Joining me on this week’s episode is Jay Baer, a New York Times bestselling author of six books, and one of the world’s most inspirational marketing, customer experience, and customer service keynote speakers. I first met Jay almost 15 years ago, and I am really glad to have him as a guest today where we will discuss the ethics lessons you can learn from beer, football and food.
Specifically, he discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- How to ethically work for competing companies
- The rampant issue of IP Theft
- Restaurants’ ethical dilemma: COVID disclosure
For those that don’t know you, why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
I have been in digital marketing communications and CX really since the beginning of the discipline. I started in 1993 back when domain names were actually free. You could get whatever domain name you wanted and pay nothing for the privilege because who would want to have a website? What would you do with such a thing? True story, my partners and I, in my very first internet company, we sold the domain name budweiser.com in 1993 to Anheuser-Busch Brewing for 50 cases of beer. And we genuinely thought that we got a great deal on that transaction. That’s how early it was.
Before I was in the internet game, I was in politics as a political campaign consultant. I realized that I didn’t want to do that all the time and I sort of accidentally fell into the internet at the very, very beginning. And so, subsequently, I’ve owned a series of digital strategy consultancies. And my current firm, Convince & Convert, is a boutique virtual consultancy that works with really iconic brands all over the world on digital strategy, content marketing, social media marketing, customer experience, and customer service. It’s a lot of fun. In days gone by, I spent 200 days a year on the road giving presentations around the world. I haven’t done that as much, but I’m doing a lot of work online. The ability to do a keynote speech and never put on pants is not that bad.
I say we have the Zoom mullet, it’s business on the top and fun and relaxing on the bottom.
I can’t tell you the last time I wore socks. I really don’t know, it’s been a while.
That’s more than I think people wanted to know, but that’s okay. So, thinking about your career and the work you’ve done, and aside from extorting Budweiser for 50 cases of beer…
…they came to us. I wouldn’t call it extortion.
They came to you, which is good. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I am confronted with ethical challenges all the time, because some of what we do in the organization is content creation, influencer marketing programs, and sort of joint thought leadership. For example, just yesterday, there is a business that is creating a new software package to allow their customers to communicate to the end user, using text messaging as opposed to email or phone. It makes a lot of sense. The competitor that they’re looking to disintermediate is already a partner of mine. I’m already doing a bunch of work with the other guys. This happens a lot because the world that I inhabit, we work every day with Salesforce and Oracle and Cisco and HubSpot, so almost everything I do every day, has some sort of competitive stickiness.
It’s not really practical for a lot of reasons to offer a category exclusivity per se, but I am constantly having to tell people, “Hey, these other guys who may be your sworn enemy, also want to work with me in this capacity. How do you feel about that?” In almost every case, I could probably do it without telling anybody, it’s a big world, they wouldn’t even notice. But I feel really driven by the golden rule in this perspective, that if I was working with a vendor who was working with my number one competitor, how would I feel about that, I’d at least want to know. And so I spent a lot of my time giving people heads ups.
What’s the reaction usually and how do you work through it?
Usually what I try and do is say to myself and my team, if the client actually did hear about this not from us, but happened to see a LinkedIn ad, for example, that said, “Jay Baer’s going to do a webinar with your primary competitor.” how would we feel about that? How would we feel that they would feel? If it’s at all less than delighted, then the instruction is, nobody should hear anything other than from us directly. On occasion, it absolutely positively costs us money. They say, “You know what, we’re just not comfortable with it. Don’t do it.” Then we just don’t do it. We walk away. I feel like, especially in this day and age, disclosure is critical and we do so many joint ventures, there’s a lot of things on there that say sponsored, right? We just want to make sure that people know where the bread is buttered. I wish everybody kind of went at it the same way, but I can tell you firsthand, they don’t.
