Setting Ethical Boundaries – Tracy Schario

Joining me on this week’s episode to discuss setting ethical boundaries is Tracy Schario, APR. Tracy leads external communications and editorial services at MITRE, where she directs their content strategy, media engagement and reputation research. She has held senior management roles of The Optical Society, Pew Charitable Trusts, GW University, and Strategic Communications Group.

Tracy touches on a number of important issues including:

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

Today I’m doing things that 25 years ago I never envisioned, and I’ve been blessed to have a very dynamic career. I started out in government relations and international relations doing direct lobbying on clean water issues, and then worked for the State Department overseas at the Embassy in Manila and the Consulate in Surabaya, Indonesia, doing primarily American citizens and community relations work. It was fascinating and a really good primer for the work that I’m doing today on crisis communications and reputation management.

When I was in Indonesia in the late ’90s, President Suharto, who had been the dictator for 30 years, was overthrown. All of a sudden the economy tanked and there were riots in the streets, there were people trying to jump over the fence at the Consulate and take down the American flag. There I was, 27 years old and organizing an evacuation of not just American citizens, but all western countries because we were the biggest diplomatic presence in Eastern Java.

I learned a tremendous amount about keeping cool, keeping calm and only sharing the facts. When you’re in the middle of a coup there’s a lot of rumor and a lot of anxiety and a lot of fear. And what you saw on CNN International was not quite what was happening in the streets. It was a really good experience on how to stay calm, stay cool and help people who were really in a crisis situation. I learned a lot in my four years at the State Department.

And then I came back to the United States and decided I was not cut out to be an expat for the rest of my career. It was the late ’90s, technology was hot, hot, hot, and I was fortunate to get a job with a PR agency working for Fortune 1000 companies and technology startups. And it was the go-go ’90s and it was great because you could turn away business and you could do really cool, fun things. You had huge budgets and then 9/11 hit and all of that changed and rocked our world. I was a vice president at the time and on the senior management team and once again I found myself having to kind of rethink how we operated and what was the best thing to do for the people in our business, in our company, and then how to grow and recover after that crisis.

I was there for about five years and then got a call from a recruiter to be a spokesperson at George Washington University and that was the best job I never knew I wanted. I was not really looking to move and I didn’t know much about higher-ed but it was a dynamic time to be there. I had the pleasure of serving under two different presidents and again, I learned a lot. GW has a frequent stream of high-profile visitors, from international diplomats to presidents of the United States, to celebrities like Sheryl Crow for example, and comedians…so I got to meet Dave Chappelle and really just had a fabulous time.

Some of the most intense crises that I’ve dealt with in my career were at GW. There was a basketball recruiting scandal, a lawsuit from a student, a mental health issue, and a string of suicides while I was there. These helped me appreciate the importance of scenario planning in terms of thinking about crisis and incident response and reputation management, and then realizing that even the best laid plans kind of fall apart on the battlefield. You try to plan your work and work your plan, but in a crisis situation you’re always kind of evolving and tweaking.

And then I went back to my roots and did advocacy work at the Pew Charitable Trusts on clean energy. I was the Chief of External Relations at The Optical Society, did our hundred-year celebration and a rebrand, which takes me to where I am today at MITRE. I won’t say it’s the best job I never knew I wanted because I knew I wanted this job, I love corporate communications, but COVID has really transformed everyone’s day to day job into something that we never envisioned. And so I feel MITRE is just this unique blend of my science, my advocacy, my agency, and my international experience because we are a global company that operates in eight different countries, in 60 different cities so it’s quite an expensive operation.

Thinking of that blend of experience, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

I have two. The first was way, way back…early in my career when I worked for a startup company. I was employee number 13 and as we grew, the CEO of that company really wanted to convey that we were a big company, and we had presence, and we were established.

So he from time to time would double or triple the size of the staff. And I can remember confronting him after one such client meeting and I told him, I’m really uncomfortable with you kind of inflating our numbers. We had a heart to heart about it, we agreed to disagree, and so the way I dealt with that is as we wrote case studies and as I was dealing with clients one on one, I would make sure that they knew the number included full time staff, contractors, and our network of freelancers. Part of our differentiation in the marketplace was that we have this big network. I felt like we were being most honest when we talked about our numbers in terms of our network, just not a raw number.

That is a difficult conversation to have with your boss. I was early in my career but I pride myself on never being too bashful and sharing what I think is constructive criticism. I’ve always been the loyal opposition. I’m going to make my case, I’m going to state my concerns, but ultimately, I’m an influencer and whatever decision is made by the leadership, the CEO, I will abide by that and I will execute on that.

Did the media ever call you on the inflated employees count? And what did you do if the media did question it?

Well in this case it was not media related, it was all client customer engagement. Today if I said we had 9,000 employees when we actually only have 8,200 employees. I would absolutely go on the record and correct that with the media. I would ask for an update, a correction to the story, because I don’t think you want to be something that you’re not. And if the facts on your website or elsewhere say X, but someone in an interview says something that isn’t a hundred percent accurate…as a PR professional, I have every responsibility to go back to that reporter and say, “Hey, as you write your story, please make sure that this is the correct number.” I’ve done that plenty of times in my career, clarifying facts after an interview, because in the moment, in the conversation, sometimes people get carried away. It’s not malicious, it’s just the nature of conversation.

Is there another example you want to share?

