Truth, trust and why to practice the pause – Nicky McHugh

Joining me on this week’s episode is Nicky McHugh, the senior vice president, global content and community at the RepTrack Company. I really enjoyed our interview and love the unique insight that Nicky brings to any discussion.

In this interview, Nicky discusses a number of important themes:


Why don’t you me more about yourself and your career?

What I’m doing these days is really a merging of communications and public relations, where I spent most of my career, with reputation management. I’m really excited to work in play in that intersection of these two disciplines.

What I’m finding these days is in a data driven digital world, there’s a need for insight rich reputation intelligence, and that’s what my team does. And we try to do this without ever losing sight of what it means to be human.

Essentially, what we used to think of as thought leadership, now for us is becoming a contextualized content vehicle. My team produces thought leadership industry and reputation content grounded in data and we convert this content into an engagement vehicle to deliver customer success and satisfaction while also helping drive sales. And so I feel like I’m really lucky actually, because what this means is, my two decades in public relations, the reputation research data that we feel then interprets, me and my team can distill actionable insights and implications from all of that to help our clients manage, protect and enhance their reputations.

Sounds fascinating, and it sounds like it’s more important today than ever before.

It is. There’s a lot of demand for this, a lot of interest. People really want to understand at a deeper level what drives reputation, and how they can help their companies protect and enhance their overall corporate reputation.

One of the drivers of reputation is values and ethics. Thinking about your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

A few years ago, I was overseeing the corporate PR team that was one part of an even larger team in a global agency conglomerate, and this group was part of a matrixed team internally that included social, branding, and advertising for a large global client. Our work at that time was complex and challenging due to several factors outside our control. The client was being targeted publicly by a vocal activist investor, and the company was also spinning off one of its key divisions into a multibillion-dollar separate business.

Internally, the lead for our agency was a person in a different division who was not managing the stress well. As a result, members of my team were working long hours and would come back from internal agency meetings in tears most days, due to the personal nature of the invective that occurred during planning sessions internally. Obviously, this was distressing to all of us, and I tried to address this management style by speaking directly with the team lead about the impact this was having. I provided tools and coping strategies to my team, and I even rotated team members so that individuals could be less exposed to this type of environment. And, of course, I consulted with my boss and HR asking for help.

The ethical issue for the purposes of this conversation, is that this account that we were working on, was at the time, one of the top three accounts for this agency and was generating very large revenues. It was a high profile, high revenue driver for the agency. And as such, this team lead was given large leeway in his management of the business.

Nonetheless, it became apparent that the way the team lead was treating people was starting to impact all of us, and many of my teams started to manifest physical symptoms that were quite damaging, motivation issues, social issues, and after a few months some had severe and chronic health problems.

I’d escalated my requests for intervention and help using appropriate channels to my boss, to our leadership team and to HR, with no results. Until one day one of my team members ended up in hospital. That was pretty dramatic, but that’s what it took to see action from the agencies’ leadership. Within days my job was terminated. Within months, my boss was reassigned, the HR person left the company and my team disbanded, many left the agency and quite a few left the PR profession all together.

Today, quite a few years after this happened, the client is still a client with this agency, and that team lead is still managing large books of business for the agency. And I remain saddened, and stunned actually, by the scope of the collateral damage with so many people, especially to the young PR folks on my team who were exposed to negative conduct, and who, in leaving the profession never really had a chance to understand the power of PR, and the incredible way communications can be a force for a positive influence.

You went to HR and you went to your managers, it sounds like you went through the proper channels, but you still weren’t getting anywhere. They were accepting the abuse because they wanted the revenue.

Yes. And being on the agency side, you see a lot, and there’s often tough choices that have to be made, and really blurry ethical boundaries. It was a big learning experience for me. It forced me to finally realize and accept how agencies operated, and it definitely impacted how I saw my world, and my future world, and what I wanted for me in the future as a professional. It was amazingly powerful as a catalyst in that regard.

The only thing I’d push back on is this is how some agencies operate. I do think some agencies do follow a no A**hole rule and keep to it pretty closely, but you don’t find it everywhere, only a few put the utilitarian calculus of revenue over people.

No, that’s very true. And I have been so fortunate throughout my career to be inspired by some really positive, grounded, good people, and mentors. Most of my experience has been positive. This is one that really stands out.

Looking back, is there anything you would change or do differently?

I typically only try to look forward, and I take lessons learned from current experiences. I reflect, reassess and reconfigure for the future. So, would I have done anything differently? I don’t know necessarily if I would have, but I definitely think there were a couple of key lessons and learnings coming out of the experience.

One big lesson that really came home for me was, if in choosing to do the right thing, you end up challenging an institution, or a legacy system, or a financial powerhouse, the odds are pretty high that you will lose. I definitely experienced that. And we see this playing out over and over again, most recently with the Navy commander, Captain Brett Crozier, who lost his command in April after a letter he wrote requesting help from the Navy leaders leaked to the media.

