Ethical Voices

What Do You Do When Your Client Pulls A Bait And Switch? – Craig Sender

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Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Craig Sender, the senior director of public and analyst relations at the Copyright Clearance Center and an adjunct professor at Boston University. Craig discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

I’ve been working in communications for almost 25 years. As you said, I’m currently at Copyright Clearance Center, which is a global copyright licensing and content solutions organization based just north of Boston. And I’ve been teaching as an adjunct professor at Boston University’s College of Communication for little more than 11 years. Before that I lived and worked in New York City for about 12 years before moving to the Boston area back in 2010 and put in some time on the agency side, also on the in-house side, I pursued my internet millions back during the boom and didn’t exactly cash in because of the bust shortly thereafter, but here I am, and couldn’t be happier with where I’m at.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The most challenging time I had in terms of ethics was back in my early PR agency days in New York. It could have been because I was a little bit inexperienced, it was early on in my career, but it also had to do with some clients that I happen to be working with that shall remain nameless to protect the innocent.

I was working on a story with a very well-known columnist at the New York Times, and the client I was working with pulled the bait and switch on the reporter. They left me out on a limb, and the reporter came down on me, this early 20 something kid that’s just out of college, working in his first PR job, really hard. I was really taken aback. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But I can say I learned a lot from that experience and it was quite scarring.

I think many of us have experienced that particularly in the technology world where suddenly you promise something and you’re not delivering a user, or references, or the product is slipping and not being available on time. What’s your advice to PR pros that find themselves in that situation, so they hopefully don’t get the scars that you got?

I’ve always been a fan of under promise and over-deliver, and that certainly applies to working with clients on the agency side, or working with colleagues in-house, and especially working with reporters.

You should also say “sorry” when you mess up. Everybody’s going to mess up. Nobody is perfect. And that’s certainly something I’ve learned in my almost 25 years in this business. Saying sorry, and falling on the sword, goes such a long way. I’ve been amazed over the course of my career how many times where I’ve said to a reporter, “Hey, look, I messed up man, I’m sorry.” And all of a sudden, whether it’s on the phone or over email, their affect and their tone completely changes because I just don’t think they’re used to working with PR people who fall on the sword and just say, “Look, it was my fault. And here’s how we’re going to fix it.”

So how do you deal with a client that does that? In that case your client promised something and then didn’t deliver, how did you communicate your concerns effectively to your client?

I think in our business, we breed a lot of yes men and yes women in terms of client relations. And that’s something that really bothers me. What I try and teach, whether it’s my students, or folks that I mentor every day at work, is to push back on your clients. That doesn’t mean push back and be a jerk about it and just say, “No, what are you stupid? That’s never going to work.” No, it’s pushing back with some strategic thought behind your pushback. It’s offering a solution and not just asking them questions. If your client says to you, “We’ve got a great story, we should be in the front page of the Wall Street Journal,” I know PR people unfortunately, who would say, “Yes right away. We’re going to work on that.”

And what you’re doing is you’re creating these expectations that just are almost impossible to meet. In the short term, you’re going to make your client happy, because they can go back to their boss and say, “Oh, my PR firm said they’re going to get us in the Wall Street Journal.” But then when you don’t get them in the Journal you have won the battle, but lost the war.

You risk you risk losing that client. And what you’ve definitely done is you’ve definitely lost their trust. So right off the bat, just push back and say, “Well, you know what? I appreciate what you’re going for here but,” and this is the key phrase…”In my experience,” that’s such an important phrase because your client has hired you because you’re a media expert. I don’t say to my accountant when it comes to tax time, “Hey, here’s how I want you to do my taxes.” No, I hire my accountant because he or she is an expert in doing my taxes and I’m going to pay them money so that they’re going to do it well, and it’s one less thing I need to worry about.

I think it’s the same in PR or in media, when a client says to you, well, “We want this,” it’s so powerful to say, “In my experience that might not be the best tactic right now, perhaps down the road, but let’s focus on right now, how about we do A, B and C, and then we go to D, E, and F?” And 99 times out of 100, the client will appreciate the respectful pushback.

I think the challenge you highlight with regards to the tax situation is good, but when it comes to taxes, most of us don’t deal with amortization on a regular basis. Surgeons, most of us don’t do surgery on a regular basis, but everybody speaks and writes on a regular basis and thinks, you know what? I can do that. They may sometimes not understand the true skills and experience that are needed to be so effective at it.

I couldn’t agree more Mark and it is getting more challenging as we all become content creators. So many people think it’s so easy to communicate, whether it’s writing, or speaking, or texting, or social media. It’s not, it’s a skill and it’s a really important skill. And that’s another one of my pet peeves when, for example, I have students in the College of Communication at Boston University, they tell me that, “Oh, my friends in the business school or my friends who were pre-med they make fun of me. They look down on me and say, “Oh, your classes must be so easy.” And I try and give them tools to respond to that because it really isn’t. It really is a skill that takes many years to master.

I’ve been doing this for 25 years, I’m still learning. We’re always learning.

You mentioned content creation and you work with the Copyright Clearance Center. Are you seeing any ethical issues right now with dealing with intellectual property in the unethical appropriation of content?

