Joining me on this week’s episode is Sam Villegas, APR, a seasoned PR-pro who used to run her own consultancy, but now is a Senior Consultant with Raftelis, where she helps water, wastewater, and storm water utilities in the public sector get the community support they need for rate increases, new policies, and infrastructure projects using the kind of messaging and strategies to get people to think, feel, and behave differently when it comes to their public work services.
Sam discusses a number of important topics, including:
- What do you do when you are asked to stonewall on a public health issue?
- When should you act as a whistle blower?
- How do you effectively respond to disinformation and fear-based attacks?
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I’m in a really niche space for the PR community in this intersection of public outreach and strategic communications for public work. There’s not a lot of us here, and I realized that the longer I get into this career, the more varied the paths are to it. I did not take a really traditional role to get here.
My undergrad and graduate degrees are in biology and environmental policy. I was pre-med, until I spent a summer going door to door for Greenpeace Action in Western Massachusetts trying to get people to give me money to save the whales and things like that. It was a great, great opportunity. It was such a learning opportunity for me, and had such an impact on me, that I went back to school and changed my major from pre-med to environmental science.
I really got interested in the topic and the issues. And I realized during that summer that I had a pretty good talent for assimilating complex information really quickly, breaking it down really simply for layman audiences, and communicating really well at least verbally. So that really changed my focus. But when I graduated there really wasn’t environmental communications. It wasn’t a phrase that had been coined yet that I knew, but I knew that that was what I wanted to do.
So, when I started looking for a job, I came down to DC and I just started looking for PR comms jobs, and I actually found one within a month in the newspaper of moving down here.
I basically assumed it was a needle in a haystack, and I basically pummeled this woman. She had a small boutique agency where she was doing outreach for recycling and solid waste programs throughout local communities, counties, municipalities, and I just pummeled her with letters and phone calls until she finally called me and was like, stop and come in for an interview. I did, and that was the beginning.
So I started off in this small agency learning the ropes, because remember that was not my degree. So learning how to do a campaign, and learning copywriting, and learning about public service advertising for recycling and solid waste management.
From there, I went to a larger agency where the client was EPA, and the work was ENERGY STAR, if you’re familiar with that volunteer program for businesses to make investments in energy-efficient infrastructure; lights, HVAC, things of that nature to reduce greenhouse gases, but also that savings goes straight to bottom line. So it was a good opportunity for them to lower expenses and at the same time do right by the environment.
So I got behind that and I worked on that campaign for two years. We launched EPA’s ENERGY STAR Small Business. That was a very fun national campaign. We used celebrity endorsements for PSAs, got American Express on board with a low interest loan for businesses. It was a great opportunity.
Then from there I went to public involvement and public outreach for cleanups of Superfund sites; really dirty sites that had been polluted by chemical companies, or they were formerly used defense sites, and going in with Army Corps of Engineers on the cleanup.
That introduced me to the world of public outreach. From there I went into a water utility, in-house in a more of a government-type entity. So, if you’re following along, I went from agency to inside government, and I was with a water wastewater utility for about 10 years. And then I went to a private one, so more of a corporate communications environment. And then, like you said, I branched out on my own and had, at that point, about 20 years under my belt and built up my network and had a pretty sizable network and a skill set to thrive on my own, which I did for about seven and a half years before landing at Raftelis.
This career arc wasn’t as deliberate as it sounds, but I really made my way through this development of this expertise in this very niche area of water, wastewater, public works, recycling solid waste, and the strategic comms and outreach that goes with it. And I really love what I do and I hope the passion shows through.
It definitely does. Thinking back over that strategic arc of your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
There’s been so many Mark, I’m sorry to say.
I have no limit on how long we talk, so go for it.
I’m going to share two with you. Every year I do a guest lecture at Georgetown’s graduate school for a peer and discuss where crisis and ethics intersect. When I first started doing this lecture several years ago, I think I had six that I walked through for the class. And now I think I’m up to 10. It’s like every time she calls me back, I’m like, I’ve added a new one. It’s sad, right? But I’m going to talk to you about a couple.
