Welcome to Ethical Voices in 2021. A New year, but the same great content. Since one of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight and improve wellness, I could think of no better guest to kick off the year than Mark Mohammadpour, the founder of the Chasing the Sun Health Coaching for communicators and marketers. I’ve enjoyed reading his insights in the Public Relations Society of America’s Strategies & Tactics, and that’s what caused me to reach out to invite him to be a guest.
Mark discusses a number of important issues, including:
- What do you do when your work does not align with your personal values?
- How PR executives can convince brands to take a stand
- What are agencies missing when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent?
- Why you need a personal wellness crisis plan
Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
I was at Weber Shandwick for the first 14 years of my career, working primarily with technology companies like Microsoft and Samsung and also the US Army. During my time at Weber Shandwick, I started to get more engaged with PRSA and was fortunate to earn my APR back in 2013, which led me the opportunity to serve as PRSA Oregon chapter president in 2016. By then I had moved over to Edelman, where I worked on a number of technology clients like AMD, Adobe, Xbox, Symantec and others.
And throughout that time, I had gone through a significant weight loss journey. I gained a significant amount of weight in the first part of my career, so much so that by the time 2007 hit I was 350 pounds. On the scale it was bad enough, but just day-to-day life was even worse. Trying to fly from Portland to New York in a coach seat and in a middle seat, trying to fly out there to staff a media tour was terrible. It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life. I had sleep apnea. My wife, then my girlfriend at the time, had to poke me in the back to turn me around because I wasn’t breathing. I was really scared for my life and I needed to make a change. And that happened when I proposed to Christina December, 2007 and I was very fortunate that she said yes.
And over the course of the last 12 years or so, I’ve lost and kept off 150 pounds. Through that journey I learned a lot about health and wellbeing and along the same lines of receiving my APR, I received similar type of certifications through the American Council on Exercise to be a certified personal trainer, to become a certified health coach. And last year in 2019, I launched Chasing the Sun, and I work full time with communicators and marketers to prioritize their wellbeing.
One of the proudest pieces of business that I had the opportunity to work on was with the US Army. In 2009, the US was in multiple wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and while domestically here in the US we were in a recession. There was a definite need to bring more soldiers into the Army to serve. This was before Twitter was really big, this was before Facebook for brands, there was no Instagram then. But there were more and more prospects coming online to learn about what Army life was like. Unfortunately, at that time, the Army wasn’t really in those conversations and there was a need to build out its digital assets and conversation opportunities for prospective soldiers to learn about what the Army was really like. A lot of that was already in motion at Weber Shandwick, but I was brought in and added to a what was a growing team to really help tell the story of the Army soldier.
When I was asked to join the team, there was definitely this question in the back of my head, as far as, “Okay, we’re in a war, is the war the right thing that we’re doing right now?” I had to weigh that with what was really the ask, the ask in what we were doing was ultimately to tell the story of the Army soldier. The Army was very supportive and understanding that in order to do so, it had to be very transparent. And one of the ways that it did that, and I have so many of my colleagues to thank and appreciate, is to really help make sure that the Army realized that they needed soldiers to blog and to share stories and be very transparent about what is going on, what life is like in the Army, the good or the bad. As long as it didn’t violate operational security, the Army supported these soldiers writing on blogs and having videos taken of them that were run by our team.
As this was being told to me, it made me feel a lot better about joining this account, because there definitely was in the back of my head, “My God, I don’t necessarily really believe that we should be in a war right now, or two wars.” But to help support the soldier and their story and to give people who are interested in joining the Army that information so that they had as much information as possible so that they could make an informed decision.
Is that the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I would say it was definitely was one of them. As you’re growing your career, you realize the work and the clients that come to you, you realize that you have this voice and you have this decision to make as to whether or not what these brands are doing…what they stand for…aligns to your own personal values.
And I think for me, I was fortunate through most of my career that a large majority of work did not necessarily raise ethical challenges. But this was one where I had to really think through in the back of my head, and I know a number of my colleagues felt the same way, this is an account where we are helping to support the Army bring in more soldiers and we’re doing it in this way, but at the same time supporting a war that’s going on.
