EthicalVoices

Stop Putting Profit Over Ethics – Sabrina Ram

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Sabrina Ram, the founder and president of Blu Lotus. She is passionate about helping organizations make an impact by telling their unique story to a variety of audiences using data analytics, to inform and refine strategies and help businesses perform better.

Sabrina discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

I have 15 years of public relations and marketing experience, both in an agency and in-house setting. I’ve worked in major cities like Philadelphia, New York and Washington DC in a variety of sectors such as education technology and non-profit. I am the founder and president of Blue Lotus, a strategic communications consulting agency, and I also currently serve as the senior director of external relations at Walden university.

Thinking over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

This is a really tough question. I’ve faced quite a few ethical challenges in my career. I think the one that really sticks out to me happened early on in my career, I had a client who wanted to lobby against grocery stores opening in a particular low-income area. I was brand new to the agency I was working for and they asked me to handle the communication strategy for it.

First and foremost, the client request made me feel sick. Why would you want to prevent access to fresh food in any area, but especially a low-income area that already had trouble providing quality food to adults and children? People in these areas are disproportionately suffering from obesity and diabetes because they can’t get access to healthier food options.

The second thing was that it wasn’t lost on me why I was asked to take this client on. As I mentioned, I was new to the agency and this was going to negatively impact a minority community, and I was the only minority PR professional at the company. From an optics standpoint, I knew why they picked me.

I’m a firm believer that you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. I had to weigh the fact that this happened very early on in my career and I was most certainly not in a senior level position, and so standing up for what I believe in could cost me my job. I had just moved to that city, so my expenses were through the roof. Ultimately, I told company that I did not feel comfortable with this client and I refused to take them on, and I asked them to actually drop the client and its entirety.

I was very lucky. I worked for a great company and their actions backed it up that day. They admitted that they never really gave it much thought. They had looked at is as a transactional request from an existing client. So, they were fine with me not working with that client and they declined that client request.

What’s your advice for people that face situations like this early on in their careers? Who should they go to? How should they present it?

That’s definitely complex question. It really comes down to the person and like I said, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. The key lesson that I learned was to not be afraid to stand up for what you believe in. Because at the end of the day you have to live with yourself.

But it’s easy to say that if you know you’re in a blessed position. I knew that even if I lost my job, even if my expenses were through the roof, I come from a family that’s always going to be there for me and has the financial means to support me. I wasn’t in a position where I was going to go homeless or hungry and that is a blessing to have and no doubt played a part in my decision.

Unfortunately not everyone comes from a background like that, and so you have to weigh what are the costs that’s going to happen to you? Can you weather those costs? Is there someone you can work with at the company to get on your side?

I actually a conversation with my immediate supervisor and she agreed with me. She said that it made her really uncomfortable. She didn’t even know I was asked to do that. So that was an even bigger issue. Someone went around her to ask me because they knew why they were intentionally asking me in the first place.

It was helpful to have her, someone who had been at the company for almost 20 years, backing me up in my decision and coming into that meeting room with me to discuss why I didn’t want to be a part of that request. I would definitely recommend finding that champion in your organization, whether it’s your supervisor or a colleague that you work with, who was willing to come to the table with you to express their concerns.

How do companies avoid wokewashing and putting staff in inappropriate circumstances?

That starts with making sure that you are diverse in all of your teams, not just your PR representatives, but the people who are negotiating the contracts, the people who are tasked with finding new business and new clients. You need to have diverse people working across the staff…and that’s not just race, that’s race, socioeconomic status, gender, all of the different ways that that applies because you get those perspectives who can then take a look at things like this that come through and say, “Look, maybe this is not what we want to do, or this is not the right way to approach it.” If you don’t have that diverse perspective, you’re never going to know when it comes across. We’re not expecting everybody to be perfect all of the time. You don’t know what you don’t know, and when you increase diversity within your organization it starts to help tackle those problems.

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

I think a key theme that’s been happening especially this year, but honestly this is what’s been happening to the industry for well over a decade, is that we’re seeing a lot of PR professionals putting profit over ethics and I think that’s how we’ve gotten into where we are in 2020. As PR professionals, we have to understand that we hold a lot of power. We have the ability to shape the present and future for so many people and there are short and long-term consequences to our decisions.

Yes, obviously we want to make a good living wage and we want to be able to afford things that we want, but you have to ask yourself is that at the expense of a person or a community or an organization? Is that something that you can live with? Are you part of the problem or are you part of the solution?

I think this is going to be an issue for a very long time. I think as a society, we are a very me society. What works best for me? What is going to help me get what I want? We need to start moving away from that from a professional standpoint and seeing the broader effects of what we do and how we do it.

What’s your advice to the businesses when they’re thinking about that, where there’s that company that they may have some questions about, but you know what, it’s going to keep three of their staff employed?

I think that’s where ethics can’t be an afterthought. It needs to be part of your business plan. When you set that tone early on, you’re going to adjust an ebb and flow as it sees fit. It’s an ethical quandary right there that you mentioned. What if this saves a certain amount employees? But again, I think that you have to weigh the consequences of your actions. You have to understand profit over ethics and figure out what’s going to work best and what you can live with. And at the end of the day, hope that the people that you’re hiring share the same ethical values within your company and that they understand why certain decisions have to be made.

