EthicalVoices

What to do if someone calls you a liar – Janelle Guthrie

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Janelle Guthrie, APR, Fellow PRSA, the communication director for the Building Industry Association of Washington. She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Please tell us about your career.

I’m fairly new here in my role at the Building Industry Association of Washington. I joined in October 2020. Before that I graduated with a double major in journalism and political science. I’ve been pretty lucky because my career has pretty much followed that trajectory. I spent about 20 years in government, public affairs and leadership roles. I first had a job out of college with a Washington State rural membership organization with an emphasis on agriculture and natural resources. Then I moved to a public information job with the State Senate then a brief stint at Microsoft.  I really found my niche as a communications director right around 30. So since then, I’ve worked as a communications director for the State Senate Republican Caucus, for Attorneys General of both political parties and for two state agencies–And now for the Building Industry Association of Washington.

Thinking about that career and all of the work you’ve done, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

Working in politics, you definitely see a number of ethical challenges. For me, I was really grateful that one of my biggest ethical challenges is one that was fairly easy to remedy.

Back in the day I was working on a political campaign and it was a pretty heated race. I received a call from a reporter I knew saying he’d heard my candidate had inflated his resume. On his biography, we listed him as the commercial real estate broker. And the tipster said that he hadn’t achieved the credentials to be a broker. So being in my early 30s, not knowing the ins and outs of commercial real estate, I waited for my boss to come in and asked him. He said, “No, I’m an agent. I’ve never been a broker.”  I told him on your bio on our website, we’ve been calling you a broker.

And he said, “Well, we should fix that.” I recommended issuing a media advisory saying that we’re fixing it just in case there were other reporters out there who’d been coming to our website and because I think as long as I’d known him, people had just thought when he said he worked in commercial real estate, that that meant that he was a broker.

What I learned from that was to have the confidence to ask in those types of situations. Don’t just assume. I felt really blessed that he was willing to let us do a media advisory. We discussed whether we really needed to do that. And I said, I think it’s a good idea because people will understand there was a mistake and he fixed it. Ultimately, we let everybody know and we moved on with very little criticism.

When I think about politics and I think about what we’ve been seeing over the past few years, people tend to hate to want to admit mistakes or say they were wrong. We’re all human. We all make them. When you know that your opponents are going to potentially leverage any misstatement against you, how do you successfully advise executives about why they need to tell the truth and admit mistakes?

Everything comes back to our integrity. If you have a reputation of telling the truth and admitting when there are mistakes, then you do receive more grace, at least from the general public. The other piece that I learned from this is that if you’re working with someone or if you’re representing them, always do your due diligence to fact check things as well.

Had I had the opportunity to speak to my younger self, I would’ve said, “Hey, you came into the campaign fairly late, double-check things if you have questions and try to help provide your executives a little cover, too, in asking those questions because then they can tell you if there’s been a mistake. They can’t catch every single thing. As an ethical advisor, a big piece of our role is to question and clarify things. Because what sounded like a little thing, the difference between a real estate broker and a real estate agent, was actually a big deal to people who were brokers and had gone through the work to achieve that designation. The same as if someone tagged APR on the end of their name or Fellow PRSA without going through and doing the work…though you don’t really see that all that often.

I think that’s a really good point and it does tie home that you really need to make sure you’re being clear and disclose. As Lou Capozzi likes to say – be skeptical. Anything you’re told trust, but verify it.

Exactly. I especially do that if I’m receiving information and it just seems a little too good to be true. I like to dig in and source things just to make sure that if someone comes back to me and asks me where I got the information. Or God forbid as people do now, accuse you of being a liar and questioning your integrity. I want to able to point back to where the information came from. And best case scenario, if I can get it from two sources, that would be great.

What are some of the other ethical issues that come up working in the public sector?  

You talked about Jim Lukaszewski. He’s kind of my hero. Ever since my very first ethical dilemma/crisis, I have followed him and just really looked to him for advice. There are a number of things that I’ve picked up from him. Honesty, acting promptly, and investigating if you have an inkling that something is wrong. Dig in and get the right information, make sure that you are correct, and clear, and accurate. That is how you act as an ethical, trusted advisor. Jim also reinforced to look at every situation and circumstance. These are just a couple of things I pulled from him. Also, going beyond what’s expected of you–Not just checking once, but checking if you can find it twice. That’s all the better. Or if you can find the original source of the information that you’re quoting, as opposed to quoting the quote.

I think a lot of times, you’re in a hurry and you’re trying to get your information out. Especially in politics, you’re trying to get your talking points, you’re trying to quickly write a speech or you’re trying to win the day on social. But putting out misinformation only hurts your cause.  

