Joining me this week to discuss how rationalization leads to ethical failures is Donald Singletary, the president at Singletary Group Communications and an adjunct professor at a number of universities, including Syracuse University and Baruch College.
He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- Ethics of expense reports in the Mad Men Era and today
- How societal changes are impacting ethical practices
- How rationalization leads to ethical failures
- Are we really making progress against systemic racism?
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
When I started in public relations, nobody started their career in public relations. Nobody knew what it was. We knew what advertising was because we knew there were TV commercials and ads in magazines, but PR was nothing we knew about.
I started as a reporter. I had some great internships that started with WINS which was the first successful all-news radio station in the country, and ended with the Washington Post in Watergate summer. I thought I was pretty hot stuff.
Everybody who was in PR was a news reporter. I got my first real job and AT&T corporate headquarters. AT&T back then was like you took Google, Microsoft, and Apple and combined them into one. All the guys I worked with, and they were all guys, were news reporters.
That’s because, when I was a kid, New York City had seven major newspapers. Because there were a series of newspaper strikes, they got down to four. All of these guys got jobs with PR firms for companies, and a lot of them worked at a phone company, New York Telephone, AT&T, New Jersey Bell, because we had the same skillset. They were writers. They knew journalists, they knew how to talk to reporters. They knew how to work on deadline.
Two months after I got to AT&T, the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit. They basically told AT&T to divest itself. That was a 10-year program, and I was in there for all 10 of those years. It was an exciting time. What it allowed me to do was actually be a reporter for the phone company.
I edited the AT&T news, and I covered stories related to the phone company. Then when I got into media relations side, we were the front page every business section, sometimes the front page of the paper. PR was still print driven then. People watched the evening news, but the real news they wanted to come from newspapers. It was really a fortuitous time for me to be there with my background.
After 10 years, I left that on my own, and tried to be a freelance writer. Starving. I got some stuff published in the Daily News, Essence Magazine, some other stuff. Then went into the Health & Hospitals Corporation. That’s the people who run the city hospital. I went there to follow a friend of mine from AT&T who had gone in and head their PR department. It’s the largest municipal healthcare system in the world.
When I got there, my boss called me in. He said, “Let’s go next door to talk to this guy named Paul Moore. He wants to talk to us about AIDS.” He’s a young gay white male, and was telling us that the problem was going to be big in heterosexual Black and brown communities. We never really were believing AIDS was going to be pandemic it turned out to be. He was right. About two years later more than a third of the hospitalized AIDS patients in America were in those city hospitals.
We also had the trouble with an epidemic of crack cocaine, which led to all sorts of violence, and just terrible stuff. It was the one addiction that people in the addiction community did not have a cure.
I then went to Planned Parenthood, where I thought it would’ve been like, “We’re going to do birth control and sexual education.” That’s where the largest assault on abortion rights began. It even got violent. I worked at the national office, and I was vice-president of the New York affiliate. I learned a lot about lobbying, advertising. In fact, I did the ad we did for the New York Times, cautioning people about the end of Roe vs. Wade. It was a good experience for me. A little dangerous, but good experience for me.
I left there and went to Syracuse to teach. My only other teaching experience had been at the New School for Social Research, where I got my graduate degree in media studies. Now, full disclosure, I never had a public relation course in my life. Funny, when I was at AT&T, one of the guys comes into the office area and says, “Look at this. Somebody just sent me a resume, and she says she got a degree in public relations.” We all had a laugh about it.
I had one journalism course in my life. In high school, my guidance counselor told me I needed to take an elective. I said, “Okay.” He said, “Either accounting or journalism.” I said, “What’s the difference?” He said, “Accounting is like math, and journalism is like English.” I suck at math. I found out I had a nose for news.
