Unexpected ethics lessons from Tonya Harding – Dianne Danowski Smith

Joining me on this week’s episode is Dianne Danowski Smith, the president and founder of Publix Northwest, an agency that combines experience and creativity to deliver solid results, effective communications and creative strategies for its clients. I have known Dianne for years and we have had many, many spirited discussions. This one is no exception as Dianne covers a broad spectrum of ethical issues.

Specifically, Dianne highlights:

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

I’m based here in lovely Portland, Oregon, which happens to be making headlines all over the country right now for a few interesting reasons. I have been in the field of PR for 30 years. I started off in college in pre-nursing, and then in my sophomore year of college, I met Biology 2, and we didn’t see eye to eye. I took a journalism class at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!), and I fell in love with PR. My senior thesis was about an ethical problem at the local hospital in the town where the University of Oregon is located. And so I thought, “Oh, this, this is so exciting. This is so exciting.”

I had healthcare in my heart and ventured into a public relations career that includes community and economic development, biotech, science, and innovation as well and construction. I’ve worked in large healthcare systems and then have worked on the agency side consulting for healthcare nonprofits and biotech.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

My ethical challenges have been almost kind of commonplace in that I faced them all the time. And at the time I was experiencing and going through them, I didn’t necessarily see them as ethical challenges, but in hindsight, that’s exactly what they are.

There’s one particular, I want to tell a little story about, When I was still really young in my career, I took a job with a very, very small agency here. It was me and just the agency owner. We had a very, very small office and he had a tiny office. We were engaged to handle the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan Olympics fiasco. We were the PR firm of record for Tonya Harding and her situation. I came into the office one day and he had had a very tough press day. He came into the office and he was incredibly angry about what had occurred and he was gruff and he went into his office and he slammed the door. And then I could hear him literally start throwing furniture around his office. He threw his filing cabinet, threw a chair, and for a female being alone with him in the office, it became sort of a little bit of a fearful situation for me because I didn’t know him that well.

But the reason that was an ethical challenge for me is I wondered at that time ethically, if I should report it, who do I report it to? Do I report it to the Bureau of Labor and Industries? And then my next ethical question is I’m conflicted about this workplace behavior. Should I stay here and hope it gets better? Or should I depart? And my ultimate decision was to depart.

It was ethically hard for me because I knew I could learn a lot at that agency, but I also knew that that probably wasn’t a safe situation.

Is there another situation you want to share?

I woke up one morning and my client was on the front page of the newspaper, above the fold, for unethical and potentially illegal behavior. This client was working on a very, very high-profile public sector project for a large local city.

The newspaper story alleged that my client was tucking away money to try to get cost overruns in the project approved without going through the proper channels as established by the city codes and the city compliance efforts. Technically, what my client had done was not illegal. It was done quite frequently in its business. The city council decided that the cost overruns for this project had hit a limit and the city commissioner in charge of that bureau put a hard stop and said we’ve reached a budget limit. But my client and its partner still had a number of change orders that were being requested by the city that they had to execute. It looked like somebody was not going to get paid for the work that the city requested.

The partner came to my client and said, “This is going to be a cost overrun.” And my client said, “Well, we’ll pay you. And then we’ll bill the city based on the change order,” which is legal. And the change order had been agreed to, but it was going to exceed the budget. And what it looked like was my client was doing an end run around the city commission, and that’s how the city hall reporter in the paper decided to play it.

I was shaking in my boots a little bit and I had to go back to the GM and I say, “Okay, this might be a practice that you’ve engaged in before. But the perception of this practice is unethical, whether it’s legally okay. It doesn’t look ethically okay.” There was the perception that there was some back room dealing going on, and I said, “So we have to figure out how you’re going to handle this process going forward.”

What we decided to do is we decided to call the city commissioner and say, “We saw today’s paper. We want to let the public know that we’ve talked to you and you tell us how you want to handle this. And we want to make a public statement about how the city prefers to handle this.” And so we made a joint public statement about it. The city was on board. The city didn’t necessarily think we were being unethical, but that’s still how it played out.

How did you approach the executive to get him on board?

That’s a great question because he wasn’t on board, and he wasn’t terribly happy with me that I was agreeing with a reporter. As PR people, we often play that very, very fine line. It’s fine for a company to talk about transparency, but then when you have to practice transparency, that becomes a very different conversation.

So how did I get him on board? I told him, I said, “I’m pretty nervous about having this conversation with you because I don’t want you to walk away with a perception that I’m pointing the finger and that I’m making any accusation.” But I said, “This perception is real. And even though it’s a practice that you may have enjoyed in the past, this might very well be a practice you may not want to continue in the future, or you can expect questions like this in the future. And we can begin to establish a reputation that might have some gray area to it, and I don’t think you want that.”

