Ethical Voices

Keeping Your Values When Others Compromise Theirs: John Walker

Joining me on this week’s EthicalVoices episode is John Walker, the founder and managing partner of Chirp PR, a firm that empowers its clients to discover a unique voice and provide the right platforms to share with the world.

He discusses a number of important topics, including:

Why don’t you tell our listeners more about yourself and your career?

I spent nearly 15 years at some of the world’s largest agencies before taking a pivot and going in-house at a technology company, where I was able to grow my integrated marketing, digital branding and event skills. And after leaving my in-house position, I decided that there was a good path forward in terms of providing senior level counsel to clients to deliver the results that matter. I established Chirp nearly three years ago and it’s been a great run and we look forward to what’s ahead.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I must point to a time in the U.S. economy, when the dot-com days were really, really booming. Clients were coming to us, left and right, asking for quick programs, quick successes and everyone wanted to be the best, the biggest, the largest, or the leading because they were looking for funding so desperately in the early 2000s.

While the client opportunities were numerous, so were the questionable activities and/or assumptions that they were asking us to make. It was a great opportunity to take a step back and realize that while clients and companies may come and go over the years, one thing remains the same and that’s your values. And you’ve got to always follow your values in everything that you do from a communication standpoint, to ensure that you’re keeping your professional integrity, as well as your organizational integrity top of mind and not falling behind in terms of how you approach your overall professional work.

What were some of those questionable actions clients or others were doing?

Clients wanted to make the claim that they were the first to market or they were the largest in the market or they were the only proven business model in the market. These are claims that cannot be substantiated right away because you’ve got to ensure that you’ve got the right data, research and validation to make those types of claims. And so, we really had to get creative in working with these startup clients to make sure that their value propositions were clear, without making too overt of messaging and/or assumptions that ultimately could question our overall integrity and ethics.

How do you work with the executives when they’re all buying into the hype or saying their competitors are doing it and effectively counsel them to be honest and accurate?

It’s a great question and honestly it was different from each individual client and each individual executive. Some clients you had to say no to more frequently than others, while others, you had to constantly ask why and ask for justification. Oftentimes, what we would do is some discovery and determine a unique element about a founder or executive or product roadmap that was really compelling, that we were able to build out into a story cadence. Other times, we basically just had to tell them no, that’s not going to work and we’d have to come up with a creative idea using research, data and/or existing market trends to find a compelling way to insert them into the media dialogue.

Do you think we’re encountering it again right now, with the rise of the more tech hype and people really betting VC money on some unproven business models?

I think that the future is quite uncertain right now, because so many companies really shut down their marketing communications function over the past few months. And now they’re really grappling in terms of how do we turn things back on. I think that we’re going to see some of unfortunate scenarios where companies are going to make some missteps because they did lag and they did not lead during a pandemic. Those companies that lagged and did not lead will find a slower return to market normalcy. And therefore, I think that their long-term reputation will be impacted because they did not communicate with compassion and empathy. They went completely quiet without letting their customers, their employees, their stakeholders know that we’re here and we are going to navigate this together.

One of the more profound pieces of research I saw in the past month or two, was Edelman came out with an update to their trust barometer. They said that people are expecting brands to take a stand and to have a purpose, now more than ever, in light of the COVID crisis and that they’re going to reward the brands that do and punish those that don’t.

I wholeheartedly agree. As a consumer, I pay very close attention to the brands that I support on a regular basis and the types of messages that they send me. Some I have found completely tone deaf, such as when my gym, two weeks ago, sent out a note saying the governor of Georgia has approved all gyms to open, so we’re opening tomorrow. And they gave no indication about the safety precautions or measures that they were taking. And then the next day, my credit card was charged for my monthly membership fee.

Other brands might have sent out a message saying, we understand you’re working at home more frequently and we want you to be as comfortable as possible. Here’s some great options to ensure that you’re comfortable, not only your desk, but in your attire and also in terms of your overall family dynamics. And so those that really pivoted quickly and thoughtfully will stand out and resonate in a long-term. Those that were tone deaf, I have a feeling they will become irrelevant sooner than later.

