Ethical Voices

Four Common Reasons for Ethical Failures: Keith Green

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Keith Green. He is an assistant professor at Montclair State and the principal of Emerald Owl Communications. I first met Keith when he was the vice president of B2B communications and partnerships at Guinness World Records. I reached out to him when I saw him share an article on how the PAC-12 paid the Los Angeles Times directly for increased coverage to discuss common reasons for ethical failures.

Specifically, Keith discusses:

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

Most of my career is centered around sports and entertainment, and now this wonderful intersection of education. I started my sports and entertainment career with the Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA. My first job essentially out of college was working in ticketing and sales, trying my best to nudge my way into the PR office in doing extra work on the side for the PR department because that’s where I wanted to go for my career – writing articles and sitting in on the coaches interviews and the players interviews and getting those quotes ready for the media folks, all that kind of stuff.

I was there for a total of six years. I eventually worked in community relations, which as you know is an extension of public relations or even its own field if you will. And that was a blast. I worked from the ground up with the team. The Sixers at the time were actually the last NBA team to form a community relations department back in the late 90s. I was there from the ground up forming these wonderful programs in the community, including basketball clinics, fundraisers for Juvenile Diabetes Foundation, taking the players out to the Ronald McDonald House. Just really things that made you feel good.

I wanted to work in the PR field specifically. There wasn’t an opportunity at the Sixers. In fact, I left them one year in the late 90s when there was a labor strike looming. I ended up as the PR director for a racetrack in Pennsylvania (where I grew up) working for Roger Penske. I was the director of PR for National Speedway, and between that job and later getting promoted within the company to work for Richmond Raceway in Richmond, Virginia, I was the PR director separately for those two tracks for about nine years. I loved that.

From there, I moved to New Jersey from Richmond after our son was born and took a job as VP of communications and later got promoted to senior vice president at a company called Synergy, which is an award-winning experiential marketing agency. I parlayed that experience into a job at Guinness World Records. Along the way, back in 2005, I had the opportunity to jump into teaching.

I was extremely fortunate when I worked at the 76ers that I had my master’s degree paid for. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. That led to teaching opportunities. And in 2005, I created a racing business and marketing course at Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia. This was at the time when racing was just starting its drive for diversity movement. This class that I created was one of the first of its kind at an HBCU, and to this day that partnership is going between Virginia State and racing, and both groups have won diversity awards for the partnership that is continued to this day.

Last year I had the opportunity to take a full-time position as an assistant professor of public relations and strategic communication at Montclair State University here in New Jersey.

Thinking about your career from sports to working at Guinness to running your own firm, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I’ve been asked to do things that were clearly unethical because I knew for a fact that the issue that was being discussed publicly was a lie, and I’ve also been asked to do things that were illegal. Those were two very different things that presented their own share of challenges and were extremely difficult for me, as you can appreciate. But when somebody directs you to say X or do Y and in the first case where it was an ethics issue and not something that was illegal, there were different nuances than the second scenario.

In the first scenario, when you are being told to lie – I had a discussion with my students recently over Rochester, New York and their police department or the chief of police that was being fired because they were being told a lie. I put the students in the role of as the PIO and asked what they would do if the chief of police said, “I want you to lie.” How did you handle that situation when you’re getting pressure to lie for an organization?

This was something that happened in almost real time where I was asked for immediate reaction during a media scrum. I was put on the spot, and what I ended up doing, and this is sort of one of my lessons that I want to share with your audience later, is that I was able to say something without saying something if that makes sense.

I was able to give the company line without breaking ethics, without telling a lie by saying things a certain way and also what my body language was telling the media folks that were around me.

Both Felicia Bellow and Kirk Hazlett have shared examples similar to that. Felicia was when she was given false information and she shared it and was caught. What she ended up saying moving forward was, “I have been told this.” She would kind of distance herself and protect her brand from what was going on. Kirk, on the other hand, was the other way. He was trying to not share information, so he said, “Nobody has told me this,” even though he knows it’s true. I mean, was that the kind of tactic you’re talking about, or is it something else you would recommend?

No, it is very similar. The phrasing that I wanted to share with your audience was “I’m not familiar with all of those details that you are sharing with me.” So again, it is a way to say something without saying anything that damages your own brand. That’s where this dilemma comes in. You certainly don’t want to get fired for not doing something or for doing something that you’re told not to and vice versa. But at the end of the day, it’s your own reputation on the line. That’s that push and pull that people feel for obvious reasons, and it’s extremely difficult.