I was really proud of the work that we did, and it was because we helped the client be very transparent, but it took a few steps of questions and thinking for me to get there. And it ultimately helped shape the rest of my career and the accounts and opportunities that came to me. And I would have to continue to go through that filter, because at that point in my career, I felt much more confident and comfortable in being able to say no when there was something that I didn’t necessarily believe in.
What’s the advice you give to people facing the challenge of work that may not align with your personal values?
Part of it is really feeling empowered that you can say no. And that is a scary thought to have, especially in our industry. We’re people pleasers, we’re in the service industry. We’re used to solving problems. We’re used to helping people. And I think it’s empowering, especially in today’s era to be able to say, “This does not align with what I’m doing.” And it’s okay to say no.
At the same time, you need to be prepared to say no and to say why. Part of that comes through maturity and understanding your experience and what you believe in. And I think part of it also comes down to the interview process, even before you’re being hired. It’s being really clear on clients, and I talk a lot about this on the agency side, but obviously this relates well in house as well. But the work that you’re doing and the client roster that these agencies have are ones that you believe in, that you’re now advocate for, that you want to do good work for and ultimately want to help meet their business objectives. And it’s just feeling empowered that you have the opportunity to say no and have the rationale as to why.
Thinking beyond your personal experience with the Army, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Because of the immediacy of the news, fake or not, brands must be more transparent as say who they really are or what they stand behind and what they really believe in, because it’s going to come out one way or another.
And for companies to try to put band-aids and stop and really try to help shift the conversation around, it’s just going to catch up to them more and more quickly. They must be more transparent and say who they are, and not who they’re not. It will help in the transparency and ultimately build trust between these organizations and their publics.
We know that people are much more into brands that are setting their purpose. The faster that these brands can do that, the better that the trust will be, and ultimately will act in a more ethical manner.
I think it goes a step beyond that, because it’s not just saying who they are, it’s actually doing the work behind it. Otherwise, you’re going to be guilty of woke washing. It’s like all the people that say, “You know what, I want to lose weight.” But then don’t put in the effort to change their mindset or do the activities.
Absolutely. It’s not just buying the exercise bike or the weights or anything like that, it’s putting in the work and walking the walk. Absolutely.
Beyond just staying what they believe in, how do you recommend PR executives and counselors convince those brands to take action?
I think it’s important to look at examples of companies that have done it and really look at the business impact that those statements have made. And because we have to be honest and say that businesses have their business objectives, they’re there to make money or they’re there to raise money or whatever, and they need to make sure that you’re able to have a win-win as far as that’s concerned.
If I look at companies like Patagonia and REI, for example, these are examples of brands that I think have done an incredible job of standing for who they are on a number of fronts. Whether you believe in what they stand for or not, the reality is both companies have grown significantly over the last few years by taking a stand on whether it’s climate related, or in the case of REI, the fact that it closed its retail doors on what could potentially be the biggest revenue generating day. It’s a shock, but I’ll tell you what, you know how many people want to work with that company because they believe in what they say, they’re advocates for the brand, they will do anything for the brand, and as such business will grow as a result.
It’s helping executives understand that it can be done, and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of any other financial or business objectives. And I think that’s at a macro level. At a micro level it is something PRSA and the APR is constantly trying to improve, is making sure that we are being seen as true business advisors, as true decision makers.
I’m really proud of the work that, that we do to go above and beyond just what we’re doing at a tactical level. We have to be business strategists. We have to know how decisions are made within organizations. We need to know how board of directors are run. We need to know how financials are impacting decisions that are being made and being trickling down. We need to see, especially in an organization, if communications ports up to a CMO. We need to know how they view the world. So we’re able to help them make sure that they’re smart and talking about the impact that public relations has.
