Why Silence Kills Ethical Behavior: BJ Whitman

On this week’s EthicalVoices, BJ Whitman, a PR professional with more than 30 years of public relations expertise in the education, maritime, and hospitality management fields joins me to discuss a number of ethics issues, including:

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

I’ve been a public relation executive with more than 30 years of strategic communications experience in industries of education, maritime, and hospitality in Hawaii. Actually, my first love has always been tugs, barges, and 30 ton lifts. When owning my own agency in Hawaii, my clients included airlines, visitor and cultural attractions, hotels, restaurants, museums and non-profits. In 2014, I relocated to Seattle, Washington where I served as a co-chair for marketing and public relations for the Edmonds Senior Center in Edmonds, Washington. I provided strategic planning for the Edmonds Senior Center while they navigated the demolition and building of a new community center. And at the same time, they continued to manage the operations of the retail thrift store. The store is manned by 47 volunteers who sort, price, merchandise, and sell the items, and sometimes act as a personal shoppers who come to the store.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Well, I’ve had my fair share of ethical challenges, and I really thought about this and I really wondered if I should reveal it, because, actually, honestly, it was over a photograph. But the circumstances were shocking and disturbing.

It was a regular day for me at work. I was on my way down to meet the executive chef at 9:00 AM. I was taking the back stairs, and I got a call from the executive office saying, “Hurry to the kitchen. There is something wrong with the chef.” I walked into a kitchen in complete chaos. Employees were crying, some people were running out of the kitchen, and a couple of the employees were holding an employee who had just stabbed the chef, who was on the floor in a very bad condition. A number of employees were kneeling down beside him trying to comfort him.

I immediately called 911, and called the executive office to let them know that the ambulance was on the way. And I knew the chef well enough that he had a brother that worked at a sister hotel very close, nearby, so I called him and let him know what hospital to go to. The general manager was not at the hotel, he was off island, on the mainland, attending his own father’s funeral. So the assistant manager and myself were in charge of the crisis.

At 11:00 AM, the employees had been told that the chef died from the injuries received from the stabbing, and immediately the media frenzy began. It was a hotel of 1,000 employees, who are in complete mourning over this wonderful beloved chef. He was a wonderful person, who was personable and dedicated to all of his employees.

By noon, background information was provided to all the media through a press conference, and those at the hotel who had emails. But the one item, the only item I could not get to the media right away was a photograph of the chef. We had sent three photographs to the family to choose from that we had on record. So the picture finally was chosen by 3:00 PM, and released to the media, in time actually, for the evening news and for, of course, the following morning daily papers.

But during that timeframe, I had received calls, emails, messages and even scoldings in front of other reporters from one TV reporter, which was very harassing and totally unprofessional and stressing. But it was worth the wait for the family. It was a picture that ended up living on for many years.

Whenever there was another incident in the hotel, a violent incident in a hotel, in Waikiki, the chef’s picture was used. Unfortunately, the chef’s family had additional tragedies when the son fell off a cliff and died. Again, the chef picture was used. So in a very, very odd, odd way, I was proud that we had the patience and the wherewithal to wait and didn’t force the family to pick a picture that they wouldn’t have otherwise been happy with.

I considered the behavior of the TV reporter unethical, and certainly there was no cause for the nastiness and belligerence that she had presented. And I really think the sentiment is supported by the fact that the rest of the media were considerate about the fact that the family wanted time to choose a picture that they could actually accept. Also, the relationship between the media and the hotel is actually a good one. The hotel always responded to media inquiries in a timely manner, and even when it wasn’t a specific hotel industry, we also replied with industry issues. So a simple photograph brought out ethical issues.

The ethical challenge deals with the approval process, right? And it deals with giving the people the time to make the decisions and not succumb to the tyranny of speed.

Exactly.

What’s your advice for other people that are in these time sensitive moments? And what kind of things do you try to do to tell a reporter they were not making any sense?

We had 1000 employees in that hotel, and I knew everybody’s first name. I didn’t know all their last names, but I knew their first names, and referred to ourselves as family, and we treated each other as family. So in situations like that, even with the press release, the family got approval of the press release that went out, because of the relationship that we had with them. But you had to build those things into the process.

And when the reporter, who gave me such a difficult time, and even in front of the other reporters, you have to be willing to say that you will get it, but you will get it upon the approval of the family. There was no other reporter that had any issue with it, so we were able to get through it. I think it was just a signature attitude.

To my mind, it’s the same thing with accident victim names not being released until the families are notified. What was the reporter’s rationale for being so assertive and not giving the family time to be notified and approve?

Somebody who just wanted to have the story first was really all it was. We gave everybody the information at the same time except for the photograph, but they all got the photograph at a later time during the day.

I think today people would just go to social media and look for person’s Facebook page and run with that photo if they had it.

That’s true. And this was a very popular chef, he did a lot of high society stuff, so his picture was available. But, again, I think too, it also had to do with the relationship the hotel had with the other media people who understood the courtesies that we were trying to render.

