How to Make Sure Codes of Ethics Are Not Worthless: Michael Meath

Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Michael Meath, the retiring interim chair of public relations at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. He was voted the Newhouse 2020 teacher of the year, and has a distinguished career in agency and corporate public relations before becoming an educator.

He discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

I always tell everybody go to Google, that’s the easiest way to find out what you want to know. And hopefully, mostly, what somebody wants you to know about them. If I were to chunk my career up into two or three segments, I would say 10 years in healthcare, 15 years in energy, and then another 15 years as a business consultant and an educator. Obviously, there were a lot of twists and turns along the way. I got my education the absolute wrong way, I didn’t get an Associate’s degree until I was 29. I didn’t get a Bachelor’s degree till I was in my mid 30s, and I didn’t get a Master’s degree till I was in my mid 40s and I really wasn’t involved in what you might traditionally think of as public relations until about the last 20 years or so of my career.

Well, I don’t know if there’s any wrong way to get an education as long as you’re getting it. There are different paths up the mountain.

Absolutely.

Thinking about the 40 years, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Yeah, when you sent me that question, I had to really pause for a bit because, I always tell everybody that we cross multiple small bridges almost every day. Usually they aren’t life changing decisions, but added together, they do add up.

If you want a wow factor scenario, I would probably say the one that comes to mind was the day I was working as a newly minted VP of a retail energy company. We were trading on the future market for energy to match the customers that we were signing up. Things got a little bit ahead of us. The buck stopped with me, and in a matter of about four hours, we lost a million dollars. What to do with that scenario? The company had a similar situation about six or seven years earlier where the person that was responsible for the futures trading decided that he wouldn’t tell anybody and he could make it up the next day. He was sure he could make it up. He didn’t. He made it worse.

So, I knew what I needed to do. I mean, the moral compass was okay. I knew what I needed to do, but the process of what you go through in your mind when you’ve got a difficult or a sensitive situation to handle, how you come to terms with that and how you determine what to do, and how to approach what to do with it. So, that was probably the big one.

There have been multiple situations though where I think that the difficult decision was based on how much do I disclose about a given situation? How much is being transparent, and how much is still being strategic, so that I’m maintaining the integrity reputation of either my business, or my client’s business, or whatever and that’s not always easy to figure out.

It’s a challenge. Tell the truth is one of those maximums people like, but when you get put in those situations when tell the truth is going to hurt people, or if you want to get back to the Kantian models there, do you tell the truth, even if it means you’re going to end up with somebody getting killed? We know the PRSA code of ethics talks about transparency and the free flow of information, but you also have duties to your organization in terms of confidentiality. So how do you balance and find the optimal approach?

A lot of organizations will say, “Well, we’ve got this Code of Ethics or we’ve got this Code of Conduct or we’ve got our Values statement.” And I am maybe the biggest renegade you’ll ever have on this program, because I tend to think that they are worthless. Well, not worthless. I think their value is they allow for a conversation to take place and that’s their value. But aside from that, to me, what I’ve really come to rely on in the last 15 years or so is a methodology. The definition of ethics is really not right or wrong. The definition of ethics is what do we do about what we think is right or wrong? And so for me, it’s all about, as Richard DiGeorge would say, “Being systematic.”

Having a process in place is important because each one of us comes to the party with our own frame. I always hold up my hand in a square before a class and say, “Everybody’s got their frame, you got yours, I got mine.” It’s our socioeconomic background. It usually comes down to whether religion was important in our household, how our education took place, what kinds of experiences we had. And then we bring that forward and we get to a certain point. If I made all my decisions simply based on my frame, I might make some pretty good decisions, but I’m also being driven by that instinctual basis.

And what I came to learn is that we need something to drive a systematic decision making process, where I’m going to call my gut over here, and then I’m going to go through some kind of a process, and I’m going to reflect back and say, “Does it jive? Does it make sense?”

I call it training your ethical mind.

Perfect.

When you think about that frame, the only challenge to using those frames is here’s your frame and here’s my frame, and they may be very different. And people can come to definitely different decisions without a system.

I’m sure you’re familiar with Ed Freeman down in Virginia, he’s got a great TEDx talk from Charlottesville where he talks about, people will say I have my ethics and you have your ethics and I have to live with myself and he says, “That’s great, but we all got to live with you too.” So that’s why we need to keep all of that in mind.

