How to ethically handle pressure to fudge numbers – Anne Green

Joining me on this week’s episode is Anne Green, a principal and managing director at G&S Business Communications, which helps clients compete in a global marketplace that demands smarter thinking and purposeful innovation. They use strategic public relations and marketing communications programs to build enduring relationships for brands along the entire value chain. Anne and I have been friendly competitors for more than a decade representing different divisions of the same global brand, and I’ve always been impressed for her strategic insight. I’m really glad to have her as a guest on EthicalVoices.

Anne discusses:

Why don’t you tell me more about yourself?

To give you the arc in a fairly quick way, I’m a liberal arts person, English major, women studies minor, vocal performance, and intended really to be a literature professor. I’m an accidental PR person. I decided to work between college and grad school, and I had an internship in the early ’90s in New York City at Burson-Marsteller. I somehow figured out what PR was pre-internet to write my essays and get an interview. It really changed the course of my life. I worked a few years at Burson. I did go to NYU to do most of a PhD in literature, but at the same time I was doing that, Andy Cooper and Ralph Katz, who had been about 20 years each at Burson left to start a new firm called CooperKatz in ’96.

I said to myself, “Oh, I’ll go help Andy and Ralph for a few years and freelance,” and 22 years later I was an owner of the firm. I was CEO. We had lost Andy to cancer, unfortunately, but Ralph and I were partners. At that point, after building the firm, we joined up and sold to G&S Business Communications. We had known the folks there for many years, including Luke Lambert, the CEO, who we held in high regard. Now today I’m a principal. I’m one of the shareholders of G&S, and I’m managing director of our New York office. It’s been a very interesting journey. You never know where your career might bring you when you’re open to taking detours.

Thinking about your journey, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you’ve ever confronted at work?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethical dimensions of our business, but also of life in general. I’ve been very lucky to work with people of high ethical standards and character. We cannot take that for granted in the world.  

There is a lot of corner cutting to various degrees. My ethical challenges were luckily blessedly not coming from my organizations or from colleagues or people in a position of power over me. I think one of the hardest ones was dealing with some of the startups…There was one years ago, I won’t use the name, but it was a very, very prominent startup. When they are not public yet and growth figures are very important and it’s very important, the optics of growth create ethical challenges, and this was all the way up to this CEO level.

The desire to kind of fudge and amplify those numbers was pretty pervasive, and it was way too close to the line too often for my taste. It became something that I had to really actively manage over a period of almost two years. It’s so easy when one is not reporting to the public markets and one is in that kind of growth mode to fudge those numbers.

That’s one of the things I recommend all the students at BU that I teach and all the folks who’ve managed is you need to improve your financial literacy so you can identify these issues. Plus, so you can more effectively counsel the CEO as well.

 

How do you go about uncovering when clients are starting to inflate some of their numbers and how did you address that issue with the management team?

Your point about financial literacy is so critical. I think very often in our field, there is a mantra that people even repeat about themselves about I’m not a numbers person. That is really not a way to be thinking. I remember years ago with our own management team when I was building CooperKatz, we kind of had to stamp out that language. Let’s not create a self-fulfilling prophecy here that we’re not effective business people and that we can’t learn this.

At my father’s encouragement I took the American Management Association Finance for Nonfinancial Professionals special course, just to make me comfortable at an earlier age in looking at a P&L and understanding EBITDA and some of these other factors. Your first point about taking ownership of the fact that you cannot just be fed information, that you have to check it, that’s the first thing. The second critical thing is the depth of the relationship you have with a client and how deep you are in with multiple people within there, so that the information you receive, you may cross check it across people.

Your clients have a sense of trust with you so that you’re getting the real story from various people. If you’re feeling this pressure from those above them to say, “Well, these are the numbers, but let’s round them up,” that’s usually what you hear, “Well, let’s just have it. Let’s just position it this way,” then you can have an honest conversation with your direct contacts.

For me, I was much younger at the time. I was in my early thirties, senior enough as a counselor because I had advanced pretty quickly at that point. However, the power dynamic was still not in my favor, but I just had to have the bravery to directly confront this in a thoughtful way. I said “Look, this can be very damaging over time if we don’t have a trajectory that’s backed by clarity and fact.”

The other big lesson for me was it was just as important to be communicating internally about it within our agency as it was to be pushing with the client. One of the critical things I learned is that this was an opportunity for open dialogue across all members of our account team and our leadership to talk with the most junior people up to the most senior people to say, “Guys, we are seeing this. Let’s have an open conversation about where there may be a line here and here’s what I intend to do about it and here’s where we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand.”

What do you do then when a client pushes back and says “Everybody in the industry rounds up. If we don’t round up, we’re putting ourselves at a competitive disadvantage.”

