Joining me on this week’s episode is Quentin Langley. He is the author of Brandjack, an Adjunct Professor at Fordham and the Fashion Institute of Technology and Chair of PRSA’s Global Affairs Committee.
- What to do if one of your students is accused of apostasy and treason?
- Can ethical PR pros really follow the “Do not lie” maxim?
- Global ethics challenges
- Ethical challenges with brandjacking
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I’ve been working in journalism and public relations since the early 1980s and now for the past 17 years also teaching in both those fields, mostly in public relations, but also teaching some marketing and some journalism in business schools. I worked for many years in consultancies. My first in-house job, I was actually seconded from a consultancy to the global media relations team at Shell International, which was kind of exciting.
Thinking about your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I faced one very serious student welfare issues as an academic. A student had made a presentation in class about a controversial person from her country. She’s Saudi and she was talking about a female film director from Saudi Arabia, whose name escapes me for the moment, but who is by virtue of being a woman with a successful career, was controversial. And another Saudi student started yelling at this student saying, “You shouldn’t be giving this woman any publicity. She’s against God, she’s against the king.” And I learned, a week or so later, that the student who had done the presentation came to see me in tears. Her colleague had reported it to the embassy, accusing her of apostasy and treason, which of course are both capital offenses in Saudi Arabia.
Now, the whole thing went away eventually. The student’s father was a general, and her aunt works at the embassy and everything was fine. But for a while we didn’t know that that would be the case. I emailed my Dean and got a reply in about 15 seconds and she said, “We’re going to have to talk to the Vice Chancellor (that’s the CEO of the university). I said that I would go to Saudi Arabia and give evidence on my student’s behalf if necessary, but I did that very nervously, not really understanding what the consequences for me might be if I did that. I also said that if she wanted to not go back to Saudi Arabia and stay in Britain, I would give evidence for her at an asylum tribunal, and to be honest, I was thinking, I really hope you do that. I’d rather that than go to Saudi Arabia. So yes, that was a very difficult situation as you can imagine.
What was key ethical issue you faced there?
Well, it was thinking about what should I do? Ultimately, we did nothing. We didn’t even take any action against the student who had done the reporting because we didn’t want to build the issue up again. Our first thought was that the student should be safe. My ethical challenge was really thinking about what my obligations were. Should I be willing to go to Saudi Arabia? But it’s easy to say that I would. Actually following through…
You’d be putting yourself at risk, potentially.
Yes, exactly. I did check. If you give evidence in a Saudi court and they conclude that you’re lying, then the punishment can be flogging. I had those concerns. I’m thinking, so what are my obligations in terms of protecting my students’ welfare? Should I do something that potentially puts myself at least at some risk? It would I’m sure I’ve been on a much smaller scale than a Saudi citizen would face.
But nonetheless, I would have been walking into the mouth of the beast. When we in Britain and America talk about human rights around the world, I think we’ve all agreed that the system in Saudi Arabia is, at the very least, one of the worst and that’s not something I particularly wanted to become involved with.
You hear about professors willing to go the extra mile for their students. That definitely would have been a very long extra mile.
Well, yes, absolutely.
Yes. There’s the classic one, I’m actually just discussing it with my students at FIT, we just had a debate about if a PR professional should never lie for a client.
Most students chose to speak in favor and focused on that. Many of them cited PRSA’s code of ethics and other things and focused on the meaning of that word professional. And the students that spoke against picked up on the waning of that word, never. Which is of course a very tough word, and they cited examples of protecting a client’s privacy. For example, if your client was a gay NBA player who didn’t want to come out in the locker room to his colleagues, then you have a very, very strict obligation of confidentiality and privacy there, which would be intentioned with your obligation of transparency. And as a professional you have to wrestle with that.
I think, to be honest, the closest I’ve ever come to lying for a client would be a secretarial lie, “No, I’m afraid she’s not available at the moment.” When what I mean is I told her not to be available. I think this would be a stupid interview to do.
There was a case years ago. A Cabinet member was being quizzed by a select committee of the British Parliament that ask, “Are there ever any circumstances in which a Minister could lie to the House of Commons?” And he said, “Yes.” And he got in trouble for that. Ironically, of course, he was getting into trouble for telling the truth. Sometimes you do have to lie. He gave the example of a Foreign Secretary, years earlier, who had made a clear statement in the House of Commons and publicly, that a couple, who had been arrested traveling in Eastern Europe in the Warsaw Pact, and accused of spying, and the Foreign Secretary made a statement, “These people are not spies, they’re just innocent business people.” And in fact, they were spies, as it turned out years later.
