One ethics question every agency owner needs to ask before taking on a new client – Dan Tisch

Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Dan Tisch, the CEO of Argyle, one of Canada’s largest and best agencies.

Over the course of our conversation, Dan discusses a number of important ethical issues including:

Please tell my listeners a little bit more about yourself and your career.

I’ve been doing this an awfully long time…more than 30 years now. I started my career working in the government of Canada and was a public sector person who wanted to change the world. I had no interest whatsoever in business then and graduated with a politics degree. Like a lot of people of that generation, coming of age in the late ’80s, there was not a lot of opportunity for formal education and PR at the time, or at least if there was, I didn’t know about it. I didn’t even consider Using the term public relations for a few years after that.

But I found myself gravitating to communication jobs. I wrote speeches for diplomats. I wrote annual reports for the Department of Foreign Affairs. My first big break was getting a job where I was going every day to the Canadian Parliament, with the Minister of Health, briefing him before he had to go in and answer questions from the opposition, prepping him for media interviews, doing the scrum after he was answering questions in the house, and then dealing with media calls myself.

That eventually led me to the agency world and in the mid-nineties, I moved to Toronto, joined a small firm that became one of Canada’s largest agencies, and then became part owner and ultimately sole owner and majority owner of Argyle.

It’s been quite a remarkable ride. Along the way, I also spent seven years on the board of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management, and two years as chair, which is fabulous because that gave me an opportunity to work with public relations professionals in countries all over the world and personally, to be part of PR conferences in 25 or so countries during my time on the board.

When you think over the 30 years, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I figured you were going to ask me this Mark. I found myself initially going to examples about clients that we had to part company with. In some cases immediately, but more commonly after a pattern of problematic behavior. I also found myself thinking about employment situations, where we had to make the difficult decision to part company with an employee, which I believe should never be done lightly. And there’ve been a few cases where there were some ethical questions involved about the employee’s behavior.

In the end, the one that I seized on was a time that I was a member of the board of a public hospital and a doctor at the hospital was accused rightly, as it turned out, with despicable behavior and sexually assaulting patients.

Naturally, there were severe consequences for the individual, but then there came a debate at the board and the executive committee, of which I was a part, about whether the head of the department should be fired with cause. We then got into a debate with employment lawyers discussing possible financial implications to the hospital. Initially the executive committee members sided with me, but eventually they changed their view and emerged with the view that it was better just to settle with this individual rather than risk a court case.

I objected, I voted against it, then asked that my objection be noted at the board, which it was, but regardless the board approved the action against my wishes. And I very seriously considered resigning from the board. And I still don’t know what was the right answer because there were complex questions there.

I stayed on the board and to this day, I wonder if that was the right decision. But having said that I’m proud of bringing an ethical voice to the decision. And I think interestingly, notwithstanding the reputation our profession sometimes has, in my experience, those who are consistently the advocates for more transparency, more responsibility, and more ethical decision-making tend to be communications professionals who subscribed to codes of ethics in our industry. And I think it’s a shame that our reputation with the general public and even with some organizational leaders, is that we would do quite the opposite.

You were definitely in a charged situation where it’s a manager who has allegedly been aware of some extremely inappropriate behavior. What’s your advice to other professionals that find themselves in a spot where they have a seat at the table and there’s a fracture and a divide, and you believe one way is ethical and one way is unethical. How do you convince people to make the ethical choice?

I think in some ways, with the very healthy shift in recent years around organizational purpose and values, it has become easier. The best statements of purpose and values aren’t just words that live on the wall. They should be brought into our day-to-day work lives and our daily decision making. I think that the role of communications professionals should be very, very significant when it comes to both defining those ideals around purpose and values, and then helping be the conscience of the organization as to whether it is living up to them – whether we’re in-house professionals or consultants advising the organization.

It’s important to understand that when I think of reputation, I’m not talking about image. I’m talking about the experience that people have with the organization and whether you’ve lived up to your brand promise or not. That to me is a much deeper thing. Smart executives will understand that reputation is among the greatest, if not the greatest, intangible assets of most organizations. And that if there’s a job that a management team and a board have it’s to protect and enhance the value of that reputation.

