Why ethical organizations need to look back as well as forward – Krista Terrell

Joining me on this week’s episode is Krista Terrell, APR, the acting president of the Arts and Science Council, a local arts agency that serves as the designated office of cultural resources for the city of Charlotte Mecklenburg County.

She discusses a number of important ethics topics, including:

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

I’m a senior public relations practitioner with over about 25 years of experience. A majority of that experience has been in the arts and culture space. I’m a native of Augusta, Georgia, a proud graduate of Johnson C. Smith University, which is an HBCU here in Charlotte and my career has been built around various experiences of media relations, working on political campaigns and to crisis communications.

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

In one of my previous jobs, the executive director was messing with the numbers and I could see it in the reports. I always knew never to mess with the numbers because the numbers are the numbers and the facts are the facts. I brought it up to her and I did not play a role in that. I will say in the end, she was no longer an employee at that organization. I’ve always been taught, never mess with the numbers because that is, you have to tell the honest truth in everything that you do.

I think that’s a challenge you see both in corporations and nonprofits. What’s your advice for raising the issue to avoid retaliation or other concerns?

It’s really important to just drill deep and always present the facts. That’s all that we really have to stand on and to be accurate in showing of the facts to say, “This is not truthful. This is the facts.” And counsel them to continue to share the facts whatever the outcome may be. I think a lot of people are trying to protect themselves or protect the organization. But again, the facts are the facts. We have a responsibility as PR practitioners to present the facts and encourage and provide counsel to share those facts.

As I say, bad news doesn’t get better with age. Rip the bandage off and deal with it and then you can rebuild trust. Beyond that one experience, what are you seeing as some of the other key PR and ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The things that come to mind are is honesty, free flow of information and the disclosure of information. One thing that I’m dealing with right now as it relates to those things, especially around honesty, is the Arts and Science Council released an inaugural equity report to the community. And in that report, our intention was to really tell the truth and the history of the steps and missteps that ASC has done over the years around our history of inequities and the outcomes of those inequities. And also share our journey over the past eight years of what we’ve been doing to become a more equitable organization.

We’ve received positive feedback from the community. One person said, “I’ve never seen a legacy organization like ASC to really own its truth and be honest about it.” However, I have seen from some of these major institutions that have benefited from ASC’s historical practice of inequities, being uncomfortable and not liking that we’ve shared the stories through written word, as well as visuals.

There’s a particular graph in the report that’s very visual that shows which cultural organizations have benefited the most out of ASC’s inequities. They believe that we’re telling a story about them, but I’ll always say, “No, we’re telling our own story and it just shows how you have benefited from ASC’s history of inequities.” I think it’s important that organizations that have benefited from ASC’s inequities be honest and truthful about that as well. And then they can tell their own stories of what they’re doing internally. But I think the big thing is that this is ASC’s story to tell.

I’m a little bit confused, you’re saying how some organizations feel like you’re pointing out who’s benefited the most from your inequities. It sounds like standard financial disclosure. Help me understand, if I want to know you’ve given $20 million to company A and $2 million to organization B, where’s the issue there?

I think the issue is that we’re telling the truth. You’re right. It’s disclosure. Every year we say, “This is what the Charlotte Symphony has gotten or the Mint Museum or Discovery Place.” I think the challenge is, now we’ve done that in aggregate from 1991 to 2020 and when you see in that chart on page 12, that the Charlotte Symphony has gotten $40 million in operating support compared to Black-led and minority organizations that have gotten seven million from the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American artists and culture, you see that inequity visually. I believe that many of the legacy institutions are very uncomfortable about that. And I will say kind of showing in their whiteness about that with ASC’s inequities. But it is the truth. We’re not making it about them. This is our story to tell, but I do believe because we’ve shown it in aggregate over a long period of time, it’s very startling to see.

It’s really looking back over the past 30 years.


This is something we’re seeing more businesses do it. I was talking to my colleagues today about ESG reports and sustainability and how this is becoming increasingly important. What’s the advice you give to get the Board or executives on board with addressing your historic inequities?

It all goes back to being honest about it and showing the data and the facts. When ASC’s board was in the process of adopting a cultural equity statement for the organization in fiscal year 19, we talked about why that’s important, but we also brought an expert in, Eddie Torres who is director of Grantmakers in the arts, to really dig deep into why this equity work is important. Why being fair is important.

Once the board adopted the equity statement, they said, “We are committed to publicly reporting on our work in this cultural equity space.” And so I am very blessed that I have a board committed to equity and that they are about telling the truth, however uncomfortable that is. And even in this report, we had three board members, including our board chair, that were in the process of creating this report that started in the summer of 2020. Influencing and sharing facts of why this is important through data is really important. That will help a Board get on board with this work and whatever work you’re doing.

