Joining me on this week’s episode is Ken Hunter, the President and Chief Strategist at The PowerStation and a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University. He discusses a number of important issues, including
- What to do ethically when your company is accused of making people sick
- How to make ethical issues seem less like personal attacks
- What to do when your boss makes unethical promises
- Dealing with media bias
I gave a brief overview, but why don’t you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your career?
Well, I look at my job now as building and protecting organizations’ reputations. I work as a public relations and a marketing communication consultant. I work directly with clients and their executive teams and with public relations agencies who need a certain type of expertise or some extra hands if they have something significant that they’re working on. My night job is working with Rutgers University at the School of Communication and Information. I teach a course every semester for undergrad students where we really put together big PR campaigns throughout the semester. I also teach a professional services course for public relations pros that are experienced called Ethics and the Business of Public Relations.
I started in journalism and worked in New York City for about eight years writing for business and consumer publications. I got that call one day from an agency owner that had been after me for years. He happened to call at the right time on the right day. Since that time, it’s been a quick 20 plus years working in crisis communication, healthcare, technology and some real estate.
Thinking about your career, what are some of the most difficult ethical challenges you ever confronted?
I’ve seen quite a few over the years.
I worked at an agency that was owned by a husband and a wife. The husband, boy, he had quite a temper. He would swear at the top of his lungs at his wife across the hallway. You can see if he’s treating his wife that terribly, what things were like back in the bullpen. We would go to new business meetings. He would tell the prospects that he would make them richer than avarice, meaning it will be hand over fist money due to the public relations work he does. He would also promise, we’ll get you in The Wall Street Journal.
Those are the sorts of things that as a public relations person, you can’t guarantee. There’s so much that’s involved in what’s going to the messaging, the product, the service. There is no way public relations on its own is going to start making the money come rolling in. He ended up being a good example of a bad boss and a bad new business person because I learned so many lessons from that of knowing here’s what I don’t want to do. Again, it was early-ish in my PR career. I realized, I had a lot of stuff to learn, but that was a doozy of a place to work.
Another one that comes to mind is I had a client that was an organ and tissue procurement organization for transplants. This company specialized in bone.
All of a sudden, they were running into cases of patients who were contracting hepatitis and they weren’t sure is it coming from us? Is it the hospital? The FDA of course came in. I know the CEO was in a very big panic wondering, what should I do about this? They may shut us down. Our reputation is going to be ruined.
With something like that as a PR person you really have to try to balance the lawsuits and the potential of lawsuits versus the public’s right to know, versus are we going to just create broad panic for no reason at all? We haven’t yet confirmed what the problem was. It took a couple of months to finally find where the problem lied. It was something where the testing wasn’t even picking up. The fact that there was hepatitis in some of the bone tissue that they would give to hospitals to transplant into people.
By the time that happened, of course, there were lots of stories in the press and the big warning about doing business with this company. They suffered a big blow to their reputation for a while, but then were able to bounce back.
I think because of the fact that we’re able to counsel them to be honest, to tell here’s what we know now versus speculation. That helped us bridge the ethical gap. We had to decide do we go and just bare our souls or do we want to be a little bit more measured in what it is we put out and wait until we know for sure that X has happened before we go and tell everybody X has happened? I think that approach worked well. I know the FDA, when they were finished with their investigation was happy in how the company was transparent.
That’s really a way that I think. You counsel your client, talk them off the ledge. Because I remember that CEO being very, very concerned as company might go under because of potential bad press and the word getting around. During that case I probably learned a fair amount about how to handle openness without saying, okay, everybody, here, come take a look. Pry through every file we’ve got. Taking a measured approach ends up serving the public better.
Let’s backtrack. Your company is now being accused of potentially doing harm, but you’re not sure. How do you work through that ethically with the management team to find the appropriate response?
First of all, you must build trust with the CEO and top management team. In this case it also included physicians, who weren’t necessarily skilled in communication and the techniques for it but knew what happened to other companies and this may not be good for us. The executives recognizing it is a serious situation that’s going to involve more expertise than just medical was big positive from their part. From my part, you get the trust by winning a couple of small battles in the beginning. From that point, start to work down from the CEO. Because now that the CEO trusts you, the medical director will tend to start trusting you more and other executives, the head of sales, you name it will trust you. It’ll trickle down from the top.