Yeah, it’s a hard one. They’re all doing it. Why can’t we?

It’s interesting. Our contracts have indemnification clauses and reciprocal indemnification. We certainly fight for those for this reason. We in our industry are particularly vulnerable to being fed information that we are then promoting to the public in good faith. I think what’s interesting about our field, there’s perceptions of the outside of what “PR communications” is. That’s a lot of spin.

But I think that I’ve always felt, and I’ve seen some research to back this up, that we have more of an ethical awareness than many other industries because of the way in which we have to interact with multiple publics.

From my perspective the conversations I would have with the client… In some cases, it was subtle, in other cases, it got a bit more intense as market pressures get more intense. In some cases, it was more about me saying, “Look, I want to acknowledge the fact that we’re making this choice to do this, and we have to be careful about how far we go.”

Then in other cases, there were one or two times where I said, “This is just beyond the level of accuracy. From our perspective as an agency, as your agent, we are liable to the world if we’re putting out information that I know is inaccurate and I’m not comfortable with that.” I had to kind of go between the different poles here of we’ll let this slide but let us acknowledge what’s happening, versus I’m not comfortable with period.

What are some of the key challenges you’re seeing for the industry today and tomorrow? How do you prepare staff?

Ethics is often not a bright line often. I love to train on this. The PR Council has wonderful scenario planning. I think this kind of ethics training really needs to happen live and in dialogue) or remotely now in our new setting) But for me, ethics issues are like death by a thousand paper cuts. First, the most important lesson is that it’s very rare that there’s a villain in the corner twirling his mustache saying, “Let’s have a giant ethical breach today.” It tends to happen incrementally.

Like the earlier story I told you – now we’re rounding up this far, now around again this far, and now we’re outright lying about the numbers.” Right? It never got to that with that former client. That’s the first thing, the slippery slope of it, the incremental nature, and the fact that ethical decision making needs to happen all the time in many different ways and that there often aren’t bright lines.

I think for us today in our field, we need a constant ethical framework to guide decision-making in terms of being counselors, how we communicate with publics, what information we share, how we try to advance facts.

Yes, we will share opinion and we will try to shape perception, but how do we face that and be open and transparent when there is an opinion versus a data point. Over the last few years, it’s become disturbing to see a general slippery slope when it comes to trust in data, trust in “experts,” replaced by fantastical thinking. There are constant charges of fake news which are really driven by self-interest rather than what is actually fake or propaganda. That’s really difficult for our industry to navigate because we are trying to base things on knowledge and data and statistics and facts and experts who have credentials.

That is what we should be doing and I think what the vast majority of our fields seeks to do. Yet when you are dealing with a landscape where facts can be dismissed, where information is routinely twisted, where things proliferate through multiple different types of media channels like lightning with no interest in correction, I think that’s a big challenge for our field and will continue to be.

You brought up the point that it’s not the Horatio at the Gates moment. It’s the slippery slope where maybe I shave a little here, shave a little bit here, and then suddenly you’ve had to compromise too much. I think it’s important for people to realize, it’s not just the big things, it’s the little things that all add up.

As I said before, I’m a literature person. I’m really about stories and narrative and high culture, low culture, pop culture. I mean, to me it’s all very informative. If you look at the most powerful narratives in novels and movies and Shakespeare, when people get to a real crisis point, it’s often been a very series of small decisions that got them there. Again, that’s why when you reached out to me, I am super passionate about it because I like to have this dialogue, as I said, with people of all levels, and I like to have it really early. I want us to be in dialogue as a firm and that’s whether you’re client side or agency side, the agency team with the client team, whatever, in the industry.

I like us to be in dialogue constantly about these issues because there’s a couple of things that must happen. One, your whole team, no matter how young, needs to feel empowered to speak up or raise their hand if something feels strange or if something feels outside the bounds of what they should be doing. They need to also be trained to recognize what that is. In client service, there’s such a knee jerk reaction because we are servant leaders, right? We want to serve. Especially with the power dynamic and gender and race that can come into this to, wherever those power dynamics live to just say, “Yes, yes, of course, I’ll do that,” but to train to say, “First of all, there is a discussion we should have.

Second of all, there are ways that people can cross the line.”

They may ask you to do things and they don’t even realize what they’re asking.” It’s not, again, like the mustache twirling. They may not even realize. We need to be in dialogue with each other. You need to feel comfortable raising your voice. By the way, that kind of ethical discussion about being in a safe space to raise your voice also transplants over into issues like harassment in the workplace, racism or discrimination in the workplace.

We need to be vigilant and self-reflective to fine tune that radar, to actively think about these things, to read about ethics and communication. The Harvard Business Review, even if you’re not a subscriber, as free content. If something feels weird, making sure you can go to someone else you trust to say, “Hey, can I get a gut check from you on this?”

