Ethical Voices

Identifying an Ethics Problem is not Enough – Neil Foote

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Neil Foote, the CEO of Foote Communications, and a principal lecturer at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas and the President of the National Black Public Relations Society.

Neil discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

I call myself an old school journalist and a new school storyteller. I started out as a newspaper reporter at the Miami Herald covering small-town government and cops, and then went on to cover business news. I jumped to the Washington Post, where I continued to cover business news and local news. I decided that I want to take a little bit of a turn and jumped into the newspaper industry on the association side, and led diversity initiatives for the newspaper industry, trying to develop more diverse newsrooms, both at the reporter and executive level.

I found my way to Dallas in the mid ’90s to work with the Dallas Morning News, and its parent company, leading the digital age. That’s when I began to make that pivot to new school storyteller, figuring out the world of the Web, helping the newspaper and television companies do this, as well as helping a major nationally syndicated radio personality and his company launch their website footprint and digital media platform, and doing public relations.

I have been doing a lot of public relations over the last 13 years, teaching some journalism. I am deeply involved with the National Black Public Relations Society and the Association of Black Journalists, as a way to make sure that we’re developing new talent and fueling of programs and activities for existing talent.

Where you started out covering small-town government and the police is definitely one of the hotbeds of coverage areas right now. Thinking about the junior reporters that are usually assigned to it, it’s a definitely interesting experience for them.

I was in Miami in the early ’80s, and the irony of it all is that there was a police shooting there. Certainly, the McDuffie Riots in 1980, which people can go back and research, a year or two later. There was even more unrest in the city.

It is a broken record, sadly the past couple of years of a cop shooting a young black man, and it just really settling unfavorably with the community and being out on the streets, talking to folks and writing stories about the aftermath of that. Police reporting seems like a mundane thing, but as you said, it is at the heart of kind of everything we’re doing nowadays.

Thinking back over your career from journalism to where you’re working now, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

Part of the ethical challenge for me over my career has been balancing that role of being the journalist, because I always feel that will define me for whatever I do in my life. This activist side of me has popped up, not only in my role with the Black Journalists Association, but the Public Relations Society. Early on in my career as a leader in the local and the South Florida Association of Black Journalists, and later on the national board, there were certainly points in time where I was suddenly not only the reporter on the street covering the stories in communities that were mainly black, Hispanic and diverse. I would also be talking to my editors and my colleagues about what our newspapers, what our TV stations, and radio stations can do better to portray and cover stories about diverse communities in Miami.

During those early days, there were any number of times where black reporters were sent out to cover the stories, but we rarely got the bylines. It was white reporters getting those bylines. I have a paper on my desk that I found a few weeks ago, that was a memo that I wrote on behalf of my black reporter colleagues to the editor and the publisher of the Miami Herald at the time saying change is needed. To me, as a journalist, being an activist puts us in a really kind of a dicey ethical standpoint. Fortunately, my good work continued to stand tall and my colleagues, my bosses, and the editors at the time respected my point of view. And that’s kind of the credibility over my career I’ve been able to establish.

What’s your advice to people that are trying to really drive change when they see something they think is unethical or needs to change – bosses taking credit for your work, the lack of diversity. How can people be effective in getting their point across?

The first step is do your job and do it better than anyone else inside your company so that there will never be a question about your work ethic, and that as you journey forth to call attention or put your bosses on the spot, or the companies that own your company, that you believe in your convictions, that you talk logically about what you feel is wrong.

Most importantly you have a recommended plan for action. Squeaky wheels do get attention, but squeaky wheels that also come with a can of oil can actually help those who they’re battling to understand that, “Here’s the problem, here’s some solutions, and here’s how we can get them done.” You also want to be an active partner in saying, “Yeah, I’m just not going to drop the mic here on your desk and say, you handle it. I want to bring this problem to your attention. I want to be a part of solving this problem. And I also want to be a part of the team that helps lead the organization in making those changes down the way.”

That’s how you build trust, that’s how you build credibility with people who know that you are sincere about what you want to accomplish.

