Ethical Voices

What to do when you are asked to make inflated claims – Erin Callanan

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Joining me this week is Erin Callanan, the director of media relations for WGBH. And for those of you that don’t know, WGBH is America’s pre-eminent public broadcaster and the largest producer of PBS content for TV, the web and mobile. It is also a major supplier of programming for public radio nationwide on air and online.

Erin discusses a number of ethics challenges including:

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

Like many other people, I graduated from college with a liberal arts degree trying to find myself. I was lucky enough to land a fantastic job right out of college at a small public affairs agency based in Boston. They were willing to take a chance on me, as long as I was willing to jump in and do what it took to get the job done. I went from there into more of a straight PR role working on the agency side still with what was then the Weber Group. I then left there to go to Shandwick and ended up back at Weber Shandwick throughout the merger. In that role, I really had the opportunity to really develop those traditional PR skills, working on a wide variety of clients from small technology companies, to clients the size of Kodak and Walmart stores.

Like many other PR folks, I was laid off, that will happen to a lot of us in our career and looked then for that next opportunity, which turned out to be a job at the Boston Globe, helping promote some of their internal products to external audiences. After a couple of years there, I decided to try something new. And I went out on my own. I found a good friend and we founded a small agency and I did that for the next 13 years. That really challenges you in trying to work with a wide variety of different clients and keep the doors open and your employees employed. Two years ago, just in the interest of a change. I took this opportunity at WGBH and really could not have landed in a better place. It is a combination of doing the PR work that I love along with working for a client with a really solid mission. Ensuring that all audiences have equal access to media and educational materials. WGBH is really a standout in that manner. And I love everything I do there.

Thinking over your career from working in public affairs to having your own firm, to working at WGBH, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I think that it’s not just one instance. We face ethical challenges in so many different ways every day. A client looking to put a certain message out that may not be 100% accurate or truthful. Running your business and facing that line between the clients that you really truly believe in and needing to keep the doors open and your employees employed. Every day we have to make choices about the messages we’re putting out and how we stay true to the values of honest, truthful, ethical PR, and to be responsible not only to yourself and to your clients, but to our profession in a whole.

I think every single day, we face those challenges. Some bigger than others. We’re always looking at the messages we’re putting out and making sure that they are honest and transparent and not just telling one side of the story. There’s a real solid difference between what we would consider the core values of the public relations profession and what slides into propaganda. We see a lot of that every single day in the world.

How do you push back on clients that want to inflate their claims and help them understand the reputational risk of making these claims?

Everybody has a good story to tell, and you don’t have to overinflate the story to have it be a good story. You should work with your client to understand the impact of what they’re doing, of how it’s going to resonate. We have a duty to our clients and to the relationships we have with the media to be truthful. It never works when you’re not truthful, you always get caught one way or another. If you’re putting out a story and you’re overinflating it, I think you have to expect that a good journalist on the other side is going to catch on to that. And then not only is the story never going to run, but you’ve also just ruined that relationship. We must weigh short term gain versus long term sustainable relationship and talk your client through that. Understand what they’re trying to achieve and work with them to find other ways to make that happen.

I don’t believe in the dark side of people. I don’t believe that everybody is out there significantly trying to change a story just to necessarily make themselves look better. I think that they’re trying to reach a goal, to show success. You do that best by being honest and finding ways to make that impact.

The second challenge you highlighted is the challenge between bringing in revenue as an agency person and having clients you believe in. And I’m not actually seeing the ethical challenge there. What happens when you’ve got clients that are doing things that you think are unethical? Can you elaborate on this a little more?

You have to trust your gut. If it doesn’t feel good, don’t go there. And you have to think about that. You have a responsibility to your employees to be bringing the business in and to ensuring that they’re getting paid every month. In order to do that, you have to have clients that are paying your bills. But I think that there are clients out there that are looking for you to tell a certain story or their story isn’t quite as solid as it should be. You know instinctively, if it doesn’t feel right, it’s going to be a really hard client to support. You have to trust your instincts on that.

Again, I don’t think that there are a lot of clients out there, that are intentionally trying to lead people wrong, I think they look at PR sometimes and they don’t understand how important it is to be truthful and accurate and honest and how that will help them grow as opposed to, I’m just going to push one message that I believe in. And that’s the only message that I want to push out there.

That makes sense. And I think it’s something I remember back, especially in the dot com boom, the first time. And you had some clients and some messages, and you’re just like, “This makes absolutely no sense.” But they’re saying, “I’ll give you $20,000 a month to do this.” Do you take that money, try it and realize you’re going to fail, or are you honest and push back and say, “This is what we need to do.” My counsel is always, if you fail, it’s going to hurt your brand in the long term. So, it doesn’t make sense to look at that short term gain.