You mentioned the flood of data. How do you recommend that brands fight back when they’re faced with floods of inaccurate data that people may be using against them?

Boy, that’s such a good question. I wish that I had one answer to that. You cannot bludgeon other people into believing something they don’t want to believe. Confirmation bias, as we have all come to learn, is a powerful, powerful impulse in humans, especially when issues are charged. If you say to me, “Oh, hey, this pencil was made in Iowa,” and I say, “Oh no, I’ve got facts. That pencil was made in Indiana,” someone’s like, “Oh yeah, okay, cool. It was made in Indiana.” That’s not a big issue to change their thoughts based on facts. Many other issues are far more charged and we see that amplified through social media. Everything we humans touch can be utopia or it can be garbage fire and everything in between, right?

It’s all us. But the proliferation, the speed and the fact that you can share things that reinforce what you want to believe, that’s problematic with human psychology. When we reflect on all that’s coming against us, you cannot just use a fact and bludgeon someone, “This is a fact. Look at it. Look at this fact and believe it.” We have seen that manifest over and over and over. It’s like we’re in a giant experiment and we’re seeing the results over and over again. I think probably to me the biggest thing we can do is constituency and stakeholder building. But how do you identify those pockets of stakeholders?

That can be internal with staff and employees, that next ring out of the concentric circle of close partners to an organization, clients and customers, whether they’re B2B or B2C, interest groups in the community, how do you put real attention into the actual human beings in those groups and create direct connections with pockets of them?

It takes work and time, but you’re constantly in touch, in dialogue, cultivating so that when there is an issue you can say, “Hey, here is what we are seeing. Here’s the real story. We want to arm you with this information. Share it the way you want to. Give us feedback,” so that those pockets of human beings out there among all your stakeholders can communicate on your behalf as well. Now, they’re going to give you pressure when you fail and you’re not doing well and that’s fine. That’s the world we live in now, but that’s probably the biggest thing for me

That’s one of the things we’re going to be grappling with is the rise of disinformation and the ability for advocate groups to start attacking you and leveraging AI to create content so quickly. It’s a different world than I think when we first started in PR.

It’s interesting. We do at G&S do work with the Page Society, now Page.

We’re the agency that does the pro bono work for them right now, and they just put out research at the end of the last year about the CCO as a pace setter and how you should really advance along four critical areas, brand, culture, societal value, but also com tech. It’s interesting because ad tech has been in the spotlight for so many years. We’ve all dealt with that space, but we have an equally diverse and critical set of tools on the communication side that now enable us to do stakeholder relationship management and connection in very nuanced and diverse ways.

Some of it will relate to the use of AI and some of it really relates social listening on steroids and understanding, but also the idea then paired with the idea of a journey, how do we bring our stakeholders along with us on a journey? Anybody who wants to check this out, Page has some interesting things. They’re going to be building a lot more on the com tech side. I encourage everyone to take a look because I think we’re only at the beginning of the dialogue about what that, what that tech stack looks like on the communication side in terms of applying it at a much higher order.

You mentioned the PR Council back in the beginning and you said you love their ethics scenarios that you use in training. When you’re talking to your staff, what are the scenarios that really engender the most debate?

That’s such a great question. Some of them are the scenarios that simulate clients asking for things, kind of going around senior people to ask junior people for things. I want to be very clear here. I don’t throw rocks in glass houses. All of us have an ability to have blind spots. The nature of the client agency relationship is just engendered with those kinds of tensions.

I have had the privilege of working with so many extraordinary clients over the years and I continue to. I’m not throwing them under the bus by any means. But that’s a normal scenario for a young person in our field who’s on the agency side. It’s very common for them to get very connected with a scenario where they’re being asked to do something and they’re not sure if they should do it or not. Even if it’s in scope or budget, that’s a normal one too. Definitely things about sharing on social media, the do’s and don’ts of what is shared, how it’s shared, the implications of that, that’s another one that they really enjoy.

I think the other ones too have to do with things that cross over into other areas, say like physical safety, comfort, harassment issues, how we deal with race and gender in the workplace. There are some scenarios around there that are really interesting to them too. But frankly, I’m just amazed. Pretty much any kind of scenario or sort of thought experiment that you put out in this kind of framework, people have so much to say about it. There’s a lot to unpack and a lot of different perspectives in the room.

When I started to engage with women’s studies in the late ’80s, early ’90s, second-wave feminism was really under critique from an intersectional and race perspective and its failings. That’s kind of how I came into that dialogue with a lot of self-reflection about where the movement had failed. To me, it’s interesting now and heartening to see that in recent years the dialogue we’re having in the workplace has gone much beyond recruiting issues and diversity of staff and more into the hard work of equity and inclusion, what that actually means and representation and who is in the room.