Because one of the big challenges we see is that the role of the CMO, is not the same from company to company versus another C level executive. A CIO, a CTO, CFO, those have fairly standard kind of job descriptions. But if you try to get a CMO there’s all sorts of different perspectives as far as where they come from, whether it’s related to sales, whether it’s related to public relations, whether it’s related to product innovation or something else. And because of that, their level of understanding and acumen and respect for the PR function will vary. Understanding where those gaps are is going to be really impactful in making sure that we’re talking about the impact that public relations has on the organization. I think at a micro level, our work, whether that’s through PRSA or elsewhere, is to help empower those people to have those discussions.
I think that’s a great point and it ties into what I was saying back in 2016 as National Chair, that PR people need to stop saying I hate math, Because the language of business is numbers. And as PR pros, we can have a knock-down drag-out, knives drawn fight over the Oxford comma. For 10 minutes it’ll be passionate on both sides. But the point is the executives feel that way when it comes to EBITDA and understanding how to read a balance sheet. And the minute you say I got into PR because I hate math, you’re cutting yourself and you’re cutting the whole profession off at the knees.
Yep. I remember that, not only in 2016, but I was at The Leadership Assembly in 2015 in New York.
Thinking about advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
It’s typical life advice, golden rule. It’s if you say or do something you have to say it as if it’s going to be on the front page of the New York Times or another national daily. I think in today’s world, it could evolve to what if it became your most viral piece of social media content. If you’re going to say or do something, I think it needs to go through that filter, and if you’re ultimately proud of that, you’re doing something right on the ethical front.
I’m really focused on the health and wellbeing of the public relations professional. I am so proud to see new professionals, people who are newer in their career go start their own consultancies and agencies. They are so well-educated, whether it’s through their undergrad, whether it’s through their work with PRSSA, or student run agencies. The University of Oregon that has its own student run agency called Allen Hall. These folks, are so smart and ready to go.
What this means for them is that they have the opportunity to maybe get a few years of professional experience, but then go out on their own and very easily build a client roster at 24, 25, 26, 27, which there’ll be no way that I would have ever thought to do that, but kudos to them.
What that means is that agencies and brands really need to think about how they are selling themselves to these perspective employees. Now, look, I get it, there are a number of large agencies and a lot of big brands that can still sort of pick and choose the people that they want on their team, and I get that, I’m not naive.
But I think we are now seeing these new professionals, Mark, talking to these agencies and saying, “Okay, are you doing the work that I really believe in? Are you working with the brands that I really believe in?” The biggest thing for me, as I think about my purpose and helping the professional is, is this agency, or is this in-house brand going to make sure that they can be a partner with me to make sure that my health and wellbeing is taken care of throughout this journey? Am I going to be taken advantage of because I’m young and I’m going to work 18-hour days, and no one’s going to check on me or care that I’m burning out?
Are these agencies and brands are going to be prepared to be a really good partner and think about the long-term potential impact that that employee can kind of have. I’ve seen too many stories, Mark, about people burning out, really, really good talent. And a lot of it comes down to communication between the managers, HR folks, and the employees. In this age of LinkedIn and Glassdoor and just social sharing of information that reputations are impacted.
And back to the point about ethics, I really want to see agencies and brands be transparent with job expectations and what is expected of people. Are people expected to work on nights and weekends? Now we work in PR, that happens. But what I want though, is to have people be a little bit more transparent as far as what the expectations are, so that the prospective employee can feel like they can make an informed decision. I’m not saying that companies are hiding this, I’m not saying it’s necessarily completely unethical, but I do think it’s the right thing to do as part of the hiring and the onboarding process.
When it comes to the point about your health and your wellbeing and your mental health, what are the things you recommend people keep in mind?
I have four main concepts that I’ll quickly go through, and this is what I talk about with my group coaching, and also the workshops that I give. My first concept is really around who we impact and who influence.
We take so much pride in what we do and we love what we do. But at the same time, I think sometimes we get beaten down a little bit, sometimes it impacts our self-esteem. And I want people to realize that they influence people, that they’re a role model for someone.
There are a lot of people that look up to you. There are a lot of people that look up to our colleagues and our peers, and I ask people to bring their egos with them and say, “Who do you influence? Who do you impact?” I talk about how I impact future professionals. I love talking to college students, I know that I influence them in some way. And I love spending time with them because I got a lot out of it myself. We all impact people. To me, that’s an ego booster, it’s a self-esteem booster and I think it’s important.
