Ethical Voices

What do you do when a client asks you to launch a product they plan to immediately discontinue?: Marcy Massura

Joining me on this week’s episode is Marcy Massura, the CEO of MM & Company. She has decades of experience helping brands achieve amazing results by putting digital the center of all holistic marketing and communication strategies. In this interview we discuss client dishonesty, Wikipedia, PR super powers and how they are misused and inherent ethical biases in the social media infrastructure.

Specifically we discuss:

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

I’m one of those people that entered into PR and marketing with a bit of a crooked path. I didn’t intend to be here. I actually started in fashion design and development and I became, a content creator, AKA blogger. And out of that, I started working with brands and agencies to create content for large brands and entered into the agency world. I worked my way up that ladder and played that game, before I made a break for it and started my own agency. My agency is a full stack marketing agency and I have teams and operatives, but I actually split my time. So, the agency’s half my time, the other part of my time, I do fractional CMO work and fractional EVP assignments for other agencies.

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

That’s a tough question for a couple of reasons. One, I’ve been PR trained to never reveal our sources. So I won’t give one because it becomes identifiable, but I will say that PR practitioners, we really get an insane access to the inside of brands. We know about the financials, the lawsuits, the roadmaps, we know everything. And I don’t think a lot of people understand that on the outside, that we really are deeply entrenched in brands. And generally, we’re asked to do three things. To defend, to correct or promote. That’s really what brands want us to do.

Unfortunately, we’re often asked to take action on something that’s not entirely honest. So instead of one big thing, I’ll say there’s more of a chronic repetitive pain point that I see. An example would be maybe from a CEO wanting corrective messaging due to a pending class action lawsuit, but knowing personally as a human that the allegations were absolutely true. What do you do?

Or there is a brand wanting to promote subscription sales on a SaaS solution, but they were actually planning on shuttering it. They were just trying to generate some ending cashflow. That’s an ethical question. Where does my loyalty lay?

I know this is probably ridiculous, but I often think about attorneys that are defending guilty people. And so, there’s a million times that I’ve actually had to take a deep breath, kind of sit back and ask if my contracted responsibility was in conflict with either my personal ethics or industry ethics.

So how did you work through all that in the case of the class action suit? When you know that the company seems to be at fault, how do you then decide to move forward and help give it counsel rather than resign or step away?

Money.

No, just kidding. But that is a factor. And I think that’s how a lot of ethical decisions are being made in the industry, that there is a price for everything.

I look at it through two lenses. What is the industry ethics standard? In other words, what would my colleagues and those that I work with in the industry frown upon if they knew about it? And that is a real strong litmus test for me personally. And then there’s the higher power test of, is this just being a bad person? Am I making the world worse than better? The problem is, for me anyway, is that industry ethics are really strong enough. I mean, we all sign those, like the commitment five or six years ago where we promised not to alter Wiki pages.

This was a big ethical question, right? That we were altering the knowledge base for millions of people, right? But we also know that, right now in my Rolodex, I’ll say that because I’m old. I could call 10 people to alter a Wiki page right now, right? So the industry ethics are waning and it’s not a really good, strong thing. So more often than not, I just ask myself, does this feel right, and can I sleep at night? In the case of the class action lawsuit situation, I came to a compromise that would work on writing the messaging but would not be responsible for the syndication and the promotion of it. I didn’t want my agency name attached to it. So it was a bit of a compromise.

Putting on my academic hat for a minute, it deals with you having conflicting duties. You have the duty to yourself, the duty to your clients and the duty to society.

Right.

And when there’s those conflicts, that’s when the ethical issues happen. And we are advisors, we are advocates for the clients. So, it’s okay to advocate on their behalf. Just the problem gets to be if you’re asked to spread false information or doing things of that nature, that’s where I think it crosses the line.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, the only real ethics that matter are the personal ethics, right?

I was with an agency that made an announcement internally that they were going to be taking on a very large tobacco client. And immediately, that announcement spurred people who had personal convictions saying that they refuse to work on the account. That of course caused a lot of internal conflict because they felt that, as an employee of the company, the ethical decision about who you work on is not in their camp. And it was an interesting thing to see play out. It didn’t affect me personally, but I watched it sort of play out and I kind of kept coming back to why did the agency feel the need to announce this? We don’t announce any other categories of business. So they had to foresee that this was going to be a conflict for a lot of individuals. They almost asked for it.

And they overruled the staff. Corporate ethics overruled the personal ethics. Ultimately, most of the people that raised their hand, they ended up self-selecting or I guess that’s the PR term for quitting. So ultimately, corporate, the one with the power and the money, won in that case.

