistan, and also advises global brands on Pakistani markets and providing 360-degree PR solutions to multiple clients, including strategy, implementation, and execution. I saw his contributions to Global Ethics Month including translating a code of ethics into Urdu, and I’m honored to have him as a guest on Ethical Voices this week. He shares great global ethics insight, including situations many of us in the U.S. never have to face

In a truly fascinating interview Hasan discusses:

Why don’t you tell us more about your job and your career?

Currently, I manage a communications and PR consultancy that supports some of the multinational projects that are operating in Pakistan. Mostly clients are the European clients, one or two Chinese, especially because Pakistan is linked with China, it borders China from the north, and you must have heard about the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. Of that, the biggest project is called CPEC, which is China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, so a lot of Chinese influence as well as the European influence operations are here.

I had a very early career start, I started at the age of 15 right after my high school. We call it Intermediate College here. Right after my college I started work just as an intern. I joined a family business, and moving on, I joined a couple of other organizations. That was 1995. Karachi was in midst of violence, kind of a political war going on and literally we used to have around number of killings so often that people used to compare it with the Beirut of the ’80s. My parents, they encouraged me to work at that age just to keep me away from all that was happening around me, and that helped me grow further.

My encounter with the public relations field started in the year 2000. Pakistan was organizing its biggest defense exhibition, which was an initiative of the government of Pakistan. I somehow got a job as the protocol officer, and I was asked to make up a team that would receive the guests at the airport and work with them until they leave. The guest list included all the non-military guests, including Ministers of Defense and other high-protocol individuals. It was a great experience for me at a young age and was my introduction to the field of protocol diplomacy and public relations.

Then I joined a PR company and have been doing it for almost half my life. There is no field of PR study available in Pakistan at the time. We have majors in marketing and advertising. Pakistan is one of the few countries which are advertising driven still. Their advertising companies have the muscle and have the say, and they draft the strategy for all the marketing areas.

Over the past 20 years I have worked on all sides of the table. I worked across Asia, in Indonesia, in Singapore, in the UAE with the biggest property PR company, and all over Pakistan. I worked for brands as the marketing head and the brand. I also got the opportunity to work for media, was part of a television channel launching team, and the biggest financial newspaper in Pakistan.

Now, I have started teaching to share my experiences of 20 years with the new generation so that I can prepare some talent based on the experiences that I had in the last 20 years.

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

It’s been a long journey and I have encountered many, but there are two I would like to share.

For instance, there was one with the local rep of the German automobile manufacturing company, and they were launching their program in Pakistan. We won the account, we started working on it, and the event was postponed because of the conditions in those days. The brand told us that we will be coming back to you and then we’ll be postponing the event for some time, but somehow the events of those times, the happenings in Karachi, the days where the cause of violence and certain other aspects, that event never happened.

I was continuously in touch with the organization since they have already paid us. They had their money with us, and we keep on knocking their door, reminding them, “Okay, we are the agency, we have your money. Please, at least, since this event is not happening, please tell us something that can be done. Either you can take the money back, minus what we have spent so far, we are willing to return the money. Or give us some other work, and we are more than willing to do that.”

The people who were working at the marketing department left the organization, so we lost contact with the organization. Then I, after passing the four months, I visited their office, and I met the acting general manager of the marketing department there. And I told the whole story to them, and I told them that I have your money and we want to make the best use of it, which is beneficial for your brand as well as for my company.

They said, “Okay.” After the meeting they simply sent us a note that, “Please consider the file closed.” Having said that, this was an ethical issue for me, but I have received certain payments and I didn’t do the job. So, in the end, I told them, “Okay, at least give me something that I can do,” and with their permission, I drafted an interview session and a press release on my own without the help from the department getting some other people involved. But we did the work.

Let me share another example.  I was working with one of the biggest broadband internet service providers with an investment from the AD Group in Pakistan. It was the holy month of Ramadan and we were fasting, and I was out with family. We only work half days in Ramadan and I was out with my family, and I got a panic call from my associate who told me that the biggest technology blog had put up a story accusing the gentleman, the CEO of the company, of being associated with a neighboring country, which we have a long time rivalry, and they have accused him of being an agent of the company and whatnot. The color changed of this whole acquisition scenario, it turned out to be that the gentleman was part of a yoga group which was somehow associated with the yogi who was a based in India, and the accusation turned from just being an agent or something like that towards the religious side.

