Joining me on this week’s episode is Ron Culp. Ron is an independent public relations consultant and the professor and director of the Public Relations and Advertising Masters Program at DePaul University. Prior to joining DePaul, Ron was a senior vice president and director of Ketchum’s North America Corporate Practice.
Ron discusses a number of important topics, including:
- What to do when asked to make absurd and misleading claims
- Why PR professions need the industry to have their back
- Where companies make mistakes in countering disinformation internally
- How to make your company attractive to potential employees
Why don’t you tell my listeners more about yourself and your career?
I’ll go way back. I’m actually a first generation college student from a tiny little town in Indiana called Remington, population 1,105. It’s about a hundred miles from Chicago, and Chicago was of course the big city, and hence, I’m a Cubs fan. Like a lot of Boomers in PR today, I began my career after college as a newspaper reporter. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. The only problem is it doesn’t pay much. So along came a political campaign, asked me if I’d be interested in almost doubling my salary, and it sounded like a fun thing to do, so I joined a campaign. That campaign then led me into a career of politics for about seven years before I decided that I really needed to move into corporate America and got my first job at Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis.
From there, I worked at three other amazing Fortune 500 companies: Pitney Bowes, Sara Lee Corporation, and Sears. After technically saying I was retiring, because I was certainly old enough, but not really wanting to fully retire, I decided to go into the agency business. I had always worked with agencies, I found them fascinating and wanted to just try my hand at it. After doing that for about seven, years, along came an opportunity to help the next generation of young people who were aspiring to begin their careers in public relations, and I joined the DePaul faculty. As of this term, it is now 10 years and counting, and it’s been a phenomenal experience on every level.
Thinking about your career from reporting, to politics, to agency, to corporate, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
Wow. There were probably many, but one, when you pose that question that leaps into mind. I was working Sara Lee Corporation, and one of the divisions was the bakery. Charlie Lubin, who founded the bakery, was really a believer that everything had to be all natural, still is, but there was a big push to create desserts that had fewer calories. But every time Sara Lee tried to come up with something that stayed true to all-natural ingredients but has fewer calories, it didn’t taste good.
We just kept working on it. Finally, they came up with this dessert that they labeled ‘lite’, and we were then asked to promote it through public relations and a marketing campaign.
One day a reporter from the New York Times called our media person and asked her if she could give them some information about the product and its ingredients. We started on that level. It turns out then he says, “Yes, but they had it tested and found that it had the same calorie content, even though it was labeled L-I-T-E.”
We then went into a kind of a mini crisis mode to find out what went on and found out from the division that it was indeed lite if you went portion control. So, you’re supposed to cut it in eight slices rather than six slices.
It was a true OMG moment for those of us in the PR department and the head of media relations when we were told that we should respond by saying “It’s lite, as in texture.”
My colleague simply said, “I just can’t say that. I mean, that’s just ridiculous. I’m going to look like a fool.” So she wouldn’t, and my management team said, “Well, that’s what our statement’s going to be. So, you, Culp, in charge of the function, need to give that response.”
I did, and it had to be one of the most embarrassing quotes I’ve ever seen in my life, and I got a lot of grief from other PR friends and media friends who said, “You’ve got to be kidding,” which is exactly what the New York Times reporter said. But I was quoted as saying “It’s lite as in texture,” and we didn’t have much wiggle room to get out of it. It was certainly something that if I could do it over again, I would never have been caught in that predicament.
Scott Monty, former chief digital officer at Ford, told me about how they wanted him to say when their trucks were catching on fire, it was an “unexpected thermal event.”
What’s your advice for practitioners when they find themselves in that situation where management is telling them to say something that is either based on bad data or you know is just going to embarrass the brand?
My advice would be to never compromise your personal ethical standards. I knew my mother would look at me and say, “You’re kidding,” if I tried that line with her. I felt awful after I hung up from the phone having said that. I should have done more pushback and insisted on a different kind of response.” As a result, the ensuing story made me look like a fool.
A few years later I joined the Arthur Page Society and fully embraced the seven Page principles, especially the very first one, to tell the truth. From that day forward, it was so much easier after that experience. I really think it was kind of a defining moment and reminder to spend more effort on how are you going to respond so that you don’t have egg all over your face.
