If It’s Not Painful at Times to Stand by Your Core Values, You’re Doing it Wrong – Tara McDonagh

Joining me on this week’s episode is Tara McDonagh, the president of Tara McDonagh Communications. She caught my attention with a LinkedIn post in June, where she stated if it’s not painful at times to stand by your core values, you’re doing it wrong. I’m really glad she agreed to be my guest this week.

During our discussion, Tara highlighted:

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

Well I consider myself a Renaissance woman of communications. So many people go into one area of expertise or one industry and I’ve done the opposite and I’m grateful. I’ve worked agency and corporate and in multiple industries like tech, healthcare, recruiting and retail, banking. I’ve led public relations, internal communications, crisis communications and public affairs, so I’m kind of a Jane of all trades when it comes to communications. That served me well in my career, particularly now running my own consulting business, working with companies in multiple industries.

As a Renaissance woman, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I thought about this a lot and there’s not one particular moment that’s in my brain, but there’s a couple that kind of trend a bit. That’s why standing by your values and letting them drive your decisions is so vital.

There was the time that I decided not to progress in an agency job interview because the person I interviewed with told me that one of their challenging clients probably needed trade show support and marketing work, not PR. When I asked if she’d ever thought about resigning the client her response indicated that the head of the agency wanted the revenue. Though I was unemployed at the time, I knew that was not a job that was a fit for me.

Another time I was working at an agency where I worked on an account that probably the client should probably have never hired a PR firm, in my opinion. He fired his sales staff and looked at PR as business development. That’s all he saw the group as. We all have lessons and that agency handled it really well, but I should have asked more questions. At the time it never occurred to me that I could or should refuse to work on an account at an agency, but I could have. I could have asked more questions and I could have kept in mind that ethical principle of enhancing the profession and building trust and credibility for PR. That was a real key lesson for me and the agency handled it really well, but it was a learning point for me to know to ask more questions.

I would say that I then learned this again through my own professional consulting business. My first real strong lead for new business I decided not to pursue after a lengthy discovery call. It was my opinion that the company needed business development first and I told him so. I didn’t take the business even though it would have been a financially healthy first account, so those were all kind of key things. In my mind they all go under that bucket of enhancing the profession.

I think that’s a good point of view. I think the latter two that you shared all kind of talk about PR is not business development and understanding what’s the role and what can you do as opposed to what you can’t do.

Right. They should work together hand in hand. PR can be a component of a business development strategy, but it shouldn’t be your only strategy.

Your first and your third examples both tied along the theme of you need to stay true to your values and not just chase the money. What’s the advice for people? If you don’t chase the money, you may end up laying off people. How do you counsel people to speak truth to power and hold firm to their values?

The post you talked about, my headline there is focus on character, not reputation, focus on your values. I would say that holds true here. If it’s not hard to stand by your values, then you’re doing it wrong. With the value of integrity in mind, that’s where I turned down that new business account. With the value of integrity in mind, that’s where I turned down the agency job. Both were hard because the money would have been nice, but ultimately it was the right decision and things fell into place.

Recently someone I was networking with said, “Jump and the net will follow.” It can be scary to turn down the money, but it’s important. I remember back in the dotcom days, I was working on accounts that had theories, not physical products and, as a newbie to the world of business in general and PR, I didn’t know any better, but I do know better now. I would say stand by your values.

I heard that, somewhere along the way I heard if it’s not hard to stand by your values, you’re doing it wrong. I think it was at some point when I was working on internal communication and change management. I don’t know if I heard it or read it and I wish I could remember. It’s not an original thought, but it is something that I found to be true. Every decision I make I try to stand by what my values tell me. If I’m having a hard time making a decision, I have my core values, I have them written down, I have them to refer to and, when I look at them, they can drive my decision making even if it’s a hard decision.

You said you need to focus on character and not reputation, can you expand on that a little bit further?

The tempting viewpoint is to go to your PR counselor or your communications lead and say, “What should I be saying?” I really focus on what you should be doing and not telling them what that is, but asking them.

I ask a series of questions that leads them down the path of deciding what action should be taken and focusing on not saying the right thing, but doing the right thing and trying to understand what those things are.

If they’re not there, then why not? For example, with Black Lives Matter, if a company isn’t saying something about the issue or wants to say something but isn’t really doing anything differently, then I start asking a series of questions around why. Is it that you don’t see it as a core issue to your business? Is it that it’s not felt as deep of an impact right now as maybe COVID is? I think those questions can be enlightening to both a company and the client and the contact.

I think that’s a great example. I think too many companies are just saying things, they’re not turning it into action. Now, particularly when it comes to COVID and Black Lives Matter and just systemic injustice, we need to make sure that we’re doing things and not just saying things.