I think we’re seeing a lot change a little bit over the past year or so. I mean, look at Edelman and the private prisons and the revolt that was happening in there and we’re definitely seeing a change. I was talking to the head of the PR Council, she said, the point that people need to realize is the money that’s involved, which also means if they don’t take these clients, jobs can be lost.

As a business owner, I get that now probably more than I did in my past, that there are tough decisions to be made to keep things going, but ultimately, ethics is not a black and white conversation. It’s shades of gray. There’s a lot of complexity. There’s a lot of compromising. It doesn’t mean you absolutely have to sacrifice your ethics, but you may have to compromise in certain parts of it because you do have business responsibilities and people that you’re responsible for keeping employed.

You mentioned the product launch that you knew was going to be shuttered. How did you reconcile that decision? Was it thinking and any product can be canceled at any time so it’s okay for me to go ahead and do it?

Anybody who knows me knows that I’m kind of a loud mouth. I’m not known as being subtle in any capacity. So I tend to talk about these difficult conversations pretty easily. It doesn’t affect me. And in that case, I immediately raised the red flag saying that this was completely in conflict with their closure strategy. And it would put both my name and my company name in a bad light. It would look poorly. Their claim was, you can just say that you didn’t know. You can play stupid.

And I said to them, “I don’t ever want to be in a position where I have to defend my actions in that manner.” And the truth is, you don’t get a chance to defend yourself. Once people think of you one way, that’s the perception and that’s it. There’s no court of ethics. So, we discussed it and they mentioned the point that you brought up, the things can go away at any moment. We could close things. Any client you have could be closing down and you may not know about it. And so it really shouldn’t matter in this case. The difference for me is I did know about it.

So, I respectfully declined the contract. I did other work for them in another area and I respectfully declined the contract. However, I did recommend another individual who would do the work. So you could say that that was a bit of an ethical compromise because I certainly wasn’t on my moral high ground of going, “No, I banish you, you’re horrible people.” I shall never work with you again. I basically just said, “Yeah, not me, but if you want to do this crappy thing, go do it with somebody else.” So it was kind of a middle ground. I didn’t leave them high and dry.

You mentioned Wikipedia.  We know a lot of information on Wikipedia is incorrect. What is your recommendation for businesses, how to deal with it ethically and correctly and get it done?

Well, I think people have to understand that there is a process by which you correct your Wiki pages. It used to be much more of a great mystery. People thought it was these magical hacker people who lived in some Wiki land. It’s not like that so much anymore. There is a process, there is actually a Wiki forum-where all the people that are sort of authorized to change pages because they’re active users can actually reach out and say, “On this listing, I’m trying to get this, I can’t get it to say that.” And they will guide you what you need to do to make that happen. Generally, changing Wiki pages, I don’t find as much fault with it as I did in the past, because now it’s much more controlled that any new piece of information that’s added to a Wiki page needs to have a source.

Where the challenging part is that the source needs to be a credible news source, so it needs to be published someplace that’s third party, so you can’t reference your own blog for your company and say, “See, I told you, this really happened.”

Little companies are the ones that lose in this because they don’t always have big media relations budgets to get those big news hits. My actual advice when I’m asked numerous times by clients all the time is, it’s not something that we do, but I can point you in the right direction to do it for yourself and I have had clients do it themselves and go in and reach out to the owners of the pages and contact them, give them links and get things changed. I just always found it funny that it was one of these very specific things that the industry was taking a commitment on. It seemed funny to me. It always seemed very small in scale given the other larger ethical issues that none of us are signing our lives away to or signing commitments to.

Well, I still think it comes down to the SEO power of Wikipedia. It’s where people go to get all their information. But I still have the story with my son that I had to teach him that Reddit and Wikipedia are not necessarily sources of information.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received assignments from junior level employees doing their best work and they’re quoting different data points or quotes or whatever and I’m, what’s the source? Oh, I got it off a Wiki page. I have to have a sit down and go, “So that’s not a credible source because it is manipulated.”

Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for the industry today and tomorrow?

The biggest issue is that the more effective we are as marketers, the more power we hold over the outcome of perceptions. And that’s really scary. Look at Facebook advertising in the last election as a case study. There’s a lot of ethical questions that go along with that new power. People can be manipulated into belief with the very work that we do in PR and in marketing, which means now we have to participate in the actual scrutiny of the motivations of our clients. We didn’t have to do that before. We were hired to do a job, we did what we were told and I think because we were always in the vein of, well, we’re going to do our best, we’re going to try to get people to talk about it.