Fred Garcia last week mentioned having that framework makes it less difficult to make that courageous decision, because you can point to the framework to say, we follow Page Principles and tell the truth and prove it in action, so we can’t say that.
First thing I would do with all of my teams from then on, after I joined Page, was to give them the seven Page principles. I even had them printed up at one point and gave everyone on the team copies, telling them “if we stay loyal to this, no matter how much pressure we’re under, we’re going to be doing the right thing.”
‘Lite’ is always one of those interesting claims for what do you mean by lite? I once bought “diet bread” where the bread had fewer calories because they cut the bread thinner. What do you do when the management says, “Well, all the other companies are saying they have lite products. If we don’t, it’s a competitive disadvantage”?
In this case, what was interesting, Entenmann’s and the competition all did have other lite products. The big difference is they tasted awful. Ours tasted good.
Eventually we essentially threw up our hands and said, “Okay, people who are going to get our products are buying our products because they taste good, and they’re going to use them for special occasions.”
It was almost a pushback that many people in PR and marketing gave to acknowledge our strengths. If we’re going to stay loyal, if we’re not going to put artificial additives and other things in to make it taste good but not be loyal to what we wanted the brand to stand for, then let’s go there.
I think that is something today that young people in our profession are doing a better job at. They’re raising the question before it becomes an issue. If I had to do it again, I would have really thrown myself into the data and the package literature, the ingredients, to really understand exactly what this product contained. Instead, we just took everyone’s word for the fact that it was lite, L-I-T-E. As a result, we got caught in this situation. It’s kind of a takeoff on the old adage, if it sounds too good to be true… In this case, if it tastes too good to be true…
Beyond that experience, what are you seeing as some of the key PR and communication ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think one of the key challenges we’re facing is the need to understand and embrace the highest ethical standards. The political environment over the past few years has been largely at fault for creating an alarming situation in my mind, where non-truths are shared freely, and facts are too easily labeled fake news, often obviously intended for gaining political advantage.
It’s really important that we emphasize both legal and ethical standards in college classrooms, in conversations, anywhere the profession is gathering, and insisting that people understand what the ethical standards are, and give them the authority to use that as a fallback if they think they are being asked to do something that is not ethical, that the industry is going to have their back.
Tell me more about the industry having their back. What do you mean by that?
Well, I think that very often, for instance, I could have had issues if I said no in the wrong organization or if management didn’t really understand. In this case, the management did realize the mistake we had made and there were no repercussions for those of us who said I could have told you that was going to happen. Why didn’t you level with us sooner?
But if somebody gets into an ethical situation, they really need the ability to share the ethical standards, whether it’s from the code, from PRSA, or from the Advertising Federation, or for Page, with your management teams to give an overview.
For instance, if you just were named into a leadership position in public relations, let people know that these are my ethical standards, and they’re going to think twice before asking you to do anything that isn’t. They’re not asking you to do it something unethical in a devious way. More often it’s out of expediency. They think that, oh, it’s no big deal. Well, if you think it’s a big deal, it probably is. Can you say this to your mother and not get in trouble?
Are there new areas you’re seeing that you’re concerned about with regards to ethics?
The biggest concern I have regarding ethical standards is confidence in what we read. We’re seeing it almost daily in social media. Everything from Russian bots to misleading product advertising.
Like a fool, I can list five or six things I bought this year that are not what I saw in that Facebook ad. Maybe it took me five or six times, but now I go look for verification and validation of what I’m reading. You have to do that with both news and with what people are pitching. If it is the cheapest price I’ve ever seen for a cashmere sweater. There’s probably something wrong with it.
I think that you just have to be aware of what you’re seeing and seek ways to validate what you’re seeing. People who really understand the amazing potential and equally amazing threats to social media are going to be the ones who are going to be able to cut through a lot of this clutter. Social media is so critically important, but abusing it as some have done, is going to create more difficulty for us down the road.
I believe we’re entering the disinformation age. All the things you mentioned, the false advertising and the claims, that’s been going on for millennia, the challenge is, it’s easier to spread and easier to hide than it ever has been before.
What’s your advice to brands that are facing this issue? How do they counteract disinformation?
