This is the 100th ethics interview for EthicalVoices. I can think of no one better for this episode than Mike Paul, the president of Reputation Doctor®. He is a top strategic, public relations, reputation, corporate communications, crisis management, and litigation support PR expert who helps build, maintain, and repair the leading reputations and brands of global and national corporations, governments, NGOs, famous people, and public health leaders in both good times and bad.
I first heard him speak about 15 years ago when he discussed quitting a job over being asked to lie on time sheets, and it has stuck with me ever since. I’m really glad to have him as a guest this week.
Mike discusses a number of critical issues including:
- What executives should do (and many fail to do) when someone reports sexual harassment to them
- The ethical failures of most businesses to act on diversity, equity and inclusion
- When personal relationships are more important than safeguarding confidences
Why don’t you tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your career?
I started my career in politics never thinking I was going to be working in public relations. I was a top aide to some leaders in the state legislature in New York, then I became an aide to a US Senator, went back to grad school at Columbia and was recruited out of Columbia’s Master’s program in international public affairs by Burson-Marsteller. Harold Burson was starting a new trial management training program where he picked five top graduate students from around the country. I was told there were more than 10,000 people who had applied for it.
He picked five of us to start as the opening class in this program called the Aviators Management Training Program – like we’re going to fly over everybody else. As you can imagine, our peers didn’t really like that name, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Harold Burson, was my mentor for many, many years. I was proud that he said he got as much out of our relationship as I did, which shows that when you have a mentor and a mentee that are different, you can really both grow.
Well, I’ve had a couple of major challenges. Obviously, the bread and butter of my business is corporate clients, and I’ve worked with many global corporations and established global brands over the years. But as I like to say, “Building isn’t a brand or building isn’t who we work with, we work with people.” Unfortunately over the years, people have been rewarded for doing unethical things and sometimes worse, illegal things. That’s just the opposite of what I like to be around.
I’ll give you one horrible example. I worked for a major agency, I can’t say what the agency name is, but I’ve worked for agencies in both public relations as well as advertising. This particular agency had a lot of problems. They had sexual harassment suits, they had past racial issues. They had past ethical and illegal crisis of all kinds. A lot of lawsuits. They decided, at least in words, they wanted to change. One of the things that they wanted to change was bring in some top corporate communications and crisis management help, and that’s where I came in.
I had permission to hire a number of people fairly quickly because my entire division got decimated. So, I hired six new people to come into the organization within a matter of weeks. They really didn’t know this agency that well. They knew me, and they were really trusting in me to build the team to do some great things. All six of them happened to be women. All six of them happened to be at the top of their game and excellent at what they did. And all six of them also happened to be beautiful. I mention that because the crisis that and the ethical violation that goes along with it deals with sexual harassment and sexual assault by some of my peers…my peers…senior executives with the agency.
Four of the women came to my office at the same time, some of them shaking, totally uncomfortable. By the way, I’m an expert in body language. I’ve been trained by former CIA and FBI operatives to understand body language. I can assure you, their body language at the time was not good. I knew something was seriously wrong. First thing that I said to them was, “Are you feeling unsafe on this floor right now?” And they shook their head yes. And I said, “In offices to the left of me?” And they said yes. “And in offices to the right of me?” They said yes. I said, “Okay.” Now, I had a split second to make a decision, an important ethical decision. Am I now a steward of fiduciary responsibility and all types of responsibility in my job working for this corporation first, or do I listen to these amazing ladies who are suffering first? It’s a big question.
I instantly said I’m on their side. I didn’t take my business phone. I didn’t take my business laptop. I took my personal iPad and I took my personal phone, and I told my assistant, “I’m going to be gone for a long two-hour lunch at minimum.” I took them all, and I said, “If the other two are comfortable to come, I want to hear everything. I’m on your side.” Now, you and I know that’s what you’re supposed to do ethically and morally, not under the guidelines of the corporation, under the guidelines of being a human being on earth.
But that’s not how it usually goes. How it usually goes is someone might listen for a while, they’ll take notes. They talk to HR. HR might say, “Gosh, how are we’re going to handle this?” Further days go by, other senior executives above me get involved, and many times, nothing happens, zero.