The second thing I talk about is what’s in your control. We build out all these plans for our clients and our organizations, we obviously have the lofty goals and the strategies and tactics, and we have the measurable, SMART objectives. When that applies to our health and wellbeing, we might often put together a similar type of objective that could be a little challenging to reach. For instance, I want to lose a hundred pounds in a year so I can fit into that dress or that suit for my high school reunion. I want to gain 10% more muscle in three months.
On the SMART method it works. It’s attainable, it’s time-based, it’s realistic. But there’s just so many factors that go into whether or not we actually achieve that, especially when it comes to our health and well-being, stress, sleep, water intake, all this stuff. I want people to get tactical when it comes to the health and wellbeing. What’s in your control? On a communications PR front, what’s in our control? Writing the press release, writing the tweet, issuing the newsletter, holding the press conference, these are almost completely things that are in our control. When it comes to our health and wellbeing, it might be, I’m going to host three walk and talk meetings per week. I’m having this conversation with you, Mark, standing in my office because I burn a few more calories, and I feel more confident while I’m standing up and I can do it. I drink 10 glasses of water a day. I block out 30 minutes of time for exercise. These are things in my control. That’s my second concept.
My third concept is around how to make this a priority, how to make time to do this. Because the response is always, “I don’t have time for this. I have 19 Zoom calls this week.” I get people to rethink the time that they’re spending. I can’t tell my clients and workshop attendees to just cut out all meetings, that’s not realistic. But what I can do is have them audit some of their meetings, maybe rethink them a little bit. I hosted a number of meetings and workshops while riding my spin bike, I love doing it. It’s more of a walk the walk type of thing.
But another thing I like to do is talk to people about status meetings. How many meetings do we have that exclusively talking about the status of something? Do we really need those? Can we email all the status of what’s going on with various projects to one person? And then that time the meeting is spent making a decision and advancing a discussion, versus just everyone going around and talking about activities.
That could reduce the time of the meeting and maximize the benefits of the meetings so that people know they need to be there, they need to be all in because they know it’s going to be important. I get them to rethink their calendar in a way that works for them in the life that they have, while also still making sure that they’re making themselves a priority. That’s my third concept.
My fourth concept, because I’m a PR professional by trade, I’m used to crisis. We create crisis plans for our companies and our clients all the time. What’s our own personal crisis plan? Let’s say that you’re planning to go on a 30 minute walk every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 5:00 PM. You’ve blocked out in your calendar. You’ve told whomever you need to tell that you’re going to be doing this walk. You’re not even going to be taking your phone with you. Then you get a text at 4:55 from a client or someone else with some kind of crisis, it could be a professional crisis, it could be a personal crisis. You’re not going to be able to go on that walk because you need to be somewhere else.
What’s your plan B? What are you going to do? Are you going to say, “Screw it, I’m not going to do that. I’m just going to cancel.” Or are you going to say, “You know what, I want to walk at 8:00 AM the next day, or I’m going to do this other physical activity, maybe a little bit shorter, maybe a little bit longer, but it’s going to be something different.” What I want, to get to a point Mark, is where people are at a point where they are making decisions before they have too, much like the crisis plans that we create for our clients and our organizations. What’s our own personal crisis plan when things don’t go our way, because if we can do that, because we make 35,000 decisions a day, we literally make 35,000 decisions a day. I want us to be able to make those decisions for us when we’re at our mentally strongest.
So those are my four concepts. We impact people, we’re role models. Who do we influence? We need to get tactical, what’s in our control, as it relates to our health and wellbeing. We need to make time for it in our calendar because our calendar is our life. And then what’s our plan B when things don’t go our way, because they won’t all the time.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:
- Data Ethics Advice for Public Relations Professionals – Adam Blacker - January 25, 2021
- This Week in PR Ethics (1/21/21) – Fertility, Consequences and Diversity - January 21, 2021
- Stop Putting Profit Over Ethics – Sabrina Ram - January 18, 2021