EthicalVoices

Fighting Sensationalism and Greed – Parry Headrick

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Parry Headrick. He has spent more than 20 years growing some of the hottest tech PR agencies in the United States and is now the founder of Crackle PR. He discusses a number of important ethical issues including:

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

My career started out like, I think a lot of PR pros, where I was on the journalism side of the fence. I went to Boston University’s College of Communications and Journalism and worked on the school newspaper. Straight out of college was a general assignment reporter for the Lowell Sun in Lowell, Massachusetts. And then after that, I moved on to the Waterbury Republican American, no political affiliation implied, in Connecticut. And after that, I made a switch to the “Dark side.” And that actually is germane to, I think this discussion today.

I went on to work at a number of prominent tech PR shops, including Shift Communications, March Communications and Matter Communications. And so, I’ve kind of run the gamut and worked with myriad different tech and social and consumer companies over the years. I decided at the beginning of this pandemic to strike out on my own with the stated goal of working only with companies that are doing demonstrably good things. The world needs more of that right now, more people helping and working towards solutions and less of people causing the problems.

I think that’s a great goal. And especially in technology, it’s an essential goal. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever faced?

There are two things that I would say. One in the agency world. It was certainly an ethical dilemma, which was when I first moved to San Francisco, I was still very young in the PR industry. It was in early 2000 and it was kind of the go-go days where there were a bunch of companies that had their business models scribbled on a napkin and they were getting amazing gobs of cash for these sort of hypothetical, we could possibly grow, companies. And we took their money.

I didn’t know any better at the time. We were taking sometimes 30 grand a month, 40 grand a month for some of these companies. And at the time it, it just seemed crazy. It was just too good to be true. I couldn’t believe that people would actually give you that much money when they didn’t even really have a product yet.

My moment of sort of, “Aha,” was several years after the fact when I looked back on that time and realized that that was probably not that ethical on the part of not only our agency, but many others who were just trying to do this gold rush thing where we were trying to get as much revenue as possible, knowing that only a small sliver of those companies were going to go on to do anything interesting.

That was kind of the first brush with ethics in PR that I’ve gone through. But my first ethical dilemma started before that in the days of journalism. And this compelled me to get into PR in the first place.

I was a general assignment reporter at the Lowell Sun. And at that time, that meant covering front page stories of the day. So that could be a big political event, it could be there was a multiple car crash, anything that was like the main story of the day.

There was a little boy, I think he was around 13 or 14, that came down with this really hardcore rash all over his body. And after a little bit of investigating, it was determined that it was likely because chemicals had been dumped in his backyard. I covered that family for a series of stories. And it was pretty clear that there was some wrongdoing. The EPA was involved. It became kind of a thing.

This would be like the lead story in Sunday’s paper. Over time, the headlines that were written about this tended to be a little more sensationalistic. It culminated with one Sunday paper. I ran down to get the paper. I was super excited to see my story. And as you know, editors write the headlines, the reporters don’t. And the headline was, “Toxic Boys Illness, Still a Mystery.” That was the lead story of the Lowell Sun with thousands and thousands of viewers. And this boy was like 13 or 14 years old and they called him Toxic Boy. And that was never in the story.

Sounds like something I’d hear on the tabloids in the checkout line.

Well, that was a really rude awakening. I wasn’t working that day but I drove to the paper and the managing editor was in…and I said, “What in the heck is this?” And I threw the paper on his desk. And he said, “Hey, calm down. We’ve got to sell papers. We’ve got to sell papers.” And I said, “Okay, you’re going to sell them without me.” And I turned around and walked out the door. So at that moment, I decided I was no longer going to work at that paper. It took me one more newspaper before I realized that maybe the industry was going in a direction that I didn’t want to go in. But I’ll tell you, the idea of writing headlines for ad dollars is still pervasive today. And I think it was an early kind of shot across the bow that times were going to get rough and ad dollars were going to be king.

In both of those stories it sounds like you’re dealing with people that are trying to sell hype rather than the reality. And they’re blowing it up, whether it was a .com back of the napkin, with no idea how they were going to generate revenue or capitalizing on a young man’s unfortunate condition. What’s your advice when people want to inflate their claims or make a sensationalistic claim to help sell things?

The way I approach that is that being honest with defensible claims will build long-term annuities. If you are coming out of the gate, gangbusters with all kinds of broad, indefensible claims, your revenues are going to be the victim and your company’s not going to do well. It’s only when you harness the best of what you do and you can show ironclad proof that your claims are accurate, that you can begin to have the platform to then inspire people beyond the product or service that you’re selling. I think it starts with having something that’s real and then building on that with decisions that are beneficial for the company, the employees and stakeholders.

Particularly in the technology industry, and even more so in the security industry, you’ll still see a lot of people saying, “But my competitors inflating their claims. If we don’t inflate ours, we’re at a competitive disadvantage.”

There’s a certain degree of marketing and PR puffery that’s okay. “One of the world’s best, one of the leading.” These kinds of things aren’t necessarily terrible. But there are some claims that start getting a little bit ridiculous. There is the overall tone of some companies, you can see that they’re punching way above their weight class, trying to kind of fake it until they make it. I understand the temptation. How many shots are you going to get in life to really succeed with something? The temptation is there.