Transparency and disclosure are challenges that a lot of people face when it comes to digital. But I want to spend a second more on the example of working with the competitors, because that’s something that every agency person deals with and how they draw the line. When you’re giving the consultation, one of the ethical challenges I can see people facing is not just sharing IP, but sharing of insights that you gathered during one competitor’s research, working for their engagement with that other competitor.
How do you handle that to make sure that you’re not inadvertently reusing insight gained from one company with another?
That one’s even trickier for me, because as a speaker, I will deliver insights to tens of thousands of people a year. And if those insights gained on any individual project had to be kept in a lock box, that would be a real challenge. And so, I don’t worry about that too much, unless it truly is something that is applicable solely to that company or that industry. What makes me an effective speaker and effective author and communicator is the scenario where I’m working in a lot of industries and working with lots of different companies all the time and can kind of identify patterns and kind of create hybridized advice and counsel, that suits a lot of situations and circumstances. So perhaps I’m in violation of the EthicalVoices mandate in that particular way. But I don’t lose a lot of sleep about that one.
It isn’t an EthicalVoices mandate, I’m not quite that popular yet to have that, but what I’d say and the way I tend to look at it again, is you’re right. There is the expertise that Jay Baer brings or I bring, or any agency brings, that they have built up over the years. There is the old adage about the guy who makes the phone call and says, “If you want an interview with this Congressman, or this person, it will be 50 grand.” And the guy’s like, “You can do that in 10 minutes.” And he’s like, “Well, I spent 20 years building it up so I can do it in 10 minutes.” It’s just making sure you keep those what’s truly IP separate from your own expertise. The key issue is to make sure you don’t share confidential information or something else in that regard.
Yes. I completely agree. And there’s a lot of things that we have to forget, but then there’s also particular practice groups or verticals that you work in more often, we do a fair bit in higher ed now. And so there’s no question that what we learn working on one school, we try to make ourselves smarter and apply it to a different school. The nice thing is that for the most part, the competitive juices in higher ed are not quite the same as they are in say software. They don’t have quite the same issues, but right now we work with Arizona State and Arizona, we work with Purdue and Indiana. There are definitely some strange bedfellows.
Thinking beyond just your own personal conflict of interest and safeguarding confidences, what are some of the key ethics challenges you’re seeing today, particularly when it comes to digital?
Well, part of it is just stealing people’s content. It’s not even keeping confidence, its literally just lifting and stealing. We have a very popular blog. We have thousands of blog posts. We get, I don’t know, a couple hundred thousand people a month visit our site and on a regular basis, I should do it more, but it always frustrates me so much that I decided not to do it for a while. I will find a semi-obscure blog post that we have published, not a barn burner, but something that’s sort of mid pack. And I’ll just find a little passage in there and type it into Google. And invariably I will find three, four, five, or six other blogs that have literally just scraped it, word for word, and published it as their own. They took my name off as the byline and put their name on as the byline.
And then I have to email them with a very stern reminder of copyright law and threaten to report them to their web hosts, which will then force a take down notice and blah, blah, blah, blah. It just sucks up a lot of my time. That is really annoying and very, very frustrating because that’s not, “Hey, I took a good blog post and I rewrote it 15% and republished it as my own,” which is loathsome in and of itself. It is literally copy and paste using a robot to do it. And it is rampant out there, rampant. It’s the one piece of good news, at least temporarily, with multimedia content. It is harder to do that with a podcast. It’s harder to do that with a video at least for now, but when you’re talking about kind of web based written content, man, the thievery is out of control out there.
Are there things companies can do to keep the competitors from ripping off their content and protecting their IP?
One of the things you can do and it depends on how sophisticated the thieves are, is have some links back to your own site in each blog post, which is good search engine optimization practices anyway. Then you could have “internal linking.” Sometimes if they’re lazy and they just copy and paste it directly and don’t strip the links out, if you’re on WordPress, you’ll get a trackback notice. And so you’ll actually get an email from your server that says, “Hey, there’s a new link back to this webpage.” And then you look at their email and say, “Oh, a new link. Great.” And then you realize that it’s a post that someone has stolen from your site, and the link is still there. That’s a nice way to kind of get a little mini alert.