In one case, there was a large national public health news story. This client that I was working with, was a national company with influence all over the country. A reporter contacted me from my local area and wanted the local angle from this company. And this company actually had influence over doing the right thing with respect to this public health situation or potentially doing the wrong thing. Truth be told the company was doing great things about the issue. They had a good story to tell. And when the reporter called, I was pretty excited to be able to tell our angle and tell our story, that this is scary, and this is bad news, but we’re doing a lot of great things about it.
But when I went to corporate to share with them what I had planned to talk to the reporter about, they shut me down. And they said, we’re not going to reveal all that information. They were fearful of the media. They were fearful of what might get asked, which I am not. I welcome questions because I think it builds understanding and helps us get better, but also builds public understanding and that’s important. That’s part of the job. But this corporate communications department felt differently.
And so, they nixed my approach to responding to this reporter and basically said, you’re going to give her this very aseptic line about we’re doing all the best stuff in all the best ways. Basically a nothing sentence.
The problem is the reporter’s question was quantitative. It was asking some very specific numbers. And so of course, when I wrote this very blahzy line back to the reporter, it took her about 30 seconds to respond back and say, are you sure you want this to be your response? The gauntlet’s thrown? If she wasn’t really looking for a story, now she had one. Needless to say, this saga went on for a few days over a holiday weekend.
I’ll have to stop and tell you that immediately after this, where the reporter came back and said, are you sure you want this to be your response? I reached out to a couple of colleagues on email because I had a stomach ache, and I said, listen, here’s the situation. And my gut is telling me I’ve got to remove myself, because I feel my company asking me to stonewall and it doesn’t feel right. It’s not in the interest of the public. It’s not in the interest of the company. And God love your network, because they came back and they said, yeah, I think your instincts are right Sam.
I went back to corporate and I said, listen, I’m removing myself from this conversation. I could do that because I wasn’t an employee, I was a consultant. I thought, well, they could fire me, but for my own reputation with this reporter, I’m not going to go through with this sham. And corporate said fine, have her reach out to us. And she did, and they stonewalled her. And about a week into it, they finally gave her the information that she wanted but it was a little too little too late.
When the article finally came out in a national print news publication there were six column inches of how difficult the company was, and how hard they were to work with, and how hard it was to get good information. And the whole thing just dripped of, you can’t trust this company. The headlines were ridiculous. They were the exact opposite headlines. The tragedy in this…the company had a good story to tell. They were just afraid to tell it.
It sounds like the client was not committed to free flow of information or disclosure. Was it the client and the corp comm, or was it the legal department that was giving you the pushback?
Corporate comms. They had this posture of being very afraid of the media. And it was too bad. Even after all of this was said and done, and I asked aren’t you glad you came forth and provided the information, it’s the right thing to do. And they wrote back and they were like, no, she had it in for us from day one, and it’s going to be an awful story. And just this really backward, I feel like, very maybe 30-year-old thinking.
So how did you go about trying to change their mind?
I feel like we saw things very differently, and I didn’t think it was worth me telling them. I think I made the case on the stonewalling, the reporter example, very well and it fell on deaf ears.
What is the other example?
The other one was same client and dealt with public outreach for infrastructure project. They wanted me to very deliberately leave critical information out of the campaign materials at a time when we were looking for public support for a project. And I really felt like, again, here we are in our role trying to build and support a democratic society. One that’s based in truth and transparency. And I really felt like we were being misleading without sharing key information. I made a decision to share with a citizen advisory group that information, without the approval of my client to do so. I just felt like it was the right thing to do.
And when I did that, this group of stakeholders, they were so appreciative and they started immediately to troubleshoot, and to think through, we want to support project, but we see how this will be an issue for some folks. What can we do over here? How can we help? How can we change things? The city manager was willing to defer tax increases, and assessments, and the development community was going to do another thing.
The response was appropriate and it was what you want, but when the client found out that I had revealed this information, they were very, very upset with me. I ended up resigning the client over those two things that happened within about a year of each other.