Ethics should be easy, but we don’t live in a black and white society. There are shades of gray and there’s things that have to be taken account before a decision can be made, but it helps if you set that tone early on, because if you do it after the fact or keep changing it throughout, it makes it very hard for people to understand what you’re trying to achieve. Why did you do it here, but you didn’t do it there? Or why are you doing it for this person and not for this person?

That’s a really good point, and it brings to mind two other points. The first is everyone is entitled to PR counsel, but it doesn’t have to be you. And the second is that we’re finally starting to see with Gen Z and Millennials, they’re forcing agencies to change how they address these issues. In the past, it might’ve been, you recuse yourself from a piece of agency business, but now we’re seeing agencies consider if they take that business at all.

That’s a good point to make because it’s not just the businesses that are getting held accountable by younger generations. We’ve seen some pretty talented detectives out there where they’ll sit there and say, “Okay, here’s one organization that’s doing something unethical, but here’s the PR agency they hired to do it and we should be holding them accountable as well.” I think that people in PR need to really understand that they are not behind some magical curtain. People see you and they will call you out and you need to ask yourself is if they go down, are you willing to go down with them? Is that going to cost you your business?

Unfortunately, I think there are too many firms that are willing to do so, and Buzzfeed had a great article in 2020 that discussed the rise of disinformation for hire.

2020 is a huge case study in this. And like I said, it’s just that, putting profit over ethics that has completely taken over what we do in our line of work. It is a huge problem and I don’t see it going away anytime soon, but I think that the more that we teach ethics early on, and not just early on in a career, but in K through 12 and, and college. If we can ingrain this early on, we’ll start to see that change and as younger generations start rising into senior level positions or start their own companies.

I agree with you. Unfortunately, some people think ethics is dry and boring, but as I say, it is a soap opera that has been at the center of some of the most compelling stories of the past 4,000 years. A lot of the challenges we get into today are because of people failing to do the right thing, and you see it brought to life every day in society, in television, in the movies. In every single one of these incidents is a learning experience.

Exactly. It’s always funny that you can clearly see it in the movies and in TV, but when you have to apply it to your own life, how quickly people will disregard it.

There’s an interesting Academy of Management study that shows people are hardwired to act selfishly unless they take the time to stop and think. It’s why we need to train our ethical mind so we can make the right decision under pressure.

Exactly. And it starts at all ages.

Are there any other areas you’re concerned about with regards to ethics in public relations or business?

Just looking at 2020, I think politics was a good example about how bad ethics has become in the communications and PR industry. I think it’s important that we just take a look at that study and understand it and try to figure out how we can do better as a society, how we can navigate this better from a communication standpoint, from any industry for that matter. I think that looking at politics over the next decade is really going to show just how far or how little we’ve come.

How do we get back off the brink? What can we do to help encourage people to do the right thing?

I think it’s probably the lesson that most PR students are taught in college, and it’s the great example of how imagine if your words or actions were on the front page of the New York Times. How would you feel? Would you be proud? Would you be ashamed? That really has helped guide me throughout my career when I’ve made certain decisions and certainly ethical decisions. I think that if we keep framing it like that, that helps turn the tide.

I think accountability is going to help turn tide, and we’re starting to see that with the younger generations and that’s not going to go anywhere anytime soon. It’s going to get louder and stronger, and hopefully that helps guide us in a more ethical future. And I also think that, to your point, how we’re hardwired to do what’s best for us. I think that we need to understand that when our actions get held accountable, that is a part of the piece of what’s best for us.

More often than not, you will be held accountable, and how will you face that? It’s not just about how you’re going to live with yourself. How does your spouse feel? How do your kids feel? How will your community, your church feel? You’re going to have to face these people when you make these ethical decisions and you’re going to have to remember that it will or it can be made public. And if it does, how are you going to handle that? How are you going to live with yourself with that?

We just need to start making ethics a very personal issue and then again, make sure that we’re teaching at all levels. Whether you’re a parent, whether you’re a teacher, whether you’re a business, it just needs to be constantly ingrained. Ethics is not a one-time issue. It’s something that needs to be constantly taught and constantly cultivated.

I was speaking with Kelly Davis a few weeks ago and she took the New York Times test and twisted it and said, imagine if it appeared in the hometown newspaper that was read by your mother, your neighbors and your friends.

Yeah, exactly. The early part of my career was in issues and crisis management. I remember when my nephew was old enough to really start understanding things and asking the right questions, and he had asked me, “What do you do for living?”

For the first time in my life, I felt shame. I thought, wow, how do I even explain this to him? That was the turning point for me to sit there and say I want to be someone that my nephew looks up to. That’s when I started to walk away from doing issues and crisis management full-time because it just didn’t make me feel good about myself. From there, it led me to a much better path and I’ve focused most of my career in the education space, because it’s an industry that gives back, that provides opportunities that helps improve societies, individuals, and professions. No matter what you do in PR, you have to find that segment of your career that’s going to give you that job satisfaction, but also that personal satisfaction.