I want to circle back to the big Horatio at the Gates moment you talked about. The loss of a million dollars. How do you bring this up?  You’re that communication professional and you just found out the oh crap moment. How do you recommend informing executives and getting them to do the right thing?

A lot of it comes down to trust. If I have a trust relationship with my boss, then it might be easier to say right away, “Mark, we got a problem.” But especially when you’re climbing the ladder, when you’re getting your experience, you don’t have that trust built up yet and so it’s harder for you to stand up and say something went wrong. Even if it wasn’t your fault in this case, it was ultimately my fault. But sometimes things happen that aren’t your fault and we still don’t want to disclose them to our boss or to our client. Trust becomes really important.

It’s probably where I do subscribe to the transparency thing to a pretty strong degree and that you need to disclose early.  Get ugly early. It’s better to do that.

And so my general advice, and I think students, even some of my clients might kind cock their head to the side if they heard me say this, is come out fast, quick, and early.

Quite often I’m the one telling them, hit that pause button and hold off just a little bit till we think through this a little bit. It’s the old saying that I can either keep quiet for a little while and have you wonder how smart I am or open my mouth right away and prove it.

I think that’s definitely a dichotomy. I’ve had some folks that talk about practicing the pause and others discussed the tyranny of speed and tell the truth and tell it fast. And it really is, that’s where I think the experience comes in is understanding. You want to go fast, but if you go so fast, you’re out of control, that’s not going to help you.

Digital suggests that the speed has to be instantaneous because that’s the way the world works. But I don’t believe in that. I’m an old dinosaur and I’m saying to even the folks on digital media, yes, I know we need to be quick. Yes, I know that every moment that we hold off on saying something can hurt us or at least make us wonder whether we know anything. But I also think that that has to be balanced with taking, what I call the critical 10, where you’re sort of figuring out and assessing what else is going on.

One funny story, and it’s not really an ethics issue, but it sort of demonstrates the point. Many, many years ago, I was 25 years old and I was not a PR guy. I was a facilities manager in a healthcare facility. We had been given a $5 million grant and the CEO said to me, “Hey, the news media wants to come in and talk to us about this $5 million grant. What we’re going to do with it and how we’re going to improve the facility.” It was a lot of money back in 1984.

So, the boss said to me, “I want you to talk to the media.” I didn’t have any college degree. I had no education in communications or public relations, I had no idea what to do. He said, “No, no, no. You’ll do a good job. Just get your messages down, keep them short and simple, prepare yourself, be prepared, stick to your messages. You’ll be fine.” So, I spent the next couple hours hunkered down in my office, not paying attention to anything else in the world and was just focused on learning those four or five messages.

It came time for the interview and the news talent came in. This was back in the day when they would come in with a camera person. And this very young woman who still does the news today as a local anchor, came in as a new health reporter and she came into the facility to do the interview and we sat down, I’m all mic’d up the, camera’s rolling.

Then she says, “Mr. Meath, before we get going, I do have a question to ask you. I understand one of your patients just slipped out the door, got on a local city bus and you don’t know where they are. Could you give us an update on that?” And I had no idea because I was so busy in my own head trying to get prepared and feel important that I wasn’t looking at what else is going on in the world. So, part of the take the critical 10, whether it’s 10 seconds, 10 minutes, or 110 minutes is to get a sense of what’s going on in the world.

I think it’s a good point because it’s ready, fire, aim is not a good approach. We need to take that pause to breathe and understand. Now you mentioned your students what are those challenges and dilemmas that most engage your students that have the most debate?

Well, I think many times I see the professionals, the really smart people in the field that are so much brighter than I am and so much more attuned to the craft, will latch on to the Volkswagen, Wells Fargo. I mean, they love these big scenarios and they like to bring those into the classroom. What I find is when I bring stuff like that into the classroom, I get a lot of blank looks. I might get idealistic statements out of students, but they’re not really getting it, they’re not learning anything.

So, what I like to do is bring them little ones. Each and every semester we go through 40 to 50 cases, it’s usually three or four a week, and many of them are taken from the news but not necessarily this week’s news. I’ll talk about this week’s news, but more often than not, they’re going to come from either my own client file archive or something that I read a while back. There are two or three examples that really resonate.

The first, I say, Mark, you’re a young manager and the CEO just called you into a manager’s meeting. You’ve got a couple of hundred employees and you’re one of about 30 managers. The CEO has just said, by the way, our financials, you probably have noticed, have been really eroding. So, in three weeks’ time, we are going to need to lay off about 30 people, a little more than 10% of our workforce. You’re all being given a list of names right now so that you’ll know which departments they come from. You can’t tell anybody, I need you to keep that information to yourself. We’ll be back to you later with more of the key messages and how we’re going to roll this out. And then when HR will be onsite, but you can’t tell anybody.