I would just say that as a matter of course, anytime you’re publishing anything on your own site have at least one link back to a different page on your site, which at least if you’re on WordPress, will give you possibility for an early warning detection system.
I don’t know if you know Bonnie Upright, but speaking of this, it’s the best and scariest example of IP theft I have ever heard is that her mother’s obituary has become one of the most plagiarized obituaries. Her mother wrote it. It was great. And she’s found it 30 times when people have lifted the entire obit and used it for their loved ones.
What she should do in that case, is literally publish it for like a $14.99 obituary in a box course. Lean into the scheme at that point, right? Monetize it, or have the 90 minute micro course on how to write an amazing obituary. I would literally do that. I would turn it into an asset.
Aside from the IP theft, are there other ethics challenges you’re really seeing businesses grappling with?
Right now, we have a lot of things to contend with that maybe were edge cases before, and are now prevalent. I’ll give you a local example. I live in Bloomington, Indiana, a college town about an hour south of Indianapolis. Many of my friends here are in the restaurant business. It’s a relatively small community. There’s probably a hundred thousand people here all in, relatively close knit. What’s interesting is when workers at restaurant A, are diagnosed with COVID-19, which happens with some regularity because the restaurant community tends to congregate off hours. That being the case, restaurant A has a worker that has been diagnosed positive, sends that worker home and presumably quarantines them until they pass a negative test and then welcomes them back.
But in the interim, it’s business as usual. Well that’s option A. Option B, which happens some of the time, is the restaurant discovers that a worker has been tested positive, closes the restaurant for deep cleaning, tests all of the staff, and then publicly notifies the entire community of such. That is the exact same situation, one worker presumably tests positive with an entirely different approach. It is a huge fork in the road. I find it fascinating because it’s literally playing out right in front of me every day in my community. Every day, another restaurant closes. Every day, another restaurant has a positive case, but doesn’t mention it as reported usually anonymously on Reddit or somewhere like, “Yeah, somebody in the kitchen has it, they just didn’t close.” And it’s just really interesting to see how the community reacts to each of those decisions.
How has the community reacted to those decisions?
Well, it’s interesting. Those who are aware of businesses sort of hiding positive tests, are obviously unhappy and threaten to not spend money in those businesses for the foreseeable future. The challenge is that the people who stay up on those kind of things on a Reddit is a very small minority of the overall population. It’s going to filter out via word of mouth in a town like this eventually, but it’s not the same as making an announcement on your Facebook page or in your email, or even on the homepage of your website that, “Yes, indeed, we had a positive test and we closed as a result for three days to make sure everybody else tested negative.” So it’s the reach, I guess, of the decision is very, very different. And I find that to be an interesting ethical conundrum. What would you do?
I would not hide it. You’d have to close. You have to go out there because I think one, it’s going to be found out eventually. It’s going to hurt your brand when you’re doing it, especially if other people get sick and they start doing the contact tracing and identify it. I think somebody is looking at short-term gain versus long-term reputation.
I completely agree. What’s been heartwarming is that in many cases, well really, all cases so far that I can think of, where restaurants have proactively said, “Yeah, we got to stay closed for a few days and retest everybody.” The community has rallied behind that in an unbelievable way. “Wow, thank you so much for letting us know. That is so admirable that you’re doing that and proactively keeping us safe. And we’ll be sure to come back twice as often when you reopen.” That kind of reaction has got to be heartwarming, but by the same token, nearly every restaurant is struggling at almost an existential level right now. While the ethical decision to keep it quiet is perhaps puzzling on the surface, you understand why if it’s like, “Look, if we got to stay closed, are we even going to be able to reopen?” It’s a skill to decrypt this kind of thing.