I agree and that’s why I’m proud to be general manager of an office of an agency that focuses exclusively on cause and purpose. I can feel great about every organization with whom I work.

Right, and I think that comes with wisdom as you progress through your career. I always tell PR students who are about to graduate that try a little bit of everything and find out what you’re good at, but also find out what you are passionate about. When I made that switch to walk away from issues management, it was funny because one of my clients at the time had said something along the lines of just because you’re good at it doesn’t mean you have to do it. That was profound for me because I was very good at crisis and issues management and I felt like, well, am I wasting this skill? And again, just timing it out with what my nephew asked me, I just knew that was the right time to move away from that and find something that was more fulfilling.

That is great advice. Thinking about advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

It was actually a talk with someone that I knew as a student at a university and then someone I worked with later on in my career. This person said two things.

One, you have to stand up for what’s right. You just have to. If you don’t try, then you can’t say that things are ever going to change. You can’t be hopeful or expect things to change because you didn’t even try.

But then the second part is you have to know when to fold them. I remember being really heartbroken about that last part. I was like, “Well, what do you mean? Aren’t we supposed to always fight?” And he’s like, “Look, you can only change what you can change. And at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself is it worth me staying here, or should I leave?”

If enough people leave an organization, eventually they’re going to have to do some soul searching on their own and say, “Look, this isn’t working out for us,” and that might ultimately force that change. I think that we see that on some level.

With younger generations, if a company isn’t doing something right, they’ll sit there and say, “You know what? We’re not going to buy your product anymore.” I think that as employees we have that power in numbers as well. If you’re working for a company that is unethical or makes you uncomfortable, if enough of you leave, they’re going to be forced into changing or going out of business, which I would hope that’s not what they choose to do. But at the end of the day, yes, profit is a very heavy motivator, but it can also be used to your advantage.

I was reading in one of the business magazines recently that consumers are 400% more likely to purchase from a purpose driven brand, and that really enforces that you can do well by doing good.

Exactly. Yeah. There’s a financial benefit. There’s an employee benefit from an HR standpoint. There’s been more than enough studies that have been shown that there is an increase in profit, an increase in retention when you have that ethical standard built within your company.

Circling back to one of your earlier points, when you’re diverse as well. More diverse companies perform better.

Exactly.

Is there any question I didn’t ask you that you wanted to talk about?

Let me ask you a question. How do you think that as people who’ve been doing it for so long and who are set in their ways can change? Do you think that they’re willing to change? How do you think that people should approach them to change when they’re so set in their ways?

I think there’s definitely an opportunity for change. It’s easier to make changes when you’re younger, but I’ve seen people that really have that realization and their eyes open at whatever stage in their career. I don’t think there’s one silver bullet. You need to ask what’s the point that’s going to really influence them and how you can communicate it. That’s why I hate PR people saying I hate math, because if you try to convince a CEO, you have to use numbers. You need to highlight the business benefit.

If you look at the seven levels of moral development, you need to make sure your argument is aligned with the level of moral development you’re talking to. For some people, doing good as enough. For others, you need to show how doing good benefits their self-interest. We need to start seeing repercussions for those businesses that aren’t doing this. I think we’re starting to see this with woke washing being exposed. Now we need to hold people accountable.

That’s a really good point, especially about numbers. When I look back at that ethical problem that I had early in on my career, if I could do something differently, I didn’t approach it from finance standpoint or a business standpoint. I really took a more emotional approach. And I was young and that’s probably why I did that, but as I got older throughout my career, if there was a change I wanted to see within a business or a strategy of some sort, today I look at the numbers. Most CEOs, honestly, come from a financial background and that’s how they see things. They don’t look at it necessarily from a moral or ethical perspective. It’s just what is the bottom line here?

And like you said, there’s numerous studies out there that show that it is beneficial. It does improve your bottom line or it could hurt you if you choose an unethical decision or a consequence. Yeah, I think that’s a really good point to make for PR people that it’s not just about how many people viewed that press release or how many people commented on that Facebook post. We have to find ways that we can tie that into business goals and success metrics from a financial perspective to really create that change.

Absolutely. As PR people, we love language. We can have a 10 minute, knives out, knockdown, drag out, fight over the Oxford comma. We need to realize that many executives are as passionate about numbers as we are about the Oxford comma.

Exactly. Yeah, that’s very, very, very true. Again, I don’t think you’re going to meet a CEO or a senior executive that looks you in the face and says, “Wait, you can save me $500,000? You know what? No, thanks”. They’re going to sit there and say, “Yes, why aren’t we doing this? How can we do better?” So, I think that we just need to take a more positive approach to things. I went into that meeting with that company thinking like, “Oh great, I’m going to get fired.” I thought the worst-case scenario, and I was pleasantly surprised to see it wasn’t that way. I think that we need to start looking at things from a more positive context and then prepare for the good and the bad, but understand that if you go in hopeful and you go with a positive mindset to create change, that you can be successful.

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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