So you go back to your office. You’re worried about the fact that you know people whose names are on the list. And one of them, Joanne, shows up, in your office two hours later and says, “Hey Mark, my husband and I are just about to put a down payment on our first home. Can you think of any reason why we shouldn’t do that?” Now I can tell I stole this scenario from Jeffrey Seglin over at Harvard because he’s used it and it’s a nice little video clip.

Well, you stop there and you say what do you think about that? And quite often the 21-year olds will say, “Oh, we have to tell them. You have to tell them; you have to be transparent. It would be dishonest, not to say so.”

Rather than tell them what I think, I asked them to dissect the situation. Quite often what I’ll do is I’ll take my wallet and I’ll throw it to a student in the class and say, you’re the CEO, what’s going on in your mind? And after a while you tease out that the financials of the business, the longevity, can it maintain itself? What’s going on in your mind as the CEO is that you’re concerned about your employees. What’s going on in your mind is that you also need a job, you’ve got a young family what’s going on in your mind is all these things.

And so, we sort of play that out and then we say, “Okay, now let’s go back to Mark. Mark, what’s going on in your mind?” Well, some of the same things and some different things. And then we start to talk about, is this decision that needs to be made out of duty? Is it one out of utilitarianism where we’re looking for the greatest good for the greatest number? Or is it one that’s out of utility? It’s the greatest good for me? And I don’t solve it for them, but that gets them thinking. And then I will build on those cases over and over and over again.

Another example that engages students is a situation where Mark and Mike are in business. Things are going great. They make t-shirts and they imprint them and Mark comes to Mike one day and says this environment thing really has me concerned. I think we should stop using anything but organic cotton and certain dyes and so on and so forth. And Michael’s thinking, well, geez Mark, we’re making a lot of money at selling what we’re selling. So how do you make that decision?

Or the situation where you’re the building contractor, you buy a house as is in outer Boston? It’s dilapidated. You’re going to flip it and you bought it as is, wear is. You started tearing it apart and find $50,000 in the floorboards in the second floor and felt just enough of a frame about yourself that you called your lawyer to talk to the other lawyer, to see who owned the house. It turns out it was an 82-year-old man who went into a nursing home. He has no family. Those are the kinds of situations I like to talk about. Not small bridges, but they are smaller bridges.

They’re the bridges I think that most of us will face in our careers. I think the layoff example is one I use and people understand it. I use it help my students understand confidentiality and drive it home that it’s going to be your friends and you can’t say anything.  

You had a guest just recently that talked about the power of pause. Hitting the pause button is huge to me. I mean, that is where it’s at. That’s the critical 10. It’s just saying, wait a minute, what else do we have to consider here? Because for me, everything comes down to considerations, consequences, and obligations.

Beyond the small bridges that you use to engage the students, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think, without getting political…and I will not talk politics in my classroom and over the last couple of years that sometimes has been… the inside of my mouth will be bleeding, but at the end of a class. But I think that we are in a slippery slope now where corporate and government leaders are, not universally, but to a larger degree, responsible for eroding certain levels of fairness. We could talk at length about COVID. We could talk at length about, good God, the Minnesota situation and what’s going on over there. We can about being speechless the last week. I don’t know what to say.

But we could talk about so many scenarios that I’ve seen now that I saw maybe 10 or 15 years ago before I really thought about this stuff. And it’s becoming harder for communicators to understand and be able to leverage transparency to bring in the ethics conversation, which is why programs like this are so important because you need to propagate the conversation. It’s being accepted more that for many fairness doesn’t matter.

A good example, not necessarily communications, but probably most of my examples aren’t necessarily purely PR. Some weeks ago, I had a colleague who also has a consulting business contact me. He is a very smart man and I really look up to him. He says, “Hey, did you apply for your paycheck protection program?” I said, I’ve been so busy with at SU I really haven’t had a chance to think about. He says, “Oh, you got to do it.” And he said, “I did it.” And he knows enough about what I do and what he does. He said, “I got 20 grand. I mean, it just happened. I just got it. I don’t have to pay it back. I’m all set. I’m good. Check is on its way.”

