Landmines and Fine Lines: Ethical Issues in Public Affairs – Kelly Davis

Joining me on this week’s episode is Kelly Davis. She is currently the Public Relations Sequence Head at the University of South Carolina, and I first met her when she was in the agency world. Welcome, Kelly.

Kelly discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

I like to think about my career in three seasons. The first season I spent in-house; the second I spent at the agency and consulting space; and I’m now in my third career season as a public relations educator.

I started in the corporate marketing department of a large, well-known, health insurance company, primarily doing sales support and communications to the insurance agents out in the field. I’d say one of the most significant things that happened to me there was meeting my mentor, who is still my mentor to this day.

From there, I wanted to get a little bit more into what I considered a real PR job. I started a master’s degree program in mass communications and changed jobs. I went to work for a nonprofit, residential treatment center for abused and neglected children and teens. I started out there in that entry level position doing a lot of the traditional events, and fundraising, sponsorship, volunteers. I was there when the organization celebrated its 90th anniversary, so it was really neat to be a part of that milestone.

I started getting involved in PRSA during that time. I met another colleague and mentor, who recruited me away from that position to a cabinet level agency in the South Carolina state government, where I was doing state-wide media and community relations to support their work, which was prevention, intervention and treatment of substance abuse. I had a chance to really travel around the state, and that was really where I started honing all of those media relationships around South Carolina.

From there … I’d had my eye on going back into the corporate world, and some positions came open in one of the largest corporations in South Carolina, a utility holding company. So, I moved over there to do primarily employee communications, so that was kind of my first real stint of only focusing on internal communications work.

I feel like there’s a thread of relationships that go through my career. The same person who had hired me at that state agency job had since moved to a nonprofit, quasi-governmental organization that also had a focus on prevention, intervention and treatment of substance abuse. He invited me to apply to be the public relations director for that agency, and I began my work there, so I’m kind of returning into that field of substance abuse prevention work. And again, all internal and external communications, a very heavy community relations and coalition building. I did some really unique and innovative new initiatives there.

At that point, I’d been there about three or four years, and was starting to feel the entrepreneurial tug. I had lots of friends who were going out on their own and starting their own firms and consulting practices. I just felt like it was a good point in my life if I was going to do that, and so started my consulting practice and spent the next nine years as a consultant. The agency fluctuated from me as the sole practitioner to a boutique agency of five employees, but always used a full-service, virtual, agency model working with everything from local nonprofits to international corporations and everything in between.

But one area of expertise that I really developed during that time was public health and public policy, specifically around tobacco control policy, pulling from the things that I had learned in both the state agency and that nonprofit organization. It was also during my time with my agency that I started working as an adjunct at the University of South Carolina, just teaching some PR classes here and there, and didn’t know at the time it was planting a seed for that next season of my life.

And then, I did spend a couple of years as the PR director for a full-service agency. I had been partnering with them on a lot of different projects, and they wanted to grow the public relations function in their firm. So, they invited me to come and join them, and I got to work on just different types of things than what I had done before: a lot of food and beverage work, professional services, brand development, business development, both for our agency and for other clients. But I also continued that policy work, and had some opportunities to bring some work into the agency that continued to focus on that public policy aspect.

After a few years, as happens, the agency restructured and my position went away, and so I just went back out on my own. It was the beauty of having that business to go back to. So, I did that for about another year, and at the same time was still working as an adjunct at USC, teaching here and there. Three-and-a-half years ago a full-time position opened on the Public Relations faculty. I was getting calls from my PR colleagues there at the university saying, “Hey, are you going to apply for this position? We’d really love to have you.”

So, I started that next chapter, the next season of my life in the fall of 2017. Now, I teach in our Public Relations core curriculum and in our Professional Master’s program, anything from our introductory course to our capstone courses, and PR Campaigns and PR Management. I teach PR Writing, Advanced PR Writing, Media Relations, and always looking for opportunities to be able to teach other courses. I like to have a goal of trying to teach at least one new class a year, so that I can be as flexible as possible within our curriculum.

