Ethical Voices

Do Organizations that Make Mistakes on Race and Systemic Injustice Deserve Help? – Kelley Chunn

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Kelley Chunn, the principal of Kelley Chunn and Associates, an award-winning 25-year-old, state-certified collaborative consultancy based in Boston, Mass. She specializes in multicultural and cause related public relations and marketing strategic communications, research branding, community outreach, civic engagement, media relations, event planning and management and training.

Kelley discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

On the personal side, I’m from Boston, but was not born here. I was born in Miami, and my parents were part of the migration up north. I was pretty much raised in Boston, a product of the Boston public schools. I went away to New York NYU to study journalism and African American studies. I had a whole other life in TV news and public affairs as a writer and producer.

And then, although my dad thought I was crazy leaving a good job at a TV network affiliate, I went off to Nigeria for a year and a half to work for the federal government, to handle on-air TV news, public affairs production and management.

I came back and got into public relations and marketing through a quasi-state agency called Mass Housing. I was focused on affordable housing on the rental side, and also on the first-time home ownership side. We had a mandate to conduct our public relations and marketing multiculturally. In addition to a white audience, we had to conduct outreach to Latinos, Cape Verdeans, Vietnamese, and so forth. And that gave me an introduction and also made me realize the importance of getting messaging out to a multicultural audience.

I taught public relations and marketing at Northeastern University, and I was still getting called. The growth of my business was very organic. It’s not something that I would advise, you should have a plan. The first call I got was from one of the local hospitals. They were rearranging their insurance packaging and they needed help in reaching that particular audience. So, I helped to create brochures, public service announcements, letters, radio scripts in different languages so that they could update what was a very multiracial and multiethnic audience.

So, I was teaching by day and using the journalism department’s conference room by night, and I was able to develop a group. We went in and competed for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ first anti-smoking campaign, and we won the campaign geared toward the African American audience. So that was really the start of my collaborative consultancy.

I was, and I remain, small by design. I’m a sole proprietor. I work collaboratively with a team of people that either bring me in as a partner or that I bring in. After five years at Northeastern, I realized that I was not going to be able to secure tenure. Frankly, I just didn’t think that, and this isn’t Northeastern specifically, but I didn’t think that academia would take public relations seriously as a discipline. And also, I was not writing academically, I was writing for community papers or for magazines.

But by that time, I was working on several different projects. One was an obesity prevention project called Sisters Together: Move More, Eat Better for the National Institutes of Health, where I was brought in as a sub to a larger firm. I had secured a contract with one of the community colleges here in Boston, Roxbury Community College. So, I had several contracts and I could see a year out in terms of revenue and getting on my feet. So, I resigned from Northeastern and hung out my shingle and I really never looked back.

Thinking about that in your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

Well, there are actually two. One was when I was a writer and a producer at one of the local stations, and the other one is really more recent and it’s tied to the racial turmoil and the Black Lives Matter movement that we’re involved with now.

I’ll start with the one that was earlier on in my career. I’ve always kind of straddled the line between advocate and activist. In this particular instance, I was a writer for one of the local network affiliates here in Boston back in the 1970s and my boss at the station was threatening to take one of the TV shows off of the air, and it was a black-oriented program. It was geared toward the African American community. And as you know, we did not have a lot of programs.

There was a demonstration in front of the station. Now at the time, I didn’t really see it as an ethical dilemma. I’m going to go down and protest because I think the station should keep the program on the air. I knew I was an employee and I was taking a chance by demonstrating. It wasn’t a huge demonstration. There were maybe 50, 75 people, some of whom were from the station and some of whom were from the community who were fighting to keep the show on the air. I went down to join the demonstration and then I went back upstairs to write about it.

My producer, who was an African American woman read the story. And I think I had said, “There are 500 people downstairs.” And she read the story. She said, “Now, Kelley, you know there weren’t 500 people downstairs demonstrating.” So, I had to fix that.

Looking back on it, there were two issues. Is it a conflict? Nowadays some media don’t even vote in the media because they feel that it will be a conflict, even though it’s a constitutional right. They don’t want to take public sides about issues or candidates. And so in the media, one of your mandates is to be as objective as you can. I don’t think anybody can be 100% objective, but you can be fair and you can be a truth teller.

Clearly there was an ethical issue and some may say that there was also a conflict between working for the station and demonstrating against the policy of threatening to take the program off the air. The kicker is the program remained on the air and is on the air even to this day, although it has evolved so that it has more of a multicultural theme to reflect the demographics of today.

The other dilemma is more recent. A colleague called me. There was an educational institution that was in the middle of a crisis around a letter of solidarity that they had sent out to their stakeholders, including alumni of this particular educational institution.

There was pushback about the content of the letter. There was a feeling among alumni who became very vocal about it. Not a ton of alumni, but a large enough group that it got the educational institution’s attention. And there was a feeling that while the letter had attempted to communicate a feeling of solidarity in response to George Floyd’s murder, that the letter seemed to be more concerned about supporting law enforcement than it did about police brutality and violence. And so it threatened to really become a full-blown public issue.

So, the ethical dilemma, and I talked to a friend about this who is not in the business, was whether or not I should take it and whether or not I should help. And she said, “Well, why would you help them out? They got in trouble. It’s really their issue. Why should you try to bail them out?” She saw it as an ethical issue. I saw it as a practitioner. I saw it as, okay, well, they need help. They need advocacy. They realize that they’ve made a mistake, that they could have said this in a more empathetic manner, so why not help them out? So, we looked at it very, very differently, but she did make me think about what I was doing and why I was doing it.

