Joining me on this week’s episode is Jim Hoggan. He’s a bestselling author, president of Hoggan & Associates in Vancouver and Chair of the David Suzuki Institute. He is a tireless advocate for ethics in public discourse and founder of the influential online news site DeSmog, that reports on climate change misinformation. Jim discusses a number of key topics including:
- Don’t confuse doing the right thing with being seen doing the right thing
- Why even if you are right, you can be in the wrong
- The ethical dangers of tribalism
- The heart vs. the mind
Why don’t you tell our listeners more about yourself and your career?
I went to law school and ran out of money. I had to do something. I had done PR for not for profits and I started to actually do more PR for profit and the whole thing just kind of took off. By the time I graduated, I had 12 employees and was making more money than I ever made my life and so I just kept doing PR and that company grew into one of the biggest PR companies in Canada for maybe about 25 years. In Vancouver we were the top shop, mainly corporate crisis and issues management.
What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
I’ve had so many, but there was one in particular that struck me. Around 2010, I was invited in to give the Charles Tisdale lecture on communications and ethics to the Canadian Public Relations Society conference that was being held in Edmonton, which is kind of the center of the oil patch in Canada.
I was quite excited about this. I’m kind of a nervous person and whenever I’m going to speak to 600 or 800 people, I spend a bit of time working on my speech. I’m on holiday and working on my speech in Maui and I get this email from one of my people in my office saying there’s a group of PR people who are trying to get my speech canceled.
It sort of blew up. I was going to be talking about climate change. And I was going to say to people that we need to stop defending people who were polluting and warming our planet. It was basically a lesson on ethics for people in the room and a lesson on crisis communications for people in the room. It was a pretty heavy-hitting lecture and it was basically an Al Gore presentation on climate change.
I went back and forth and ended up having this big sort of fight with the board of CPRS who were trying to get me to change my speech.
And I said, “No, I’m not at all interested in you telling me what I should be saying. Why invite me if you just want me to say what you think?” I think in the end I could’ve canceled it. I remember talking to David Suzuki about it and saying to him, “Have you ever been invited to something where you felt like half the room of the speech you’re going to give could get up and walk out?” And he said, “No.” And he said, “Has anybody threatened to beat you up?” And I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, that’s what they used to do to me.” And he said, “What I think is you should do is go there and you should tell them exactly what you think and tell them what the ethics of this are. And I bet you get a standing ovation.”
I went and I gave this presentation and damned if I didn’t get a standing ovation. And it made me realize that the people who are up to mischief in the public relations business are not the majority of us. The majority of people in the communications business are honorable people who want to do a good job for their clients, who care about their reputations and who realize that if you don’t want people thinking you’re an SOB, then the first thing you need to do is stop being an SOB. I think most of us know that. Ethics is our business. It is essentially what public relations is.
Your situation can really be applied to a lot of people. What do you do when people ask you to change or tone down a core belief? How do you effectively push back and defend your position?
As I became more successful, one of the things that happened was that we got more difficult issue that involved a lot more money, which involves people’s jobs, stock prices and serious decisions. We would be asked to do things and I had quite an ethical group of people who work for me. I have about 25 people. And I don’t know where the tone came from. Maybe it was me, but maybe it was them. But we always paid attention to the ethics of things. We didn’t want to be caught on the wrong side of issues because it would have been, even if we didn’t care about the issues and being ethical, it’s bad for business to be smeared all over the front page of the paper.
I was writing a lot for the local newspaper on giving it PR advice. And one day I was hired to do a crisis management for this big food company, Capers Community Markets, that was eventually bought by Whole Foods. They had a hepatitis A outbreak and it was a huge crisis. Their sales dropped 80% and we won the Silver Anvil for the best crisis communications strategy in North America for the work we did for them. When they were interviewing me over a conference call to see whether or not they would hire me, this woman said to me, “How would you approach this?” Because this was devastating for them.
They were on the front page of the paper and on the top of the news for months. And it just kind of came to me. I articulated this thing that I had to think about almost all the time, but I’d never said it. I knew I was talking to a bunch of guys who are now working for a big health food company, but who used to run Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream. I knew these guys were big ethics guys. And so I said, “Okay, here’s my approach. Do the right thing. Be seen to be doing the right thing and don’t get those two mixed up. Because ultimately crisis management is a character test and you need to think about it that way every day and every hour as you go through each of the tough decisions that you’re making. Do the right thing. Be seen to be doing the right thing and don’t get those two mixed up.”