That was not going to happen this time. I had decided to use brinkmanship, a keyword when you’re dealing with situations like this. I was willing to live and change my job based on what I hear. And if it breaches not just corporate guideline but human being, ethical, and moral decision-making, I’m out, and I’m going to make sure I take care of them the best I can. That’s the decision I made when I took that phone and that laptop and I went to lunch with them.
Their stories were horrific. They were not just sexually harassed but sexually assaulted. They had been there just a matter of weeks. My only prism that I listened to them through was, “What if this was my sister? What if this was my daughter?” That’s the view that I had as I was listening. I told them after they were done telling me of their horrific stories, “I am 100% behind you. I will be leaving here soon, and I will help you to get what you believe is a fair recourse for what you’ve been through.”
I knew one of their fathers. He was a professional football player and he said to me, “Mike, you’ve helped me in the past with something. I trust you. I know you had nothing to do with this, but I’m telling you I know who touched my daughter. I’m still 6 ft 11, 320 pounds. Let him know I know where he lives.”
So, I could assure you the conversations, the negotiations, and everything that went along with this from the start was not pretty on their side, the things they said, the lies that they were trying to coat these women with. I said, “I don’t think you guys get it. Guess what I have access to. I have access to being a commentator and having relationships with global and national news for 28 years. They trust me. You think if I call them and tell them about the story that this is not going to impact both personal reputations and global brands and even stock price? You’re a publicly-traded company. I have no fear.” Do you know why I didn’t have any fear? They don’t control anything that I do.
I left my firm to try and help an organization change. I had a plan B ready and was set to jump back to my firm before I started. I just shut down the website and had my freelancers doing their own thing. I could pick up the phone and say, “We’re back, let’s go.” That’s it. It’s all it took to come back to business.
They’re not used to that. They’re used to people being afraid. They’re used to people being fearful of not making money. They didn’t have that this time. The attorney that was representing me went to law school with the general counsel of this holding company. When he called them up, the first thing he said is, “This is real. This is a big deal. This can go sideways very quickly.”
You brought up a point about you had 28 years of relationships and you were very comfortable financially if you needed to make the move. What’s your advice to the new supervisor who finds themselves in that situation when they’re struggling with a lot of the concerns that you may not have had? We know what the right thing is, but how do you convince them when they may not feel as secure to go and do the right thing?
I must counsel people in these types of situations a minimum of a few times a week. They are in a fork in the road and they have to make an ethical decision. I tell them three things. The first is, “As you stand on a solid rock, know that there is a future. Know that feeling that you have in your gut that this is the right thing to do even though you’re shivering in fear in doing it, other people will reward you for it. It might not be in this exact organization. It might not be amongst the same group of friends that you have or the people you think are friends. It might not be even within the same profession.”
I’ve had CEOs of banks who were involved with fraud that had to make a decision, “Do I tell the truth, or do I go to jail for a long time?” What they came to me with is, “I want you to help me to get through this storm because I still want to be a CEO of the bank in the future.” And guess what I say during the first 30 days of being retained, which most other firms don’t say because they’re afraid of getting fired, “That might not happen. But you might be rewarded in a different way.”
That’s called counseling, it’s not just doing what your client wants you to do. Our profession is filled with hundreds upon hundreds of people, some of them CEOs of the top 20 firms who have been spinning and lying for a living for more than 40 or 50 years, and been rewarded for doing so. They have bought awards. They think we’re not going to tell anybody that we applied for 110 awards, we’re just going to talk about the 10 or 12 we won. Every year they do that.
I’ve had friends who are CEOs that have got awards in diversity, equality and inclusion. They’re winning awards knowing they have less than 2% executives of color in any position ever. They still put their hand in that award. Thank God I’m not judging those awards, but sometimes I’m in the audience. I had one guy, I was sitting right in front of him as he was giving his acceptance award several years ago, his body language was horrible. The minute he saw me he’s like, “Oh my God, Mike’s here.” Didn’t say a word, I read it on his body, “Oh my God, Mike’s here, he’s going to hold me accountable. My wife’s here too and my kids, oh, Jesus. Hey Mike, how’re you doing?”