At companies, the whole personality of the place comes down from the top. In this case it was very good that the CEO was very open with his team letting him know he didn’t have all the answers, but is trying to protect this place. I can remember one time dealing with a hospital system who was in the middle of a possible strike with their nurses. That CEO, I remember we’re in the war room and I’m sitting across as outside counsel, as outside attorney. The attorney and I are going back and forth. The attorney is just worried about how big will the lawsuits be or how bad will we get burned in negotiations. The CEO was perplexed because he started to develop a very personal dislike for the union side, for their negotiators who also had a personal dislike for the hospital side.
I remember at one point, I was letting everybody vent and telling the lawyer this is going to be a long-term reputational problem that we need to think about. I remember the CEO just looked at the lawyer, looked over at me and said, you know something, I’m really glad that we have PR here because I wouldn’t even have thought of these things. It got to the point where it was so hateful between the people involved because they were just so personally connected to it. They were very happy to just tell somebody else, here, I’m going to vent my spleen. I’m going to tell you everything that’s driving me nuts. It ended up working well and they were able to get through that. A lot of times I will see top execs have taken things so personally by the time they have a communication person come on into the picture. It’s really to their detriment.
You want to aspire to have a seat at the senior management table. It doesn’t matter what your title is, but as long as you’re there, you get the opportunity to see where the company is going and influence it. Or at the very least, if they don’t let you influence it, you may be able to impact how things are going to be rolled out and how they’ll be set.
So many of these ethical decisions though are personal or they come down to attacking your character or perceived that way. How do you help executives get beyond that feeling of a personal attack to make the best decision for the organization and its stakeholders?
I usually will let them vent in the beginning. It’s very important that people do have that opportunity to tell their side of the story. Even though I may be, “paid” by that CEO to come on in to help that person, I still try to be more of an impartial jury. Because I don’t have those years of experience in that company leading up to whatever that situation is, to see how’s the company culture potentially permitted this, or is there just a failure of some individual employee, or those people on the loading dock, they’re always messing things up. That’ll be the thing that you can get past. However, I also like to serve as a quasi-devil’s advocate, and go through who the different target audiences are for that company or for that, an issue.
That helps them see the impact of whatever the decision is that’s made and, are we including everybody? Do we have employees as a group that may be impacted? When you start running through the different target audiences, that tends to be an eye-opener because people usually naturally go to our customers as the start and the finish of our target audiences. But that is a mistake.
With employees, one of the first things I’ll do in a crisis situation is I’ll say, whoever answers the phones or serves at the front desk…I should talk with that person fairly quickly. That person I guarantee has almost no experience in what happens when a reporter shows up in the parking lot with a news van. Or what if I start getting these calls, it seems a little weird and they’re prying for information. That’s why I think it’s very important when you have somebody that can come in and see where the blind spots are, whether or not it’s how do I deal with a reporter that cornered somebody in our parking lot, all the way up to, are we going to be doing some big media conference? Are we going to make some huge new policy change that will forever impact the company?
It’s important for them to know all the different audiences. That’s what I fall back on. A lot of people do that knee jerk decision-making, which rarely serves the organization well. With some of my students at Rutgers, I’ll run them through different scenarios. When they come up with their answer on something, it’s usually just their very quick thing based on their personal values and oh yeah, there’s no way I would do X, but I would definitely do Y. Then you start to get into X and Y. Here are the gray areas in X and Y. Is this your values? Is this the values of your customers? I think once you start to look at it from that way and try to take that knee jerk reaction out, you’ll be much more successful in having a good ethical grounding in any of your decision-making and counseling that you give a client.
When you’re talking to your students, what are the ethical situations that engage them or frustrate them the most?
I use examples that they can personally relate to where, for instance, maybe they’re a fan or consumer of a certain type of product or company, or it’s something that they may deal with in their job. For instance, when I have students from the military, I have a case study that really involves the chain of command. Often, they think whatever the top officer says, it’s yes, sir, yes, ma’am. I must do it no matter what. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. There is a lot of gray area, and there are ways that somebody who’s lower on the totem pole is able to speak up.