That became kind of the mantra of my PR firm and so I became the ethics guy in the public relations business in my part of Canada. It’s not an easy reputation to live up to because my ethics may not be yours. We all have our own opinions on what’s right and what’s good and what’s bad. I was careful not to thump my chest with it too much. But it was something that I felt I had to do so that we knew when to say no. And we had to say no a lot. When we got a phone call from a big tobacco company that wanted us to represent them in a lawsuit with some guy who was dying of cancer. I said no a lot. And that helped guide us.
Thinking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think so much of what an ethical decision is has to do with how much you know about the area that you’re working in. And when you live in a world that is as complex and as interconnected as the world we live in right now, it’s hard to know enough about something to know whether or not what you’re doing is actually the right thing. I think there’s a lot of people who just don’t actually understand the seriousness of species extinction or climate change and they get on the wrong side of the issue and then they get caught up in the kind of partisan nature of the conversation. And it’s your job to take the gloves off sometimes.
The nature of our business is that it’s very easy to not know enough about the subject matter to know whether or not the advice that you’re giving your client and the side that you’re standing on is the right side. I think that the world is so polarized, that there’s so much information that we need to almost be social psychologists so that we understand when to dial down the conflict and the polarization and how to dive really deeply into the information that you need in order to conduct yourself in a moral and ethical manner.
One of the polarizing issues is climate change. And I love the writings that I’ve read from you on this issue. What are some of the ethical issues when it comes to the climate and climate change?
I think that’s a kind of a fundamental area for me. And I remember I’ll just tell you this story that is in my last book, I’m Right and You’re an Idiot. David Suzuki and I had with a meeting with a famous Zen Buddhist monk named Thích Nhất Hạnh. We were asked to have tea with Thích Nhất Hạnh when he was teaching a course at UBC. Out we go. David is not a religious guy, but Thích Nhất Hạnh is an environmentalist as well. We’re meeting with Thích Nhất Hạnh and Thích Nhất Hạnh is trying to convince David Suzuki and me that we should meditate. If we cleaned up our inner ecology, we would be better warriors for the environment. And so I said, “You’re not saying that David Suzuki shouldn’t be an activist, are you?”
He looked at me. I don’t know if you’ve ever met anybody like this, but this guy, when he looked at you, it was like he was looking right into your soul. And I had the feeling, I was two feet away from him. I had the feeling he was looking deeper into me than I ever had. And it was kind of a spooky look and he said, “Speak the truth, but not to punish.” Speak the truth, but not to punish. And I think that just because you’re in the right and the facts and all the evidence are on your side, doesn’t mean that you can’t take your issue with you into the wrong and that you can’t end up being just as much of a problem as the person who’s on the other side, who’s spreading disinformation and is on the wrong side of the issues and is kind of playing some kind of three card monte shell game for the oil and gas industry.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that propaganda is not just about disinformation. Propaganda at its heart is about tribalism. It’s about division. It’s about us and them. It’s about convincing people that this isn’t something that people like you and me believe and if you do believe this, you can’t be one of us. You must be one of them. If I can convince you that this whole climate change issue or this whole species extinction concern is tribal and it’s not something or we don’t believe in government interference in these areas. We don’t believe in regulation. We believe in free markets. And if I can sort of push the issue into that area of tribalism, open-minded thinking shuts down.
As a communications person, it seems to me the most important ethical consideration is not whether or not you’re representing a good guy or a bad guy; it is not whether or not you’re on the right side of the issue or the wrong side of the issue. It is not whether or not you’re being asked to mislead people. It’s are you diffusing or making polarization worse? Are you diffusing the polarization? Because propaganda at its heart is polarization. It’s not disinformation. Disinformation is just part of the noise. That what is really at the heart of it. It is the reason that people on the other side of an issue like climate change won’t listen to a word you say, the reason that facts don’t matter, I guess the reason that public conversations are so crazy when it comes to some of these issues is because of that polarization. Is not because people on the other side are stupid. It’s not because they’re idiots, not even because they may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad people.