At that time, we were bidding additional business with the city and that factored into my conversation with them. I said, “We are potentially a finalist for some other projects.” I said, “If you don’t handle this appropriately, now it will dog you through additional projects.” When I presented to him the repercussions and the extenuating factors and the future of business opportunities with the city, he reluctantly agreed to have that conversation with me. And then of course his first move was to pull in the lawyers.

And as PR people often our ethical questions get turfed if you will, to the lawyers and the legal team, and that makes it difficult, because the lawyers want to say, “Well, this is legal. This is okay.” And you have to say, “Hmm.” Perception isn’t often something that lawyers like to talk about because they may not agree with the perception.

Is there another challenge you wanted to highlight?

I was the director of one of the satellite offices of an agency several years ago and we had a client in the pharmaceutical industry. During the interview process with this employee we shared our client roster. Though during the interview process, and then the eventual hiring, this particular new employee knew that we were working with this pharmaceutical industry client.

Once she was hired, she informed us that ethically, she could not work on that client. And it was a very large book of business for us, very large, in fact, our largest book of business at the time. And it was the kind of contracts that all hands needed to be on deck for this particular client.

I was a frustrated because I thought, “Well, you knew when we hired you, that was part of the book of business. And you knew we were going to want you to work on this.” And remember that the pharmaceutical industry has certainly had its detractors. And it’s been an interesting industry to represent for a lot of different reasons.

I went to her and I sat down with her and I listened to her objections. And I said, “You’re pretty new at this account. And so what you may not know is that the client actually wants us to help them represent them on a number of white hat issues that they are doing in terms of delivering care to vulnerable populations and providing free medicines for those that can’t afford it.”

I said, “That’s what I’d like you to work on,” and I said, “Those are positive things that help society.” And I said, “That’s why we work for this client. We want to tell their good stories. We want to tell the positive stories. We want to tell the wonderful things that this client has dedicated its resources to doing.” And I said, “I know there’s part of the policy work you may not want to do. And I understand that,” I said, “But a large part of what we do is, is important and beneficial for society.”

And she reluctantly at that point considered to do some of that work and ultimately became very successful. Her perspective was good for we have to come to the client with objectivity.” And I said, “That kind of perspective and objectivity is actually what’s going to help us serve the client. If I have someone on my team who doesn’t want to work on that client for ethical issues.”

You have to bring those ethical issues to the table and always be open to talking with clients about the pros and cons of their business model or the pros and cons of their service delivery or their mission. We have to be the ones to say, “I’m going to push back on this because X, Y, Z.”

I believe you have another personal example you want to share?

Yes. Just one more ethical challenge and I think everyone who hears this will know exactly this challenge. You get a call at 2:45 from a reporter on a very controversial story. The reporter is making statements that just make you cringe. And by the way, the reporter’s going to file the story at 3:00, and do we have a comment? And that has happened to me, unfortunately.

I always interview a reporter before I let the reporter interview my client. And when I sense that the story is emerging in a particular direction, I want to make sure that the reporter is as informed as possible. Sometimes the reporter’s going to need some background.

This reporter was known to be a difficult reporter to work with. I pushed back on the reporter. I said, “Well, it sounds like you’ve got the story already written by the questions you’re asking me.” And I said, “You’re filing it at 3:00 and it’s 2:48 right now.” I said, “Does that seem fair to you for us to give a response since your story is about my client’s company, is that fair?” And I said, I actually said, “Is that ethical? You’re not really giving us a fair opportunity to rebut your accusations or to provide information that might take your story in a different direction.”

And the reporter did not appreciate me saying that.

And I said, “Well, I’m going to work my hardest to try to get,” I said, “Our chief medical officer would be the perfect person. They’re very familiar with this situation.” And the chief medical officer wasn’t available before three o’clock that day. I had to say, you know, I said, “If you can wait so I can get you an interview so you have a fair and balanced story, then I can get you with that particular professional.” But the reporter didn’t wait. He filed the story and it was as biased. Another element of this conversation is how can I act ethically when someone else isn’t?

Well, what’s your advice for that situation when you’re facing the unethical request?

I try to do is I try to go back to the reporter. In this case, the reporter wouldn’t take my follow-up phone call when the story was published. I called him the next day and he wouldn’t take my phone calls. I went to the editor at that point. And I said, “There’s a very serious issue going on here.” And the editor didn’t really necessarily agree with me because I was a PR person and I asked about their policy on fairness, fair and balanced coverage.

It ended up to being a really good conversation or with the editor. And then a couple days went by and I called the reporter again and fortunately he took my call and he and I ended up having a very good conversation. And since that time, I have worked with him on other stories and been mindful of his modus operandi. Sometimes it’s a one-on-one conversation education, that if we in this conversation of both you and I agree to ethical practice and supporting each other ethically practicing, then I think there’s a world of benefit and a world of opportunity.

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

That in itself is a 14-hour conversation.

We’re not going to quite do 14 hours.