And I thought, wow, really? And he says, yeah, it’s great. And I said, well, are you doing this because you lost business already? Do you expect to lose business? What’s your thinking? He says, “Well, I figure I’ve been paying into all this stuff for all my whole career.” He’s a couple years older than I am. “And I’ll decide what I want to do with the money. I’ll maybe I’ll give it away to charity or maybe I’ll do whatever, but I think it belongs to me.” Well, I have to admit, because I am human. I hung up the phone with him and I stared out the window for a little bit. And I thought, oh.

Of course, this was right around the time and the March where I’m watching our IRAs and everything else go down. And I’m thinking, well, maybe I should do that. So, I went to my code of ethics, which is the lady that sits in the other end of the house. And I said, “Hey, I just got off the phone with my friend, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And she looked at me, she closes the book she was reading and she said, “What do you think about that?” I was like, well. And after I did hit the pause button and think about it, I decided that it didn’t make sense and it didn’t feel right from a fairness standpoint. And since then, I never did apply for it. I wouldn’t.

Yet my accountant said, well, it’s your choice. You could, and you could justify it and you could then give it all away if you want. I think it’s too easy in today’s society for people to think it’s okay not to be fair. And I believe our political leaders and some of our corporate leaders have set that tone.

I agree with you and I disagree with you in some ways. The Business Roundtable made their proclamation about looking at stakeholder value in August of last year and the point is they need to walk the walk and not just talk the talk. If you see the events, not just with the pandemic, but with what’s been going on with Minnesota and beyond, the systemic inequality and just the action we’ve been seeing, is it shifting back? I mean, whether it’s Bank of America giving a billion dollars, Ben and Jerry calling for actual action. All the examples that we’re seeing are we actually finally starting to see the people move from the talking about it to doing something. I think it’s too early to tell, but I think there’s some encouraging signs in what we’re seeing.

And I would totally agree with that. If we had had this conversation 10 days ago, then maybe everything that I just said, we wouldn’t have had any discussion at all. But I do see some movement and there might be some kind of a tipping point and let’s hope so.

The thing that gives me such great encouragement is that yeah, 21 year olds have not fully developed their minds yet in a lot of ways, but that said, once you present the tools to them and you have the discussions and you see their eyes open a little bit.  I happen to think the world’s going to be in pretty good shape and that I think our kids that are coming up are going to start making some better decisions based on certain things like the right kind of corporate social responsibility.  

I spoke with Ray Kotcher a few months ago and Ray very much believes that as well. He said, “Listen, the Boomers we talked about and we failed,” but he says about the students he is teaching at BU “We’re in good hands with this next group.” He believes they’re going to get it done.

Mind you, I’m an X-er so we’re just apathetic and we’re watching you guys burn it down and see what’s going on so that’s a whole different story. But we are starting to see consumers expecting more from brands and it can’t just be lip service anymore, you got to really start to see it. Now, what we need to see though, is does this continue and does it accelerate?

I said on my blog that I posted as we’re recording this, if I was teaching is right now this week, oh my God, the discussions would’ve thrown everything out. I mean, between what’s going on with the move around regulating speech on the internet to just what’s been going on in Minneapolis and beyond, there’s so many, I don’t think I’ve seen a week fraught with more significant ethical discussion milestones, than we have this week.

Yeah. And, I think like so many of us, I felt this kind of tug. I needed to say something, but I didn’t know what to say. And so finally I tweeted the other day and I just said, “Not sure what to do? See things for what they are and denounce them when you need to. Number two, treat people the way you’d like to be treated.” I mean, it really does come down to that. That’s the whole fairness thing and number three, and no commentary with it, but vote. Got to vote.

Those are great pieces of advice. When you think back over your career, what’s the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

Hit the pause button, slow down a little bit.

My father used to say, don’t jump to confusion as opposed to jump to conclusion. And I think probably the other piece of advice, which I’ve enjoyed over the latter half of my career was allowing people to make mistakes because we will all screw up. Every single one of us.

I’ve found that probably one of the most empowering and disarming things for them is to stand up and tell them that of all the people in the room, the one that’s going to have screwed up the most is right here in front of you.

Is there anything else I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about?

I don’t think so. I mean, I just applaud the fact that you keep this going and that you are so driven by it, despite everything else that’s going on in your life. I hope that even organizations that hang their hat so much on codes of ethics and value statements and everything else start to think a little bit more about systematic decision making as opposed to coming up with a vision statement that includes values that is just hung on the wall.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:

 

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