Ethical Voices

What to do when you are asked to make your company seem more diverse than it is – JP Canton

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Joining me on this week’s episode is JP Canton, the head of communications and public relations in North America for Polestar. Polestar is the Volvo Geely technology incubator and is a designed-focused electric performance car brand, harnessing refined performance and cutting-edge technology.

This interview is packed with great examples and issues, including:

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

As a communications professional I’m not used to being the one talking about myself, but we’ll give it a go. I’ve had a bit of an interesting career. Until I was working in communications, I can’t even say I really knew what PR was or that it was something I could do for a living. I kind of fell into it like many of us do and I’ve never looked back.

I took an internal communications job in a large tech company out of school and it was very interesting, but simultaneously at age 23, I had friends who were working for Red Bull and having a lot more fun than I was going to my cubicle every day.

I jumped ship at that point and have never looked back. I bounced back and forth between what I’ll label vehicle and motor sport industries and a bit of consumer stuff as well. Every time I try leaving vehicles, which are my personal passion, they keep pulling me back in and now I’ve found a great blend of it all at Polestar. It’s a consumer communications focus, it’s a new brand and a product of the Volvo car group, which is a brand name everybody knows. But we’re starting from scratch and with a car company and it’s not easy. It’s not a $20 consumer goods or service. It is a $50,000+ luxury item.

We call ourselves a 90-year-old startup, thanks to the engineering and commercial prowess of our parent company, and we’re just starting to ship our first electric cars now.

I know you’ve worked with McLaren and Ducati, so I think that $50,000 is a small number.

Yeah. Compared to McLaren, yes. I think we’re at about 25% of their point of entry. It’s been a wild ride, but for me, from a communications point of view, those are so much fun and they’re such a childhood dream, but at the same time there’s something to be said for really needing to reach target demographics and speak to a broader mass audience, so that’s the fun of it these days.

Thinking about your career from internal communications to working for the auto brands to the consumer brands, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

There’s one that makes me cringe every time I think of it. Going back a few years, I was looking after some corporate communications activity as part of my job function at a wonderful company. I fell into a moment when wee producing a video for internal communications, as well as recruiting. The video production was actually all done in-house. We had our own videographers and whatnot, which really meant that the comms department was the script and director and handled all that goes into producing such a piece.

We put together our plan and sent it HR, the internal client so to speak, and said, “Here’s what we’re looking to do.” “Great, wonderful,” signed off, “We think it’s fantastic.” Then we had to go out and recruit our stars of the video, who were all company employees because it was a recruiting and an internal comms video.

So, we did a bit of an email casting call and found some very fun and animated folks on the team who were very excited to volunteer and participate. We did what I’ll informally call a screen test, just grabbed a quick snippet of everyone, and their story as it related to the company. We took these rough vignettes up to HR for a review before doing a final edit and a real copy. They came back and said, “Well, everything’s great and it does what was promised, but we really should include a little more diversity in the video,” which is a very fair point, and innocent enough at that stage, I’ll say.

We can all guess where this is going. It’s rather ominous.

So, we said, “Okay, well, you know, we have a wider net of folks who volunteered for this. Let’s go back and see who is interested.” It would be fair to say at this point we rounded out the gender balance a little bit more and called it a day, and said, “Look, we’ve balanced that out a bit, wanted to come back to you, HR, as you’re our internal client.

At this point, things took a bit of a turn.

HR said, “Well, hang on a moment.” They pulled one of the executives into the room, who I guess had taken an interest in the project in general, and the two of them proceeded to tell me, “This isn’t enough diversity, and we really need to include certain people of certain backgrounds in the shoot,” which of course was the moment this became awkward.

My response at the moment was, “I see where this is going, but the existing sample set of people is pretty accurate for the company. This is all starting to feel a bit uncomfortable,” the meeting to begin with, “I understand the desire, but at the same time, this isn’t quite the reality.”

That’s when I was given the mandate of, “Well, it’s your job, your department, you need to go recruit these people,” specific people I might add, which was strange. I had pushed back. I didn’t like where this is headed, but I said, perhaps to my own detriment, “Let’s at least go ask if these people are happy to do the video.” The messaging and the subject matter of the video had nothing to do with diversity I should add.

So, I popped by these folks’ desks, some of whom I knew quite well. They all had no real interest and told me, “I don’t really want to be on camera. It’s not my thing. I’m good.” Here’s where the real ethical challenge comes in because this is becoming a problem A, and B, I had to go back to HR with it.

So I went back to HR and I said, “They’re not really into it.” Perhaps as the quintessential PR person, you try and smooth everything over, that’s your gut reaction, and said, “They’re not into it. I’m sorry. I tried.” The shock was HR pushing back and saying, “You need to talk them into it because we really need them in this video, and executive XYZ, who was in the room last time we discussed this feels the same way.”

It’s not an easy moment when the HR department of your employer is telling you something unethical needs to happen. That’s the point where I had to fight back and say, “Look, they don’t want to do it. I’m uncomfortable with the situation to begin with and you as the HR department really shouldn’t be taking this track, so to speak,” and in nine out of 10 other companies that probably would have killed it, I hope would have killed it. They said, “Well, do you want me to take this upstairs to the executive?”

