The Changing Landscape of Business Advocacy – Dr. Holly Overton

Joining me on this week’s episode is Dr. Holly Overton, Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina and a senior research fellow with the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication.

She discusses a number of key ethics issues and provides some great advice, including:

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

I’ve spent most of my career in academia, but I started my career working in corporate marketing right out of school. Then I took a job with a non-profit organization as a health education specialist. After that, I spent five years working as an event planner at a liberal arts college where I organized regional conferences for a professional association. During that time, I started working as a part-time adjunct instructor and it became crystal clear to me that I just had a huge passion for teaching in higher education.

I took a job as the assistant director of experiential learning and career management at a university where I helped students secure internships, employment opportunities. And I worked with the university to develop collaborative partnerships and service-learning opportunities for students. I really love that role, but a few years into the job, I got a call from Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania about an opportunity to teach full time in their department of communication/journalism.

I was just so passionate about teaching so I took that job and I continued in that role for four years and then concurrently completed my PhD at Penn State University at the time. After that, I completed my doctoral degree and I realized it was time for a life change. I accepted a position in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina where I’m currently an associate professor of public relations. And through this role, I teach undergraduate and graduate students and also the doctoral program.

I conduct research in the areas of corporate social responsibility communication and corporate social advocacy. My time in the profession has very much shaped my teaching approaches and philosophy. My research is very practically-oriented and informed by current events and the societal issues that businesses and individuals alike are facing today. As a senior research fellow with the Arthur W. Page Center, my work is also very much informed by the Page Principles and the overarching concept of ethics in public communication.

I’m also an active member in a couple of professional organizations, including the Public Relations Society of America and the Association for Education in Journalism and <ass Communications, where I’m currently serving on the public relation division’s executive board as the vice head elect.

Thinking back over your career what’s the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

This is a really difficult question and I do feel like I’ve encountered several ethical challenges over the years. I’ve been following your podcast and I see that many of your guests often reference situations with clients. I’m going to switch it up and just share an example that’s more closely related to employee relations and internal communications. I don’t know if it’s the most difficult, ethical challenge that I’ve ever confronted at work, but it’s certainly one that sticks out in my mind.

Several years ago, I was working as part of a team with some challenging interpersonal dynamics. I was the newest member of the team. The team had recently undergone some changes with the merging of two departments, which led to some changes in structure and responsibilities. There were two senior members of the team who had truly a corrosive relationship to the point that there were screaming matches during meetings and targeted actions against each other that were vindictive and unethical. Other members of the team were often put in difficult situations and sometimes witnessed behaviors that should have been reported to HR.

It got to a point where the situation was untenable and my boss’ boss told the team that the whole unit was going to engage in team building with an HR specialist. However, it turned out that the team building initiative was intended to be more of a method to squeeze information out of employees to build a case to terminate certain employees. I was put on the spot where I felt almost threatened to disclose information, observations and opinions about various situations. In the meantime, both of the parties at the focal point of this situation had also reached out to team members asking for discretion.

At the end of the day, we were all put in a very difficult situation and perhaps not the most appropriate way. We knew there would be serious ramifications no matter what. It was a painful experience and it was truly an ethical challenge for me as a junior member of the team to navigate and to separate many of the principles that I had always known about ethics, such as honesty, loyalty, trust, safeguarding confidences. It was one of the first times where I felt like I had to pit some of these core principles against each other and negotiate how to come to terms with my personal and professional values.

How did you work through that?

It was a very difficult experience. Hindsight’s 20/20. At the time, I was a lot less experienced than I am now. I ended up just really focusing on the principle of honesty and integrity. And I learned a lot about employer relations, interpersonal dynamics, and effective management. I learned at the end of the day that honesty and integrity need to be at the forefront of everything we do, both personally and professionally.

It hurt me to see people get hurt. But while painful, it reaffirmed to me the importance of always doing what’s right. On a broader note, it opened my eyes to the importance of employee relations just how much ethics, professionalism, and effective management matter.

You hit on one of my favorite topics and that is honesty. It gets my students all worked up when I put them in situations where they say, “We should always tell the truth.” And then I give examples where they’re like, “Oh no, I’m going to lie in this case.” It freaks them out. When you’re dealing with interpersonal relationships how do you determine what level of honesty is appropriate when it is in conflict with safeguarding confidences.

I think you touched on a really key point here. I turn back to the PRSA Code of Ethics or the Page Principles where we say let people know what’s happening with honest and good intention. Give an ethically accurate picture of what’s going on. But it’s tough to negotiate that. I know at times we have to balance honesty with things like loyalty and safeguarding confidences. But truly, I think at the end of the day, if you can’t be honest and you feel that you have to cover something up, I think that you have to ask a bigger question about some of your values.