If ethical decisions were easy, we wouldn’t still be talking about them for thousands of years and I wouldn’t have a podcast. I think you’re right. I still remember when there was a fast-food restaurant that had an outbreak of salmonella go like, “Sorry.” And I went there the day after they reopened. My wife thought I was crazy. And I’m like, “Hey, they were honest and reported it. And it’s going to be the cleanest it’s ever been.”
Yeah. Exactly, you go back the next day. You’re like, “Man, you’re eating off the clean room floor.” Even look at on a somewhat larger societal level, Mark, as we record this, we are in the midst of different conferences of the NCAA making entirely different decisions with presumably the same information about whether or not to play sports in the fall. As we record this, PAC 12, Big 10, and several other conferences have called it off. ACC, SEC, Big 12 have said, “No, we’re good. We’re going to keep playing. We can keep these kids safe.” Talk about an ethical decision…
Some actual athletic directors have said in conferences that are going to continue to play, “Look, kids get hurt playing football all the time. So what if some kids get the virus. That’s sort of an acceptable risk.” Maybe it is, but boy, that is an ethical decision that has manifest consequences, not just for your own university and the student athletes, but for communities. I live in a college town and to say, “Hey, we’re not going to have any sports this fall,” has huge economic consequences. I don’t know, what happens on the other side.
What I’m fascinated by as well is the SEC is recruiting other teams to try to join them. It is interesting and your decision impacts more than just you.
Well, and those other schools who have said, “Yeah, we’re going to try and play in the spring,” which that seems dubious to me, but let’s just say for argument’s sake, that they can do that. So come spring, you’re going to have Big 10 and PAC 12 football, but nobody else. They’re going to play in their own little window. The whole thing is a mess. And you think, “Geez, when would you ever have thought that that was going to be a decision that you had to make?” But the things that are happening now are truly unprecedented.
I had on my podcast recently, Laurie Meacham, who’s the head of social media customer service for Jet Blue Airlines. And she told me on the show that their digital team found a huge spike in organic searches on Google, for the phrase, “Are airlines still in business?” This is not a search term that many people, IE, zero people would have put into a search box in February. But now so many people are like, “Are they even still in business?” That it’s actually picking up in a trend report. That is just crazy to think about it.
There was a great example about how some of the e-cigarette companies and some of the vaping companies were starting to buy on the stay-at-home hashtags and really amplify around that to promote behavioral, and if it’s done, arguably it would make people more susceptible to COVID and people are like, “Should they be doing that?” They got called out for doing that, particularly in the UK.
Thinking about navigating these difficult times and looking back at your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?
Well, we always use the mom test in my company. That’s what we call it, the mom test, which is you talk out a decision that has ethical consequences and you say, “If I asked my mom about this, what would she say?” It works unless your mom is disproportionately Machiavellian and unethical, which is not outside the realm of possibility. But I think most people feel like their mom points fairly true north. Again, your mileage may vary, but it’s like, “Okay, what would your mom say? And what would she think?” That sounds like homespun kind of hokey wisdom, but I actually rely on that all the time.
There have been actual real times, not often, but times where I have actually asked my mom, I said, “How does this make you feel?” Because the thing about ethical decisions, is that I think in most cases, your instincts will tell you that it is. It’s just how good are you at ignoring your instincts, right? That’s the question, right? How good are you at burying what you instinctively know and justifying a different outcome?
But it’s so challenging. When you got tens of millions of people unemployed and lots and lots and lots of problems in every conceivable sector and circumstance. People go down a different decision tree when they feel like the ramifications of that decision could create real harm for themselves and their loved ones. It frustrates me when I see things that I believe to be unethical, but I don’t necessarily always begrudge it because I also think there, but for the grace of God, go I.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- This Week in PR Ethics (12/3/20): International Ethics Issues, PRCA Ethics Enforcement and Free Webinars - December 3, 2020
- Landmines and Fine Lines: Ethical Issues in Public Affairs – Kelly Davis - November 30, 2020
- 100 Ethics Issues for Thanksgiving Dinner Discussion - November 23, 2020