I deal with a lot of different content, and we are building a microsite for one of our internal clients. Because we’re a large company one group wanted to take a piece of information and claim it as theirs as a part of the microsite. And so, I had to explain to the internal client that you can’t take credit for some other business unit’s work. If you want that reflected on the microsite, we have to be very careful about how we phrase it, how we position it on the microsite, so that it’s clear that it’s related, but not work that your particular group is doing.

How do you work with the executives to get them to realize that? I could see the pushback, well we’re all one family. How do you really navigate those waters and help those executives understand?

In most cases I work with a great group of people who are very open to that kind of feedback and appreciate that collaboration. I have worked in other environments where that kind of feedback was not necessarily appreciated. And in those more contentious positions, this is where sometimes you have to use your own boss to be a mediator and interject. But hopefully in most cases you’re able to have a conversation and make the case for why trust us as the communicators, we know what external audiences view as credible, we know what media are looking for. In the unusual circumstance where someone doesn’t take your advice and doesn’t approve your recommendations, then you do have the opportunity to escalate to your boss or in worst case scenario the other person’s boss. But that has not happened very often thankfully in my career.

Thinking beyond your career, what are some of the key challenges ethically you’re seeing for PR today and tomorrow?

Looking forward, COVID has actually improved a lot of corporate reputations because companies and CEOs are having to be transparent in a way that they haven’t been forced to in the past. Now we have this additional conversation about social equity and racial injustice, and so I think it’s forcing communicators, CEOs, and their leadership teams, to really take a hard look at company positions and company policies and company practices.

I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to see a lot more change probably over the next three to five years. Our current events are really changing the dynamics. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be conflicts of personal or corporate reputation, those are always going to happen. But I do think we’re in an unusual period of openness, transparency, and honest dialogue, about really tough issues, and that is a good thing. I think all of us will come out stronger and more informed because of it.

I’ve seen so many more companies talking about social justice, talking about issues in terms of diversity and making a commitment to changing it, but I’m seeing a lot of talk and I think we’re not really seeing the action across the board. How do you work with companies to make sure it’s not just another form of greenwashing and that we’re actually putting steps behind our words?

The challenge is change takes time. Words to a certain extent are the easy part. It’s the actions and how long does it take to see change within an organization? It does take time because you’re talking about uprooting long held policies, practices, that are just going to take time.

At MITRE we are in the final stages of looking at our own style guide, looking at the conversations going on in the AP and the Washington Post about capitalization of Black and White and how you describe different ethnic groups. So, we’ve gone through our own style guide and looked at it with what we call social innovation, but more commonly known as inclusion and diversity. We looked at it with the eye to modernize it and make it contemporary with what’s happening in the world around us. So that’s one concrete way that in communications we’re making change, but the HR policies and benefits and other types of change, that I think takes longer to come about.

As communicators there’s a number of things we can do from looking at our own language, to the types of stories that we’re pitching, to the types of people in our company that we’re profiling. We need to make sure there is an eye toward inclusion and diversity are part of your storytelling.

Are there other areas you’re concerned about when it comes to communication ethics?

Our profession and the practitioners in it are going to continue to be challenged by social media. The disinformation, the misinformation that goes on, we have to make sure that we’re careful not to contribute to it, or be suckered by it. Some of these disinformation campaigns are very slick and appear very legitimate If as part of your content strategy you share third party content, I could see how it might be easy to share third party content that is not really that credible. At MITRE, if we share third party content, it’s from verified news sources like the Washington Post or CNN, or from a company that we know and trust.

We also do a lot of work in open source technologies, one of which is a cybersecurity framework called the Attack Knowledge Base. We have a lot of startups in the vendor community that want to use Attack as a way to build credibility for their own products, and from time to time have to go to those PR professionals and say you’re not approved to use MITRE Attack in your marketing materials. And here’s why, and can you please take down that news release because we didn’t approve it and it’s misleading, we’re not endorsing your product.

So I deal with that kind of on a day to day level, but I totally get it. I was a young PR professional looking for ways to build credibility for a new and burgeoning product. But you have to go to those PR professionals and remind them that they’ve overstepped the boundaries, and then use that as an opportunity to build relationships with them. By all means I’m looking for additional visibility for our MITRE Attack product, but I want to be part of the conversation, I want to be part of the approval process rather than see a vendor going out on their own and talking about MITRE Attack for example.

That’s a great example, and I love how you’re talking about the advice that you give these other PR pros. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

The only thing that follows you is your reputation. And I can’t remember who said it, but it was very early in my career, I think it might’ve been my first boss at the State Department, and that has really always guided me. It’s the good work I need to follow me. Honesty and the integrity need to be part of my reputation.

And even on my most frustrating days I remember that I can’t be frustrated at work, and that I have to do better than my best, and to never let them see you sweat. Your reputation is not just about the results that you produce and the award-winning work that you may be a part of, it’s how you conduct yourself in the workplace.

Learning how to manage your frustrations I think is a key thing that I learned early. I’m a very expressive person, I have no problem sharing my opinions, but that sometimes can be perceived as being too blunt or not a good listener. And so I always try to make sure that I’m a good listener first, and that when I do get frustrated I can say let’s continue this conversation later when we have more time, or when I’ve kind of processed my thoughts and can give you better counsel because I really, really take to heart that ethics and the success of a relationship is about your reputation and how you conduct yourself day to day, in good times and in bad.

Check out 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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