  • Ethics counsel is least appreciated when it’s the most needed. The time for an understanding of ethics is always on the preventive side. And it always should be the conversation you have when you don’t need to have it.
  • PR professionals can also be asked to engage in some non-transparent communications. For example, trying to create some media buzz around a situation, by doing negative PR around a competitor because they had found out some information. I counseled them and I said, first of all, I said, “I’m not sure I’m the right person for you.” I tried to tell them that I thought this was an ethically compromised situation. I said, “Obfuscating the truth is never, never an acceptable PR strategy in my book.” I said, “That’s me personally. You may find someone to help you do that.” But sometimes you have to walk away.
  • Rely on the PRSA Code of Ethics. I attach our professional code of ethics to proposals and to contracts. I make a note of it in my contract, that to the best of my ability, my practice of public relations will be to adhere to my professional code of ethics and that I always ask and make it an opportunity for the client to instill their code of ethics and that I will work to abide by theirs as well.

Are there other situations you’re concerned about?

I’ve seen some really interesting PR and ethical conversations arising around diversity, equity and inclusion. Clients are dealing with the ethics of how to have those conversations internally, and I’ll just be blunt about it if you will, for a white person to try to talk about how black people feel when you espouse the Black Lives Matter hashtag and the Black Lives Matter initiatives that are happening.

I’m sure many people have been approached by their boss or by their clients and said, “We need a statement on diversity, equity and inclusion,” right? “We need that statement.”

This is 2020. We should have had these pieces established years and years ago. So, we’re down the pike in terms of this conversation, but I appreciated that the client was sort of waking up to it if you will. And the client over time has done a really good job of workforce development and tallying and surveying and analyzing the diversity in this client’s industry workforce. And so we’re sort of a bellwether in the state of Oregon for this. This is an Oregon-based trade association. And so, we’ve looked at how many workers in our industry are minority and what minorities those are,

Data is very important when you think about this, but the conversation around DEI, diversity, equity and inclusion, is interesting to me because how do I propose to talk for another ethnic group? How does a company talk as a person? A company is made up of a lot of opinions and a lot of diversity. So as we began to establish this diversity and equity and inclusion statement this client wanted, I pushed back on them a little bit and said, “I don’t want us to establish and put out this statement unless there’s really going to be action behind it.”

And in fact in the past say 60 to 90 days, when a lot of companies large and small were putting out diversity statements, groups and interests were pushing back saying, “Well, that’s great to put out a bunch of words, but what are you going to do about it?”

And so, I was able to use that to go back to my client and say, “I don’t want to put this statement out unless we’re really serious about a dialogue and we’re really serious about changing the culture in this industry.” And the executive director said, “You’re right. How do we do this?” And this turned into a huge content series for diversity, equity, inclusion conversations in our industry. And we’ve invited diverse people to do the talking, not the board of directors talking heads, not the typically white professionals, but we’ve asked an array of people at different levels of the organization who are black, indigenous and people of color.

And we’ve invited them to lead the conversation and to tell the rest of all of us in the community how do we do a better job of recruiting diversity into this industry? How are we training more diversity? How are we inviting more diversity? What are we doing and what aren’t we doing? Let’s take a long, hard look at this industry and understand, and where we are and where we’re not meeting the measurements, and we’re not where we need to be.

And I’ve invited the executive director to go back to the board of directors and say, “Be prepared for some hard conversations. I want to be intensely intentional and sensitive to not making assumptions about how those conversations should happen and should proceed. But what I do want as my client, as an industry to commit to is change, how do we commit to change?

It’s more than a hashtag, it’s about real life, real life change, not just issuing a statement. We’re going to start these conversations. Our learning is evolving and our learning is dynamic about this.

Is there a final ethics challenge you want to highlight?

I had an interesting conversation about “truthiness” yesterday about this with some other professionals. Stephen Colbert likes to judge statements by their truthiness. And I often find myself asking if data lie. Sometimes data doesn’t tell the whole story.

We’re having a conversation about people who report their ethnicity as part of their job application. It has led a group of professionals that I know to try to make some certain decisions based on the information. And I had to put a big stop on that conversation. I had to say, “Look,” I said, “From what I understand from the data, you’re relying on data that, it’s not lying, but it’s not telling you the full story. In other words, there are a number of applications where people opted out of reporting their ethnicity. So you may be under-reporting the ethnicity makeup of this organization. Or you may be, you may be under- or over-reporting it simply because a number of people, and it was within their right, to opt out of claiming their ethnicity on this application.”

And so we don’t know. The problem is the data that we have is incomplete. We don’t know, so how do we make decisions from a DEI lens when we simply don’t know? And so I had to back everybody up and say, “This data may not be as reliable as you think.” We need more reliable data.  I think the other challenge is ethics are as blurry as ever on some things, because we all know even listening to one day of political conversation there is data that clearly backs up side A, and data that clearly back up side B and you need to dig into that data. .

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

Good gracious. Honesty always wins.

Also, when you have an ethical dilemma approach it objectively.

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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