The issue was boiling based on this blog report. So, initially, we’re taken aback. Now, the challenge was how to respond. At that point, my boss asked me, “Hasan, I know you might not agree with the views of the gentlemen, would you be doing it? Would you be working on this project?”

So, as the team leader, it is not what I do or I think. My primary job is to protect my client’s life because now these accusations, irrespective of the facts and figures, this is somehow can harm his life and affect his life.

I planned a strategy and made sure that we sent a notice to this blog asking them the facts and figures and why they didn’t take our content or comments on behalf of the CEO. We could have linked the blog with the CEO who should have a voice in their publication.

So, irrespective of my personal beliefs, at that time the issue was to safeguard the interests of my client. We had to counter the claims. We sent a legal notice to this blog and either asked them to put up a balanced view from our side or to remove the content there and then. So, we were able to do that. We were able to defend and protect him. Now, it will be an internal issue of that organization. Some of his associates were involved in it. The core issue was that we were able to safeguard the interests of the gentlemen, as well as the brand itself.

You mentioned you were concerned with protecting his life. Was that protecting his brand reputation or were there threats of physical violence against him as well?

It goes both ways. The rival, the other group perceived was that they would damage his reputation and he will be asked to leave, which happens in most of the cases. But here, it turned out to be a little different since some small newspapers and blogs started popping up, putting up accusations with them, and they changed it from being a Yogi practitioner to following a person from the other religion. They started accusing him of certain areas which comes under Pakistan laws which protects the religion and they started putting his accusations in a color that he has gone against those laws of the country. So, it became a threat. His property was attacked in one of the areas. And interestingly, the point that we, when we were investigating, and all it turned out to be that this gentleman was sitting in a post which comes directly under the scrutiny of the top echelons of power in Pakistan.

And he had been cleared by all the relevant departments. He has the clearance, they have done their homework. So, we contacted this department as well and asked them to protect their interest here, because it is indirectly hitting them as well. We had to think from all sides. We involved religious figures who had good following in the country, and they came forward. They heard the whole scenario, and they agreed to come and protect his interest as well and this is how we were able to save the whole issue.

You mentioned he was alleged to be working with a country, which you had a rivalry, to say the least. There were differences of religion. When you face these challenges, when your potential personal beliefs may not agree with your client’s beliefs, how do you work through that scenario? What do you keep in mind?

Initially, it was should I be doing it or not? But it was very clear that my biggest belief is that to save a human life, and in this scenario, there was a threat to his life and his family in Pakistan. When we were discussing the strategy, this was the first concern that I shared with my team, and my colleagues agreed.

First, we had to counter the accusations of espionage by clarifying he was working under clearance from all the relevant departments. My biggest concern to protect his life and then his beliefs and his thoughts. He’s not harming anyone. What he’s practicing is a constructive activity. He was not doing anything that can harm other people. I have to protect him, his life, and his family. His personal actions, where not in a contrast or going against anybody else in the country.

Beyond your own personal experience, thinking about this as the President of the PR Counsel of Pakistan, what do you see as some of the key communication ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think the biggest challenge that we are facing, not only Pakistan, the whole world, is the term President Trump initiated “fake news.” Initially, I used to think, irrespective of my interest in the US politics, that this was an oxymoron and the term doesn’t fit.

But I see the scenario today and particularly in the current events of Coronavirus, we are witnessing the evolution of fake news and the spreading of wrong information. There is no filtration as such. The news, nowadays, spreads like fire, maybe quicker than that, and there is not enough firefighting equipment.

So, what I have started practicing, and I am encouraging my colleagues here in Pakistan, is that we must practice what we preach. We preach is the correct flow of information. We should not just forward whatever we are getting on our WhatsApp or Twitter or other places. We should go and look for the source.

Just now, I saw a tweet from the UNICEF in circulation on WhatsApp and social media about how to protect yourself from the spread of coronavirus. And I saw that they have put up just now, that it’s a fake information and we did not create or and it did not come from the World Health Organization.

So, this is what we started. And just yesterday we held a session under the Pakistan PR chat, particularly on the coronavirus subject, with one of the subject experts who is communication person off the biggest medical facility in Pakistan. He called on the communication fraternity to help counter these fake messages and we discussed how we can filter these fake messages and not share the wrong information. This is one of the biggest things that we are facing right now.