It’s a much deeper, harder and more meaningful dialogue and recognition than what you and I probably saw like 10 or 15 years ago. When it comes to ethics in the workplace, ethics and communications, you cannot separate these issues because it’s also, what does it mean? It’s sort of like Page reflecting on organizational culture and a brand and also then how they bring societal value to the world. What does that mean to any given person or organization? You can’t separate these things, the way in which people are treated, how human beings get along, the opportunities, the openness, the transparency. That’s particularly important now.

It’s so unknown where this path is leading us. Now more than ever, I’m lucky to work with partners that believe so strongly in our humanity and our ethical decision-making and how we relate to each other in a crisis. That’s the most you can hope for because these are the times that test ethical character really intensely.

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

I think it was two things. One was the recognition that ethical lapses happen in increments. It’s sort of like here’s a shovel, start digging. Sometimes people don’t realize what they have done until they’re way at the bottom of the hole. Small choices matter in the moment and they matter big time later.

I think probably the biggest thing for me wasn’t advice per se. It was watching others and how they behaved. Watching leaders around me who have a strong sense of ethics, watching people like Ralph Katz and Andy Cooper, how they did business and how they spoke about it.

For example, as a business one could choose to say, “Oh yeah, we’re going to stretch out our vendor payments as far as we can like that. That’ll be great.” Now, it’s great to manage cash flow. We need to sometimes. Everyone does. However, there are many organizations out there and we as agencies sometimes get the bad end of the stick on this is that kind of sense of like, screw you, we’re going to do what we need to do. When you work for leaders who are like, “No, we have a reputation to maintain,” and that’s certainly true of G&S, “and we honor our partners, we honor what it means to be good business people and good human beings and that’s how we operate”.

We operate with transparency, or watching leaders when there is a friction with a client and something difficult has to be shared that they step right up and do that. I remember riding the elevator with Harold Burson when I was an intern and being just, oh my God, this is the man whose name is on the door right next to me. Recently, I went to the celebration of his life at Lincoln Center before COVID really started raging, and to see all those people and to hear the reminder of what Harold stood for, I couldn’t have been luckier than to have started my career with him as a model. He’s not perfect and he admitted that. But he sent a strong message to the world about how one should behave.

He’s the real light for the industry. It was very interesting to hear him talk to you about some of the choices Burson had made if certain clients were very controversial in the ’70s and ’80s and him to reflect on the lessons from that. I mean, that’s where you get the greatest lessons is when people are willing to share

Building on that, how do you as an agency decide, will we take this client or is this client something that’s an area we don’t want to work on?

I think everybody needs to be thinking about that. I also think clients need to be thinking about that in terms of they’re the people who serve them. It’s always an important discussion. I think first and foremost, the way I’ve always seen it done in the organizations that I’ve had the honor of helping to lead is just a really open dialogue among owners or leaders, to determine the areas that we don’t really want to touch. On the other side, these are the areas that are an easy yes.

Then you have a framework for discussion about those in the middle where there may be aspects of challenge to them, but do we feel that they’re an organization with an important purpose in the world? Do we feel like if they’ve had a more difficult past, have they been addressing it? Are they being a force for progress today and moving their sector in the right direction? Because there’s many organizations that’s been around a long time, ones that may have had parts of their history they’re challenging. But at the same time, if today they’re really acting in a way that’s positive and helping in many different ways to move things forward, then those are productive conversations to have.

You also have to be ready to have those conversations with your staff too if you’re an agency to say, “Hey, you may have some questions about this client, but let us talk to you about the dialogue we had and why.” There’s plenty of kind of client sectors now that I think our agency and others probably wouldn’t want to engage with, but at the same time it has to be a dialogue among those in power and then you have to have that dialogue with your team.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to address?

The final point to me, and this isn’t always easy, but try to work with and be associated in general in life with those who have an ethical framework, people who truly care about doing the right thing. Now, doing the right thing is subjective. You and I might both have our heart in the right place, but as we talk about a given issue, the right thing for you or for me might be slightly different, but we’re trying to get to that same aim. I respect the fact that… It’s tough right now. This kind of market, this kind of crisis makes mobility between jobs difficult. I mean, this is just a survival mode right now in a lot of ways and trying to get through to the other side of this.

But long-term as people make choices about where they want to work and who they want to work with, I respect very much that someone might say, “You know what? You and the leadership of this group may have decided that X is okay, but I don’t feel good about X, so I’m going to remove myself from this and do something else.” I really respect that and I think it’s important that people are in touch with themselves, what they’re comfortable with, and that they’re open to having that dialogue, that they’re working with people that they really respect in terms of how they operate in the world, and that if they don’t feel good about it, that they move themselves someplace else.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here

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