You have to respond in kind, in the publication or on the site that is spreading that information.
But so many people think by making that response is enough. It’s not, especially if your employees are reading it. Your employees are going to read and believe about 40% of what they see online. So some companies will say, “Okay, we responded online. We clarified. So everyone is fine.” Meanwhile, there are pockets of the organization that are saying, “Did you see that online?” And it’s just like telephone game. By the time it gets spread four or five times, it becomes a bigger issue than you ever imagined.
If indeed something has appeared about you, you want to make sure that you assess it quickly as to how much into the organization has this story spread, and is it something that we need to say something further, either through our internal website, Internet, or however we’re going to communicate to employees, so they know our point of view. Because if you don’t correct it pretty broadly, you know what’s going to happen, there’s going to be a degree of people are going to believe exactly what was said, the mistruth that was said.
It’s an adage of one and done is not enough. It’s like you need to read something seven times it is the same thing when you’re counteracting disinformation, you got to make sure you counteract it multiple channels.
Excellent point, Mark. I think it’s one of those things that a lot of people still will pooh-pooh what happens on social platforms, but I think in recent years, and certainly this year, there’s been a lot more attention to how omnipresent it is and how vital it is for prompt response, and make sure you cover all your bases, or the next thing you know, a large number of people, are going to be believing the mistruth.
Taking a step back and thinking about your students, what do they find the most fascinating or the most difficult?
The challenges they like the most are the ones around brands that they might admire or brands they don’t want to even get close to. I took a poll of my students, and then when I spoke on other campuses of students at other universities, and just started by looking at social media and companies that you would or wouldn’t work for, it turns out that the lineup of companies they won’t work for are absolutely the companies that are doing the worst job in social and trying, but not have being very effective in the community relations and CSR space. Those companies are the ones that students say there’s no way I’ll ever work for those companies. Sure enough, then you look at the other companies, even if they don’t necessarily like the product or they realize those companies have made some mistakes, for instance, in the diversity inclusion area, Starbucks rises right to the top. Have they made some mistakes? Sure.
Students give them permission for those mistakes, because they know their heart is in the right place. If a company is held in high regard, because they’re trying to do the right thing, they’re going to be given more room for an occasional mistake than those, for instance, in the tobacco industry where none of my students want to work. Surprisingly, they didn’t want to work in the cosmetic industry. They didn’t want to work anywhere where they thought that it wasn’t really entirely fact-based or “honest.”
What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
Wow. A lot over the years. Probably the best, and I would say most empowering advice I ever received came from the Sears CEO, Arthur Martinez, who I had the good fortune of working with back during the glory days of Sears. He called me in one day, and there was some issue that had happened in the company and everyone had a point of view. So everyone left the office. He asked me to stay and he said, “Okay, I have you here because I expect you to always give me your best advice, not to sugarcoat it. I want to hear from you. I want to hear what you think, not what you might assume I want you to say. In other words, tell me what I need to know.” We had an open and honest relationship. I’ve never thought twice about speaking truth to power in this situation.
I do think that senior people in the profession have to tell young people who work for them, new employees, that I’m giving you permission to speak truth to power. In other words, I know you might think I’m important, but I think you’re important, and I need to know, and I’ll push back if I disagree, or if I want to challenge you on it, but I really need that open exchange. And by having that relationship with the senior most person in the organization was very empowering, and I just think you have to strive to get there. And as I also tell young people, if you don’t have a senior management that have that belief structure, that value structure, then you want to steer clear of that organization, because it will not work unless it starts at the top.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you, Ron, that you wanted to highlight?
This is a phenomenal profession that we’re in, and we have changed it dramatically over the years. It has changed in front of our eyes as we speak, but I have never been more enthusiastic. I’ve never been more enthusiastic about the future of the profession based on the talent we’re developing and the interest in doing a great ethical job that the young people for the most part are pushing and saying, “We want to make positive change not only in our profession, but in society.” I think it’s an exciting time to be in public relations.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- This Week in PR Ethics (5/18/23): Taking on Climate Lies - May 18, 2023
- How Can Businesses Create A More Ethical Environment – Erica Salmon Byrne - May 8, 2023
- We Must Confront the Uncomfortable Truths – Roger Bolton - April 17, 2023