“Hey, what’s up? Hey, congratulations.”
I sit in the front seat. He’s got to look at me as he’s giving the acceptance award. He then changes his speech because I’m holding him accountable with my eyes, and he adds to his speech, because he’s reading the paper and suddenly he’s not. He says, “Oh, by the way, I’ve got to add, my firm and myself personally, we have to do a lot more. We’re not doing enough. But I thank you so much for this award and will continue to try and improve diversity, equality, and inclusion in our profession and in our firm as best we can moving forward. Thank you for this.” He comes up to me afterwards, and he says, “Hey, how did I do?” I said, “This isn’t the place to talk about it.”
Too many companies are wokewashing. Many companies are saying we need diversity, but then they have to actually execute and put some numbers behind it.
Well, bigger than that. Not just putting numbers behind it, you have to actually hire people.
We don’t need another panel. Here’s what I tell them, I say, “Guys, I’ve been studying this for almost 30 years. By the way, I’m not a diversity, equality, and inclusion expert, I just happen to be black. I solve crises. This pops up, I look into it, I find the best practices approach to fixing it, which is what I do. This isn’t rocket science. When McKinsey and Deloitte and others more than six years ago came up with studies that said, “When you start hiring people from intern to board member and every level in between to match the demographics of which you reside, operate, and serve, on average, you make one-third more money.”
Now, think about how profound that is.
We’ve known this with evidence for over six years. I sent it to every CEO you could think of and their boards, not just the agencies I compete with, I’m talking about major corporations. I said, “This is the playbook. Here it is. Here’s a few corporations that have done it well, that have won a best approaches award. Utilize their example along with this data and this study.”
If a CEO on average finds out once a year that something can make them one-third more money on average… and you don’t do it… This is what I’ve said to CEOs of major corporations and their boards who trust me. I said, “Guys, I got to do the converse of this, I got to flip it for you to wake you up. What that means is if you now don’t do this, the only reason why you wouldn’t, is because you’re either too prejudiced or too racist to do it. Why would you not want to make one-third more money? Why would that not be a good analyst question if you’re a publicly-traded corporation? Why would that not be a good journalist question? Why would that not be something that a shareholder raises their hand?”
By the way, Jessie Jackson buys stocks just to be able to do this and ask that question. Al Sharpton buys stock at his organization just to do that. The NAACP has learned how to do it. The National Urban League has learned how to do it. The NAACP Legal Defense… I can go on and on, this is what they do now.
Someone just a half hour ago said, “Mike, you keep talking about at least dozens of senior executives in each organization of any kind needs to be hired, not sprinkles, not one or two. One or two’s been going for two generations or more.” I said, “That’s true.”
They ask “Where do we find them?” I said, “It’s an insult to even be asked that question, and you don’t even know that. It’s an insult to also say that when you hear the three letters or the term diversity, equality, and inclusion and instantly respond to talk about interns.”
I’ve been in meetings on panels and I said, “Excuse me, nobody mentioned interns. How did we get to interns? Somebody mentioned three words, diversity equality and inclusion, why are you talking about a college scholarship. Why are you talking about an intern. Why are you talking about entry? Do you know how demeaning that is?”
There’s several white women on the panel so I said, “Let me break it down for you, this is the equivalent. You came in and wanted to talk about senior executive women and equity in pay and equity in power and somebody just said, ‘Oh, I’m going to give a $1,000 scholarship to the Girls Scouts of Westchester County, New York.’ You’re supposed to go, ‘What? What are you talking about? Who’s talking about Girls Scouts?’ It’s demeaning. This is 2020. Wake up people, you can’t do that.”
We have people who have even married outside their race in senior executive positions, have children with someone else who is outside their race, children that don’t look like them, and they still have conversations with me as though it’s only a white world. I wake them up by saying, “You do realize your daughter’s Asian, right?” “Oh, Mike, where did that come from?” Guess what? It’s called the one-drop rule in America. You want me to shake you? Let me shake you. Let me wake you up so you don’t sleep tonight. Your daughter’s going to be called a chink soon.” It’s like, “Holy, why would you say that?” I said, “Because I’m trying to wake you up. No matter what wealth you give her, you can’t stop her from having that experience. I can’t stop my son who’s as light-skinned as my wife from being called the N-word or being told his hair is different, somebody want to touch it, and not in a kind way. I can go on and on. You need to educate yourself about these things. But it’s not my job to constantly educate you.”