But I think discretion is the better part of valor. People ultimately learn that lesson at some point, whether it’s their first go around or a little bit later down the road, but ultimately everybody gets slapped back down to earth about what is real and what is true and what your True North ought to be.

One of my guests talked about long-term greedy is okay, short-term greedy is where you get into trouble. I love the way you just phrased it, because it kind of shows you if you’ll think about it and, “Oh, we can stretch it here.” You want to succeed in the long-term. If you’re thinking about the short-term it’s where you start making the ethical mistakes.

The interesting thing is that, especially in technology, there are a lot of larger companies that get away with kind of fudging the ethics a lot. And by that, I mean, freezing the competitive landscape by teasing things they may be coming out with, or they’re working on, et cetera. If you’re looking at the market and you say, “Oh, well, Microsoft is going to be doing that or Cisco’s going to be doing that.” Some of these smaller companies that are actually doing that get kind of caught in the machinery as the prospects wait to see what Microsoft or Cisco was going to ultimately do, because they figure it’ll probably be A) a better product because of these bigger names. B) they can do it at scale, so it’ll probably be a little bit cheaper and C), no one’s going to get fired for buying those products.

I don’t know if it’d be a better product, but at least they have the investment to make it better after their fifth or seventh or eighth iteration of it. While the startups may not have a chance to do that many iterations.

Yes.

I loved it when you were talking about going back to the 2000s. I can remember, companies coming to us offering $30,000 if we can jump to the front of the line. We said no, but it was a temptation.

I’ll tell you something else about that time. I was a young whipper snapper out there and people were literally begging to be able to throw their money at you. It’s a pretty heady thing for young professionals. And there’s a certain arrogance that is necessarily a part of that deal when you’re turning away people who are looking to spend, $250,000-500,000 with you. And you’re saying, “Sorry, no, get to the back of the line.” I think as humans, we’re not prepared to have that level of sort of riches thrown our way. And that can be a corrupting force.

It was like a once in a lifetime money grab, so they were trying to go for the gusto, and so I kind of get it. But at the same time, it’s really exciting to be the owner of a PR agency where I can pick and choose my battles and I don’t have to necessarily go running after every dollar that’s waived in front of my nose, which I really like. Maybe part of that is having a family, being a little older, a little wiser and trying to leave with them, a legacy of a dad who’s trying to do the right thing and do right by the world instead of just trying to chase every buck.

I think that’s a good point. Beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of those top ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think this has been a challenge for a long while, but I think it’s only come into stark relief in recent years, which is the PR agency generally has a problem. There is not enough diversity across the board. There are some small pockets of goodness and success there, but I think generally speaking across the board, diversity is a huge issue. That extends to LGBTQ. There is a whole swath of folks who are underserved. I can tell you, especially in the Boston area, there’s just a whole lot of really smart professional white folks who are working in PR and there ought to be a whole lot of smart, diverse folks joining them.

And it’s a challenge. I know a lot of agency owners are trying their best to change that and setting up programs to try to attract folks to their rosters that are better representative of the broader public. So people are aware of it and they’re starting to work on it. But I would say we’re probably 5% of where we need to be and the next 10 years are going to be really pivotal. I think that is especially true now that this pandemic has hit and whole bunch of folks are looking at the exit signs thinking, after the Black Lives Matter movement and after all these big social movements, our agency still looks pretty much the same like it did before. And I’m ready to go expand my horizons and find more of a diverse culture at work.

I agree with you. I think we’re doing an absolute horrible job as an industry. I spoke with Mike Paul a few weeks ago and he definitely throws down it and Torod Neptune has pointed out all these issues too. I hate to say it, while I think everybody understands the importance and you’re seeing some agencies do it, what’s really moving the needle in some cases, are the large corporations that are telling the agencies, you need to get more diverse or I’m not going to hire you. I think as we’re seeing more companies doing that, we’re going to start seeing the needle move a little bit more.

Yeah. And that starts with me. There are three of us at our company right now, and we’re three white dudes. And there’ve been plenty of people who have reached out to me, looking for employment. A lot of them, female, and a lot of people of different ethnicities and saying, “It seems like there’s three white dudes on your roster and maybe you could benefit.” And the answer is unequivocally, yes. When it’s not at the point where we can hire a bunch of people just yet. But I guarantee that when I can pull the trigger on hires to add our team, I’m going to add diverse faces and voices and that is a guarantee. And that’s going to be baked into our culture as we continue to expand.

I think that’s great. I think it’s essential and more agencies need to do that.

Yes.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

There’s one quote that I’ve actually been told by a few different people over my lifetime that actually really sticks with me, which is, “Don’t get into the mud with a pig because the pig will like it and you’ll walk away dirty.”

And that really informs most of my thinking about the kinds of companies that I’ve worked with, the kinds of deals I might do, the kinds of employees I might hire. The idea is, you should know in your gut what’s on the up and up and what isn’t. And you should just tip toe past the pigs because you don’t want to get dirty…especially not when they love it.

It’s a good metaphor generally. It’s kind of like, “Should I be doing this thing? Let me think back to that one saying. No, I shouldn’t.”

Listen to 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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