I’m currently serving as the Sequence Head, a leadership role within the School of Journalism, and I am the very proud faculty advisor to our chapter of PRSSA, which has been a big part of my life. The constant through all those years, through my whole career journey, has been PRSA and my involvement at the Chapter level. I’m the only person who’s ever served twice as the Chapter President of South Carolina PRSA, and I don’t know if that makes me really smart, or not so much.

I served on the Southeast District Board. You and I worked together on the National Board of Directors, and I also have the great privilege of being the National Professional Advisor to PRSSA, another step in the journey that really planted the seed for working one day with students.

Thinking about all the jobs and all the opportunities you’ve had, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The years that I spent working in public policy and government relations. The saying “politics makes strange bedfellows” is incredibly true, and it also creates an opportunity for you to really learn a lot of things, and to hone your own ethical and moral code. Some of your other guests have talked about company policies that they might have against working with tobacco companies or alcohol companies, what we call the sin clients. My work was actually on the public health side of tobacco control, so I’ve been able to see the other side of that picture.

I spent about five years working as a consultant to a national nonprofit advocacy organization to pass tobacco control policy in South Carolina. As you can imagine, in a southern state and in a traditional tobacco producing state, it is definitely a controversial and touchy subject. We have not only that history of tobacco production as a major crop in South Carolina, but also just the legacy of the tobacco brands and their sponsorships in local communities. We also have conservative philosophies about taxes, because our main focus was cigarette taxes. I also did a little bit of work with them and smoke-free workplace policy.

Public policy and legislative work involves a lot of landmines and fine lines around ethics, to be sure that you’re following the state ethics laws and guidelines as well as your personal codes of ethics and consideration. I was managing a very broad coalition with a lot of partners, and trying to keep everybody on the same page about what were the right decisions to make, and what was going to be appropriate, and where are the things that we really needed to avoid?

You always have to be very clear about the line between lobbying and advocacy, or education. I like to say it’s a line in the sand, and I’ve got to stay on this advocacy side. We worked with contract lobbyists as well as the staff lobbyists of the organizations who were part of our coalition, who handled the lobbying activities while most of our coalition members were engaged in the advocacy and education side. You need to constantly consider which side of that line you’re on, being very mindful of the information that you can and can’t share, who you can talk to and who you can’t, what you can say and what you can’t.

We worked so intently with grassroots advocates all over the state, gathering their stories, their experiences, why these issues were so important to them, and had to maintain confidentiality where it was needed versus just saying, “Hey, would you like to come and be the spokesperson, or testify in front of a committee?” We had to continually balance what was appropriate and what was disrespectful, based on that person’s experience and their story.

One of the biggest ethical challenges when you’re working at tobacco control is you’re up against a very well-funded, and not always honest, opponent. The tobacco companies and the many, many, many lobbyists that they employed in our state… It’s kind of like David and Goliath, trying to get our message out there and knowing that we had really, truly such a well-funded opponent. And an opponent that also had very deep and very strong relationships, both with legislators and certainly with grassroots civil advocates around the state.

Thinking through all of this, it’s not that I could say, hey, there’s one really specific ethical issue within that work. But it’s really all of that work together, and all of the considerations that you have to make as you’re trying to navigate that, and trying to do what’s best for your client as well as what’s best for the community. It is the proudest work of my career. I was very gratifying that we were able to pass the legislation in 2010, and now 10 years later to be able to look at data that shows that we did actually see significant declines in smoking rates among youth, which was our primary focus, as well as the declines in adult smoking rates as well.

That was really what it was all about, was that prevention aspect in trying to save lives, and save healthcare expenses, and just make our state a healthier place. So, I’m really proud of the work that we did. Certainly, it was a place to learn a lot of lessons about life, and about politics, and certainly about public health.