Beyond the photograph incident, are there any other ethical incidents you wanted to highlight?

When I thought about this question, two incidents came to mind. Both of these examples where an awakening of ethical issues early in my career. It is never too early to learn about ethics.

My first example is my very first clear experience with an ethical dilemma was when I was a freshman in high school working in Seoul, Korea, at a store called, Quick Stop. It was something like a 7-Eleven that carried all the daily needs someone might require from snack food items, and beverages to toothbrushes. Each year the Quick Stop did an inventory and the individuals who worked in the shop also volunteered to do the inventory, and I happened to be a cashier at the time. Upon completing the inventory, the manager reported that cigarettes and other high value items had been short on the inventory, and asked each one of us, “Do you know anybody who might have taken them?”

This was the first time I was confronted with an ethical issue. I had my suspicions who may have stolen the merchandise, but I had no proof. And I realized I couldn’t say anything without the proof.

This really introduced me to how ethical behavior severely affects businesses, rightly or wrongly, and how stealing by employees really hurts the companies. So it was my first ethical awakening that helped me move through my journey, and my career, and understanding really what I call, the human condition, and the need to integrate ethical principles in our day-to-day lives.

And I wanted to share the second one, because it follows up on the learning process. It was when I was only 19 years of age, and in charge of a purchasing and distribution of all food and beverage for an Army officer’s club, which had a dining room that served dinner seven nights a week, and a nightclub. It took me several months of doing inventory reviews to realize that merchandise was going out the door, and I mean large pieces of beef and lobster. And there was really no explanation that I could come up with of their absences. It was substantial enough, though, that I needed to report it. And the problem was I did have the proof it was going missing, but I didn’t know who was doing it. I checked with my boss, who was a Major and he quickly realized we had a problem. This time, I wasn’t silent, like I was the first time.

Silence is a killer to solving ethical issues. You have to be willing to stand up for what is right. I showed my inventory research to the major and he realized the magnitude of the problem, and partnered with me to discover how this was occurring. As it turned out, every acquisition of food out of the freezer had to come to me and a pattern was eventually revealed. And we set up a sting operation, and the culprit was discovered. Unfortunately, it was a warrant officer, who ended up being discharged from the Army for stealing, and he lost his pension as a result of that.

This time I wasn’t silent, and this time research mattered, and picking a partner, or an associate, who can help you, can make a difference. I shared the inventory, the research, and the major made me realize the magnitude of the problem, and partnered with me, and discovered how this was happening.

I learned to speak up, which is a big deal. It can sometimes solve a problem, which requires you to be frank, direct, clear, and it’s the only way to go, straightforward. I also learned getting the right person to help in an ethical situation is critical. In this case, it was my boss, the major. He believed in the research and was sincere about solving the problem, which significantly improved the bottom line of the club.

What do you personally see as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The single largest challenge to public relations is fake news. I think it’s very dangerous, because it pollutes communication channels, both in the public domain and in the political arena. I think it threatens the very existence of who we are as a public relations profession. Fake news spreads lies, misinformation, dubious claims and basically infiltrates the ability to make decisions based on facts. And as professionals, we must be able to back up whatever we do. Facts and words do matter. Our job is to own the public trust.

Everything that we do through truth in communication, internally and externally, really matters. I found an interesting quote based on a recent survey done by Pew Research Center and it found that Americans said, “Made up news and information is as big a problem as terrorism, immigration, climate change, and racism.” Misinformation has always been around, but it has been exasperated exponentially through the social media. As public relations professionals, to be worth our salt we have to fight back. We have to fight fake news. And everything we write, we ought to be able to back up, and fact check, fact check, fact check.

Aside from that fact checking, what else can PR people do to fight back?

I think we have to work with their own companies to make sure we have reliable research, work with outside people to get outside opinion, as well. I think one of the best things for me about PRSA, and when I lived on an island, it was really hard to get second opinions, because everybody knew who you were. It was really great to have a network of 21,000 members, and you could go, and people within your same industry, and discuss issues, and also what do you do when you get this kind of information? Is this a reliable source? We always talk about being strategic communicators, and you have to be that, but you’ve got to know your needs, as well.

In the industries you have worked in, people are questioning fake news, fake influencers, and fake imagery. Are there ethical issues you’re seeing with people engaging influencers, or dealing with fake news and fake TripAdvisor reviews.

Well, they’re pretty much similar to what a lot of people are dealing with. One of the things I really didn’t like doing was advertorials. You paid for the message that you wanted to have said. I really avoided them like the plague. And I’ll give you an example of another story that tells you how it really works, word of mouth. We had a program down at the Sheraton Moana Hotel, the oldest hotel on Waikiki Beach, and it was a vow renewal program. You’ve got the wedding song. You could go and get a little wedding cake. And we had a Hawaiian priest that was there, and you renewed your vows. And after about three months, people came all dressed up. People came in their shorts and sneakers. People came off the beach and decided to renew their vows. But after about three months, I would go every Tuesday night, and talk to them, and say, “Well, where did you hear about this program?”