That’s a great point. I tell folks that identifying a problem is what a great tactician does. But if you want to be a strategist it’s, “Here’s the problem, here’s two or three options, and this is what I recommend.”  

That’s right. I think you could have another conversation about what we did in the younger parts of our careers that we wish we could look back and do over. But I think for the most part, certainly as an educated man and a professor, helping young folks navigate through the things that I experienced may position them better and stronger and more successful than even I was. But they must learn to identify these issues, come with solutions and be ready to put the work in.

One of my favorite examples I give is Neil and Mark aren’t necessarily wise because we’re inherently wise, it’s we’ve been doing this for 25 and 30 years, and we’ll have screwed up and seen so many other screw ups that when the situation comes in, we can fix the situation because we’ve seen it before.

What is some of that advice you’d give some of those younger professionals, what are some of those things that you wish you had done differently?

Looking back there were opportunities where I could have told stories in different ways that may have, in some cases, showcased an issue or a problem in communities that would have shed more light on an issue. Early in my career I covered communities like Liberty City in Miami. Later on, I covered Loudon County, a very suburban, kind of wealthy community in Washington D.C. area where the issues were far different than Liberty City. For Loudon County, it was land owners wondering how to protect their land from impending developments that were going to transform the landscape of their community for forever, stripping away trees and farmland for development of subdivisions and shopping centers.

So part of those as I look back is, and I’ll occasionally come across a story I wrote is, what were those other questions I wish I could have asked? How could I have expanded on that story that would have made it that much more important to the people reading it, and certainly maybe shed some additional light on those communities that would have driven change by local leaders or state leaders.

Beyond your own personal experience. What are you personally seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The wave of misinformation, and how we navigate our way through, not only disinformation, but misinformation. We know that the ongoing joke about PR folks is you just kind of make stuff up anyway and put your spin on it. As a young reporter, before I delved into this side of the world, I was probably one of those folks who were like, “Oh my gosh, PR, get out of here.” Now that I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years, I realized that so much of what we do is so important about building the credibility and brand of our clients. What’s particularly challenging for us as public relations professionals is making sure that we not only find the best possible news angle and hooks for our clients, but that we don’t fall in the trap what some of our clients want us to do is to spin it so that the core facts and elements really don’t reflect the truth.

I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve had conversations with my clients that say, “Well, look, maybe it’s because I was a journalist for so many years, that my business is to work with you, is to come up with stories that reporters will want to write about.” If you are just trying to sell something, I have some friends in advertising who would love to take your money and do some promotional ads. Just know the difference.

Our ethical challenges today go to making sure that we’re representing truths as they are as factual based as possible. In a case where we have to deal with crisis because someone at their company posted something on social media that they didn’t know about, or they got caught having what they thought was an honest conversation with a friend or coworker that suddenly was recorded.

We have to get them comfortable with understanding that manipulating language and phrases and audio or video to achieve our own personal goals on behalf of getting good coverage for our clients is a delicate business. And we just have to remind ourselves all the time, stick to the facts, tell a good story. That’s what’s going to generate coverage nowadays. As a public relations professional, I have to advise many of my clients these days that we have to be extremely patient because unless you’re willing to go some extreme angle with your story idea, no matter what it is, even if it’s a book that doesn’t have anything to do with politics or social justice or health or medical issues, we will have to kind of navigate our way through the storm of noise here, and that navigation comes from careful, conscious, hard work, and a good strategy that’s born in facts, and is ethically sound.

I tell clients, it may be really important to you, but we need to look at what else important is going on in society. Does it rise to the level of what’s going on with COVID and systemic injustice, and that’s what people are talking about and focusing on right now.

 

You mentioned clients exaggerating, and one of the common pushbacks is, “Well, everybody else in the industry is doing it. If I don’t do it, it’s going to make us look bad and we’re going to go out of business.” What do you say to that?