You know what my job is? Here’s my job today in 2020 going into 2021, and I’m doing this now, people think I’m out of my mind. I’m going to continue doing it. Let me give you this example of a CEO who is white, who stepped off of his board and asked for them to replace him with an executive of color, in particular Black male, which is the biggest area of crisis regarding DEI in any organization, at any level. It’s the least opportunity and the least jobs filled. “Mike, my term’s not up though, why would I want to do that?” “But you told me you wanted to help. You said, ‘Wow, this DEI is really something I’m getting to understand now. I want to do more. How can I help?’ I’m asking you to help.
“You’re coming up for your next board meeting, right?” “Yeah.” “You should work in there and tell them you don’t want to be in the board anymore.” “But I like being in the board.” “Oh, I know you like being on the board. And I know of the 35 people on your board, 25 of them are white males. But you said you wanted to do something. So the best way that you can help is to step down from the board officially, and send a letter and have a conversation in that board meeting that says, ‘I want to help find my replacement, and I want it to be an executive of color.’ You see, because I know when 25 out of 35 on a board like this certainly does not demonstrate the demographics of which we reside, operate, and serve.”
When I use New York City as an example, people really lose their mind. New York City is the capital of advertising, PR, finance and insurance. In 2010, the demographics in New York City was 68% people of color. That was over 10 years ago. It’s almost three quarters people of color now. They go, “Mike, oh my God, what does that mean?” “That means when you got 2% in the executive ranks, executives of color, you’re at a you-should-be-sued level.”
They respond “Well, Mike, you’re not saying that we should have three quarters of our board and our senior executives of color?” “It’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re supposed to match the demographics. That is the best practices approach to businesses, you’re supposed to match the demographics of which you serve and operate and are headquartered. It’s exactly what I was saying, yes.”
“Well, we’re never had a discussion about that.” I say, “I know. That’s why you’re in crisis. By the way, there is more of an educated population in New York City than most places in the world. There are some of the best universities. So, when you say you can’t find them, they’re here.”
When someone was talking to me about a senior public affairs position within a global agency 10 years ago, and I said, “You do realize that the president of the United States is Black.”
How many communication professionals are in that administration…you’re a headhunter, this is your job. When there’s white guys in those positions in the White House, you make them vice chairman of your firm. You pay them over a $500,000 salary plus bonuses and other structures to pick you. How many firms have hired Obama communication executives who had eight years or four years’ experience?
I said that had to more than 200 hiring executives. You would think that they would have said, “Wow, what an amazing idea. I can go make money. Let me go after those people.” I said, “And here’s what makes it even easier, they worked for the public sector. You don’t have to buy a list, you can look it up. It’s free. If they look Black, you might not be able to guess where they’re from, but they’re probably a person of color, right? This isn’t rocket science.” Nobody that I know who was told that did anything about it.
Here’s the better part of that story, when you’re at the top of your game, when you’re that valuable a person or an asset to an organization, you have options. Were they waiting for PR firms to call and get into a government affairs or public affairs position? No.
But the attitude is like, “You should have gotten to know me. I’m a CEO of a top five firm.” I’m like, “What are you talking about? These guys are Harvard educated, Columbia educated, Yale educated, speak four or five languages, have the opportunity to start their own lobbying firms. You don’t get it. You got to compete for them. You got to compete for us. But your mind can’t phantom that because you have no experience in doing so. You see us as other, you see as less than. You see us as incomplete. And now worse, you now seek to interview us to check a box and don’t give us jobs. We’re not sitting around waiting for you.”
Here’s the irony, many of those people, and I know many of them through the Congressional Black Caucus and other relationships…these people are making more money than the CEOs of these firms. If you tell those CEOs that, they think you’re lying. They think you’re making it up. They think you’re exaggerating. Until these leaders can see us as equals or peers or something they can’t fathom, better… Oh, God-forbid you say that word, better. We’ve done it in athletics. We’ve done it in entertainment. We’ve done it in many other sectors. We’ve become the president of the United States. Why on earth would you not think that some of us are better? Why could you not fathom that? Because your ego can’t take it.
