Ethical Voices

What do ethical PR professionals do when they are faced with conflicting loyalties? Todd Van Hoosear

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Todd Van Hoosear. He is a Chief Engagement Officer for Business Breakthrough Network and a visiting instructor at Boston University. He and I have been friendly competitors over the years, and I’m really glad to have him as a guest on this podcast.

Todd discusses a number of important ethics topics, including:

Tell us more about yourself and your career?

I received a degree in communications with an emphasis in PR a few recessions ago. My school didn’t actually have a PR degree at the time, but they did have a PR lecturer named Ned Hubble. He was an amazing guy. He drilled in what PR was all about and also gave me my first ethical framework for PR.

I graduated and got my first professional job offer at an agency in farm country in mid-Michigan, in a recession, and it was $13,000 a year. Now I’m old, but even at my age, at that time, that was a lousy salary. So I went to graduate school and took a tech job after grad school for a while. I worked in tech for about eight years before I moved out to Boston and actually started to use my degree again.

I started out on the client’s side, reporting directly to a CEO as a 26 year old. That was interesting. I don’t recommend that. It’s really good to have a mentor who can give you some time and can really focus on things and that was very challenging. It was trial by fire. I was doing general marketing. We launched an incredible campaign that I was really, really proud of. We were promoting a webinar about our services, and I had this great campaign, “Get Your Feet Wet in Ecommerce” and we were shipping out a little wrap of a canister of leather protector spray.

Now this is one of those metal canisters, which was pressurized of course and very flammable. And we did a wrap, which was supposed to be loosely wrapped, which you could pull off and see the actual contents of the container were shoe spray and the pun was thus revealed. But the company we used sealed it shut. You could not get the wrapper off. We basically sent a whole bunch of flammable canisters via the US Postal Mail as one of my first marketing campaigns. I’ve basically violated US postal law.

The interesting thing was that the campaign was very successful and the feedback that I got was either this is the best direct mail campaign that I’ve ever gotten, or this is the absolute worst thing that you could have ever thought, but it did get seats in the room. So there you go.

Then I got a new boss. I hated him. So did my agency so they hired me right away and I spent the next 15 years at agencies, big and small working my way up, eventually building and running and selling my own agency. I did a little detour in Florida and now I’m back here in Boston, teaching at Boston University and running engagement for an interesting little startup called Business Breakthrough Networks.

Well, you gave us one great piece of ethics advice already, which is don’t send flammable objects through the mail. But going beyond what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted in your career?

Most of my clients walk the straight and narrow. But there was one restaurant client that insisted on paying us in cash and trade and the occasional piece of electronics that probably slipped off the back of a truck, at some point. I never had one particular challenge that stood out to me. For me, the toughest challenge was really a general one, which is also one that almost every agency person is going to face. That is the big question of, to whom do you owe your allegiance? Is it your client? Is it to your agency? Is it to the media that you have to pitch? Is it to society? Who’s your real boss?

For me, it has to be the media. And specifically it has to be my reputation with the media. There were a few times when I pitched something that I didn’t believe in and it showed. It always shows. The media weren’t happy. The client wasn’t happy. We should have never taken the business, but we were desperate, and we did.

I want to push back a little bit. You just talked about owing the primary allegiance to the media. I would say in the example you gave, what you were saying is your primary allegiance needs to be to yourself and maintaining your own standards.

You know, you’re probably right. I made that statement without thinking it through entirely. You’re right. I qualified it with talking about my reputation and my reputation is me. So absolutely you have to be selfish. I think the great thing about ethics is it gives you a platform for making decisions that are going to be both beneficial to yourself and beneficial to society. And I guess, the way that I benefit myself is by not pissing off the media.

I’ve been doing these interviews now for about two years and I don’t think I’ve ever had anybody bring up the example where the client wanted to pay them in electronics or cash. What are the ethical considerations you face in the situation and how do you work through that?

The number one ethical consideration there, that’s almost more legal than ethical, right? You know, in my case, the law probably should have dominated and the suspicion that perhaps paying by cash was a way of not reporting certain things to legal authorities. So it’s a good question, Mark. I don’t have a great answer there.

Beyond your own personal experience, what are some of the challenges you’re seeing communicators facing for today and tomorrow?

The biggest challenge I think PR is facing in general is its own reputation and this definitely has some ethical aspects to it. PR has a reputation. Last time I looked, it was slightly below lawyers and slightly above used car salesmen and politicians. There is a reason for that and I can go into the whole history of PR. One of the most celebrated founders of PR was the nephew of Sigmund Freud. He taught us how to use psychology to manipulate the masses. That background has always hung over us as an industry, as a profession. People have concerns that they’re being manipulated. Some of the most foundational original PR texts are titled things like Propaganda. My favorite book is Crystallizing Public Opinion. I think that’s a little closer to describing PR in a more positive light than just Propaganda.

But the reality is that ethics deals with what is right and we decide what is right based on the facts, on truth. And all around us, we’re being told that we live in a post truth era. Ethics is of a concern, no matter what industry you’re in, because of what we’re dealing with right now. But I think it’s especially difficult for public relations practitioners who deal with that kind of intersection of psychology and sociology and marketing and communications.

You said one of the challenges is the reputation of the industry and the perception of the industry. Organizations from PRSA and PRCA to IABC to professionals are working to change that, but it still exists. What’s your advice to help people when they’re working with their bosses or working with those that are outside of PR, understand the ethical grounding of good PR professionals?