But we end up thinking that people on the other side of these issues are purposely not recognizing reality and so they’re not just wrong, they’re wrongdoers. And we start to treat them like they’re evil. And then all of a sudden, it’s David and Goliath and it’s a battle between good and evil.
Public relations people need to be peacemakers. We need to understand empathy. We need to understand why the Dalai Lama is going around and talking to everybody about compassion, because right at the heart of these negative human emotions and our inability to solve these problems that we could solve, is this problem of polarization. It’s our ability to unwind it and create the space for the conversation that is really good public relations advice.
Unfortunately, I’m seeing tribalism and the us versus them mentality is stronger today now than it’s been in a long time. I’m seeing it pervading into everything. What should we do to start unwinding that tribalism?
I interviewed the Dalai Lama for my book. It was a terrifying experience. I was so nervous I could hardly get a word out of my mouth and this was in Dharamshala. We had an interesting conversation and we were talking about climate change disinformation and propaganda and everything. He said, “Really?” And he looked at these climate scientists who were sitting in the audience and they were agreeing with what I was saying. And he was shocked that people were spending so much time lying to the public about climate change.
We get up afterwards. People turn the cameras off. Then he reached out and he put his finger on my forehead. He said, “We like to think the Western mind is more sophisticated, but in Tibet we go with the heart.”
I think that might be stronger. What we need is more warmheartedness, more compassion. Maybe if we take the Western mind and the Tibetan heart and we bring them together, we can have more success in these areas. And so to me, you can take that and you sort of think, oh, it’s the Dalai Lama. It’s all these are big ideas, the stuff you read about in really complicated religious books or when you go to a meditation course. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. This is actually really practical advice for people like us. The advice really is when you disagree with someone, listen to them, ask questions of them so that you can listen deeply to what it is that they think. This could be seen as a really abstract piece of advice that normal human beings will have difficulty following. But to me, it’s actually a lot simpler than that.
It’s in the empathy that you bring to a conversation. The warmheartedness you bring to a conversation, in policing yourself so that you’re not reactive to people or that you don’t falsely believe that fighting with people is going to resolve this. It’s the business of opening up the space so that you can have a constructive disagreement. And one of the ways that you can do that is just by listening to people, hearing what it is they’re concerned about, about finding something that you agree on, letting people know that you’re not somebody who just disagrees with everything that that person stands for. But that you actually do agree with some of the things that they’re saying. Trying to find the common ground. The idea isn’t to sort of cut the baby in half, you have some kind of deal you’re going to make with somebody who doesn’t know anything about climate change. It’s not that.
It’s more like how do I open up the space so we can have the conversation? There are a lot of ways to do that in storytelling, in conflict resolution, in dispute resolution. These are the things that the Dalai Lama is talking about. The real problem in the world today is propaganda that divides and undermines democracy. The real solution is the compassion and empathy that can bring people together so there’s less division, and there’s more listening and there’s more working together.
It’s not that we have to stop disagreeing. We want to keep disagreeing. Disagreeing is what happens in a healthy democracy, but we don’t want to look at people we disagree with, even if we’re right, we don’t want to see them as evil and us as good and create a conversation that no one wins.
You make a lot of great points there. I know you’re talking Eastern thought, but it also goes back to the heart of Western thought – ethos, pathos and logos.
I think you just gave some great advice from yourself and from the Dalai Lama, but what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
A friend of mine, Mike Sullivan, was a mentor of mine when I was building my company. He basically said, “One of the most important phrases for a communications person is, tell me more.” Whenever I would go into a new business meeting, I was trying to be some kind of rolling advertisement for my firm. And he said, “No, no, no, it’s not about that. It’s just tell me more. Tell me more.”
When you’re in the crisis and issues management business, the kind of people that I get phone calls from are pretty successful, smart people. They’re not calling me for nothing. They have a problem.
As a communications person you want to be super interested in learning more and more. That that kind of ability to dig and listen is really the heart of good communications. When I started to do that more, I was way more successful. I would bet you phoned a bunch of old clients of mine and asked them what it was that I brought to the table, a lot of them would say that I brought a kind of a calmness. And I would say that the reason they feel that was because I was actually understood what it was they wanted. I understood what they were worried about and what they were concerned about. And I think that’s good. It’s not just good in business. I think it’s good when you’re dealing with conflict of any kind.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here