I only spent $25 on a poster in the lobby. And they said, “My nextdoor neighbor in Minnesota told me about it?”

From a $25 poster?

For a $25 poster, because it was authentic. The general public is very smart. That’s a very simple example, but they’re very smart. They know when it’s fluff. They know when it’s not genuine. They know when it’s not as truthful. They have an inkling. I know, when I have an ethical issue, for example, that you know something’s wrong because your stomach has that feeling that everything isn’t quite right. But that’s a very simple example of something, though, that is genuinely authentic, of course, it was a pleasant experience, it was a positive thing, and it was genuine, and they were having 75 people, 75 couples every night they did it, and it was purely by word of mouth.

I think that, even now, during the Coronavirus situation, we have Google tracking our telephones now, not individually, but just to see where we are and what movements are and how we can keep track of those who might have the virus, and those who might not. That’s all a very slippery slope. It may be good, for now, but then what’s next?

It creeps in, and it creeps in slowly, but surely. Even in Hawaii, and I think they have them now, but there was a big outburst just to having the cameras at stop signs, or at stoplights. They considered that an invasion of privacy. We now know that’s a common everyday occurrence now. So it creeps it and it becomes acceptable over time, but even with the simple thing of your phone, we don’t even know the full magnitude of what our phones are doing.

Anybody who’s listening knows, I’ve been doing anti-fraud, privacy, and security PR for 25 years. I’m aware of just how much information is out there. But what’s chilling to me is, particularly generationally, the younger professionals, those, the Gen-Zs, and the millennials, are embracing this, and want more surveillance. While I think the older folks, the Gen-Xs, the boomers, and everybody else are like, “What the heck is going on there?” That’s definitely going to be a generational shift.

Absolutely. It was the way we were brought up. Nobody else’s business was your business but yours. But now, on Facebook, whatever you do, people put it on. And you do have to have some discipline to not put everything on it, because people do read Facebook.

And they see how you are, and what kind of activities you’re involved in, what people you have. It paints the picture. But it’s that picture. Have you ever seen that picture of little two year old, I think he’s in front of a 66 inch TV, and he’s got his pointer finger out at the TV, and he’s trying to swipe it.

Yeah. It’s sad. I’ve used the Kindle more and more now, and occasionally I find myself, actually, just tapping a page of a regular book wondering why the page is not advancing. Habits get ingrained. And then, that’s a real book, I have to actually turn the page.

Now my nephew and my great nieces are all learning, due to the Coronavirus, they’re all learning online. And there are some frustrations in that, but that’s going to have huge impact on our society in the future.

This whole experience is going to have a huge impact in a variety of ways. Certainly, technology wise, not only in education, but even in the workplace. Now people are going to think they’ve been home for four weeks and, “I can do this from home. I don’t have to go into work.” How’s the workplace going to start handling with those kind of issues?

You mentioned your first love was tug boats. I think the only maritime discussion I’ve had in about two years on EthicalVoices was somebody talking about catfish. So my question to you is this, are there any ethical issues you dealt with in the maritime industry?

As in any industry, there are plenty. And, of course, I like to tell some of my issues through stories.

In Hawaii, the inter-island shipping is pretty much the lifeline. They ship containers, and reefers, and all that kind of thing, but they also have pigs, cows, horses, you name it, and cattle. The big cattle ranches are on the big island, and they came to the island of Oahu for slaughter. And one day, when I was starting out in the industry somebody came into my office and said, “You better go out to the yard, you have cows all over the yard.” One of the double deck cow trailers, the floor, had fallen on the bottom floor of the cows, and they had spilled over on the pavement. I built a wall with other containers to hide the cows, until we could get the cows taken care of so they wouldn’t get any violations from the humane society. That wasn’t exactly the most ethical thing to do, but also did not want to see the customers, who were coming in, to see the cows suffering.

Thank you. It’s always interesting to see what are some of the challenges for new industries, so I’m glad you had a chance to share. Over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

I really had to think about this one a little bit, because it’s now a quote I’ve actually used most of my career. I was sitting with the president of Dillingham Maritime, Pacific Division, the maritime company outside the Dillingham Corporation headquarters boardroom with the president of the division. He was about to give his annual report to the corporate board, and I had precious private time with him. I had helped put his report together. So I asked “What is your philosophy in life?” And he said, “I believe in God, everything else is suspect.” This was a very succinct and thought-provoking philosophy, I thought. I realized he believed in God, and that anything else you had to prove its truth or its integrity.

I know that in our profession sometimes truth can be elusive, but it is the very essence of why we exist as public relations professionals. Because if we don’t have our integrity, our integrity actually is everything, without it, we’re nothing.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here

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