I think that makes sense. I think people are willing to trust the brands. Speaking of gyms, I go to the YMCA. And the YMCA shut down and they said, “Listen, please don’t cancel your membership. We’re going to go under and here’s why. We have supported you with great, low price offerings. We need you to support us for a few months.” It was an authentic appeal and it made sense and I’ve kept my YMCA membership active instead of suspending it.

That’s wonderful. One of our favorite restaurants here in Atlanta did something similar where they could not have in-person dining. However, they wanted to support their staff through the pandemic and so they were offering gift cards. And every gift card was going directly to their staff survivorship fund. And then once they were able to open, they welcomed us back in to use that gift card, but also to appreciate and to thank the staff for their patience and their flexibility. That grabs your attention and converts you into a lifetime, loyal brand advocate.

Speaking of restaurants and tying it back to the dot-com. I read a fascinating article this morning about how one pizzeria was using Door Dash to make money because Door Dash, with some of their creative marketing, was selling their $24.00 pizzas for $16.00. So, the owner started ordering pizzas from Door Dash himself and made $8.00 on every one of those transactions.

I think we’ve seen a lot of those instances, where some of these disruptive business models are really impacting the small and medium size business owner. However, the community will speak louder than actions and will ultimately support the business versus the technology and that’s something that companies have got to keep in mind, there must be fair distribution of cost and profits.

Thinking about that and taking a step, beyond just your time in the dot-com boom, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

There are quite a few and I’ll start with the blending of advertising and public relations. We are seeing sponsored opportunities come about that is not transparent about the content being sponsored versus earned media. Those are becoming more and more common every single day and that ultimately is going to diminish the overall value of earned media because people are not able to distinguish the difference between earned versus sponsored content.

Secondly, there’s been some companies that have kind of come up overnight, guaranteeing media coverage, when in reality they’re buying display ads, but they’re ultimately disguising it as earned media, when in reality it’s advertising overall.

Lastly, as previously mentioned, I think that the pandemic is going to cause some ethical challenges because companies are going to be desperate to reenter the marketplace and emerge stronger. And because they ultimately turned things off and they were not relevant throughout the pandemic, they’re going to have to get extremely creative and push the envelope in ways that probably would cause some ethical dilemmas and questions.

I really hope that their internal and external teams are prepared to say no and to question why because it’s not ethical and it’s not honest.

You were talking about the guarantees of coverage and that’s something that’s near and dear to me because one of the things we always talk about PR is the power of influence and you can’t guarantee anything in terms of earned media. How do you recommend educating clients? If you’re an agency owner in the pitch where you’re going up against a company that says, “We guarantee you 10 media placements,” that these people are being unethical.

It’s a great question and we approach it around the integrated, paid, earned, social and owned model, where ultimately all those elements working together helps to amplify and accelerate your message potential and your company awareness. And so while we’re currently working steadfast to earn media coverage, we’re also creating content that could be amplified on social, that could be paid online, but then could also be repurposed on their online channels. And so we’ve really been focused on helping our clients become their own publishers of content, which in turn will earn the media’s attention and the media’s respect to write a story about them.

So how do you ethically disclose?

It’s all about attribution. Who contributed, who wrote it and who’s ultimately voice behind it. You’ve got to make sure that you’re fully transparent in all that you do, to ensure that your brand integrity is paramount.

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

It’s a great question and I vividly remember it. It was during the dot-com days. My general manager at the time, was a dear friend and mentor of mine at Edelman. His name was Bob Kornecki. Bob told me, “John, it’s like a roller coaster ride. Some nights you’re going to have your ups, some days your downs. Some days it’s going to just shake you backwards and sideways. However, clients and companies will come and go, but your values will always remain the same. Don’t ever, ever rest on your laurels and compromise your values.” And I’ve held that very near and dear to my heart, each and every day.

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 EthicalVoices.com

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