I think that at the end of the day, people are inherently good and they don’t set out to say, “Oh, this is great research, or this is a great article. I’m going to share this and to hell with copyright.” I don’t think that happens. I think that, again, in the internet age or the digital age, whatever term you want to use for it, where we live now, and especially during the pandemic, people are sharing information more than ever, because we’re all remote. That’s how we work now. We share information. And there are so many tools out there these days that allow us to share information easily. I’m not a lawyer and nor do I play one on TV, it’s certainly something that a Copyright Clearance Center, my colleagues and I we come across often. It’s mostly on the enterprise level, not really with individuals, but it’s certainly something that we’re aware of and keeping an eye on.

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

I think we are living in an age where people are working so quickly to try and be first, rather than be accurate. And I get it, because the world is moving faster. I used to say we live in a 140-character society, but now the Twitter raised it, so it’s a 240-character count. I have to change my go-to cliche, but the world is moving fast. We see the narrative just changing, not even by the hour, it’s by the second. A lot of it has to do with Twitter specifically, and without getting political, those who are using Twitter to communicate directly with their publics. Our challenge as media professionals is that we have to be fast, but we also have to remember to be accurate. And it really pains me to see the narrative on that flipping where I think people are now sort of leaning towards being fast and first, rather than being accurate.

How do you recommend communication professionals address this challenge?

That’s a great question. I can tell you how I do it in my daily workflow. I know it sounds so simple, but it’s always taking a deep breath. It’s literally just taking a deep breath and being mindful and just stopping because we’re all going at 90 miles an hour in the left lane. I say, “Wait a minute. Everybody’s running around like a chicken with their head cut off, it’s my job, whether it’s the senior director of PR or as a professor at Boston University, or just a media influence or whatever it may be, it’s my job to be the calm voice in the room, the voice of reason, and to get everybody else to say, ‘Hey guys, wait, timeout. Let’s take a time out here and let’s assess the situation.’”

And I’ve done that. In the beginning, I was a little shocked at the response that I was getting from colleagues. It was like, “You know what, you’re right. Let’s take a breath.” I’ve used that a lot in my professional career and it seems to be working. When it stops working, I don’t know what the answer is after that.

Over your career, what is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

I’ve been very lucky to have worked with some just amazing, amazing people and just amazing human beings. And in life and in work, you try and surround yourself with phenomenal human beings and people that are smarter than you, because that’s how you raise your game.

Advice from some of my mentors included “If something is too good to be true, it usually is.” Also. In our profession, you could be riding on a high one second, and especially in the age of social media, you can be taken down just as fast.

When it comes to ethics, I always try and keep an even keel and thinking about the other person. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you’re pitching a reporter, “Okay, if I was a reporter, how would I sell this story to my editor? And if I was the editor, what would convince me that my readers or my viewers would be interested in this?”

The other thing that I would be remiss if I didn’t mention, and my students will tell you that I preach this to no end, is always try and differentiate yourself. There are a lot of media professionals out there, and unfortunately, we are portrayed as flacks. That word has a negative connotation in my mind.

As media professionals, we all need to try and differentiate ourselves and say, “Okay, what can I do to go the extra mile to make myself better, to be a smarter and stronger consumer of media or person that’s working with reporters?” How can I differentiate myself to my colleagues or my clients so that they know that they can come to me, and when they ask me for something or advice or whatever, they know that they’re going to get 100% of my engagement and my attention, and they’re going to get advice or an answer that has strategic thought behind it?

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

I’m concerned about social media and how toxic it’s become. And the word, the word that I keep hearing and keep reading, especially in terms of Twitter and Facebook is just a total cesspool. And I really hope that that turns over the next couple of years.

If I had an answer there, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you, I’d be doing something about it. So that concerns me. And I think as media professionals, I am bullish in terms of social media on LinkedIn. And I think we’re seeing during the pandemic, and the stats would back me up, how people and how professionals are using and utilizing LinkedIn’s tools a lot more than in the past. LinkedIn used to be where guys like you and me would go on there when we were looking for a job. I mean, that’s basically what it was. And I think it’s evolved in a very positive way.

The other thing where I’m concerned, and I’ve talked a lot about this in my BU classes, especially lately is, as technology get so advanced, and as we move towards the singularity the risk of deep fakes and just this uncharted world of artificial intelligence if it is not harnessed correctly and used correctly in our industry. There are some very dark places we can go. And I think we’re already starting to see that. So that among many other things during this pandemic we’re living through is a little concerning.

I feel like I’m coming off as mister doom and gloom here, and that we’re all going to be living in an episode of Black Mirror pretty soon. That’s not the case. I am generally an optimistic person, I did live in work in New York for 12 years, so I’ve got a little bit of that New Yorker pessimistic side. But in all seriousness, I think it is a really phenomenal time to be working in our industry and the opportunities are really great right now. And I would encourage anyone who’s looking to break into the communications field to go for it and stay with it. And anybody who’s currently working in the field, don’t panic. We’re in a tough time right now, but I do think with the right confluence of events that we’re going to pull through and it’s only going to get better.

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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