I go back to great brands stand the test of time. We could spend hours talking about how do great brands survive crisis. How does Starbucks continue to still have lines out of the door when we could probably identify four or five things they’ve done over the last several years that makes you say, “Oh my gosh, what the heck were they thinking?” But guess what? They’re still in business. Why? Because they identified that they had a problem, they addressed it head on, and they have been very forthcoming as best as we know in trying to address those issues. And they were looking at the long game.

My conversation with clients on that issue I say great brands don’t have to go low to come out high. Great brands have a sustained message. They stick to the excellence of the product and the services that they provide. They never feel that they have to steer from that other than constantly innovating, and innovation is not spin or exaggeration.

It’s the same conversation, I have with friends today who say “Oh my gosh, you teach journalism. What the heck could you be teaching them? It’s nothing but trash and fires and deaths on TV. The local news is just terrible.” That’s a big conversation with local news in whatever city you’re in. You can bounce through your local stations and figure out, “Oh, okay, they’re the happy news station. They’re the blood and guts station. They’re the investigative station.”

Everyone has established their brand to cater to an audience. You don’t have to be a copycat to be successful. If you know your audience, if you know your customers, if you want to continue to have lasting relationships with those customers and clients, then they will respect you for who you are and what you stand for on a consistent basis. And that consistent basis is not what you’re going to do tomorrow and next week, or even next month and next quarter, is that they know over years of time, you have established that high standard, that they know what to expect, how to expect it, and that excellence and quality is assigned to every step along the way.

I spoke with Jim Olson, who is the former head of communications for Starbucks a few months ago for Ethical Voices. And he was sharing the same thing about how they would navigate a lot of the different crises. And it wasn’t just pandering to what the latest trends were or whatever else was going on, but it was staying true to your values and reaching out and being willing to listen to other sides as well.

That’s so important, the willingness to listen to other sides. Is that a metaphor for what’s going on in the world today? Absolutely. And yeah, I think as public relations professionals, that’s really something we have to help our clients accept. We must serve as that kind of third, objective voice for them based on our experience.

We’ve all worked with various clients. We’ve seen things go really well, we’ve seen things go poorly. If our clients respect us and have hired us to do good work, to help them move, to tell their story, to help promote and get people to bring notice to their causes, then they will respect, trust and value our broader perspective to know that we have seen things that work really well and how to make effective changes if it does not.

You started off this segment by talking about misinformation and disinformation. How do you recommend that businesses respond to misinformation and disinformation?

We have to hit it head on.

I taught a Principles of Journalism class and I would spend the first 15 minutes talking about news headlines and challenging my students to say, “Where did you get that from, and why do you believe it?”

And so, for our business owners and clients, when there’s misinformation or false information about their company and their products, their services, they’ve got to aggressively change the narrative of the story using not only social media, because we know social actually will get the viral clout, but also traditional media to reinforce the facts.

There’s no need to spin what is true or not. What is true? In some cases, you don’t even have to acknowledge what is wrong out there, but simply affirm who you are, what you are, what you stand for and how, if it involves an incident, what the facts of those incidents are, which means, internally for our clients, is making sure they have processes in place to get the information they need to properly come forward.

I’ve worked with a company that’s in the food services industry with outlets all around the world. So, the mobile phone has been their best friend, and their worst enemy, because the millions of pictures of the great layouts of food that show up on Instagram have been tremendous in showing off what they serve. And then there is that one time someone has a bad day suddenly becomes viral.

We have to get to the facts to make its an actual incident, but then when there’s misinformation for that client and others, I’ve been quick to advise to say, “We need to get in front of it. And we need to be clear and transparent. We need to take use the same tools that people are using to kind of spread that information, to spread better information.”

What’s important here also goes back to the longevity of a brand. Sometimes we can’t correct that misinformation in a single post, or today or tomorrow. If you stick to your principles, if you have your mission, vision, and values all aligned, then that’s what your guide post is. You’re going to always win out in the long run because sadly, so we know what happened in a viral moment yesterday is now way down the line. If you ask anyone what happened five days ago about that, they’ll say, “What? What are you talking about? Let’s keep on moving. You must keep on moving and you got to be fast.

