- Where your duty lies when you are asked to reveal confidential information
- The importance of civility and civil discourse
- How the absence of truth leads to the absence of trust
- The guiding light of hope
Tell us more about your career
I’m the principal of the ethics consulting firm that I created after leaving Ruder Finn. I am there to offer small to medium companies and nonprofit organizations the ability to outsource their ethics function. In other words, what I was doing for one company for 20 years, I’m offering to do for many companies. I joined Ruder Finn, and worked there for 20 years, it was an amazing experience. And as the expression goes, “I sat at the feet of David Finn, who was an amazing mentor”.
Thinking about your 20 years with Ruder Finn, and all of your work you’re doing with companies today. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
The first challenge happened when I had just joined the firm and I was working for the Swiss account. We were representing the Swiss government in a major scandal, which was the Swiss banks and World War II.
I proposed the speaker for a major public event, that was held at the Swiss embassy in London during the Nazi Gold Conference. The event was extremely well attended by international media.
The speaker, who happened to be my closest friend did a wonderful job…until he didn’t. At the very end of his presentation, he said that “the Swiss government should stop taking money from dictators who loot their own countries”. And he added that the Swiss should also “stop taking drug money because we have young people dying in our streets”. This was in front of the ambassador, at the ambassador’s residence, with the world media.
The ambassador was not happy. He was actually very, very unhappy. Later, he threatened to terminate our contract. I offered David my resignation should that help the relationship of Ruder Finn with the Swiss government. But David refused. He said, “you’re a good man. We don’t want to let you go. You’re never responsible for what someone else says”. He said “the speaker was also a good man. It was just that the Swiss were difficult”. So that’s why I stayed, but it was quite a challenging time.
Also, I was once asked by a senior official at the firm to reveal the name of the person who had informed me of an ethical lapse. I refused. I was threatened with termination and legal consequence. So, I turned to the person and said, “Do you really want to know?” And the answer was an enthusiastic yes.
I then said, “Well, in that case, you’ll have to depose me. And if you do, I may very well be in contempt of court.” That put an end to the conversation. I was never asked again. And, so the CEO, when she found out, supported me saying I was right, and that you can never betray the confidence of someone that trusts you, not even once.
A third issue was a continued challenge of finding out internal ethical issues, after the fact. I believe that some of these issues could have been prevented, had I’d been involved or if I had a conversation, if we had asked the right questions.
I believe that most people believe they’re ethical or at least want to be, and in most cases they’re right. But the problem is that we do not stop long enough to think before we act. And maybe the best example of that is Martha Stewart. If you remember, she gets a call from her broker and he says, “the stock in your portfolio, I think is going to go down”. What’s your immediate reaction if your stock is going to do down? Sell.
But if she had stopped long enough, if she had asked the right question, which is, how do you know this? Is this public information? Then probably she would not have done what she did.
In your second example, when your boss was saying, “Tell me who came to you with this ethical issue.” I can see with many people asking where do your duties lie? Is your duty to your employer? Is your duty to your staff? Is your duty to the company? So how do you ethically navigate those conflicting duties?
Your primary duty is to your values. And that’s where it will take you, wherever it takes you. We always say this the ethics officer of a company should always have his resignation letter in his back pocket. Because there may be a time where you’re pushed to do something that is contrary to your own values. Then you have to pay the price, but you have to keep your values.
I’d say that goes beyond the ethics officer to include good public relations professionals as well. If they need to give the advice and if somebody is doing something that really is unethical, even if you’re not the ethics officer, you may need to take that stand.
But there’s a difference. PR, we are not the decision maker. Sometimes the best we can do is say “Don’t do this.” And if they do it anyway, it’s up to you if you think it’s strong enough for you to leave, or you can continue to work with that company.
As Jim Lukaszewski says, “we’re not steering the bus always, we’re pointing out where the potholes are”.
On your third issue you discussed the challenge about finding about ethical issues after the fact. What’s your advice to get people enlist you if they have issues? Rather than having you see it in the rearview mirror.