It sounds like you did something against the express wishes of your client. As a responsible advocate of those you represent, what was your thought process and why did you decide to act as a whistle blower?
Yeah, because I’ve always seen my role not as a strict advocate for the client, but for a strict advocate for everybody. Sort of walking that line between client and community and serving the public good. And to my detriment that may be too black and white for most folks. I don’t see a lot of gray there, and that’s on me. And what we were holding back was not cost of the project, but the impact to individual rate payers.
It was a material piece of news?
It was a material piece of information. They knew the cost of the project. They could probably calculate their impact, but we didn’t go through the trouble of telling them.
And when you’re asking for people’s public support for a project, and you’re leaving that out, I just felt like that was misleading. I felt that wasn’t fair because if I say to you, here’s all the benefits of this project. Yes, it’s going to be costly, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. And I get you on board and then you find out after the fact that you’ve publicly said you support it, that this is a 50% to 60% rate increase, your mind may change. And now I’ve put you in this awful position of having to reverse your own public statements. And I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted people to have all the information, I thought that was important that they had all the information in front of them.
They ultimately called me and said, will just you come up and talk to us? And we got around the table and we talked and they said, will you tell us what this actual rate impact is? And I said, yeah. And I told them, and they said wow, that’s not what we thought. That’s bigger than we thought. But what can we do to mitigate it for everybody? Like I said, the town manager was like, well I’m not going to do tax assessments this year. A lot of folks started troubleshooting, which is what happens when the truth is on the table. When all the information is out, then people can really roll their sleeves up and do the work that needs to be done to move forward.
Under the other circumstance, going through it blindly. It’s just not fair.
I regret not being more forthcoming with the client. That’s my fault. I should have gone to the client and said, I really feel the need to tell the folks this. And I think they were going to say no, but I should have told them this is my plan and let them gag me at that point. That was wrong. And that’s on me. I should have told them that I was going to do it.
The other lesson though, is that you’ve got to be very clear with clients from the start where you stand, what you’re willing to do, and not willing to do. Another lesson I learned here is I’m not really able to work for a company who sees this differently than me, who does not recognize the ethics violations. It’s so shocking to me Mark, every time I come across it, because there’s such little… I’ll call it ethics IQ in the business community. It’s so shocking to me that it’s more common than it is.
I think it’s a great point. Good companies are focusing on all stakeholders, not just the shareholders. It sounds like the company you were working for wasn’t engaging and taking all the stakeholders point of view into consideration.
What you’re saying mirrors a theoretical case study that I use in my ethics class of Boston University. And one of the questions that I think some of the students ask me when we’re talking about a case study like this, is why didn’t you just resign?
That’s a tough one and I talk about that too when I talk to students. No doubt, if you’re a student or a new professional, you are going to be at this crossroads, you’re going to have to make this choice.
This was a bread-and-butter client that I had for about three years. And for any of you who are independent consultants, I’ll give you some straight numbers. This was a $7,000 to $8,000 a month client for me, which is big if you’re an independent.
It was important for my income to try and make this work. But I resigned them shortly after that second situation that occurred because it got to the point where I could not keep fearing the very next thing that may happen, that I would be associated with. It got to the point where I wasn’t really comfortable letting folks know I was the PR person for this organization. That’s a bad sign.
I chose peace over cash. And that was fall of 2017, I had one other real good bread-and-butter client that helped me through a bit of the rest of 2017 and the start of 2018, and then things were pretty dire for me. That was part of the impetus for me starting to look back at full time work…but I had to resign them.
Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think they’re really basic. The idea of if our democracy is predicated on this idea of truth and transparency, and we’re not in agreement on exactly what truth is, which is a relatively new thing. This idea that got put forth a couple of years ago by a member of the administration, this notion of the idea of alternative facts, that’s not a new idea. There’s always been alternative facts.
I think back to a conversation I had with a journalist about 10 years ago. We got into this funny conversation on the beach and he said for every fact you give me; I can give you an alternative fact that will rebut what you said. And it was eye opening for me, but he was right. There are two sides to every story and they can be factual.