That’s good advice and thinking about advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

Be truthful, be transparent, and of course follow the Golden Rule.

My dad taught me the Mirror Test when I was a kid. When you look in the mirror when you wake up in the morning, you see who’s there. You can yell at them, you can talk to them. But that’s you. That’s your soul. You are driven by that individual looking in the mirror on how you best represent yourself.

So much of that is what’s inside, and being transparent and truthful certainly are the basic fundamentals, but they are all borne on foundations of good practices of understanding your business, mastering the skills at whatever you’re doing and doing them well, and understanding all the implications of what bad ethics really means. The domino effect of doing something unethical is lasting. It’s damaging to your brand, it’s damaging to you, and it’s hard to recover unless you’re really committed to being transparent, being sincere, being committed to what your mission, vision, and values are.

Tell us more about what is the National Black Public Relations Society, and what are you working to accomplish? What are some of your top priorities?

We’re a 20-year-old organization that started back at a time when there was a feeling that there was a lack of black public relations professionals in the industry. And over these 20 years, we’ve fought for any number of things and represent members in a variety of ways with affiliate chapters around the country. We are focused on making sure that there’s diversity at all ranks in the industry, not only from the pipeline side, but also mid-career and senior level. Through local and national programming, we try to support our members. We also make sure that our members have access to jobs and opportunities. So at NBPRS.org, there’s a career bank there where companies can post their jobs. Our members can search those jobs, post resumes, be part of a database.

The third part is advocacy. Public relations is about shaping image. We know that for blacks in this country, shaping images that go beyond criminals and beyond negative images is something that we really want to make sure that print, broadcast, online, digital and social media do. We figure out best ways, best practices and provide those tools to the industry, not only from a practical standpoint, but also standing up for those incidents where we want to celebrate success of blacks doing great things other than just being criminals. NBPRS is all about shaping those images, telling those stories, and creating opportunities for black PR professionals today, and hopefully well into tomorrow.

There was a great op-ed by Torod Neptune a few weeks ago in PR Week, which I’ve been sharing with everybody who can read it with my students. It’s still telling that, you said 20 years ago we’d have this issue. We still have this issue. Some progress being made, but we have to make more.

Absolutely. I read that with great interest, and certainly gave a shout out to Torod in writing that. And I really appreciate him doing it at his level and experience. That goes a long way. And as I told him and others as I have for the last many years, but certainly aggressively in the last six months, we must take every opportunity to share those stories. You can’t stop now. Yes, we want to celebrate the wonderful successes of those diverse individuals who are getting opportunities now. But we’ve got a lot of work to do. We can’t sit back and think that everything is good. The operative phrase that I’ve been using, Mark, these days is that DEI equals ROI. So diversity, equity, inclusion equals return on investment. Go ahead and search McKinsey and Korn Ferry, and many other reports that are showing that companies who have more diverse C-suites boards are showing improved financial performance.

They perform better. There’s just no question. By doing the right thing, you can do well financially as well. And that’s how you need to start showing it to convince some people, I think, that don’t get it. Aside from big brands, using some of their purchasing power to drive changes on agencies, there’s so many things that need to be done. Yes, we’re doing some, we just need to keep it up and hit the gas and do more.

Now’s the time, Mark. If there are any folks who’ve been on the fence about this issue, if the last six months haven’t convinced those who are on the fence that I need to do something now, then you and I need to get on the road, pack up the car. We’ll just start knocking on some doors and start pushing people over on the right side of this issue.

Absolutely. It’s like I tell people, straddling a fence hurts. Be on one side or the other, but straddling, you’re going to get hurt.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

This is the time. There’s no better time for us not only to talk about the importance of DEI and how we counter the forces that are creating situations, where we are questioning fact and reality. We have to come to grips with that. To make sure that all of us who are on the right side of history who believe in the true values of what we believe in, stand by truth, we stand by facts, we stand by credibility for our own industry and for our clients. Now’s the time for us to stand up and make sure our voices are louder than anyone about making sure that people are getting the information they need, that they’re heard, and are empowered to do great things.

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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