I try to build trust. People trusted me. Yet they were reluctant sometimes to “cause trouble” or to be seen by their colleagues as a snitch. There are many reasons why people keep silent, and you can’t force it. The best you can do is be yourself, make yourself trustworthy, not just in your words, but in your action. And that’s it. I was never going and trying to find out if there was anything wrong. I was always there to respond. It was not my job to make sure the company was doing things right. My job was to be there when there was a question.
Thinking beyond your job, what are you seeing as some of the key communication ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
The problem is the absence of truth, and therefore the absence of trust. Trust is at the base of any relationship. And you cannot really have trust, if you don’t have truth.
It seems to me that more and more people just don’t care about truth, and that’s a big challenge, because if it’s contrary to their immediate goal they ignore it. So how can you convey the importance of values in what we do (which is what ethics is about) when there’s no trust and no truth. The challenge is then to try to rebuild that trust and that cannot be done without truth.
I’m seeing a lot of people finding their own data, which may or may not be valid. How can we help organizations both realize the power of the truth and also as brand communicators, respond effectively when those that are attacking you don’t care about the truth of the facts?
It seems like a hopeless situation, but there is always hope. The hope is in developing a dialogue, developing a conversation. In ethics, you have to be humble. You have to be humble because we never have all the facts. So, knowing that you don’t have all the facts keeps you in an open mind. Then as you get more facts, you are able to make the right decision. At least what you think is the right decision, you can never be sure. History will tell you if it was the right decision, but at least you have the comfort of knowing that you stopped long enough, you looked at the options, and you made a decision with the facts that you had at the time.
I tell our students when we’re talking about virtue as an ethical theory – We’re human. We’re going to fail. There’s got to be mistakes. And as Ethisphere says, “ethical companies aren’t perfect. They make mistakes too. It’s how they respond to the mistakes that make them ethical”.
Exactly. We do more damage by the wrong response than the incident itself, because people understand mistakes, people forgive mistakes. But if you deny it, you blame someone else, you hide it, or you confess in secret, people won’t forget that. Think on the mistakes that you’ve done, that I’ve done. It was our reaction that, that people remembered…not our action.
I’ve known you and had the pleasure of working with you off and on for 20+ years in different organizations. And what made me reach out to you for an interview now was actually a piece you wrote recently for PRSA and PRSay about the importance of civility. I’m hoping you can talk a little bit more about where do you see the importance of civility in discourse today?
For our society, it’s vital. I mean if you don’t have civility, you’ll have unrest, you’ll have violence. It’s a deterioration of our core values. In the PR profession lack of civility is a barrier to communication. I think we have to relearn it. We have lost the level of civility we had in America in the ‘50s and even the ‘60s. We have to get back there. We have to rebuild that notion that we’re all human beings, we all have blood in our veins. We may disagree, we may have different points of view, but before all we’re human beings on this planet.
I’m seeing much more fragmentation into tribes and people are building their own microcosms. What are some steps we can take to start rebuilding some of those bridges and realizing that it’s not always us or them?
Two things. Number one, I think we should go beyond our immediate circles because I think we’re building silos. We read what people say that we like, and we ignore what others say or, when we do address them, we confront. I think we should be open-minded, and even if we disagree, at least listen. We should learn to listen again. Maybe do a little bit of soul searching. We have strong reactions. We have emotional reactions. Maybe we should look at it, Why? What’s the root of our reaction? That could also be helpful if we can be self-critical.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Never assume anything. We need to trust, but verify.
I’ll tell you a story. I had just joined Ruder Finn and I was the coordinator of the 50th anniversary of Ruder Finn. We had a committee, and one member of the committee was assigned to prepare a press release. So, I assumed he would. The time came when the press release had to be sent – and there was no press release. So, David looked at me and he said, “it’s sad.” And I felt very sad after he said it. That was the only reproach he gave me in 20 years. I just assumed, if someone says I’ll do it, they would.
So never to assume, but trust and verify.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
- How to Conduct PR Research Ethically – Marcia DiStaso - November 20, 2023
- This Week in PR Ethics (11/2/23): AI Risks, AI Biases, and Bird Ethics - November 2, 2023
- What should you do when you think you received an unlawful order? Dave Honchul - October 30, 2023