Licensing and Ethics in Puerto Rico Public Relations – Karen Garnik

Joining me on this week’s episode is Karen Garnik, the president of Global Vision Marketing and Communications and the president of Asociación de Relacionistas Profesionales de Puerto Rico and a licensed public relations practitioner.

She discusses a number of important ethics issues including:

Why don’t you tell me a little bit more about yourself and your career?

I’ve been in the business for about 30 years and I’m also APR accredited and I have a firm. I worked on the government side a couple of times. I was the chief marketing officer for the economic development agency in Puerto Rico, and then I had the enormous privilege of being the director of Rums of Puerto Rico.

It’s so amazing when you have the opportunity to contribute with your country, especially with a product as interesting and versatile as rum. And the fact that the sale of rum in the United States reverts back in economic development funds because there’s excise taxes and those excise taxes are used for infrastructure and health and education. My stint in government was interesting because it wasn’t like a regular government job. It was more communications, marketing and promotion and was an incredible privilege.

But I’ve been working on my own for many, many years. I started this firm and I specialize in family-owned businesses, from first-generation to up to six generations or 156 years, which is the oldest family that I work with. It’s interesting and includes manufacturing, distribution and services, and a lot of agricultural work, which I’m so passionate about because Puerto Rico has a food insecurity issue. We import 85% of everything that we eat. There is so much potential in fostering agriculture and sustainable agriculture and environment.

I have a master’s degree. I did my bachelor degree, not in communications, but in sociology and history. And then I did my master degree in communications. And I have two phenomenal young adults, which are my best project in life. I’m proud to say that one decided when she was a junior in high school, she said, “Mom, I hate to admit it, but I love what you do,” and she is now a public relations colleague.

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

Over the years, I have always adhered to a strict ethical code. It can go from as simple as, “Hey Karen, why don’t you help me with your clients so I can get a contract or that they choose me as a supplier?” I always decline because it’s not right. If you want to earn a contract or a project, then you need to have all the values and what’s required.

Many years ago, I resigned an account because another client in the beverage business had the market leadership and this other client that I was working with decided to enter that category. And I thought to myself, “No, I can’t,” and so I went to her and I said, “Unfortunately, I need to resign the account,” and she said, “Why?” I said, “I can’t explain to you why. I can’t tell you, but basically there is a competition and I don’t feel comfortable with it.” And she said, “Well, whoever it is, I don’t want to lose your advisory services and it’s going to be okay with me.” And I said, “It might be okay with you, but it’s not okay with me and I like to sleep at night peacefully and I don’t want to be haunted by ethical missteps.”

Most recently, I had the opportunity to manage the distribution of 70,000 gallons of high proof disinfecting alcohol for one of the companies I worked for. We basically distributed it free of charge to the healthcare sector because there was a shortage of alcohol coming into the island because of the high demand globally. And we saw the virus coming, approaching our shores and this company decided to shift their production and they said, “Now we’re going to produce 100% high proof alcohol.” It was 70% alcohol, but 100% of the production. You have no idea the creativity of people trying to get it. We had limits obviously of X amount, but we had political candidates who came close to the factory with 15,000-gallon tanks. We said “No way.”

Also, I’m getting my first shot because it’s now in my age bracket. But previously, people close to me invited me to do all kinds of workarounds for vaccination. And I said, “I can’t do that. It’s not our turn. Those are the vaccines for the senior citizens who really need it.” Those are ethical issues and ethical questioning situations that you have to adhere to strict values in order to do well.

I think those are really great examples and I’ve been working with a Department of Health for the past year on COVID comms, so I know all the issues that you’re talking about. But when people use relativism and say “everybody else is doing it,” “it’s going to go to waste if you don’t do it,” or, “I need to fill this 15,000-gallon tank,” how do you help them see the error of their ways?

I try to explain. I said, “There is so much alcohol and so much product and there’s a huge need. We cannot give you anything above and beyond what has been established because we would be breaching the agreement that we had. I’m sorry, sir.”

You were supposed to fill out documents and provide certifications of the hospitals or the facilities that you were going to be using it, like the fire department, the police department. Some candidates and some municipal governments provided the documents without the certifications, without telling us who they were going to distribute the alcohol to. And then I would pick up the phone and say, “I’m sorry, this application is incomplete.” And they would say, “Oh, come on, lady. Really?” I said, “Yes, really.” “Well, but can’t you just ignore it?” “No, I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry, sir. I can’t ignore it. You need to do what’s right.”

I think it’s a good point. As long as the process is fair, transparent, and the rules are applying to everybody, even if people don’t like the decision, they can usually live with the decision from an ethical point-of-view.

What are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think that in a world where immediacy and communications and social media and technology has pretty much put all the information in front of us in your phone, it’s key to have integrity and transparency. I think that right now, people are apathetic to denounce. They think when things are not right, it’s better to just turn your head and keep doing other things because, “I’m too busy. I’m not going to get involved in that.” There’s a lack of responsibility and accountability in this type of practice. And I think that’s a major, major issue.

To zoom into a specific example, we’ve seen so much fake news and selective truth telling over the last couple years -that is a major problem because there’s no consequence. I mean, the fact is that there’s the fake news. Oh yes, it’s fake news, but there are no consequences and I think that that needs to be straightened out. And another thing is, I don’t think that ethics is given enough of a priority in the education of different careers. I think that technology is taking over some of some fundamental bases that we should have younger generations and even for us. I mean, we need to refresh our ethics and the fact that we need to practice ethically.