Thinking about the spectrum of your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I was thinking about today, because ethics, in a way, is an evolving process. I was thinking about Governor Cuomo. I got into the business at the tail end of the Mad Men era…Free martini lunches, the questionable expense account. My first business trip, I reported my voucher. My boss says to me, “Donald, I want you to come in here so I can talk about your expense report.” I’m thinking, “Oh, my goodness. There’s that expensive dinner I shouldn’t’ve had.”
He hands it back to me and says to me, “See, the way this works is, you don’t give any money back. Just, if you spend too much, you can take whatever’s left.” “Okay?” I never thought I was doing anything unethical, because of the excuse…Everybody’s doing that.
Then there were people who were running lunches. You could take a pretty girl to dinner, and she becomes your client. It just became so much of the norm. You are at the largest corporation in the world. They weren’t going to miss it. It wasn’t like the guys who were renting cars on weekends or something. You can rationalize that.
I think a lot of things that we do with ethics is about that. There’s difference between ethics and the law. The law is very clear. Whether it’s a felony or the SEC regulations, it’s very clear. But, for ethics, it’s the way you were raised, your religious beliefs, who you grew up around.
Finally, I come to the realization because of something a cop told me when I was a reporter at a paper in Jersey City. We were talking about police corruption. He said, “You know, Donald? When it’s wrong, we know it in your gut. You know it.” That stayed with me, because you do. You can make yourself rationalize it. But you know it.
I think what’s happening today is the challenges are because how societal norms have changed. Look at the Republican party. I remember Barry Goldwater, who ran against Lyndon Johnson, would not even be a conservative by today’s standard. He and his wife established the first Planned Parenthood chapter in the state of Arizona. I remember, at the end of his life, they’d interviewed him about gays in the military. He said, “If a man wants to serve his country, he can serve his country.” He was in the Stone Age for race, but, by today’s standards, he wouldn’t even be a conservative.
When you’re talking about the expense reports, I’d say that didn’t end with the Mad Men. You saw that, the dot-com boom era, when people were doing that. I was talking to Hasan Zuberi, who’s a PR practitioner over in Pakistan, and you’re still seeing a lot of that internationally. Where people are rationalizing, “Everybody else is doing it, so I need to do it as well.”
Yeah. Rationalization is a hell of a thing. You can say, “I’m getting mine too,” or, “They didn’t promote me, so” …
Or, “You know what? I lost those receipts and I didn’t submit, so I’m going to pad it on this receipt.” There’s lots of ways people talk themselves into doing that.
Yeah. I used to keep a stack of blank receipts. You could go someplace and had to pay cash, I’d tell the waitress, “Could you bring me a receipt and don’t fill it in?” You’d tip her nice, and she brings you five blank receipts.
You mentioned society is evolving. What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
It’s funny. I think race and gender. Today is International Women’s Day, and the start of the George Floyd trial. You think about two things that so changed and evolved so rapidly. There was always a woman’s movement in my lifetime. George Floyd made people challenge systemic racism.
I was surprised that Joe Biden rolled the dice and put that on in his campaign. Challenging things like taking down Confederate statues, and things like that, all these symbols, raising questions about the American heroes who had questionable pasts of conserving slavery, et cetera.
I have a client, African-American, evangelical Christian, and his father was a minister. He’s writing a book about why the evangelicals don’t take a harder stance on racism. I’m not saying individuals don’t, but, as the church, they don’t. They’ve been very quiet. For example, when Trump was running, a lot of people supported Trump because his stance on abortion, and guns, and other things that they liked, and could kind of close their eyes to some of the unpleasant things like kids wrapped up in the border.
People will always steal money, and some bosses will run corrupt companies. But I think the changes today are the changes that are coming with race and gender issues.
I agree. I’ve talked about this with a lot of people on the podcast. I think we’re seeing movement, but I don’t think we’re seeing enough movement. I think some people are like, “Be happy with what’s happened.” I’m like, “Heck no. You got to keep on pushing.”