There’s a lot more flexibility depending on the commander. Some commanders are hard-nosed. If this person says jump, it’s always how high. Again, that’s how it trickles down from the top. But if you’re given an order that you think is unethical, how do you work through this? If you have an authoritarian who is running the base, it does make it incredibly difficult to speak up. However, I think when you can show people within the military different ways that they can come to their decision-making result and then how you might go and pose it to a superior officer. I think that makes a lot of difference.
That’s part of what I also try to teach. It’s not just, well, what’s right and what’s wrong because there’s a ton of gray. It’s how do you navigate that gray or how do you turn something that you say is wrong into gray but realize you may not have a perfect outcome? How can you live with a perfect outcome? How can your bosses live with a non-perfect outcome? I think that’s all part of the trust component.
The first example you gave today was about your boss that was making unethical promises. What are the first things people should do when they’re in that situation and they may not feel they have that autonomy to push back?
I didn’t say anything the first time I heard that in the meeting, but in the car drive back to the office, I mentioned something to that boss that there’s no way that the story ideas they talked about in this meeting are going to be appropriate for The Wall Street Journal. He was like, it doesn’t matter, we’re just trying to sell them on hiring us and whatever it takes to close the deal or something to that effect. I was like, well, yeah, I understand with new business that there is a degree of salesmanship. However, as a public relations person, even if my roommates from college were all the top editors at say The Wall Street Journal and other places, there’s no way I could ever guarantee the story being covered.
There are way, way too many factors that will impact it. There’ll be prospects that will say, well, we want to be in a lot of top media. I think it’s very important to honestly tell them, here’s why you’re not there yet. If that’s where you aspire to be, we’re going to have to take steps to get you there. It’s not just me with a connection. Let me call my old college roommate and he’ll be happy to run this story. That’s not how it works. Plus, I would feel, well, it’s almost unethical if I put my friend in that place to say, look, I have a client that’s breathing down my back. I really need something. They’re like, this isn’t for us.
As I like to say, the relationship will get them to pick up the phone and listen to you, but that’s all it’s going to do. They’ll tell you no just as well as anybody else.
That’s true. They will. Many times I’ll hear, oh, we want to be on the Today Show. But probably one half of 1% of Today Show viewers are the target audience. I ask if these is a potential piece that’s more for your ego or is it going to be better for your stockholders, your investors, your employees to be able to look at a much less glamorous trade publication? Usually you can win that argument for short time, but then eventually they’ll get the stars in their eyes and say, are we ready yet for our big, big close up, Mr. Demille…
Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the top ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
One of the biggest ones that I see now is working with the media. I mean, there’s so many obstacles to even be able to get a reporter to acknowledge something, or they will pick up their phones, which I understand having been a reporter. You could spend your entire day just fielding calls from PR people. Some of the pitches are very off target and you wonder, have they ever read this publication that I work at? However, I think it’s more of the bias end.
Currently a lot of people look at it as well as a Democrat versus Republican bias and yes, there’s a massive amount of that. However, you have to think about do any agendas filter their way into how you have to pitch a story? Do they filter into what you even come up with for the story? Do they filter into, you’re not even going to pitch that publication or that news outlet because maybe you personally don’t care for it?
I’ve seen this on both sides of the political spectrum. It’s not just a one size fits all argument. However, I remember in 2016 for the last presidential election, the New York Times essentially came out and told their reporters, if you don’t agree with something, there’s no way that we can expect you to write about this in a way that does not take one side of this. You’re now free to do that. I think at that point, wow, it just opened up the flood gates. I remember when I took journalism courses, I still remember, I had this former editor of The Denver Post who was teaching a course at Syracuse in news writing. He was so clear about you must show both sides. It doesn’t matter if the other side really disgusts you. It could be a horrible crime but you need to go and you owe your readers, your viewers the duty to get both sides of the story to let them decide. However, we’re not there now.