But what this member of the administration was doing was aligning this idea of alternative facts with not facts. With what I consider to be lies. And I think that was the beginning of the end here. I think that idea that you could just decide that something wasn’t true has been problematic for us, and only gotten worse over the last couple of years. And I think that’s going to be our big challenge, is this search for and return to what is factual? What makes a fact? What is truth?
You said it’s the beginning of the end. Do you believe there is a road back, or are we going to spiral down out of control?
Well, I have to keep my cynicism in check. It’s gotten pretty bad, I will tell you. I think there can be a road back. I think it requires a lot of work by the PR community and the citizenry. Folks need to get smarter and be more discriminating in what they’re looking at. Be critical thinkers. A big player in this is the tech world, and I think there’s lots of ramifications especially on social media, and opportunities for us to turn this around, but we’ve got to have leadership on it because most of this country seems to be blindly following leadership that they align with, and that’s to the detriment of critical thinking.
The answer isn’t an easy one. It takes a lot of work. At my company been talking to water utilities and wastewater utilities about this, because of PFAS; P-F-A-S, the forever chemicals, which is a big news story now impacting water utilities and their ability. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. And there’s a process, and it takes time and it takes vulnerability, but this process for risk communication involves really, first of all, trying to empathize at the core with the message receiver, and these folks that are scared. They’re scared about the information.
The response is really emotional; it’s fight or flight. And in many cases, it’s fight. They’re lashing out. Step one is to really seek that common ground and that empathy, and show that you’re scared too, maybe you’re a parent as well. Maybe you see this news and it scares you, and look for that common thread.
And then you need to ask open-ended questions. Why does this scare you so much? What do you think this means? Get them to really talk about what they know. Then, and only then, try to share your facts. And if they’re accepting of your facts, you’ll know that steps one and two were helpful in bringing you closer together to an understanding. If they reject your facts, you have to go back and do step one and two again, and then ask help me understand how you arrived at that idea. Can you share your source for that? And promise to review it, and read it, and then ask if it’s okay to share your source.
This is a long process that doesn’t get done in a quick timeframe, but we’ve got to all do the work. We’re never going to get back like you and I were talking about. It really takes work, and if you watched, for example Mark, I don’t know if you saw this, but there was that show about flat earthers that made the rounds a while back and they talk at the end about how do you talk to folks that are this dug in on something that’s so anti-science.
You can’t just shout at them the facts. They’re not going to hear that, it’s going to bounce right off. You’ve got to take the time to understand where they’re coming from really, really honestly. It’s hard. You need to do this on a continuous basis.
That’s good advice. Thinking about advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
That’s a tough one because I don’t know that in the course of my career, somebody stopped me and said, let me give you some ethics advice. But what I’ve learned is that if it feels or seems wrong, it probably is.
If you’re taking note, if you’re paying attention, that could happen very frequently.
If it feels and seems wrong, it probably is. Trust your gut. But then ask a colleague or a trusted advisor. You can check your gut like I did in that first scenario. I consulted a bunch of colleagues that I trusted to say, this feels wrong. What do you guys think? I feel like I’ve got to step away. And of course, I was right. And then finally, it’s going to be tough and times are tough right now, but you really can’t let a boss or a paycheck overrule you when it comes to ethics. It’s not the right move.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I think tech is a real issue, not just in terms of things like, for example, Facebook and Zuckerberg’s inability to really see what his responsibility is. I think he hides behind the First Amendment. But when it comes to manipulation of the tool to literally addict us to it, I think there’s an ethical issue there with the selling of data and the allowance of disinformation. Just his inability or unwillingness to do anything to police that under the First Amendment. I think that there’s an issue there.
I know tech ethics is a relatively new area, but this idea that we’re building things that possibly do more harm than good. We must have some movement and thinking behind how can we do this in a way that is enriching and positive to people’s lives, and not so detrimental without so many opportunities for bad actors.
Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here.