Yeah. And I think that is kind of agency perspective and especially at a small agency, that is so true because if it doesn’t feel right, your client goes away unhappy, you feel unhappy. Nobody wins in that process.

I learned the hard way a couple of times, but you have to trust your instincts.

There is also the client that is on the border between difficult and abusive and when you part ways with them, it will have a negative impact on your revenue and ability to retain staff.

You owe it to your staff, not to put them in that situation.

At the end of the day, when you’re a small business owner, your staff is everything. You want them to believe in what you’re doing, to buy into what you’re doing, to do their best work for you. If you have an employee that believes in the company, they are one of your biggest advocates.

Beyond your own personal career. What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges?

I work in a media organization. In addition to producing shows like Nova and Masterpiece, we have a really solid news department. This includes Frontline and a news department for radio and TV covering local news. So I follow news a lot. And I think one of the biggest challenges we have today is people are getting their news and their information from so many different sources. When I started in PR it was TV and radio and print. If I could get a story in the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald at one or two TV stations, everybody knew about it.

It’s not that way today. And there is so many different places that people get their news, but I feel like we are in this bubble where there’s a lot of misinformation out there and it is both purposeful and not. I think to some extent in our business, we tend to be really busy. We’re looking at a lot of different news sources every day. I know that I am guilty of sometimes just reading a headline. That spread of misinformation goes fast.

How do we teach people? How do we ensure that people know they’re getting their information from a trusted source? Because that changes everything. We have a responsibility to ourselves and to the other people we work with to share accurate, trustworthy information and to understand where it’s coming from. And I think that is one of the biggest challenges we have today. Because you can take one new story and there are 10 different perspectives, sharing 10 different stories out of that same piece of information.

So how do you recommend we educate people to understand where it came from and if it is sourced appropriately?

Look at where it’s coming from, understand what makes up a trusted news source. There are a lot of news sources out there with a specific political bent or one way or another. Before you share it, read the information thoroughly. Don’t just read the headline and think you know what the story is about. What’s really important is to dig into where the story is coming from, who do you trust? And also you should take a look at a wide variety of sources too, so you understand different perspectives. It’s not necessarily good and bad or black and white, but it is coming from different perspectives and there are different angles out there and just understanding what those are and how they shape the story that they’re telling.

I think it goes beyond even the outlets to look at the person. An example I’ve shared once before, and he’s not here so I can share it now and he won’t yell at me. We were teaching my oldest son about sourcing and one day he said, “I saw this really interesting article on capitalism and challenges.” And we’re like, “Where did it come from – and Reddit is not enough” He’s said, “Yeah, I got it on Reddit but I checked and it came from the Wall Street Journal. Daddy, that’s like a reputable news source and it was an op ed. When I asked who the OpEd was from he told me Theodore Kaczynski.

He didn’t know because he’s a teenager that Theodore Kaczynski is the Unabomber. So, he was sourcing the Unabomber and thought it was authoritative because it was the Wall Street Journal. And so, we talked about why you need to dig deeper and find out who the people are, even if they’re contributing to reputable outlets.

It’s so true. And I think the challenge is there’s so much news out there on sites like Reddit. We may not see Reddit as a news source but it is a news source for a lot of people. Facebook is facing a lot of those challenges right now. And I don’t envy the people in those organizations in trying to figure out where they fit. The consumer is looking at them as a news source. They look at themselves as a platform. You see all these challenges right now on what gets shared and do you lock some of these accounts because they’re sharing inaccurate information. They have to be the judge and jury on that, I would not want that job for anything, it’s really hard.

It’s hard, it’s really hard and it’s not going to get better. We each have that responsibility to be smart about it and to take the time to learn.

Beside the growing threat of disinformation. Are there other ethics concerns you wanted to discuss?

It goes back to that understanding what our own responsibilities are. You and I are both involved in PRSA and I do go back to their code of ethics quite a bit.

That is something that needs to be shared so that people understand that in our profession, that code of ethics exists and we do have a responsibility. We are supposed to be accurate and truthful and to work with integrity. We have a responsibility to always be learning and educating ourselves. And I think in our profession from the outside in, people don’t always understand that. I want us to be really proud of that in the work that we do and as PR professionals and especially members of PRSA that we adhere to that code of ethics, so that we are creating this honorable profession going forward.

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

To trust my instincts. If it feels bad, it probably is.

I also truly, honestly believe in being honest and as transparent as possible. There’s a harsh reality to the fact that we’re not always going to be able to be a 100% transparent. Our clients have things going on. There are financials they’re not willing to share, but we need to be as transparent as possible.

Sometimes saying “no” is transparent. We’re not interested in sharing that information with you right now. We’re not going to make it up. We’re not going to lie about it, but no, is fine. It’s a good answer sometimes.

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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