In this case you’re being told to do something which you think is unethical. How do you reconcile that and then decide not to tell the truth to the reporters?

It wasn’t that I wasn’t telling the truth. I was positioning what happened in a way that they would understand that I was being neutral. You need to find a confirmation somewhere else and let somebody else do the denying if you will.

In this situation, the basis of this for me was having good relationships, knowing who you’re talking to and who your audience is. I wasn’t in a room full of media at that point, but I was surrounded by some. I knew that the people that were there I had developed relationships with them, and there was mutual trust there. For me, that was something that at the end of the day was what was beneficial to me.

Let’s spend a few minutes on your second scenario. You talked about you were being told to break the law. Tell us more about how you handled the situation.

Quite simply, I said I’m not doing it. If you want this to happen, you’ll have to find somebody else to do it because I’m not doing that.

In the case of where it’s against the law, there’s a pretty clear-cut response. It’s the gray areas where we really have a challenge.

No, it’s exactly right. Sometimes it’s having understanding of what you’re being asked and okay, are you willing to take that risk because I’m not. That’s breaking the law. And you’re asking me to do this because you don’t want to do it or whatever it is. But I’m not going to break the law for anybody, including you. So that was a brief conversation.

What are the lessons that you’ve learned from those two scenarios?

First, I think it’s important to understand why people stray from what most of us believe is the right thing to do. And I’m a big fan of alliteration. I don’t have alliteration here for you, but I’m going to go through four letters of the alphabet for you to give you what I think are root causes of these ethical dilemmas that come up – D, E, F, and G. (Desperation, Economics, Fear and Greed)

E – meaning economics. Most of these ethical dilemmas, at the end of the day they’re somehow rooted in money. That maybe obvious, but it may not be obvious on the surface, depending upon what the issue is that you’re dealing with. And the first scenario that I described was that directly an economic issue? No, it wasn’t but related.

Let’s go to D, F, and G. Sometimes in the first scenario, again, this is desperation. D is for desperation. I felt that what was being asked of me, that person was desperate because he or she may have lost his or her job if they didn’t change that public perception of what was happening.

And then sort of related is F, Fear. It’s desperation and fear. And then last one, again, sort of related is greed. So that last situation I was telling you about was a greed scenario. It wasn’t about propping up or keeping a business afloat. It was about somebody who was being greedy, and there’s a difference there between economics for the good of a business or the economics for the good of your salary or for your livelihood. It’s different there in that scenario where it’s greed.

I think that’s a really great way to think about it. And it gets back to ethics being a soap opera that’s been going on for thousands of years. It’s because of the human frailties of desperation, of the greed or the fear that people are making these poor choices.

That’s right. It doesn’t mean being unethical is okay, but understanding what is the root of the problem is extremely important. Quite honestly, these are things that I learned along the way. I don’t remember being taught these things when I was in college. Maybe I was. This is a long time ago, but these are things that come with practical experience and you learn. You’re like, “Oh, okay. I see what exactly the issue is.”

As I tell my students, the reason senior practitioners seem really wise isn’t necessarily because we were born wise. It’s because we’ve got 20 to 30 years of screwing up and seeing all the mistakes. We’ve experienced it firsthand and understand what you do in that situation because we’ve seen it before.

Right, exactly. And then the second lesson is one that I already touched on, and that was just about developing and maintaining good relationships with the media. You mentioned the PIO scenario with Rochester Police Department, and if you’re a PR person in that market or wherever you’re working it’s important to develop and maintain those good relationships with them. That doesn’t mean that’s a foolproof scenario if you have good relationships with the press and you feel like you can trust somebody. I would say 98% of the reporters I worked with over the years were fair. They were ethical. They were good people. There were some people, the 2%, that were exceedingly difficult and sometimes blatantly unfair. And tough, I’m fine with, but unfair, not really. But that said, once you work hard on developing a relationship and with that comes mutual trust, you’re going to have that ability to communicate in a number of ways, like I mentioned before, whether it’s body language or it’s just saying something without saying anything, which in itself is a vivid art form for PR people.

Thinking beyond your personal career, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

Obviously, the lines continue to blur every day between PR and advertising, and people will take liberties to make things work to their advantage. I saw something interesting earlier where there’s a very well-known media personality who has a gigantic following in the sports side of things. And he had tweeted something about, “Go to X gambling site and enter this code,” or “bet on these teams”. Someone tweeted back to this media personality, “Isn’t this an advertisement?” And the media person actually responded, to my surprise, as a person with a gigantic following, and the response was, “This is a partnership.” And I thought, “Wait a minute, the average person may not know the difference between what exactly that means and that’s already vague as it is.” And this guy has a law background, so he’s fair from stupid. He knows exactly what he’s doing.