I agree with you. I believe we are entering the disinformation age. You gave a great example where people were spreading disinformation to attack your client. How we respond to that is going to be a bigger challenge as people leverage technology more effectively to spread this information.

Indeed, indeed. It’s not just related to politics. Until 2015 we used to wait for the official response or official spokesperson’s comments in regard to any information. But now what is happening is that every common Joe is coming up with his thoughts and creating a hashtag and spreading his own parts. So, the subject experts, they are left behind, and there is a mushroom growth of these experts who had no clue what they’re talking about taking over the communication field.

You mentioned when you first started practicing public relations in Pakistan, it was advertising driven. Is that still the case, and if so, how do you work to get your message out without relying just on advertising?

Things are rapidly changing due to social media and the digital age. Today brands have started feeling in Pakistan that they have to practice the right tools of communication for the right messaging. Over the last couple of years. The messaging has to be to the right medium. Advertising has its particular area where they have to practice as does public relations. They need appoint somebody who does not mix it up with the conventional journalism. Because in the good old days, when advertising was the lead, what was the common practice was that they used to hire a journalist on their payroll who would publish stories on their behalf.

So, now, what are focusing on the art of brand storytelling. Direct communication is important. So, now, the things have changed, and we have the PR agencies, we have the full-fledged communication departments taking the lead of where necessary. Particularly in this era where we are facing continuous terrorism within our borders and cities, we are seeing the importance of crisis management leaving the Health Safety Department and coming into the hands of the communication department.

What else is the Public Relations Council of Pakistan doing to help raise awareness of PR ethics and improve ethics in communication?

The PR Council has the main objective of providing professional development for PR and communication professionals and associated industries. We are helping the younger generation and our peers, who are already in the industry, to learn the sub areas of PR. Because the basic understanding of public relations is not there, a lot of areas were overlapped and some were ignored. For instance, we need to educate on the importance of SOPs, Standard Operating Procedures. We are also working with these corporate sectors on the importance of the social responsibility.

Before, planting a few trees was the CSR. Now, we are mentoring them on the issues which are more important. Things have started changing. Pakistan is competitive. We’re a very young country with almost 65% of the population under 30 years of age. So, the nation is young, mobile penetration is very good. It’s more than 70%.  Technology business is growing rapidly and they have started reinvesting in the country. We are trying to tell these brands how to protect the basic cultural and the other areas of ethics. Ethics plays an important role and they have to put these important issues above their personal benefits.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve been given?

Think as a human first. You have to make sure that what you are offering is something that you want for yourself. That has been the base throughout my career.

I remember my early days in PR as an executive, I remember what I used to do, like all my colleagues…if you’re going to a client’s office, we used to take the bus or some other cheaper mode of transportation, and we used to charge for the cabs at that time. So, on an average, let’s say if our taxi fare cost 200 rupees but a public bus, and only cost me 20 rupees. So, I used to pocket those 180 rupees.

But I realized it was not right.  When I moved to the UAE for some time, we had a procedure for submitting taxi company invoices. I submitted my taxi expenses as they really were and my HR exec called me and he said, “You know you have submitted this.” I said, “Yeah, that was the procedure I’ve been told to do.” He said, “But you know, your boss was not happy with you because he was charging a good double the amount for the same destination.”

But the executive told me to keep honesty as a trait. Make sure you don’t lose it. This has been a good practice that I started following, and fortunately I’m still following it.

Ethics is a personal thing. Every child is honest, and honesty among children is the most common thing. You ask them, having two pencils in your hand of different colors, and you ask them the color and they’ll always point out the right color. We all start with ethics with morals, and we are the one who lose it with the passage of time.

So, what I emphasize in my lectures to my students that just don’t jump and take sides, try to understand the situations and scenarios, try to see things not only from black or white perspective, because in between is a very great area, which is called the gray area, which is the mixture of the two colors. Who have to think from the gray perspective first before joining any side. And most of the cases, what I’ve experienced is that we don’t need to take sides after that, when we start looking at things from all angles. It’s not a matter of your own choice of good or bad, labeling somebody good or bad, you have to understand others’ perspectives.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:

 

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