In my dilemma I think the biggest question I kept asking at the time was is it within my right to disclose certain things that I know that maybe I shouldn’t know. How much do I actively go out and volunteer it versus how much do I wait until I’m asked directly? I think if I had to do it all over again, there’s a lot that I think we would all do differently, but I just think not being afraid to tell the truth would be the biggest lesson learned.

Your office was split between two polarized people and you were asked to join a camp. How do you recommend people ethically navigate those types of situations?

It’s not necessarily about being in a given camp. I think it’s just about focusing on your role first and foremost. Go back to the principle of honesty and truth-telling. That at the end will prevail. And I think for those people seeking outside mentorship would be a good starting point to try to navigate some of these types of situations. Because when you’re in such a difficult scenario and environment, turning to people within the office would probably only further strain the situation.

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

There are a number of them, but one in particular that I would personally like to focus on is this. We’re facing a number of societal issues that have truly divided our nation – controversial issues including climate change, healthcare reform, gun violence, racial injustice, issues related to gender and marriage equality, among many others. And I’m going to tie in a little bit of my research interests with this answer. But as a researcher, I’ve a scholarly interest in examining the ways in which companies seek to contribute to societal good.

Generally speaking, I found it very interesting to see how the public expectations of companies has evolved over the past few decades. 50 years ago, it was widely accepted that companies existed to increase profits. As we entered the 21st century, the public increasingly developed the expectation that companies will contribute to society in some way, shape or form. This is where the whole notion of the triple bottom line became commonplace; profit, people and planet.

Today, those societal expectations are shifting and the public is increasingly turning to companies to be advocates for social change and to solve society’s issues. We’re seeing more and more companies engage in risk by taking public stances on sociopolitical issues that transcend organizational interests and are aimed at the betterment of society. However, companies are understandably nervous about stance-taking and are still seeking guidance on when and how to speak out and when not to.

For example, think about Nike and the Colin Kaepernick campaign. That sparked a lot of controversy. And as a scholar, this example was particularly interesting to me and my student research group and I did a number of studies about the Kaepernick ad. Some other examples include Gillette and the #MeToo campaign, and Dick’s Sporting Goods and gun control. The point here is that PR professionals are still trying to navigate how to balance public demands for action with their organizational values. They’re really being put on how to prioritize ethics over profit as they should.

People understandably take different positions on this topic. Some people think that having companies engage in controversial sociopolitical issues is very necessary, but there are others who feel that it’s not the place for companies to enter the conversation. Much of that I think is underscored by the idea that companies are profit-seeking entities and that their words and even sometimes their actions are insincere.

There are also others who are somewhere in-between arguing that the run-of-the-mill statement means nothing, but that active engagement in enacting social change actually means everything. So, as I mentioned in a recent blog post that you referenced, this challenge goes back to one of the Page Principles from Arthur W. Page that says, “Prove it with action. Public perception of an enterprise is determined 90% by what it does and 10% by what it says.” I often think about Ben and Jerry’s as a gold star example of a company that’s doing it right.

I actually had the pleasure of attending a guest talk by Sean Greenwood, Ben & Jerry’s PR guy as he calls himself. I was just so inspired by everything the company is doing to engage in advocacy and activism efforts. And I think a large reason for that is because the company has embedded these types of efforts so much in its mission and its corporate identity. I see more about creating change from this company that from some key figures, and even other companies that I would expect to see it from. I mean, really, it’s an ice cream company.

They even incorporate this in their messaging and their branding. For example, the other day, I saw a tweet about serving up some joy on the journey to justice with Colin Kaepernick’s Changed the Whirled flavor they created. I’ve seen just so many more words and actions from this company regarding the Black Lives Matter movement. I’ve seen some really compelling statements about voting, climate change and just a number of other really important issues. And of course, I think people can argue that they’re still trying to feed the bottom line. But in my opinion, this is an example of a company embracing its ethical obligation to be socially responsible.

This is an example of a company that’s pursuing a deeper purpose well beyond just simply maximizing profits, and responsibility is one of the five core elements of ethics. There’s honesty, respect, fairness, compassion, and responsibility. And through this example here, I hope to highlight one of the ethical challenges the PR profession continues to face in the area of responsibility. Again, I think there are several key ethical challenges our profession is facing today, but this is one that’s certainly generated a lot of conversation at scholarly conferences and in discussions with my students in the classroom, and also in the research group.