So when I talk to friends who are saying, “Mike, what do you see coming? Biden’s about to do some amazing things. He’s already doing it in his administration.” I said, “I warned you guys for years this was coming. It started with Obama. Now you’re going to have a federal government with a vice president who’s an attorney, who’s going to be whispering in the president’s ear every day, because everyone surrounding him, the majority of people in each room, hear me, I am privy to what’s happening and the changes in this administration, every meeting is going to have dozens of people of color in it. White people are going to feel uncomfortable.
They’re supposed to feel uncomfortable,
Things they were able to get away with before, like, “Yeah, I know that she’s the commissioner. I understand that she’s the secretary or I understand that’s press secretary,” and they’re going to learn, no, no, no, you can’t do that anymore. Transparency, accountability, change, deal with it.
So, when I talk to the CEOs of the top 20 firms, and I talk to them every month, I used to be able to say guys and gals, but there’s really only a couple of gals who are CEOs anymore. Some got the opportunity and failed. By the way, one of those people, I was at one of her first public statements upon being named CEO of a top five PR agency. She said her issue was going to be helping other women, which is laudable. What she really meant was bringing up other people of her caliber into the industry. That’s really the way she was speaking in the speech.
Guess what she left out? Whether you are a man or a woman, the standard for being a CEO is a skillset you need and that might not be your best. It’s shaking trees to win business in the millions in every category globally for this agency. You’ve got the opportunity, can you do it? That’s what I tell women that are seeking those positions. That’s what I tell men that are seeking those positions. You better be ready. If you’re going to be a Jackie Robinson in your category, you want to talk about better, you better not only be able to hit the ball, you better be able to hit out of the park. When you finally get an opportunity, you got to execute.
Another ethical dilemma you mentioned to me was finding out in advance your boss was somebody who was going to be laid off.
Yes. I left Hill & Knowlton to go work for a corporation that ended up eventually merging with MCI WorldCom. Long story short, I had found based on someone who I was dating at the time that was top assistant to one of the top executives for MCI that my boss, several bosses quite frankly, were on a list to be laid off soon. Because she cared about me, she thought I was probably going to be in the list too. So as she’s been told to draft this memo for internal executives of MCI, certainly never going to the people that are going to be laid off, she told me about it.
She was so freaked out about it, she said she didn’t want to talk on the phone, she wanted to talk in person. I met her. I said, “What?” She said, “Here.” And she handed me this draft memo. So I had an ethical dilemma to decide on the spot, “Do I do something with this thing I’m about to read, or am I only corporate loyal?” Well, the guy who had given me the job, had taken me from Hill & Knowlton and brought me into the telecom company, he was a great guy, and we had a good relationship, and I trusted him and he trusted me. He even called me his consiglieri on some things. I know where he was. I knew I didn’t want to just talk to him about it. I knew I had to be face to face with him because he was going to have to make some big decisions soon. Two weeks from that time this was going to happen.
I simply said to her, “Can I have this?” She said, “This is just a draft.” She said, “What are you going to do with that?” I said, “I’d rather not tell you so you don’t get in trouble.” I said, “This is me.” So, I took that draft copy, I jumped on the plane and I went to see him.
That evening I had dinner with this person, and I simply said, “Read this, don’t touch it.” I held it up so he didn’t have to touch the paper, because I fully wanted to be the person who was involved in the decision. He freaked out, I said, “Read it again because it’s not going to be here in a couple of minutes.” He read. I went to the bathroom, flushed it down the toilet, came back, sat down for dinner. I looked him in the eye and said, “All right, what are we going to do now?”
He said, “Mike, you have no idea what you just did for me and my family.” Now, of course I didn’t know any of this. He said, “Three things. Number one, I’ve been offered a job to go back to a big four accounting firm,” where he used to reside before he came to MCI. “Two, I have to make a decision within a week whether I’m buying this second home.” And he wouldn’t have known what his financial situation might have been if he finds out in two weeks as he might have closed on something. Three, he had to make a major decision regarding his kids that’s going to be an expensive decision, “and I can delay this decision now based on what I now know.” He ended by saying, “I’m taking that job.”