What’s your advice to your students as they’re getting into the workforce, or to other professionals? How can we make sure we bring more equity when it comes to race and gender as communications professionals?
The first rule for me and for others, stay prepared. Be excellent. Be a good student. Please stay abreast of what’s happening in the world. I can’t reinforce enough to follow the news from variety of sources, and get as much information as you can. A lot of students will come back and say to me, “I don’t think that the course I was taking was worthwhile,” or, “I thought it was only the internship,” but you learn a lot more from school than you think. A lot of it’s the relationships you make. I think today, when it comes to the diversity issues, you have to really be aware of someone’s history. We’re not all the same.
What I’ve seen in the generation of yours and younger, as opposed to mine, is the sense that, if we’re all in same place and we all are doing roughly the same work and get the same education, then that’s okay. We can be more accepting about certain things, race, et cetera. I think that your generation and those younger are good at ignoring race and gender as opposed to confronting it. I think the George Floyd thing brought that up.
When you saw people of all colors marching and reacting … How many news clips I saw where here’s a white mother, taking her eight-year-old daughter saying, “I wanted her to be here in the movement.” That’s a change. There’ve always been white people involved in the movement, obviously, but this is a much larger change than we’ve seen.
I agree, but I think in some cases we’re seeing corporations getting into woke washing, when they’re saying it, but they’re not doing anything to follow through. It sounds great if you can express your outrage at what happened to George Floyd, but everybody should be expressing outrage at what happened to George Floyd. It’s, what do you do after that?
I think the issues at the C-suite and the numbers of people who are just sitting on boards, et cetera, and the people who can just provide access … I was thinking that when Vernon Jordan died, who I’d met a few times. He and another guy whose name I can’t remember, were “the Black guy on the boards” They were on every board, and he knew presidents, and all that stuff. He was a very social guy, if you got to meet him. Guy was 85 years old. How aren’t there a thousand of them now?
What most engages your students? You’re teaching at Syracuse and at Baruch. What are the ethical issues that really get them the most excited? Is it the issues around race, and Women’s Day, and gender?
For the highlights, yeah. But I think there’s still been such a big emphasis on making money in the last 25 years. I think my generation was an aberration, because in the hippy dippy world, where people look a little differently at materialism, even though we all wound up in materialistic … Something happened, I think, with the economy itself, in part, that people really had this thing about money. “I have to have everything. I have to have a lot of stuff.”
When I was a kid, you could go to high school and go in the Army, and come out and get a job with the city. You were good for 30, 35 years, and die with a house. Harder to come by now, unless you got a portfolio and good credit. I think that makes them say, “I would really like to be involved with this a little more, but I’m afraid,” and with good reason.
Even before the pandemic, companies were getting into problems. The economy’s up and down. I think, sadly, that drives a lot of it. But there’ll always be more people, who, something will spur them on to say, “This is an important time.”
I really didn’t feel until maybe about the last five or six years that this was happening. We thought, after the ’60s and ’70s, it was never going to really happen again. But now I’m feeling, and I’m sensing that our people are feeling, this is an important time. With the Democrats just passing that money bill, that’s incredible. That’s incredible to what that’s going to mean to people. People can get engaged. They’re going to say, “This is happening. There’s going to be money in my pocket. I can pay the rent.”
It makes sense. I was talking to Ray Kotcher, who’s the former CEO of Ketchum, who’s in your generation. He basically said, “You know what? My generation talked about it. I think it’s this generation, the Gen Z and the Millennials, that are actually going to do it.”
We kicked the door open. I think people forget the way things were when they started out.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I would say probably just what that cop told me. I really think that you have to really go with your soul. In a sense that the organization you’re with, client you’re with, may not be on the same page with you ethically, it’s your job to tell them that. Whether it’s the client outside or inside your own organization, to step to that, and say, “This is not the way we should be doing it.” You should put that on the table. That goes across money, race and gender issues. You have to be true to yourself, in that sense.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.