It comes back to the age-old question about everybody has a right to counsel, but does it have to be you?

There are some clients who come to me about projects and I would rather not take them on and I will decline. And I could have done so in that instance, but I felt that their intentions had been good and they just needed some help.

How did you then approach them to help them understand the insensitivity and advocating for more than just saying the right things, but taking actions to support and back up the words that are being said. How did you go about discussing that with them and raising awareness of the challenges and how to fix it?

Well, I realized that time was of the essence. We had to act fast, act truthfully, act first. Follow those principles of crisis management. It was conversation. It was asking the right questions. What have you been doing with regard to diversity and inclusion? How can you communicate that to your stakeholders? Who’s on your board? Who have you hired? Who is teaching? Who is in senior management? All of those kinds of questions. Then having them answer those questions and tackle those questions as they communicate with their stakeholders.

And we had to use various channels. It’s very difficult now, for obvious reasons, for people to meet face to face in the community dialogues, conversations, and forums that we’re used to having. So how do you do a dialogue that’s virtual? How do you communicate, within a letter in print, what you’ve done and what you envision moving forward that will help to show that you’re sincere when it comes to equity and inclusion?

Businesses need to demonstrating what, if anything, that they’ve already done, outlining a plan for the future that includes some of the points that I’ve already made about hiring and promotion and board, those kinds of things, and culture. What is your vision for improving your culture so that diversity, inclusion and equity become more than buzz words, but really become part of the culture?

How do you see the communications profession and the companies we advise actually making positive substantive strides? What do you believe we need to do?

The first thing is you need to be willing and able to do is to have the difficult conversations with the C-suite because that’s really where leadership comes from. Leadership sets the tone and leadership influences and reflects the culture. So, if you don’t have leadership that is willing to have the conversations about what equity looks like, and what diversity and inclusion looks like for your particular company and in your particular circumstances, it’s going to be very hard to change the culture.

The other piece that I would recommend is to look at the system that you already have in place. What is your organizational structure? Who is on your board? How do you recruit? How do you contribute philanthropically? Do you reward staff for including and promoting black and brown people? We don’t make progress in things that we don’t measure. And oftentimes we don’t make progress in things that we don’t reward. So, if the company doesn’t see diversity, equity and inclusion as a value, then it’s going to be very hard to incorporate it into the culture.

I think that’s a good point. You’ve got to measure it, you’ve got to reward it because otherwise people are going to focus in other areas.

Right, where they are measured and where they are rewarded.

Absolutely. That’s why it’s heartening to me is how Verizon and others are putting diversity metrics into contracts with PR agencies. There are quantitative goals that you need to have X percent diverse team working on my account or X number of leaders. People should be doing it for the right reason, but this also lets them know if you want to win the business, you got to make the changes.

Exactly. If you’re the client and a team comes in to pitch you and it’s not diverse…and I don’t mean just someone that comes in who’s going to sit there and just be black or brown for optics…but someone who the potential client will see as making a valuable contribution to the team and that’s why you should hire this particular team, then that will really make all the difference. Clients rule. And if clients do not make the commitment to hold agencies accountable, then change is not going to happen. And that’s why we’re in the place that we are.

Beyond this, what do you consider this to be the most significant PR ethics challenge for today and tomorrow?

There’s so many. I think the challenge of social media is a very intense one for PR and marketing practitioners. How do you challenge alleged facts? How do you contribute to a more civil discourse online? How do you be transparent to stakeholders in particular and to the public in general? All of these challenges are ones that will either engender trust or that will position you as a company or organization that is not trustworthy.

So how do you recommend we address those issues? What are you doing to make sure we are being transparent?

Well, I think you have to deal with your own particular base and your own particular organization. There’ve been instances where I’ve worked with clients, where there has been pushback against the client online, and basically you have to take back the narrative. You have to tell your own story. Not only responding to what you as an organization may realize is not true or that is a mischaracterization, but you also have to tell your own story. And so, when it all comes down to it, communicators, we are storytellers. That’s our superpower. The ability for you to tell your story and to choose the most appropriate channel through which you can tell your story to stakeholders and to the general public.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

That’s easy. Spike Lee, do the right thing.

Ethics has a couple of different dimensions. One is the moral dimension and the other is conducting business according to a code. We know that the Public Relations Society of America has a code of ethics. As a teacher, I always made a point to communicate the PRSA code of ethics to my students so that they were aware of it. So, I think it’s very important for us to remember that code and remind our clients and our organizations about that code. Falsehoods, fake facts, they’re going to come back and bite you. Do the right thing.

Is there anything else you wanted to share?

Well, I just hope in this time of change and turmoil, that we all will have the courage to have the difficult conversations because only by having those difficult conversations can we manage to generate change moving forward.

Now, I think that’s a good point. As I think you know, I recently joined a new company and they sent me in the mail two books that they thought I needed to read. One was the Art of Client Service and the other one was from Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race. I love it. It’s showing at least this company is talking the talk and walking the walk. And I think that’s something we all need to do more of, is have those difficult conversations.

This is another great book on the New York Times bestseller list. It’s called How to Be an Antiracist by Dr. Ibram Kendi. If more of us took a stand on being an anti-racist and what that means, we’d all be in a much better place.

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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