And I think a lot of us in the olden days, at least, believed that the real test of credibility of the work we were doing was how it was perceived by the media and the public. That’s not true anymore, especially with digital work. We can actually bend minds with the work we do and that’s a superpower. So, we need to be a little bit more careful about how we execute, and understand what our company’s really trying to do. What are our clients really trying to do here? It’s different if we’re just talking about selling CPG, fine. But if that CPG product is made by five-year-olds in a foreign country, is it on us to have that ethical conversation with our clients?

When you’re in that case and you find out that your CPG product’s being made by five-year-olds in a foreign country, how do you bring up that conversation and say, “This is really not a good idea and this is why we need to change things.” When you know of someone in the company that won’t necessarily care.

Well, let me say this. If you’re going to have a conversation like that with your client, know that you’ve lost the account and you have to accept that. And the same way when I get chips in Vegas, I’ve spent my money. I’m not planning on winning, okay?

But if you are really conflicted and you’re going to have this conversation, say, that the account is done. Because like I mentioned earlier, there’s always somebody out there that will do anything for money.

But I encourage people, instead of sulking off into the night to have the conversation. It’s nothing more than being straight forward and saying, “I need to ask you about this. This is the information I found out. I’m uncomfortable with this. Let’s talk about it.” And you might learn, oh my gosh, that is no longer valid. Or we have a roadmap to correct that. And you might be able to say, “Okay, well I want to delay working with you until that’s fixed.” Or whatever. There’s always different options. More often than not, you’re not going to change a business from one conversation. But I do think you have an obligation to have the conversation and call people out on their crappy stuff, but don’t think you’re saving the account.

What are the guide rails you recommend businesses put in place to make sure when you’re trying to shape minds, you’re not doing things subliminally unethically? You’re giving people the autonomy to make their own decisions?

Well, I want them to buy what I want, what I’m selling. But I think you have to start at the source. Brands need to be much more honest about their motivations and they need to be transparent about every aspect of their business so that they know as much as they’re promoting a particular product or service, the information about the organization, who owns it, where did the money come from, where is this made, is this sustainable, is also out there for the public to easily find. Brands just need to gut check a little bit. They know when they’re doing something shady. They all know. They all know.

And so it’s just a matter of encouraging them. And I think too, it’s on us to try to point out brands that are highly transparent and overly visible and overly communicating about their why’s and their strategy that they win in the long run.

We don’t have to play dirty to win. We can play fair and honest and still come out ahead. And I think that’s the missing sort of piece of this. That we should be selling through ethical approaches.

How do you go about fighting disinformation and the rise of deep fakes as a brand?

You need to go back to the content phase. Because I am actually really concerned about how the private sector is acting as public infrastructure and I think that’s a bit of the nightmare here. Because we have social platforms, we have cloud providers, we have Google. They all can manipulate results to drive knowledge paths and they can drive actions through preference. That to me is really the source of the bigger issue. If we can’t fix for those things and we have to play within this world, then it becomes a battle of money and that’s really the big concern here. Is if the bad guys have more money than you, they can win public opinion and it’s really scary. I have to tell you, it’s not something that I feel is compatible without, God forbid, I can’t believe these words are coming out of my mouth, some sort of regulation. Some sort of approval on private sector infrastructures.

What type of approval or regulation? I mean, is it somebody of looking at the Google code to make sure it’s not biased?

I don’t know. But I feel I just get more and more uneasy with the unchecked-ness of it all. That we’re relying on these little soundbites and press releases from Facebook or Google to say, “No, we’re doing it good now.” It just feels very odd. It’s a bit like going to a teacher when you’re a kid and saying, “No, trust me. I did my homework. It was awesome.” But that concerns me more because that’s the source of the river of all of this horribleness that’s downstream. And we kind of need to start to look at the source in some way that is not handicapping the private sector, but at the same time, assuring some sort of ethical compliance or fairness.

There are a number of people talking about that. Melanie Ensign of Uber, she’s talking about even in this COVID crisis is, how few folks are looking at privacy and looking at making sure that we’re really eliminating bias. There are still too few companies that are doing that.

Most of the ethical problems we’re facing today in digital are all because things are actually, they’ve evolved to be too good. That’s the problem. If things are faulty, you can see right through them. But all of these tactics and things that we’re using are so good. That’s where it gets scary.

Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

Well, I guess this is ethics advice, but it’s also pretty good life advice. And I probably say this daily to someone and that is the quote., “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” I kind of guide myself on that. Making sure that I’m deliberate with my actions, I’m deliberate with the clients I choose, the tactics I’m going to explore, whatever I’m trying to sell to them, and they’re selling to people. I’m really questioning, well, yes we can, but should we? And I think should is really the key ethical word. Should you? That kind of gets to the core of it.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, banter and some funny semi-outtakes 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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