You raised the point of what brought you to my attention. I have a Google search set up looking at anybody who’s talking about ethics in public relations. And I came across the campaign that the Puerto Rico Public Relations Professionals Association is doing around licensing and awareness. And I’d love to learn more about, what are you doing and what can you tell us about your licensing efforts?

The Puerto Rico Public Relations Professionals Association is celebrating its 50th anniversary. We decided that part of the thing that we wanted to do to highlight this anniversary was educate people. There’s a misperception of what it is that we do. Some people think that we do advertising. Some people think that we do promotion. Then other people think that we just do cocktail parties. It’s far from the truth.

Over the years, there’s been so much misunderstanding and it’s grown into a critical situation in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria. There was a chain of situations and circumstances that ended with the historical ousting of a governor here on the island, which had never happened before. There was a spiraling trend of people that were communicators, but not public relations practitioners, with the required license, and so we thought that given that impending dark cloud of unethical communicators it was even more critical for us to explain and distance ourselves from that type of practice.

And so the campaign, which is an educational campaign, it’s really, really good. In Spanish, we called it “Porque ser Relacionista es cosa seria”and in English, what it means is, “Because being a public relations practitioner is a serious thing,” and a serious thing, it’s part of the slogan, but it’s a colloquial way of in Spanish saying, “That’s very respectable. That’s a serious matter. That’s something to be highlighted. It’s at another level.” So we called it, “It’s a serious thing.” The objective of the campaign, is to educate about the role that we have and the contributions we make as public practitioners to society through strategic communications, through fostering beneficial relationships between an organization and company and its publics. We also focused on educating on the importance of complying with the law of having a license according to law act 204, which was enacted in 2008. It stresses the importance of working ethically with a license, which you have to renew every four years, given a specific set of parameters and continued education as required by a governing rule with a regulatory board for public relations practitioners in Puerto Rico.

I tell my students that we have superpowers as public relations professionals and we decide to use it for good or for evil. Licensing is always a hot topic and a hot debate and I think Puerto Rico is one of just a few countries or territories that regulates the profession. What was the argument made about why should you license and does that accidentally disenfranchise or create barriers to some practitioners from getting into it?

There are five countries in the world that regulates. We have 1500 practitioners with the required license on the island right now.

What you need to do is maintain continuing education. Just to give you an example, paralegals are not attorneys. Can you have a paralegal defend you in court? No. You have an accountant and then you have a CPA. And it’s the same thing. I mean, we have academic preparation. We do continued education. We adhere to a strict code of ethics. We have experience and we provide the right type of advice, serious, transparent, ethical advice to all our clients, whether it be community relations or crisis management or issues management.

It is the whole spectrum of skills that we have, alongside the ethics and the integrity and the education, that separates us from the rest. There is no cost really to have a required license. What you need to do is have A, the preparation. You need to have studies in public relations and you need to provide the certificates that you do, the justification and the evidence, and you need to continue developing professionally via education.

When you look at it, it’s more an investment than a cost. If people want to work, they need to comply with the law. And this is a law. You need to comply with it.

How do you compare the licensing process to the APR accreditation process?

Unlike the APR, you didn’t have to study to take an exam or present to a board to begin. What you need to do is you need to maintain the skills that you have, improve them and make sure that you work ethically. Licensing is actually simpler, but it’s continued. It has to be consistent in your professional performance. You can’t be ethical today and then forget to be ethical and then say, “Oh, in six months, oh, let me be ethical again because I need to renew my license.” No, you need to be ethical every day, in your performance, in what you do, in your deliverables. And in that sense, it’s similar to APR because it has specific goals and objectives, but it’s simpler because it’s not as costly and you don’t have to prepare for an exam.

The licensing in Puerto Rico is just like licensing to run a business? When I formed my LLC, I secured a business license. It adds a level of government oversight. If somebody is not ethical, there can be repercussions against them?

Yes. There are sanctions and you can be penalized. That’s done not by the Puerto Rico Public Relations Association, but rather by the regulatory board. They’re the ones who oversee those sanctions and any kind of penalizing effects it might have.

Is there anything more you want to talk about with regards to the 50th anniversary or this campaign?

The campaign ends in May. We spoke to the press secretary of the governor, and we’re making sure that the state and municipal governments comply. We’ve also gone to the nonprofit sector and approached other organizations such as the Sales and Marketing Executives and the Chamber of Commerce and the Puerto Rico Manufacturers Association and we’ve asked them, “Can you please share this with your members?”, so everybody knows what the law is. If you have to hire a public relations professional, please abide by what the law says and hire a licensed professional.

The message has permeated the private sector, the government sector and the nonprofit sector. It’s been embraced by a lot of people. And we’ve had calls and now we’re being invited to other organizations to talk about it and provide orientation to the members of their specific organization.

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

My mom, she was a really wise woman, would always say, “Don’t say yes if you want to say no.” And to me, that stuck with me because if something was not right, I would say no. That is the basics of ethics. If you’re not okay with it and if you think it’s not okay, you need to say “NO” no matter what. That was my first lesson in ethics, which of course I passed on to my children. Stick to your values, stick to your principles, be honest, always, always do the right thing. Don’t say yes if you want to say no.

Listen to 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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