Now, he and I had been on phone calls, almost a year before that that were for leaders within the company, and he wanted my gut feel on the verbiage that was used and the tone that was used by leaders of MCI WorldCom, really from the WorldCom side of the team, on those phone calls.
Part of my feedback to him and a bigger boss who came from the MCI world that was on that phone call was, “These guys sound like cowboys,” I said to them both. “So you want my gut feel, my gut taste of what I just heard, I didn’t hear shareholder value, I didn’t hear what our customer needs are. I heard, ‘We’re going to win.’ It’s like a Ponzi scheme call. They scared the hell out of me.” They both looked at each other and said, “We felt the same way.”
Now, we didn’t have an action point after that but that was an important phone call for our own heads to start thinking about our futures, right? And then this happens.
He then said, and this reminds me of the negotiations like all of the actors in Friends who decided, “It’s all of us or none of us.” He included me on that list with three other people, and basically said he’s negotiating for us to get an equal package pro-rated based on what we’re making now, with various things that he’s asking for. Four days later, the negotiation was over, and we all moved on. We then now know only months later what happened to WorldCom. People were literally walking out in handcuffs. But we were gone. We had an ethical dilemma as to what we were going to do based on things that we know. We chose and risked our own futures by saying, “Time to leave,” but felt comfortable that it was the best decision for us.
There is duty to the employer in safeguarding confidences. If you know people are going to be laid off and these are just draft lists. When do you decide to either hint or do you keep that confidence?
My answer is very, very clear. What supersedes that is the values that you either have or you do have not that were learned when you were being brought up. When I’m dealing with very powerful men who are in the 60s, 70s, some of them in their 80s about fraud that they were involved in, I talk to them from a moral perspective. I know there are firms, some of them were using other firms before they hired me, because they weren’t getting good advice. Some of them say simply right to your face, “No one had the balls to tell me the truth.” I said, “You got the right guy when it comes to that.”
I’ve had people call me the N-world as I’m counseling them because of the fear that kicks in, literally, “You effing N.” Right? Two weeks later I’m at the dinner with that same person and his wife, and his wife says, “He told me what happened…how are you here? I don’t understand how you would forgive him.”
I said, “Easily. I have prepared myself for a response of A, B, C, D or E, not just A. I am trained to think worst-case scenario. That’s what you do in crisis management work. I know I could put myself in his shoes, not exactly, but with enough experience to go, ‘He just freaked out. He’s now realizing what he’s said. He’s embarrassed to call me back. He knows I can help him, and I will help him. And he know the other guys that are on the team want to spin and lie for him.’ That’s what made him call back.”
I had to tell that guy, “You’re not going to be CEO again, but you can be an amazing coach and councilor, you can write a book. You could say, “It was gut-wrenching. I learned the wrong things growing… ” You could say all of it. You could let it all out, and you will help other people. He’s one of the top coaches out there now.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Trust my gut.
Mr. Burson told me that. Ed May who was chair in emeritus of Y&R told me that. Jessie Jackson who was a client told me that. Mario Cuomo told me that. Based on little things they saw in me they were telling me, “If you stand on that rock with the things that you are doing, it will become your trademark. The truth, sadly, will be your trademark. Sadly because the average person doesn’t do that.” So it’s a key differentiator and that’s what branding is all about. If everyone did it, I would be difficult to get a client.
Once you start helping powerful organizations and powerful people and you’ve done it for almost 30 years, they whisper to fellow board members of corporations or fellow CEOs. Other executives ask them, “I never asked you, you helped you through that thing?” “Well, I had a lot of different people, but the main person who I listened to is that guy and his team.” We’re proud of that. By the way, that’s better than any award. We don’t go after awards. Our award is our client saying things like that.
Don’t just read the interview, listen to it, with bonus content, here:
- One key PR ethics lesson from the Pulse nightclub shooting – Ann Marie Varga - February 26, 2024
- People Are Not Props – Christie Goodman - February 12, 2024
- How to Build Trust Ethically and Effectively – Roy Reid - January 22, 2024