So, the lesson for me is that sometimes doing the right thing comes at a huge personal cost.

But the second lesson is, do the right thing anyway, especially if it aligns to your values and what you hold dear. Integrity as a personal value, that’s really important for me. And so that’s always one of the lenses through which I evaluate my decisions and conduct.

So, would I do something differently? I don’t know actually if I’m able to do anything differently. It did crystallize what’s important to me, that idea of integrity and the idea that doing the right thing may end up costing me, and in a way, that’s okay.

That advice harkens back to the first interview I ever did for EthicalVoices with Paula Pedene, who was one of the whistleblowers of the VA. She saw something wrong, she had to speak out and she ended up being exiled to the basement. She ended up getting redemption and helped change a really significant issue. But realize if you’re speaking truth to power, power often fights back.

Exactly. An underlying tenant to my personal philosophy is resilience is the best form of redemption. I find it’s really humbling how we all have the ability to pivot, to reinvent, to refocus when the universe demands it. And speaking from my personal experience, some of the best experiences of my life came about as a result of seemingly closed doors that ended up opening my eyes and my world to previously unseen and untapped opportunities.

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

Two little words, trust and truth.

Let me explain. I’m speaking with clients all day long, pretty much most days, and trust is something that all our clients are most interested in wanting to understand. So, I’m seeing trust and truth as two key areas that we do need to explore moving forward. Essentially, given the broader macro-economic social political landscape over the past few years, the idea of truth and consequently of trust have become very subjective and open to interpretation. Arriving at some shared understanding of what is true will remain an ongoing challenge for us, I believe.

Previously, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather would present the news and the world as an absolute certainty. Literally, Cronkite signed off saying, “And that’s the way it is,” and it was. Today, what is true is less certain. This goes beyond the misinformation or disinformation discussions that we’re all having. When the way we experience every fact, every assertion is part of a spectrum of possibility or open to some type of interpretation, it becomes really difficult to have a shared sense of what actually is.

And so this idea of subjective truth, that which is real for a set of stakeholders where another yet equally real truth exists for a different set of stakeholders, and we’re trusted primarily based on a close group or peer to peer experiences, neither quality trust nor truth extends to broad general acceptance or broad general masses.

It’s quite fascinating and really interesting in how this develops, and I think there’s enormous implications. It’s surfacing some critical differences and forcing important conversations that need to be heard. And I think where we go is, we go into having and holding space together, sharing ideas and discussing differences.

Because essentially, what we’re doing is we’re evolving to a place where we’re redefining what value means. Shared value, intrinsic value, that’s all changing. I’m curious to see where that nets out for us.

The brave and intrepid, and bold, whether you do it loudly or quietly, I think we’ll find a space to hold these necessary debates to uncover this shared value that needs to be found and articulated.

What’s your recommendations for organizations to go and start building that trust bank with their different publics?

So, what we’re seeing, and the data actually really supports this, we collect reputation data on thousands of global companies every single day, and a large tenant of reputation is trust. We’re seeing that companies who are able to communicate while balancing authority with authenticity, are the ones that are really coming ahead in the trust equation. So, it’s how can you best be authentic as an entity, and how can you communicate that with a sense of authority which speaks to this idea of trust?

A lot of our traditional reliable channels of information are vulnerable these days, and most consumers don’t really understand or know where to go for trusted sources. So, the idea of being able to do that with credibility, and with authority in a way that’s true to who you are and relevant to your context delivers this ability to speak with authenticity and authority, which drives trust.

Beyond trust and truth, are there new areas you’re concerned about regarding ethics?

I think as we go through this next year, which we’ll see some pretty big changes on the political side, also on the economic side. Trust is pretty much dominating most of our conversations with clients, and I think it’s going to underscore how we, and companies today deliver value.

I think it’s even more important when seeing the research that shows consumers are expecting brands to actually have a purpose and stand for something, and they need to understand that they’re really trusting what they’re hearing in terms of communication. Those are two of the biggest challenges I think consumers are facing, and what’s going to differentiate the brands that can do it effectively from those that don’t.

Exactly, yes. That idea of social purpose coupled with stakeholder capitalism is really, I think, the largest opportunity for businesses as we move through 2020 and beyond.

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

I had a former boss and his words resonate with me still today. “Practice the pause,” he said. It took me a lifetime to learn this, and it’s something I try to do frequently. And really what it is, it’s the space between thoughts, the space between words, that space is where I find grace when in conflict, inspiration under stress, and inner peace when I simply give myself up to being open and vulnerable. So, practice the pause.

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

I will leave this conversation with the thought that I’m really optimistic in terms of where we’re headed as communications professionals. I think there are amazing opportunities for us to provide guidance for our clients and our stakeholders, and to stay true to what we know and what we hold to be true.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content 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

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