Also, when we look at the PRSA Code of Ethics  a lot of people like to point back to honesty, but there’s also advocacy, expertise, independence, loyalty, and fairness. Those require I feel like, more work, because you can say that you are telling the truth from the bottom of your heart, because that’s what you believe. But if you are called a liar, how do you counteract that?

If somebody disagrees with your opinion, it doesn’t mean that it’s a lie. But if you really want to stand behind that opinion, you better have some facts to back it up.

And that’s why I always thought it was important in politics to listen to the other side and try to find common ground where you can. Also, to understand that there’s going to be other factors.

For example, in building, we are advocating for housing that people can afford. There are people who want to pass rules and regulations to protect the environment and increase energy efficiency. Those are all really valid things. What’s important is for people who are advocating for more affordable housing prices to recognize that those things are important and try to identify ways that we can achieve those goals while also achieving the goals that we have to make new housing affordable.

I always like to say, there’s no perfect solution for most things. And just because you disagree doesn’t mean the other side is wrong or lying. It is often a matter of perspective.

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

I really think the work that PRSA is doing around Voices4Everyone is the solution to our next ethics challenge. As a society, we are struggling mightily with civility and also true civic engagement. It’s one thing to pass along information to all your friends on Facebook or to have violent political fights in social media. But it’s another thing to really be a part of the solution. So many of the things we struggle with on the ethics front, all point back to the work that we’re doing in Voices4Everyone to advance civility, diversity and equity and inclusion, civic engagement, and how to sort through disinformation and misinformation. There’s a lot of information out there for people. And the more that we can teach them how to think critically about all of those things and also to consider diversity, equity and inclusion as they’re making their decisions the better. Being engaged in your community and really giving back, I think that’ll go a long ways to solving a lot of problems.

I agree. Are you respecting people’s autonomy and that they are an end of themselves and not just a means to an end? You need to recognize their humanity and their autonomy.

Exactly. I totally agree. It’s just right now, I hear a lot of people putting a lot of people in two-dimensional buckets and not recognizing that you can look at the person, but you are not seeing everything that they are.

I want to circle back to something you said about making affordable homes and helping people understand all the different factors. How do you help people work through their conflicting duties to come to an optimal solution?

A lot of it has to do with education. Legislators have one of the toughest jobs in the world because they have, in our state right now, a 105-day session. And I know year-round some of them have other jobs and some of them are full-time legislators, but they’re trying to soak up a whole lot of information from a whole lot of different areas. They don’t all build houses. So they don’t know that you might have options for example in energy efficiency. And they may specifically suggest one thing or another. Or they may write the legislation in a way that makes something more expensive than it could otherwise be.

I felt this way throughout my entire career whether I was working in the Senate, or when I was lobbying early in my career, and in communications in various state agencies. So much of it is about trying to very clearly articulate, “This is the real-life application of what you are suggesting,” and then trying to find that common ground. What is it that we can do that will achieve your goal of reducing the energy consumption in this new home, which will also help the consumer be able to afford it at the end?

There are recent studies from our national association of home building that home buyers on average would be willing to spend an extra roughly $8,000 to save $1,000/year on utilities.

So instead of drawing a line in the sand (on a policy idea) and just saying, no, that’s a bad idea, we tell them why it’s a bad idea and help them identify how to get where they want to go while at the same time helping us get where we need to go (in terms of keeping housing prices more affordable).

And that’s a good piece of advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I’m going to go back to Jim Lukaszewski. I think the idea of developing your own core ethical values is a really, really good idea. I generally draw from the PRSA Code of Ethics to guide my whole life. Because I feel like if you live your life by that Code and you keep those things in mind throughout your life, you really can’t go wrong. You’ll make missteps, but part of the code indicates what to do if you make missteps. And you just constantly strive to get better. So I think developing your own core ethical values is key throughout your career.

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

I would just really encourage people to take a look at the PRSA Voices4Everyone website, because each section has more resources, more learning, more perspectives that you can dig into to really improve your ability to be a trusted advisor and a respected public relations professional. And I think more so than that, the pride that I have in being a public relations professional is that we have an opportunity to make the world a better place every day. And that Voices4Everyone website helps us provide that roadmap. So I would really recommend people take a look at that and contribute if they have things to add. It’s only going to make it better.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content here:

I’m fairly new here in my role at the Building Industry Association of Washington. I joined in October 2020. Before that I graduated with a double major in journalism and political science. I’ve been pretty lucky because my career has pretty much followed that trajectory. I spent about 20 years in government, public affairs and leadership roles. I first had a job out of college with a Washington State rural membership organization with an emphasis on agriculture and natural resources. Then I moved to a public information job with the State Senate then a brief stint at Microsoft.  I really found my niche as a communications director right around 30. So since then, I’ve worked as a communications director for the State Senate Republican Caucus, for Attorneys General of both political parties and for two state agencies–And now for the Building Industry Association of Washington.

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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 EthicalVoices.com

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