Thankfully my fear did not work, but my anger kicked in and I said, “Yes, absolutely. I’d love to hear what he has to say about it.”

They were kind of surprised I pushed back and said, “Well, we’re going to have to have a conversation, but I’ll get back to you. You’re done for now.”

The next morning, I received an email saying, “Okay, don’t worry about it. Stick with the plan as it was,” and that was actually the end of it. I think it was a happy ending, so to speak, but if I had not, in not so many words, put my neck on the line, it definitely would have gone the other way. Thankfully, I was really the only person in the line of comms participation. They weren’t going to go to someone else and backdoor me on this.

So it was a happy ending, but A, obviously we’re chatting about it, it was a terrible situation, and B, it made me realize that all this hypothetical system of checks and balances in any well-organized company doesn’t really exist when somebody wants something done a certain way or it was a means to an end for a KPI or a goal or whatever it may be.

It really was a turning point for me as a professional where I learned it’s our job as communicators, regardless of the situation and regardless of the company hierarchy, to dig in your heels and you’re your counsel. Your counsel is what you’re being paid for and doing the right thing is what you’re being paid for, regardless of who or where it’s coming from. It’s our gut reaction as communicators to try and smooth things over or take the path of least resistance or maybe find a gray area where things work. But this is not always the best approach. So that’s my story. It’s a tough one.

It’s definitely interesting because seeking out diverse voices is something you want to do and I think it’s even more important today than it is than ever. But the challenge is when the diverse voices don’t want to participate and you’re told, “Strong arm them to make us appear to be more diverse than we are.”

A hundred percent, that was the apex of the problem.

What’s your advice to other communicators? In today’s climate, it’s a positive thing that we’re focusing on much more diversity than we have and we’re starting to see action and not just words. But if you are told to put some pressure on people to do things that they don’t want to do, what’s the counsel that you have for others in that situation?

One approach I’ve used since, in any sort of difficult situation, is when you’re speaking to somebody above your pay grade, I’ve found that the words “Look, I know you want this, but it’s my role in the company and you are paying me to give you this counsel. I don’t think your desired approach is the best end to this situation.” I’ve found that phrasing it that way diffuses the bomb nine times out of 10, and that tenth time you will have a maniacal boss manager, executive who does not care and says, “Great, so I’m the boss and that’s going to happen this way.”

Sometimes there’s a way to say, “Okay, yes, ma’am,” or “Yes, sir,” and you go back and just execute it how you need to execute it and they don’t notice or they realize it was the wrong thing to do so that it will never take you to task on it. It’s a little slippery, but that’s how you can manage the ethics and keep your job.

Sometimes, when it’s an obvious black and white situation, that’s where you need say, “Put it in writing.” Send that follow-up email to said person and say, “You have requested me to do this. Can you please confirm this is the path you would like me to proceed on?”

In most gray areas that will be the end of it because they understand where you’re coming from and where it is going. That is probably my best advice. There’s never a black and white prescription for these situations and that’s why they are awkward in the first place, but I’ve found those to be some very successful approaches in my experience.

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

Keeping things topical, so to speak. In June of 2020, I’ve studied what some companies are doing with regards to the Black Lives Matter movement.

What I found is something that has been repeating a lot lately for whatever reason, starting with COVID, and that is companies going and making a statement, but without any sort of backup action plan movement or genuine desire to drive change.

I think this is really a developing ethics challenge for us as communicators, because there’s opportunity to grab a headline on one hand, there’s an opportunity to quell a consumer base that might be running a little bit hotter than normal, and there’s an opportunity to really quite literally jump on the bandwagon. I’ve seen a lot of hot air statements going out there with nothing to back them up. In the case of something like Black Lives Matter, I think at least somebody’s making a statement and that’s good, but you know there’s nothing behind it, it feels a little false, or it’s a week after everybody else has and it’s just obvious somebody, either an executive came in the room and told the PR department to push it out or the comms department had the idea and said, “Look, this’ll get us a little more ink at the moment.”

I find this an ethics challenge because you need to back these things up. You need to have a genuine course of action and you need to stand by it.

If you take using the Black Lives Matter example, again, saying, “We stand for equality,” that’s wonderful, that’s great. But you should be doing that to begin with, right?

The better approach is even if you take a week or three of internal meetings and you lose that topicality, if you can then go out there and say, “We’re committing to these STEM programs or graduate programs or internships or developments to reach these areas that are underserved in the African American community,” and trying to blossom people into a future employment in our company, or giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t have had in a better world, that’s actually doing something.

To the people who are saying, “Yeah, but the only way I can sell that internally to management is if I can say, ‘We get this ink out of it,’ it’s our jobs to say, ‘That’ll come later when we do it,'” and then we’re not trying to grab a .0005% of the share of voice surrounding it all right now. We’re going to grab 15% in that moment because we’re the only ones doing it.