It’s probably one of the biggest sea changes we’ve seen. And I know you were referencing studies over the past few years, and I think we’ve seen a great change in 2020. If you really go back to 2019 when the Business Roundtable finally moved away from shareholder to stakeholder theory. But they need to prove it with action. It’s great that these organizations are saying it, until told businesses start doing it, I think there’s still going to be some skepticism.

I would absolutely agree with that. I think there’s still a lot of unknowns. One thing that I highlighted in the blog post is even just the notion of what corporate social responsibility is versus what corporate social advocacy as a term that’s been coined for companies that engage in stance-taking. People are conceptually and even practically still negotiating what that all means.

Companies are trying to respond, but at the same time, I think we’re seeing a lot of examples where reputations are actually damaged by certain efforts that aren’t embedded in core values, aren’t responsibly and ethically communicated. And people perceive that it’s not a sincere effort. Motives really matter. And the public really does see that and is starting to hold companies accountable.

When I look at it as a professional in the field, I see the CSR as the triple bottom line. It is doing good. Corporate social activism or advocacy is taking it to the next step where you’re going to be doing good, even if it potentially ticks off a certain percentage of your customer base. It’s big enough and it’s an important enough of a position to take a stand realizing that not everyone’s going to be happy with the stand that you take.

That’s exactly right, Mark. And some people would even argue, “Well, even that is strategic risk.” And perhaps so because if you look at the Nike example, sure, they did polarize some folks and lost some customers, but they also gained even more. Ben & Jerry’s has seen the same thing. And I really think that calculated risk is something they have to negotiate. But all in all, it’s all embedded in the idea that they have a responsibility to stand up and speak up, and they have to do it explicitly.

Do you have any advice for PR executives that are working with their senior management team, working to convince them?

I don’t necessarily think there’s a cookie cutter approach to success with the effort. But all in all, turn to the research, turn to the facts. We’re seeing a lot of studies being conducted through Edelman and another big companies that are finding just how much this matters to consumers, and how they’re essentially voting with their wallets. More and more people are saying, “This is a priority for me as a consumer. I will go to a different company and support that brand if they’re being socially responsible versus this one if it’s not.”

We’re also seeing that in hiring. A lot of HR professionals have communicated that as well. And a lot of college students with whom I work all the time have said, “That’s a big priority for me as a job seeker. I want to go work for a place that I know cares about people, the environment, doing social good. And I look to see if they have that page on their website” just as an example for how they involve their employees in those efforts.

Turn to the research, look at the facts, look at the trends, survey your audience, your job seekers, your current employees, your stakeholders. But all in all, I think it all just goes back to the whole idea of having that seat at the table and just really showing management not only the benefits that doing this can bring to the company, but also just the importance of how much you can make a mark on society altogether.

What are some of the ethics topics that most engage your students?

I think the ethics topics that really engage them often have to do with public relations management and cases, and also how to handle crisis situations. Truly, I’ve seen a lot of interest in the units that I do about social responsibility. It’s just the trifecta with employee relations and the big management topics that really engage them.

What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I would say that there are two quotes that resonate with me.

One of them is from Betsy Plank, the first lady of public relations. Plank says, “Ethics and public relations is who you are here and now and what you do in your personal life when no one is watching.” I just think this quote speaks to the notion of how much personal and professional value should both align and how we define and live our lives.

And another quote from Arthur W. Page suggests that the fundamental way of getting public approval is to deserve it. This really just speaks to me as both a scholar who researches public relations, CSR, CSA, and as a teacher striving to instill those good values and business approaches in my students. I think the notion of deserving public approval is embedded in ethical communication, which is a critical function of organizational reputation and stakeholder trust. If we embrace that, we can be successful in our efforts as public relations educators and professionals.

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

There is one overarching idea that is certainly not new to us, but just something to highlight – integrity in public communication. Some of your guests have touched on the idea about misinformation and the detrimental effect it has on our society. I’m not saying that this is necessarily a new idea about which to be concerned, but it is an area of immense importance that’s really been challenged lately.

There continue to be new developments in platforms such as social media and new challenges that accompany those developments. Broadly, I think that individuals and companies alike need to take an active role in combating misinformation. I really think that as we’ve seen over the past year alone, many of our leaders, journalists, public health professionals, scientists among others have faced challenges in the area of ethics in public communication.

I’ll end by saying it’s important that we embrace that role of truth-telling and integrity in our work. That we really move forward those efforts to ethically and responsibly communicate with the public. It’s an issue that’s more resonant now more than ever.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here:

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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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

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