When you’re talking about the fine lines and the landmines, and there’s so many of them, particularly when you’re dealing with public disclosure and public information, how do you recommend somebody educate themselves to make sure they don’t step on a landmine or step over a line?

It really starts for us with our State Ethics Commission, and educating yourself on all of the roles and guidelines. I worked with a team of lobbyists, some who were contract lobbyists hired by my client, and other people who worked for those organizations who were registered lobbyists for them.

It was really just so fortunate to work with this incredibly talented and highly ethical group of people, who I could always go to and say, “Okay, help me figure out, where is this line?” Or, “Can I respond to this request, or can I send this information over?” Even sometimes just answering a request from somebody, and making sure that the response to it came from the right person. You know, it might be me, as sort of the head of the coalition, or it may need to actually be one of the lobbyists who responds and provides that information.

I was very fortunate to get to know a lot of our legislators during that time, as well. That’s a really good thing, but at the same time you also have to just be mindful all the time of, “What is my role in this project versus, again, a paid lobbyist who’s working with us?” I can accompany them to a meeting, I can share information, I can pull reams and reams of data from our national partners and from all the research that’s available on this issue, but still have to be mindful of, at what point am I sharing information, and at what point am I lobbying for a specific piece of legislation? You must always be mindful of that fine line.

That’s definitely a fine line you want to make sure you don’t want to cross over, because if you do, you need to register as a lobbyist.

Yes, absolutely. In South Carolina, and I’m sure in other states, there are also roles related to nonprofits and lobbying. And so also considering who, exactly, the client or the partner is, and making sure that you’re very, very mindful of those regulations as well.

You were a nonprofit organization going up against some well-funded, large companies. When you’re talking about making change, money talks, particularly in getting access. So, how do ethically work to get the access and create the change, when your opponent has all the money to throw against you?

We were very fortunate to have a number of national partners in this effort. We were working with some of the most well-known names in public health. Each one of them had a national organization, a national office, as well as a South Carolina based office, so we were very fortunate that we did have some funding from our national partners.

Certainly, we had nowhere near what our opponent was putting into this effort. But if I could make a good case to them of how we could invest some funds in radio ads, or billboards, or doing legislative events, anything like that. As long as we could make the case and they could see that we were moving the needle, that we were getting the legislation passed through the subcommittee to the committee, and we were getting hearings on everything, they were willing to invest.

We certainly could not have done it without that support, because they all had people on the ground here in South Carolina, and all had local offices. They were a big part of that picture of being able to at least have some resources to get our message further, even if not completely a one-to-one match.

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

We just very recently had the PRSA International Conference, and I have just been sort of marinating in all of the programming that we had on the proliferation of disinformation and misinformation. I work in a School of Journalism in Mass Communication, so our PR major sits alongside journalism, advertising, visual communications, mass communications.

We are also part of a larger college that has a School of Information Science, so together we have really been looking at these broader issues of data, media and society. I work with some of the most brilliant people who are conducting research in those areas. And so, I think that as we really explore how information is being manipulated, it feels like a heavy weight on the shoulders of those of us who are communicators, to be able to really wade through that information.

We have this responsibility to ensure the free flow of information. That’s a core part of our code of ethics, but it assumes that the information, to some degree, is factual. They say a free flow of information, but we’ve to make sure that the information is reliable and verifiable, and it comes from real sources. That’s getting harder and harder to really wade through, and make sure that that information is valid.

One other challenge that I see related to that is that a lot of my PR students don’t trust the media. What I have to do is educate them about our relationship with the media, and I say, “Hey, we’re right here in this school with future journalists. Get to know those peers and get to understand the work that they’re doing.”

I’m teaching Media Relations this semester for the first time. The very first day of class, one of the things we talked about was, “What is the media? What does that mean?” My train of thought was getting them to define what do we mean by that, that that means lots of different media outlets and different avenues. But the first responses I got were things like, “biased”, “fake”, “untrustworthy,” so they went immediately to their perceptions of what it meant to be the media.