Early in my career, I started seeing things turn a little bit in newsrooms, but now, boy, it is a free for all. It’s like social media. I’m a person that has a viewpoint, put it all out there. It doesn’t matter what it’s about. Let people decide. People are smart enough to be able to look at certain sides of a story and start making up their own mind. When I see Twitter, for instance, banning certain people or banning keywords or banning conversation, even about the vaccine for COVID. I just say, that’s unconscionable. If they want to actually become a news source versus a platform, then that’s a totally different type of business. Don’t pretend you’re one thing when you’re really another. The same with Facebook. You hear about Google as well.
Do you see how easily that’s going to morph? What if you came up with a big competitor to Google? Are they going to bury any of your search results so people just won’t find them? Same thing. If you came up with a good alternative to Twitter. Those are going to be, I think, some of the biggest ethical issues moving forward. For PR people, you have to realize, regardless of the side you take when it comes to political issues, half of the country has an opposite view. Do you think you’re doing your company or your client a good service by saying I don’t care what half of those people think? I would say that’s almost malpractice as a public relations person. When I see a lot of people that will post in public forums putting their politics out on their sleeve, I never post about those sorts of things because you don’t know who it is that you’re about to do business with. They go and see a political opinion they don’t like, well, you’re gone.
You’ll never be considered. You could be the best PR person in the world, yet that can still happen. Unfortunately, a lot of people love to air that and think it’s a safe space in social media to go and give all of their points of view. I think that goes back to the crisis approach that I’ll have. You want to be that mediator in the middle. People vent, however, they need to eventually come around. I see the venting. I don’t yet see the coming around.
I think that’s really good advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I can’t remember who said this, but somebody told me said public relations has to be the conscience of the organization. Even though it was probably at least 15 years ago that I heard this, it still sticks with me to this day. I also view that as that is a great excuse if your boss, your client, whomever is giving you the side eye, like, gee, how come you’re being the devil’s advocate way too much here? Or, why do you care so much about what the employees think versus our customers? It goes back to that philosophy, be the conscience of the organization. It doesn’t mean you always have to say no, no, no. However, there are times you do have to say it. That’s where it can be a powerful statement.
As a PR person, you need to have the guts to do that. You also need to have the confidence to do it because I know it’s not for everybody. Because standing up to the CEO who could decide you get fired in two minutes, but telling them, watch out for this, here’s a blind spot, I think it’s very important to play that role. If they don’t respect you for that, then that’s probably where you need to start thinking, is this organization one that I really want to keep working at or keep representing? It’s okay if they tell me no, however, if they won’t at least listen to my advice, then that’s problematic. That can be an indication of bigger issues.
Be that conscience of the organization and know what your customers will think, what your other target publics will think too. What do the employees think? What the different levels of employees think? I think that’s one of the big roles that we can play as PR people to help the company stay very ethical in how they work, but then still be able to do very well in their market. Because people will remember in bad times how did you operate. If you operated ethically and above board, it you were transparent and relatable, then chances are you’ll come through that fine and potentially be stronger in the end.
I think that’s a great piece of advice. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
Crisis communications is some of the most excitement you can have in public relations. I don’t know about you, but I know whenever I have a client that has a crisis issue, it’s like, oh boy, I can’t wait. This is going to be great, which people look at me weird like how can you wish for a crisis? It’s like, no, I’m not wishing for a crisis, but one is here. Now that it is, wow, it’s great to get tested as a PR person. Can you stay ethical? Can you give good advice? Can you warn people when they might be going astray? How well can you do the messaging? Can you convince an editorial board to take your position? Plus, the decision-making is so quick because it’s done at the highest levels and you don’t have the long drawn out press release that has to go through 99 different people and a year and a half from now we’re okay to go.
You need to know that you have good ideas, you have a good grounding, but that there’s tons of gray area. That’s where a person who’s good at ethics is going to excel in finding all that gray area and then using that as platform to build upon to help bring the organization forward.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- What to do when you are faced with nearness and drinking bias – Melissa Vela-Williamson, APR - July 26, 2021
- What can PR professionals learn from the open source community? – Laura Kempke - July 19, 2021
- What to do when your boss doesn’t value honesty as much as you do – Gary McKillips - July 12, 2021