Right. Be humble and take action is generally the themes of counsel that I’m giving right now. Remember I noted take action and be humble, not act humble. No matter how great a company is right now with diversity and inclusion, there’s still work to be done.

At an individual level, at a corporate level, at an executive level, everyone has work to do. Don’t focus on what you’ve already done, be humble, listen, take action. Even if that action is commitment to bias training for your executive team. There are so many ways that you can create a plan of action and then communicate that. You’re seeing that in the communications that are going out, the social media posts of Black Lives Matter, or We Stand Against Systemic Racism. People are commenting saying, “Okay, what are you doing about it?” People are really looking for that action as well.

You’ve shared some great examples and that’s great advice. Do you see this as the key PR ethics challenge for today and tomorrow, or are there other issues you want to discuss?

I would say it’s one of many key issues in the profession right now. I think enhancing the profession is something people forget about, having trust in what we do and enhancing how we do it. That’s one key issue that has always been around, but I think people forget that it even is something that’s in the code of ethics that should be addressed. It’s not our job to just decide, oh, this person wants PR work so I’m going to give it to them because they will pay me. The bar must be much higher than that. I think that’s a key issue and a key risk in ethics today. We get to a point where we’re in a recession, people are looking for business, there’s certain areas of the economy that are strong and other areas that aren’t, but yeah, I think that any time that there’s an economic downturn, the risk can be stronger for being tempted to just take the money.

I mean I think it’s definitely an endemic problem. I’ve been with agencies that are focused on if they’re willing to pay, we need to talk to them. The agency I’m at right now is very much along the lines of we are going to be very selective and does it resonate with our mission and our purpose and can we actually make an impact? If we can’t, I don’t care how attractive the money is, why are we going after it?

That’s fantastic.

That’s where I hope everyone can eventually be. Again, if you look at your own values, it will drive your decisions, where you’re going to work, who you’re going to work with. I don’t have a problem saying no to business if it’s not a fit with my values. There’s multiple ways to look at it, but of course values is core and key. If I feel like they don’t need my work, or they’re not ready for it, or they’re not ready for any PR firm, then I have no problem saying no. If I don’t have the key experience or knowledge in the area that they’re looking for, I also enjoy referring to other people.

If you come at the world from a place of abundance, it will follow, abundance will follow.

I think that’s great advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Don’t let your loyalty and your desire to advance your company or client’s business and their goals get in the way of your own values.

I’d love to delve a little bit deeper into that, because the challenge comes particularly with the junior and the mid-level professionals when they’re getting pressure from above, or they’re getting pressure from the CEO as a senior VP. What’s the advice for taking that stand? How can they do it successfully?

I think that people today are much better equipped than I was back in my day, from what I’m seeing. They have no issue standing by their character and their values, which is fantastic to see. I would say I would have a hard time taking my own advice back when I was a junior PR person. I had immense trust in the senior leadership team and relied on them to be my moral compass instead of relying on my own moral compass. That’s dangerous. You can work with the best people in the world and you still need to rely on your own moral compass.

I would say I learned, back when I was talking about that agency experience where I was working on an account where, in my opinion, the agency or the client probably should have never hired an agency, I learned later that someone up here refused to work on the account before it was assigned. It was just an aha moment for me. I think that junior people need to know that’s okay, they can weave it in a respectful way and just say  for example, if someone was asked to work on a tobacco account and that goes against their morals, I think a company could understand that and say, “We understand and we’re not going to ask you to do something that goes against your character.”

You can go in professionally and respectfully and share that this is your own personal decision. If it doesn’t work where you’re being forced to work on something that you don’t want to, and I can’t imagine that would happen, but if it did, then you’re not at the right place.

I can think of one case in an old job where some people were forced to do some pitches that they didn’t want to do, but when it got to the attention of the CEO, that changed. You’ve got to always speak up. I mean, in the end though, Michael Smart, who was one of my first interviews in Ethical Voices, had the really great advice about creating the freedom fund. You’ve got to have six months’ salary socked away, so if you’re put in those situations where people want you to compromise your character, money is not the gating factor and you can actually say, “No, thank you,” and you can walk away.

I love that. I love that.

I think those young people can kind of use these experiences to quietly move them in the right direction. I’ve heard before it’s not the corporate ladder, it’s chutes and ladders in your career. You might head down a chute and it might be because of your own decision is driven by your own character, but a ladder will come. Just stay true to yourself and it’ll follow. Again, I think that would have been hard advice for me back in my younger PR career days. It’s easy to say, it’s a lot easier to do with time and experience and age under my belt.

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


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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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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