But of course, they would be exposed to execution and torture, if the government confirmed that they were spies. So of course he said that they weren’t. So, you can always raise the stakes and say, “Well, what happens if you tell the truth here, and sometimes what happens can be disastrous.”
Beyond lying, what are the examples that are the most difficult for them? Are there other ones that get them really energized and really divide the class?
Well, there’s an interesting one about CSR, for example. Some people feel that a CSR program is devalued if you’re doing it in order to earn more money, as opposed to feeling some sort of Kantian obligation to do the right thing. So there’s a debate about that. I think that’s a little bit abstracted. If a business is doing the right thing, I don’t much care why. But that’s certainly something that motivates a lot of people. Then there’s questions about are there brands or organizations that you just wouldn’t work for. The classic one that’s been around for people of our generation for many years, tobacco.
I mean, this is a product which, if you use it exactly as the manufacturer recommends you should use it, it poses very serious health risks to you. It’s not like a gun or a car. If you use those things irresponsibly you can endanger your life or someone else. But tobacco, if you use it responsibly, if you like, the way it’s supposed to be…It’s dangerous and without question it is.
Are there other brands one wouldn’t work for? At FIT, of course, we focus a lot on fashion and cosmetics. Actually, to be honest, the whole time I’ve been teaching PR, I’ve had a lot of students who are interested in those areas. So you’re looking in the fashion industry at the supply chain. Where are these products being manufactured? What are the terms and conditions for the people employed there? Are their conditions safe? What are people being paid? And it’s very easy to look at those conditions and pay from a Western point of view and think, gosh, that’s terrible. Yet in Bangladesh, sometimes people are thinking, well this is a great job by the standard of the local market. Animal testing is another issue. Particularly for students that are interested in cosmetics, fashion, the fur industry, even leather and silk. So yes, a lot of issues to draw out.
You are Chair of the Global Affairs Committee. How do you advise brands to think about the differences in what’s accepted and ethical in other countries?
It’s a tough one. In media relations, for example, we all understand in the US or the UK or other Western countries, paying a bribe to a journalist to carry your story is not acceptable. I’m not suggesting it never happens, but I’m suggesting that everyone understands that if it does, it has to be done under the table because there is a consensus that this shouldn’t happen. But that consensus simply does not apply in a great many countries. I’ve had journalists approach me say they want to be paid to write a piece. And I said, “No, we don’t do that.” They’re stunned, they say, “Well, how can you possibly expect to be written up in our newspaper if you don’t pay?” And I say, “Well, because that’s not how it works. We don’t do that.” Shell had that policy for decades, of you never pay or accept bribes.
If you’re Shell, people will tend to write stories about you anyway, because you’re that big. In a country where there’s oil extraction going on, it’s the principle source of foreign revenue for the government. People end up writing about the business even when they’re not paying the journalists. But for most companies, if you decide that you’re not willing to bribe a journalist in some countries the consequence is you don’t end up in the newspaper. That’s difficult issue to cope with.
Another huge issue is how do we judge people on the way they behaved in the past. We need to look at it over time as well. There are plenty of organizations in the United States, governments, companies, voluntary organizations that have been in existence since Antebellum times and there are descendants alive today of people who were owned as slaves, for example, by Georgetown University, and Georgetown is trying to track down those descendants and pay them some compensation.
Georgetown was doing something which at least in Southern States in the US was completely accepted, but now isn’t, and so they are seeking to do something about it. But there are plenty of other organizations, churches, one of the two great political policies in the United States, that were for many years the party of slavery and then of segregation. The people may have all changed since the time of slavery. But actually, as Joe Biden was pointing out recently, not everyone has changed since segregation, he worked with lots of segregationists. Jimmy Carter will have worked with a lot of segregationist throughout his career. And I think particularly for the US where slavery existed much more recently than it did in Europe.
I think it’s an enormous challenge, and the advice I always tell students is just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical. With the growing cancel culture, we’re seeing redemption is getting to be much more challenging today than it has been in the past.
Yes, I think that’s right. Obviously the fact that there are records of casual conversations, people treat Twitter and Facebook and other things, the way you treat a chat in a bar, so they say things that they haven’t thought through as clearly as they should. And then that is recorded and can be produced years later.