That’s a good point and it ties into something I say quite a bit – that we do ourselves a disservice at the most senior levels by talking about ourselves as communication professionals. We’re executives and strategic counselors. Communications may be the fulcrum of which we’re responsible, but we should look at things and advise from a business perspective.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think that business literacy is perhaps the most critical or among the most critical skills that communicators need to develop early in their career. It’s going to make them more effective wherever they hope to go. Your career will be enhanced by being able to ask the smart questions and be at that table, not just where communications is being talked about, but where business decisions are being made. And you can think more broadly since public relations is actually broader than just communications. How do the actions of the organization build and steward relationships and contribute to the value and the mission of the business?

And when I say business, it could also be a nonprofit or a public sector organization.

Thinking beyond your own personal example, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Yeah. I go back to Argyle and our statement of purpose. – it’s to communicate truth and earn trust that leads to better decisions, more reputable businesses, and a healthier and more sustainable society. I think we are at a time when there are deficits in both truth and trust. And so, I start from that standpoint. It’s the standards that we set for ourselves. Are we making them very clear to our team from day one?

It shows up in our client work. When we take on a client, we have a few tests before we take on a client relationship. Test number one is do they reflect our vision and values? The next point is when we engage the public for a client, are we ensuring that we are being honest and transparent about sharing stakeholders’ perspectives about the client, even when they’re not positive? Are we telling clients things that they don’t want to hear, but they need to? Are we counseling our clients to be brave in their engagement with stakeholders in society?

I think that our experience has shown that if an organization’s authentic about changes that have to happen, usually the community will reward its transparency as long as there’s a path and a plan for improvement.

I wanted to note is the current big conversation in society around racism, diversity, equity, inclusion. I think that’s part of that too. We have a responsibility to reflect the interest of those who don’t have, or haven’t had, the same voice in business and in societal decisions. And we have to reflect that in our communication.

How is this currently being discussed in Canada?

Oh, boy. We’re not that different, it just doesn’t have the same profile as in America because we’re a much smaller country. But virtually every organization and every leader with whom I have spoken in the last month or so is dealing with this issue. There’s a very healthy element to it, but there’s a lot of fear around how to respond. Ethical leaders feel a duty not to be silent. They understand that silence too often is complicity or has been complicity, and they understand that there is an expectation for them to be a moral voice.

But there’s also kind of a fear of saying the wrong thing. There’s also a very legitimate and sincere desire not to take up space. If our story isn’t good, and to look like we’re performing or being platitudinous. And there is a desire not to overwhelm voices of people who are from affected communities. So, I think there are all of these instincts kicking around in people’s heads. In my experience, the leaders that have responded really well, are those responding with humility, some self-reflection and even some self-criticism. In a quiet way they are talking about whom they’re going to listen to, whom they’re going to have dialogue with, and what action will emerge from that. The action orientation I think is very important.

But so is a long-term view. I think there is too much rush to, “Let’s get a statement out. Now let’s donate this much money to whatever cause, let’s do X, Y, Z now.” In some ways I think the best responses have come from not a long reflection, but one that was not spur of the moment – where they looked a little bit more thoughtfully and listened before they jumped forward with their solution. For most organizations, there needs to be recognition that it’s a journey. The role of the leader, I think, is to set the destination and goal and then be accountable for that.

I love the point that you brought up about action. Saying you’re opposed to racism and systemic inequality, well, gee, that’s a shock. You should be opposed to those things. The question is what are you doing about it? We need to really make sure we’re driving that forward. And I think that’s where we’re going to see consumers holding businesses more accountable and businesses making more of a commitment in that area.

You’re absolutely right. And in some ways, the greatest accountability that I’m seeing is to one’s own employees. Employees have been a driving force, in so much of this movement towards brands taking the stands on social issues because in the social media world, every employee is an ambassador for their organization. Trying to control what employees do or say is futile. So, the best we can hope to do is influence it in a positive way, by having them authentically know that they’re working for an organization that shares their values. And I think that most leaders I talk to the process is both bottom up and top down. That’s the first place you should start.

I think you hit it nicely when you talked about, do your clients reflect your vision and values. Are you as an agency living it and then the companies you’re working for, do they also reflect the vision, values, and beliefs of the organization?

You’re absolutely right. And let me be clear here, I’m not in any way saying that a communications firm should only work with the paragons of virtue. Every firm I think will sometimes decide strategically for very good reasons, which I’ll explain in a sec, to take on a client whose brand or reputation has been damaged. That’s in some ways what crisis management is all about.