So, we’ve spent a lot of time helping our PR students understand the role of the media. Understand the role of traditional sound, ethical journalism, how to distinguish among news versus editorial or commentary and opinion, and then really how to understand our sources.

I think all of that really plays into this bigger issue of how do we break down and really understand information, and how can we be good stewards of ensuring that accurate information is being shared?

Well, as somebody who’s married to an editor, I definitely have a perspective on that one. I had a great conversation last night about truth. We were focusing on truth and accuracy. What’s your advice for people to make sure they’re only sharing accurate information?

I think we go back to those core skills of the journalists, and to have multiple sources. Check your sources. Check your own biases. There are a number of great charts out there that plot out different media outlets that range from far left to far right. I tell my students to try to hone in on those outlets that are as close to the middle as possible. Certainly, different people have different perceptions about whether or not that’s the right place for that particular outlet.

We must consider biases in any direction, but also make sure that you are looking at multiple sources, you’re reading beyond the headline. I think it’s so easy for us in a digital world… You see the headline and you’re outraged, or you’re delighted, and you just retweet and you don’t think about digging too far into the content.

Go back to some of those core skills of making sure that you are looking at multiple sources, that you’re questioning any bias within those sources, and you’re making sure that you really are considering: “Am I only responding to this because it already fits what I believe, or the narrative that I’m following? Or am I considering that there may be some different perspectives on this?”

You mention your students a lot. When you engage the students in all the classes, what are the ethics topics that really excite them the most, or puzzle them the most?

I do think a lot of what we have just been talking about, just this question of sources and validity of information. We have a lot of conversation about that. I think that certainly they’re very socially conscious, and we also have a lot of colleagues who do research on CSR, and social movements, and social justice. These are very important issues for our students. I think that they want to go to work for companies that are ethical companies. But they really struggle a little bit with how do I vet that out? How do I find that out, if I’m in the process of interviewing for a job, or I’m trying to look for places to apply?

I teach a lot of seniors, too, so we spend a lot of time kind of talking about the job search and trying to help them really think about the type of company where they want to work. Not just, what is my job description? But what is the ethical core of this company? Does it match my values? That’s really important to students now, and I think that it really puts that onus back on companies to be mindful that that is how many people are looking to them: not just to produce a product or service, but to really have a voice in what’s going on in society. And to be okay if maybe some people decide not to do business with them because of that, while others certainly will.

You have a great point about wanting to work for the brands that have a purpose. I was speaking with  Ron Culp last week, and he brought those same points up. There are companies the students will work for, and companies the students won’t.

Thinking back over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

I would say, “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your mother to read about in tomorrow’s newspaper.”

The reason that I say that is I have spent my entire career here in the community where I grew up. I’m really proud of that. I’ve been able to do a lot of great community relations work, primarily because I know this community like the back of my hand.

But I also work in the community where my parents live, and where my parents read the same newspaper and watch the same news channels that I do. So, I’m very mindful of the fact that the work that I do is a direct reflection on my family, and they’re always kind of keeping tabs on me. But I think it’s probably good advice for anybody, regardless of where you live.

It’s great advice. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

I was just thinking a little bit in terms of a slightly different focus on ethical considerations with … We’re all in an online environment right now in education. I think that it certainly weighs on me every single day, to make sure that I’m meeting my obligations to my students to ensure high quality content, preparing them for their future careers. I feel the responsibility of that, and how to mirror that in the online environment.

But also, I think, looking ahead, trying to make sure that we’re always considering things like making sure that the student who’s registered is actually the student who’s completing the course; making sure that students are engaged and participating; that we’re mindful of all of their needs, to have a great educational experience.

I think higher ed is certainly going to be changing very significantly. The pandemic has created these opportunities for us to adapt to the current situation, but certainly we’re keeping a really close eye on the changes that that may bring for us in the future.

Check out the complete interview, with bonus content, here


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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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


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