And as educators, we have to consider our ethical responsibility to present a variety of views, including views that we may personally find offensive and that our students might find offensive. I’m a member of, for example, an organization called Heterodox Academy, which promotes the idea that you have to have a viewpoint diversity within an educational concept or you’re not really educating people. And yes, people will say, “No, that’s offensive.”
I think the problem is if you don’t have that diversity, then actually perfectly ordinary and respectable views get labeled as being unacceptable and you end up having a debate within a very, very tight and narrow confined space that undermines the whole concept of education.
I have debates throughout my classes. I mean it works particularly well at FIT where we have three-hour classes and so I like to break that up with the middle section being a debate. I have a debate almost every week. There’s also an assignment I’ve used a few times with students where they choose a highly controversial statement about abortion or assisted suicide or something like that and they have to prepare arguments both for and against the statement. And then I interview them live on camera as part of their assessment, but they only find out which side of the question they’re going to take live on camera. I toss a coin and say, “Right, so you’re against abortion. Go.” So they have to arrive prepared to go either way on a very controversial statement.
Beyond the classroom. What are you seeing as some of the most significant ethics challenges facing professionals today?
There’s fake news, of course, the fact that it is so easy to create blatantly false statements about organizations. I wrote in my last book, Brandjack, about a Twitter-trend, “Seriously McDonald’s?” that was a Photoshop sign in a McDonald’s window saying that they were going to charge more to African American customers. Completely untrue, but it went all over Twitter and I think that reflects what a lot of people think about McDonald’s. There are lot of brands, if you’d tried to say that about Whole Foods, no one would’ve taken it seriously. But it was McDonald’s, so some people were willing to take it seriously. There’s an awful lot of material out there that we know is just not true. Whether it’s about coronavirus or Barack Obama or any number of other people or organizations that people are sharing. Celebrities do it, politicians do it. All sorts of people share stuff, which is not true, and we have to have ways of confronting that.
How do brands respond effectively?
Responding to the stuff that’s not true about them can of course be challenging and it depends on the reservoir of goodwill that they already have. McDonald’s is a particular example of company, whether it was, there is a lot of hostility to the brand out that. There’s obviously a lot of people who like the brand as well who are customers, but it seems to me that a lot of the customers of McDonald’s view it’s in a very transactional way. It’s not a brand that they feel loyal to in the way that they do to others. So for McDonald’s, handling that is very difficult.
Then there’s the issue, if your brand, your client shares something that’s not true. Someone within the organization shares a tweet of fake news or any number of stupid conspiracy theories. How does the organization deal with that? I mean I suppose especially if it’s not the most senior person. If the CEO finds out that someone who works for the organization has shared a tweet saying, “Coronavirus as a hoax.” How do you deal with that? Do you fire the person for sharing that tweets? Well then, we go back to this freedom of speech issue and say, “Well, that’s his view, he’s not speaking on behalf of the organization.”
I think it has to be a case by case judgment. How senior is the person, for a start, how associated is the person with the brand? Obviously, if you’re using the brand’s Twitter feed then that crosses a line immediately and it doesn’t matter who you are. A very senior person with within an organization who is strongly associated with the brand, I think it potentially crosses a line. I think about sports teams for example, it can be extremely difficult when an athlete is taking a deeply controversial stand.
Absolutely. Colin Kaepernick’s been one of the more polarizing figures both positively and negatively.
Exactly. Colin Kaepernick is a great example. I often start off students getting them to debate the question of why is it Nike wants to be associated with this guy, when none of the NFL teams want to be associated with him. What is different about the markets that they are appealing to? And we discuss that and generally speaking, I think that Nike’s demographic is a bit younger, but I think one of the fundamental factors that one of the defining features for a fan of a sports team is loyalty. You stick to your team, even if they’re terrible and they’re losing every week, it’s still your team. And I suspect there’s a correlation between that loyalty and patriotism. So I would think it is very difficult for those brands to be associated with him, but actually it has a bit of an appeal to those sort of younger demographic that Nike is targeting.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
My boss at Shell, Mike Hogan, sadly no longer with us, always said there were two rules in public relations. He said, “Rule one is don’t lie and rule two, see rule one.
I think you do have to stick with that. Even if you are having to conceal something, you should always be looking for a way of doing that without directly lying. Some private or proprietary information or financially sensitive information does have to be concealed at least for a time. In financial PR, people understand that because you know there are precise rules around it, but in other areas, it is a little vaguer. So, I would say don’t lie. It should always be at the forefront of your mind.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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