Ethical Voices

Conflict of Interest Issues with Non-Profit Boards – Pam Campbell

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Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Pam Campbell, APR, Fellow PRSA, the Director of Public Affairs at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Oklahoma City Branch. She discusses a number of important ethical issues, including:

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

It’s easy to start with just saying I love public relations. A lot of people wouldn’t believe this about me, but I actually started my college career as a pharmacy major. And although my grades were fine, it just really wasn’t my passion. After I was in a speech class, a wonderful professor asked me if I’d ever thought about public relations, just explained what it was and I was hooked. And I always feel like when I found public relations, it’s like when Harry Potter found his wand and it was just like, wow, everything fell into place.

Once my career started, I was fortunate enough to work in state government at the Department of Transportation. I worked in education at a technology center. I’ve done some association work at the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, and then I’ve spent quite a few years in corporate telecom. Now I lead the public affairs department at the Fed in Oklahoma City, I’ve been there for about 15 years. But this is just one side of my career. I have taught public relations writing at the University of Oklahoma on and off for about 20 years.

I’m an avid community volunteer, and I will tell you sometimes that is what feels like a full-time job. I’ve served as committee chairs on the boards and as president of several nonprofits, including things like the Oklahoma City Chapter of PRSA, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Oklahoma Jump$tart Coalition, and the United Way. The largest volunteer job I’ve taken on thus far is serving as president of the Junior League of Oklahoma City. We have 1,400 women members and it’s a $4.2 million organization. It literally was a full-time job in addition to my full-time job.

Thinking back over your career what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

I really feel very fortunate that I don’t think I’ve had to deal with any blatant ethical issues. Although working in a corporate setting, there are definitely some gray areas. I can remember times that I was in charge of employee communications and it was an employee versus management situation. I proposed that we need to be transparent about what’s happening and management wanted to withhold information. I’m sure a lot of PR professionals deal with that.

Unfortunately, I probably dealt with more behavior that I might consider unethical in my volunteer work. And I don’t know if that’s because of a lack of training, or maybe because a lot of people volunteer for organizations for more reasons than just giving back. You’re definitely there for networking. You’re there for building relationships. And I know sometimes that leads to building business. But sometimes I see it leads to a lot of conflict of interest situations.

Just to give a specific example, there’s a volunteer, who’s an executive at an events company and she would volunteer and work and chair committees that hosted events. That makes sense. She’s an expert at event planning and brings great value to that committee. Where the conflict of interest developed is that she would hire her own organization to do the work. She may offer the nonprofit a 10% discount, but I never saw an effort to use it as a donation or maybe to search for another organization that would donate those services. I saw several examples of that practice.

There was also somebody who wanted to promote a nonprofit through a publication her organization produced, which sounds great. Please give us some promotion. I found out later that the nonprofit was billed for that media placement. That’s something that never should have been agreed to. There’s just been situations like that that are just kind of icky.

How do you address those issues? Did you speak up or encourage others to speak up to address these issues?

A lot of times people compartmentalize their life. Sometimes they think, of course, I have business ethics. Of course, I would never do that. Conflict of interest is an absolute no. But then in volunteer work, sometimes that stuff doesn’t translate.

How do you recommend Boards stop these conflicts of interests arising from the blending of the professional and the volunteer roles?

I think being open and honest and educating the board. Sometimes people have a firm hold on what business ethics is. They know conflict of interest is an absolute no. But then they don’t think about it translating to other parts of their lives, to volunteer work, to things like that. I think showing that it’s the same thing – no matter where you are, ethics still matters.

At the Federal Reserve, we do ethics training every year with our employees, but I don’t know that nonprofits and volunteers and the boards I’ve served on do that consistently.

I think that’s a good point, that’s why I bring up, you need to make sure that you’re clear with your onboarding and regular training so people know what the code of ethics is and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.

Absolutely.

Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the most significant ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think that ethical situations can kind of sneak up on us. When we’re in school learning about ethics, we have these high ideals. I teach at OU. When I talk to my students and I ask them about an ethical situation, they have very high ideals. They are going to walk out of a job if they are asked to lie to the media or do something obvious. But in the situation I described earlier, these ladies were volunteering, trying to help a nonprofit organization. In their mind, they were helping.

From the outside looking in, it could give the appearance that they’re just trying to make money off of a nonprofit. As PR professionals our reputation and credibility is so important. We have to really be vigilant that situations like that do not sneak up on us and we don’t drop our guard.

Did those conflict of interest situations ever come to light publicly?

Fortunately, not publicly. It was dealt with on a board level and solved through writing some policies and procedures and through discussion and education. I try to tell people why that was not okay. But it’s really hard because some people just don’t see it, and it’s a challenge.

You mentioned your students. What are some of those ethics topics that most engaged or frustrated your students?

I spend a lot of time thinking about media literacy and the news. I think it’s so important that people are educated on media literacy, because it’s so easy now to have apps that can put out false news articles, or photos, and they just take off. There are tools to figure that out, but it takes effort. I also think that because we are consumers and we’re consuming news and information so quickly, we just don’t stop and think, where is this coming from?

I have two little girls, who are six and four. When we watch commercials, we play a game “What are they selling?” When a commercial comes on, I ask, “What are they selling?” And they’ll yell out cars or whatever. Perfume commercials really confuse them, by the way. This is to help them become more aware and build better media literacy skills as they get older. Our parents were brought up that whatever comes across in the media is truth. That is just not the case anymore. And that to me is something that is concerning.

I think we’re entering the disinformation age, where misinformation and disinformation, is more prevalent and more insidious than ever before.

I think insidious is a very good word for it.

I’m going to put you on the spot a little bit here, working with the Federal Reserve where there’s a lot of misinformation being given about the Fed or the economy. What’s your advice for professionals on countering that misinformation and disinformation?

I feel like this is where our training on building relationships between an organization and its publics really matters. You really have to build on those relationships. My goal is that if somebody gets some disinformation about the Fed, they have that relationship built with us locally that they’re like, “Wait, that is not what I’ve heard,” or, “I know where I can go to check that out.” Those on the ground relationships are really going to be vital.

I think that’s a good piece of advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I think it would be to consider all the factors. Sometimes when you encounter an ethical situation, I think it’s very easy to think, this is black and white. There may be situations that absolutely are, but I think there are so many that aren’t. You have to consider the internal factors, external factors, legal factors, and economic factors. There are so many things that go into the equation. It’s important to spend that time, considering all those things before making decisions about how to handle a questionable situation.

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

When I look back on situations I’ve been involved with, I wish I had spoken up more. I don’t think I realized then what silence can mean. I probably thought I didn’t want to make waves, or maybe the situation didn’t affect me directly. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized silence can mean agreement. It’s important to speak up if there’s something we don’t agree with, that doesn’t feel right in our guts, that’s just questionable.

And as we mentioned before, I think that education and discussion of expectations, including what is considered ethical behavior is just vital.

That’s great advice. I was speaking with Mark Cautela at Harvard Business School and he was mentioning the same thing. He was having trouble when he was a junior person just starting a career by being quiet because he didn’t want to rock the boat. And it led to unethical behavior on the part of others. That’s why he’s always says, “If you see it, you need to say something about it.”

Yes, Listen to your gut.

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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