These things that just continue to happen, and on top of it, the world that we live in, we’re moving from one thing to the next thing to the next thing at a rapid-fire pace. And sometimes that’s good for people who want to run their careers unethically. I’m not saying this guy was unethical. Don’t get me wrong. But I’m just saying that that’s how these things can happen. We’re dealing in this world of now. We have to have it now, have to know now, and that can cause problems.

Garland Stansell calls it the tyranny of speed, and I think you make a good point there.

You brought up the sports analogy, and you’re one of the first guests I’ve had that really has a background in sports, Bonnie Upright who dealt with celebrity foundations and athlete foundations is another one. But what are some of the ethical challenges people may encounter when it comes to doing communications for sports teams.

You need to know the difference between working for a private company and a private team and one that’s public. I’ll give you a real-life scenario that happened to me. When I worked in the racing field down at the track in Richmond, more than once when I was there, we added seats. That was kind of a big deal. Racing at the time, and you could argue perhaps it still is, was the major sport in that market. There’s no pro sports team, baseball, football, basketball, hockey. Racing was it.

At the time, the racetrack held more than 100,000 people. When I got there, it was in the low 90s and by the time I left, it was 112,000 people. So more than once we added seats. One day, I got a call sitting at my desk and a reporter says, “I heard that you’re going to announce soon that you are adding seats. Can you give me a comment on that?” And of course, I knew that that was the case, and if I worked for a private company, that’s a different matter. My response back was, “Can you give me a few minutes? Let me get back to you.” That’s a key lesson. Don’t rush into things. I learned that the hard way a couple times.

I hang up the phone. Now if I’m working for a private company, I walk down the hall to the president and say, “Look, here’s what happened. I got a call. Somebody knows something for whatever reason. Can you give me approval to go ahead with this?” On the other hand, if I work for a publicly traded company, that’s a different scenario entirely, and you have to sometimes choose your words more carefully because if something gets out when it’s not supposed to or somebody is getting information ahead of time then somebody could lose their job.

This is an investor relations discussion. I need to have a call to our headquarters in Daytona, Florida and have that discussion. “I just got this call here. Here’s what going on. Can I release this information? Can I not?” Know that difference between that public and private enterprise.

Are there other areas you’re concerned about regarding ethics?

It’s easier now more than ever to exchange money, and there are so many more ways to do it. So whether it’s the emergence of different cash apps or Venmo or whatever it is, there are different ways to do that. And I think that could become a concern if there is an ethical issue potentially at hand and people want to exchange money. Cash still works. We all understand that. But I think when you have the ability to move money and route things and take it from point A to point C to point D to offshore, whatever it is, that starts to become I think potentially problematic.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

I’ll share two.

When it comes to ethical considerations, if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

In one of my jobs, there was something that didn’t feel right to me, and this ties into one of my other pieces of advice, which is to ask people. Find a mentor if you don’t have one. Find somebody that you can trust.

In this situation, something didn’t feel quite right to me. I asked a couple of industry friends and I said, “Look, here’s my situation. What do you think of this?” And both of them came back to me and said, “No, I think you’re good.” And these are people who would tell me otherwise, and then I went to my boss and that person said, “No, you’re good.” I was pleasantly surprised by that because I wasn’t sure. So yes, follow your gut, but also ask for help. Find somebody who you trust in the industry, a friend, a confidante that you know will shoot straight with you and you can bounce something off of them.

The other piece of advice that I mentioned briefly is about slowing down. So even in this world that we live in of immediacy, don’t feel that pressure to respond right away.

Let the other person that you’re speaking with on the other end, “Look, I’m going to get an answer for you. You’re going to hear something from me.” It’s not great when you read in a newspaper, online, whatever it is some sort of story about your company, and XYZ person had or was not immediately available for comment or whatever it is. Now reporters can use that to their advantage. But again, just slow down. It’s okay not to get the answer within a minute or five minutes or 10 minutes or whatever it is. Sometimes you just have to go and talk to people, get that answer that you know is the right one, and position it accordingly using that language that I talked about before. Just using different sayings, different things and knowing that you’re going to get the message across in the correct, ethical way.

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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