The problem with PR is that we’re really good at talking. We talk a good game. We don’t spend enough time doing, and we’re not appreciated for our ability to inform action. I think the best thing that PR can do as a profession is to insist on a seat at the management table. Insist on being in a position in which you’re not an afterthought, that in which you are informing action and not justifying action. Words ring hollow, unless they’re accompanied by action and this has been made extremely clear over the past few months, as we’ve dealt, not only with COVID-19, but also with this crisis of consciousness that we’re dealing with as a society in dealing with institutional or structural racism. Everybody’s talking a good game but what I love seeing is people taking that extra step and saying, “This is what I’m doing about it.” I’m donating money. I’m not just lecturing people in what is actual racism – although I’ve done a lot of that – but are we donating to causes? Are we walking the walk as much as we talk the talk?

The important part is not just walking the walk, but being in a position where the CEO and management team sees you as a strategic resource for them and an important voice. PR stands for public relations, it doesn’t stand for propaganda. Public relations is as much inbound as it is outbound. Representing the voice of the consumer, the voice of the public in the management decisions is a really valuable and really important thing to do.

I’ve been an active Member Of PR Club of New England. I’ve Been On Many Super Bell Award committee conversations. The Super Bells are the best of the best of the Boston PR awards. I’ll never forget one conversation we had as a Super Bell Committee where it was down to two contestants. One of them was a small YMCA up in the North Shore that had suffered from a really, really horrible incident with one of its coaches and had a terrible reputation problem. Because of that PR had an opportunity there to not make big splashy numbers and run a multimillion dollar campaign, but really change how that organization operated from the ground up.

And the other campaign was the classic integrated marketing communications campaign that had great, incredible numbers in terms of engagement and visibility. The numbers were awesome. The sales impact was huge. We ended up going with the YMCA story because they insisted on having a seat at the management table and they changed how that business operated. They didn’t just change sales numbers. They changed how the business operated. They probably saved that organization.

Compared to when you and I first started out, for the most part we do have a seat at the table. Now we need to continue to show that we’ve earned it and added value while we’re at that table.

I agree. It has changed, but it’s still seems more like an afterthought. If you look at metrics that we hold ourselves accountable against, they still tend to be very sales focused. They still tend to be very communications focused and they do not tend to focus on the impact that we have beyond the sales numbers. I think somehow we have to do a better job telling that story. Because you’re right, we do have more seats than we had before.

I want to circle back to a young Todd. You said Ned Hubble gave you an ethical framework that you used as a guide. What was that framework?

Kirk Hazlett always talks about the Golden Rule of PR, which is same as the Golden Rule everywhere else. Do unto others as they would do unto you. And that was pretty much the general advice that Ned Hubble gave. If you want to be respected as an institution, as an organization, you have to make sure that your actions warrant the respect that you want. At the end of the day, if you are able to look back and say, “My mom would be proud of me. My dad would be proud of me.” You’re doing okay.

It was a very simple decision framework for a very, very complex industry that we sit in. The challenges that we deal with on a daily basis are really, really difficult ones. The decisions that we have to make as PR practitioners are very challenging. It’s easy to come up with rules of thumb that can guide it, but it’s hard to really internalize those if they’re too complicated. For me, it’s just would my Mom and my Dad understand what I’d do and would they be proud of me?

You’re in the classroom a lot now. Thinking back to the spring and the previous fall, what are some of the issues in public relations that are most engaging your students?

W both teaching at Boston University and we’re very fortunate in that the program that we teach at has an exceptional writing component to it. So I’m dealing with students who write really, really well. They’re reasonably well-informed. They’re very well-spoken, but they don’t always have a grasp of all of the dimensions of public relations. You ask a typical public relations student, even at the junior/senior, or even at the graduate level, what PR is all about, and for many of them coming into it, what you hear about is things that you would equate with a publicist and not things that you would equate with a strategic advisor to the CEO.

I think one of the biggest surprises that my students have is just how strategic public relations really, really is and that many of the negative ethical implications of public relations simply wash away once you have that strategic role and once you are advising action, and not just, again, as I said, rationalizing the behavior of your bosses.

I think many of my students are a little surprised to hear that because many of them already kind of hunkering down and being prepared for in a job that doesn’t have the best reputation anymore but they know that it makes them decent money. So, I think that’s a surprise.

When I touch on ethics in the social media context, I think there is also some surprise that there is a very strong ethical foundation to social media that often gets overlooked. I mean, if you think back to the Cluetrain Manifesto, which very much informed the early social media movement that’s out there. If you compare that to what you get on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram these days, it’s a pretty stark contrast. So I think we’ve kind of stepped away from those foundations a little bit, but I think those are the kind of general surprises that my students face.

What is some of the best ethics advice that you’ve received?

The best advice I ever got as a senior PR person that was given to me far too late in my career was, if you don’t believe in the product, don’t take the business, even if you’re desperate. And believe me, I’ve run my own company, and I was desperate and I did take business that I shouldn’t have because I needed the money.

I never took business that I knew was a bad thing. I never did business for anybody who was being unethical themselves. Don’t do that. But a lot of the problem with PR comes from bad pitches and the best thing that you can do to avoid giving a bad pitch is to have a good client and to have a good product. And the best way to have a good client and have a good product is for PR to have a voice at the table. To be able to be in a position where it’s not just informing the actions of your marketing and sales team, but also the work that you’re doing in PR is informing the development of the product. You’re having a voice, not just a sales and marketing organization, but at the C-level where input from the public can be used to drive product development decisions and to make a better product that is absolutely critical.

Good products sell themselves. Ideally PR is just throwing a spotlight on them and putting people in the room. We bring the people into the room and the product sells itself.

One other piece of advice I give to my students is, PR isn’t a verb, right? We can’t PR something. It can’t fix a bad company. It can’t fix a bad reputation either. It can’t be an afterthought. The only way to do that is to have a voice at the C-level and to be able to accurately represent the publics that you claim you’re relating to.

Listen to 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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