But the starting point has to be that whatever’s happened in this organization before, do we firmly believe, based on evidence, not just passively accepting what they tell us, but doing our homework, doing due diligence, asking the right questions, do we believe that the current leadership of the organization are ethical people, committed to doing the right things, committing to right wrongs that may be in their past, or address issues or injustices that may have affected stakeholders in the organization before?

Tthat’s the common thread. We always need to see that because I’m not a believer in the PR agency, at least not my agency anyway, being the lawyer who will defend the accused regardless of whether you believe in the story. We have to believe in the story. And sometimes it’ll be a story of stuff that is not good, that the organization wants to change and we just need to believe the leader is on board with that and will listen to our advice.

When I spoke with Ethisphere they said it well, “We’re all human. We’re all going to make mistakes. An ethical company isn’t perfect. But when an ethical company makes a mistake, they identify it and they fix it.”

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

Well, I don’t know if I can frame it in a sentence. There have been a lot of leaders who’ve inspired me. One piece of advice is, “Are you doing the right thing when nobody’s looking?”

Even the story I told you about that moment on the board. I wasn’t for a moment thinking about what will people think of me and how does this affect my personal reputation, although maybe I should have. But the first thought in my mind was, okay, we’re behind closed doors here. We’re making a decision. It may never emerge what happened here. And no question, the path of least resistance was to strike a deal with the guy, have the public record and his employment records show that he left voluntarily. But I believe that our first duty was to the truth.

And also, in a very real sense, I was worried about, okay, well, if this person was negligent here, intentionally or not, could this happen again? So that sense of responsibility was there and it didn’t matter to me whether somebody else knew I’d done this or said this. I was just focused on what was the right thing to do when nobody was looking.

I think that’s a really great point. I think it’s actually something I first heard going back to the early ’80s with the sci-fi movie, Buckaroo Banzai, when I said character is what you are in the dark. –

Wow, that’s good. But we are making a pop culture reference that only people our age will understand.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to share or highlight?

One thing we should think about is where is this all this is going. I remember one thing I was very intrigued about. The University of Southern California does this Global Communication Report every year. Two years ago, they asked a very interesting question to PR professionals in America and around the world. And that was, “In five years, will the average person be able to make a distinction between paid, earned, shared and owned media when they’re consuming information?” And it was interesting that 64% said, “I believe they will not be able to make the distinction. The average person will not be able to make that distinction.”

And then the next question was, “Do you think the ordinary average person will care about the distinction? About whether these things are easily distinguishable?” And 59% said, “I don’t think the average person will care.”

I found that alarming. Because I think that where ethics is concerned, we have to care. I don’t want to live in a society where I can’t tell the difference. We have to live in atmosphere where we can understand what the truth is and know whom to trust. There’s a division that is emerging and that’s getting sharper every year between those practicing communication inside and outside codes of ethics. And I think the weight on our shoulders is going to increase.

As the risk of deception rises so does the importance of people who are willing to fight for truth and for trust. And I think that is going to be the ethical communicator’s central challenge in the years to come.

I couldn’t agree with you more. I believe we’re entering into the disinformation age where it’s going to be just so easy for bad actors to spread misinformation, not just in but in business. Since you brought it up, what’s your advice on addressing this?  

The first step is scenario planning. It’s got to be actively monitoring for disinformation. I mean, it was interesting, for example, when Trump made the comments speculating about injecting disinfectant into the body, and that became a political hot potato.

It was interesting seeing Lysol put out a statement saying, “Hey folks, do not inject our product into your body.” I mean, unbelievable they’d have to do that. But there was a time when injecting a brand into a political debate, especially with the US President, would be extremely risky and organizations would not touch it. But they had to decide, “Well, what’s our first duty? Our duty is to our customers, to the public, to our stakeholders and our employees. And we can’t be silent about this.” They never mentioned Donald Trump’s name. They just said, “There’s been recent speculation about this. We want to be very clear.”

And so, I think that for us, as communicators, as public relations professionals, sometimes we have to realize that with the blurring of the boundaries between paid, earned, shared, and owned [media], sometimes our clients may be tempted to take advantage of that. And that’s when our ethical voice has to be particularly strong, and it’ll require some courage. But I think fundamentally in the long run, when we stand up and are heard, and ideally heeded, we are acting in the long-term interests of our clients and our organizations. And we have to remember that.

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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