I think we need to think and act for the long term. When we put the company’s voice and reputation behind anything, it shouldn’t be a knee jerk reaction.

I agree with you. I would refine a couple of points on what you just said and I think one of the things you brought up is it’s good when people are talking about it. I’d probably push back a little bit and say there’s a danger of it becoming like greenwashing. When people talk about environmental benefits and it’s important to protect the environment, but then they don’t do anything or they make fake environmental claims unlike the electric car companies and folks like Polestar, which are making true change, I’m saying it’s not enough. You’ve got to back it up with action.

Absolutely, and I thank you for that because it’s not easy. In the case of a car company, it is expensive beyond belief. The R&D that goes into electrification opposed to internal combustion is colossal. We are talking literally billions and billions and billions of dollars. Additionally, with some legacy brands, they might be claiming sustainability and in fairness working towards sustainability but by the way out the back door they’re still selling 750,000 diesels a year and that’s what padding the bottom line. It’s not easy for the companies, but you really have to take a stand and believe in it.

I think the other point I was call out is when you said sometimes the challenge for people talking about, “Why do I need to take a stand on Black Lives Matter or on other major social issues?” and people talk about, “We only sell is if it grabs ink.” I’d say there’s a lot of interesting data out there that you can use to convince executives. If you look at what’s coming out of Ethisphere, and other companies…diverse companies perform better. Even if you don’t believe in social good in fighting systemic injustice, from a purely selfish point of view, if you’re more diverse, you tend to outperform the stock market, you have different viewpoints. That’s a case I’ve made a lot with executives that I think can open doors when they may not want to think about it otherwise.

Absolutely and unquestionably. If you have all of the same people in the room, you will never move outside of your bubble and you will never realize how other consumers think, how your audience thinks. It’s critical. It’s critical.

One other thing you and I talked about a while ago and I’d love to hear some thoughts on this is, the challenge sometimes of corporate brands outsourcing some questionable work to PR agencies.

Yes. I would say is also running rampant these days or at least I’m seeing much more and more of it, where it’s not you or it’s not your problem if you just dump it on the agency, right? I think it’s a dirty trick. I’ve always firmly believed that an in-house role your agency is only as good as the briefs they’re given and you should never ask them to do anything you wouldn’t do yourself, and that goes from hard copywriting to strategic development.

I have even had colleagues tell me, “Oh, well we have XYZ coming up or going out,” this is our current campaign and if you ask a question say, “Well, isn’t that a little bit…not good,” and they’ll say, “Yeah, but the agency’s putting it out.”

People forget that, A, this agency is representing your brand. There’s no magical backpedal there, first and foremost, and B, these are your partners, the people you trust and there’s this classic disconnect of, for some reason, the internal communicator does not feel like the agency is part of the company and part of the brand. That’s failure number one. Your relationship’s never going to work, but it really is unethical to start taking yourself and or the brand away from those awkward conversations.

A smart reporter will see right through that and a smart social media audience will do the same. If you aren’t willing to sign up for it yourself, and this goes back to something I said earlier, it shouldn’t be going out there to begin with.

What are some of those unethical things people are asking agencies to do in your experience?

When it’s bad news it comes from the agency, when it’s good news it comes from the company, right? I’ve seen a lot of offering the same exclusive to six different reporters at once, which just puts the agency in a situation of ruining their own relationships, never mind the image of the brand when they talk to each other and figure that out.

Another one I’ve seen is, “We want this out. It prompts a lot of questions, but we don’t want to offer the interview or substantiate the data, so let’s have the agency push that out.” I could go on and on or not.

I’ve definitely been asked to do many of those things and you’re right, it is a tough conversation to have and push back. I’ll make a joke, “You can blame me if things go wrong,” because that’s the easy thing to do as an agency person, but you shouldn’t ask me to lie cheat or hide things.

Yeah. And the irony is, using myself as the internal example, if I tell a reporter, “Sorry, we’re not willing to talk about that,” or “Sorry, that’s all you’re going to get,” that’s kind of the end of it, right?

I feel if you can adapt that approach and that philosophy as interesting, difficult, animated as it might make your daily life, that relationship with your team, internal and external is that much better, your relationship with the media in this case is that much better and then from more organic owned social point of view, the news looks the same regardless of who’s posting it or developing it or pushing it up there. So that’s where it all comes back to the message at the end of the day.

Speaking of messages and advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I have a four-prong answer:

  • Do the right thing. We all know what the right thing is, whether we really think so or not, and if we don’t, it doesn’t take a ton of homework to figure it out.
  • Speaking of figuring it out, when you’re in doubt, ask or do your research.
  • Do your own dirty work, getting back to what we were just discussing there.
  • The fourth one, which is really the only subjective one, is sometimes you just got to go with your gut. If you’ve got a bad feeling, it’s probably not good. It’s amazing how often that’s right. That was advice I received from a 30-year comms person who found themselves in the CEO seat and absolutely grounded me young in my career. As you can imagine, when the executive knows the ins and outs of communications, there’s nowhere to hide, but everything I learned from him at that stage of my career rings a 100% true 15 years later.

Check out 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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