I think some organizations are thinking what matters is moving forward. We’re going to be more diverse and equitable moving forward. I don’t want to acknowledge that. Let’s focus on the future. What’s your counsel to them about why they need to acknowledge that?

There’s a John Meacham quote that I love and it says, “History is not a GPS. It is a diagnostic guide.” I think he said that actually at the 2020 PRSA ICON where he was a keynote. And I just love that. Again, it’s, “History is not a GPS. It is a diagnostic guide.” Everyone loves to talk about the shiny new things. We’re changing. We’ve done this. But you have to start at the beginning. You have to start with history and be honest about that and see what you have done for their history to be a diagnostic guide, to know how to move forward. Everything starts with history and so we were really intentional with our report. Yes, it does, goes back 30 years, but the report starts at 1958 where it talks about our founding. That’s a quote that I always come back with when people are like, “Oh, we need to ignore that.” No history is not a GPS. It is a diagnostic guide. And so that is what this report is to tell us how you can move forward.

What’s some of your guiding principles for addressing equity moving forward?

The guiding principle is we want to make sure that we’re nourishing an equitable creative ecosystem for Charlotte Mecklenburg. That’s really requires us to be transparent. Who’s at the table? Who’s not at the table? Equity is the guiding lens of everything that we do.

You mentioned some stakeholders that were concerned they were being portrayed in a negative light, that they were showing their whiteness. For organizations that have that white heteronormative cis-gender male approach, what’s your counsel to them? How can I step out and think beyond their whiteness?

I think it’s really answering a question that Darren Lynn Johnson, who is the founder of Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra and who was featured in the New York Times asked. She said, “You really need to answer the question, whom do you serve?” And to really be honest about that. When I say organizations or leaders are in their whiteness, I had a legacy organization that has benefited greatly from ASC’s practice of inequities to say, “I’m all for changing inequities as it relates to access.” I said, “That’s great.” Then I said, “Well what about your changing and equities related to funding?” And I heard silence on the phone and then I heard, “Ah well, that’s kind of hard. It’s hard to make a stance on equity when you’re decreasing our funding.” They also said, “If you want $50,000 to go further, why not give it to our organization, which has the infrastructure rather than an organization with one person?”

Well, I know that Gladys Gomez with Carolina’s Latin Dance that receives operating support from ASC, would run circles around your organization that has been here for a really long time and tries to do programming around Latin American culture, because she is the culture. She has the relationships in community. Everything isn’t about legacy organizations. It is about the broader sector and ensuring that small to midsize organizations have resources to build their capacity so that they can become major organizations. It’s really around asking that question, whom do you serve? Be honest about that and if you want others to grow and advance as well?

That’s a great point. People need to get beyond the whether it’s their name associated with it. What matters is the end result. When I was chair of PRSA and we were discussing increasing diversity, I would always say if somebody else like LAGRANT could do a better job, that’s where the money should go.

Lean on the expertise of others. If someone can do something better, give it to them or collaborate together so it can be even better.

Are there other ethical issues you see of concern?

There’s a lot going on. I think about how, unfortunately with the murders that took place in Atlanta and it was reported that the FBI director says, “Well, I don’t think it was racially motivated.” Well, I don’t know, is that true? He targeted Asian massage parlors. There is the constant misinformation and disinformation that’s going on that is of concern to me. That’s just an example.

I spoke with Jen Cho about this last week and it’s horrible. It’s chilling when you see the 150, 160% increase. The numbers are there and it’s being driven by some of the rhetoric. When it comes to misinformation and disinformation creating this hostile culture, what can we be doing to fight it more effectively?

I think it’s all around being intentional about what it is that you’re trying to do. And again, for me, it goes back to honesty. That’s one of my favorite core values of PRSA Code of Ethics.

I also think about how to fight it. I think about our last ethics officer’s meeting, where we had a retired command sergeant major, John Ramirez to speak with us and the topic just happened to be honesty. He talked about being a gunslinger versus a gardener. That the gunslinger is skilled at their craft, but it’s really to benefit them and it’s in a negative way. They’re the box office draw. A gardener is also skilled at their craft, but they’re turning the soil. They’re nurturing it, providing factual information. And in the end they may not have the box office draw, but they win the Academy Award.

I think it’s important to just be a gardener, to mobilize people, to constantly speak the truth and to tell the truth and to build a movement of accuracy and honesty and truthfulness together because if you have more of that then it can kind of out power and outrun the other negative things.

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

It will go back to the beginning, that situation where a colleague of mine said, “Never mess with the numbers.”

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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