Joining me on this week’s episode is Elizabeth Pesci, APR, Fellow PRSA. She’s an award-winning public relations and organizational communication leader with business and industry-specific experience in animal welfare, technology, energy, professional services, and is currently an adjunct at San Diego State University.
Elizabeth discusses a number of key ethics issues including:
- How to handle a reporter friend asking you to disclose confidential information
- Best practices in internal communication ethics
- What ethics challenge spans the past, present and future?
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I always think back on how did I come into the field of public relations, and I have to tell you, it was all due to a class in college. I was looking for what to major in after being a psychology major, and I read Cutlip and Center and I fell in love. And I’ve been in the business ever since.
I’ve worked in agency and nonprofit, but most of my career has been in the corporate environment with an internal communications perspective. Why did I go into internal communications? It really stems from having worked a lot with media and realizing that an organization’s reputation and brand is only as strong as its people. So, for most of my 30 plus years, I’ve worked with leadership on corporate messaging, internal messaging and making sure we are consistent in what we say and what we do. Now I have taken that into the classroom and share those experiences with students.
Being in a corporate environment at a public company, there are a lot of requirements that you have to make sure that you’re aware of and that you’re complying with.
I was working with the news media when I was at a large private- and publicly-owned utility. They were making some changes in the way that it was going to run the utility. And I had quite a number of good relationships with the news media, and some of them asked, “Hey, why don’t you tell me about this? I understand that there’s some changes going to be made in terms of how you’re going to be running the business.”
And I’m thinking, oh, this is really open or it’s conversational. And I realized, wait, I have to be very careful here, because since we were a publicly held company, there are SEC requirements that needed to be complied with.
This particular reporter kept poking me, saying, “Hey, you’re my buddy, can’t you give me some insight on this?” And I was like, “No, I really can’t.” It was a very awkward situation because I was friends with this person before the situation came up. But I realized that the risk and responsibility outweighed doing something for a friend.
That taught me the importance of knowing what the boundaries are in terms of what you can and cannot disclose. Along those same lines, you can’t disclose information internally before it’s externally shared if you’re a public company. And so the timing on how do you set up your communications to disclose to your employees information that will go public at the same time can be challenging. There are ways to do that and I learned how to do that, working with legal, human resources, and with the news media.
How do you recommend people educate themselves about where the ethical lines are in internal communications?
I think the best way to educate yourself about where those ethical lines are is to understand the best practices. They’re the fundamentals, like speak with your legal counsel, especially if you’re new in your position. If you haven’t really worked for a publicly traded company, a good place to start is just to go and have a good conversation with the legal counsel to understand what are the requirements for a publicly traded company.
Of course, you can always take a workshop. LinkedIn has learning sessions. There are books and all kinds of other ways to educate yourself.
Second is to speak with human resources, because there are governance rules with regards to disclosing employee information. I’ve not worked in the healthcare industry, but I know that there’s a lot of compliance and requirements around patient information. So I think it’s starting with those core organizations who are responsible for ensuring that an organization is complying and doing the right things. And then, if and when you have to act, you go to the table with that knowledge and start to look at what you can and cannot say.
In these past couple of weeks in San Diego, we’ve had a hospital that was taken down by ransomware. I am not in the organization, but it was very clear to me that the organization was not publicly communicating about what they could and couldn’t say. And oftentimes you can say things publicly like, “Hey, we can’t talk about the ransomware and what’s happening with that. But what we can tell you is….or here’s what you need to do for accessing information or making appointments or et cetera.” Again, that messaging externally has to be what you’ve already told employees internally. And that is, again, from that ethics perspective, that’s being forthright, being able to honestly say, “Here’s what we can talk about and here’s what we can’t talk about.”
Thinking beyond your own personal examples, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think a key ethical challenge in the past and today and tomorrow is really always knowing your facts. Keeping the goal of the business in mind and never speaking about something that you don’t know the facts. In other words, be honest that, “Here’s what I can tell you. Here’s what I do know.” And to be able to say, “Well, I don’t know,” or, “I can’t share information about that right now.” And to hold your ground on that.
I think another key lesson or key challenge is always to be trustworthy. When you tell somebody you can’t tell them, I’ve seen this with employees, when you stand up, when an executive stands up in front of employees and says, “I can’t talk about the details of this deal right now because of our responsibility to our shareholders and to other constituents. But here’s what I can tell you, and I can also tell you that when I have more information, I can follow up.” People believe in that and that’s that trustworthy, that’s honesty. It’s not speculating and fabricating what could be. Those challenges are not going to be too much different in the past, in the present, and in the future.
I think the challenge today for internal communications is really the whole idea that everybody has a voice, that it’s much more challenging to ensure that employees have accurate information, because they in turn can be sharing that information through social media channels. You earn their trust and you earn their support by being an authentic organization.
I think that’s just so much more critical today and why you have to listen so much more carefully to your employees, because you’re one organization and you could have 50,000 people, and you just do the multiplying. 50,000 people that know 10 other people that can spread wrong information or can really damage your reputation. It’s just critical.
I think one of the toughest challenges is this whole notion of misinformation and disinformation, and how do you make sure that all employees have the right information in a timely way? You can’t wait to do that. You have to build those systems into your operation long before crises or a pandemic happens. There needs to be a foundation inside the organization that employees go to for information, that they can have a conversation with, and that they can trust that they’re getting honest information.
I worked for a technology company that did a lot of contracting in terms of workforce, because it went from a business model of being a manufacturer to a supply chain. And what that really meant was it no longer controlled doing all of its own work. It had to actually create contracts with other suppliers outside of the organization. And so that meant they were going to have to reorganize and do a lot of layoffs.
And that was, again, a challenge for us because your legal counsel and your HR team partners would say, “Well, we don’t have to talk about certain things.” But as an organization that values trust and communications among employees, we would always argue, no, we need to be able to give employees enough information like that they are not going to be surprised. And so that could be a whole education around the change in the business model before it really hits.
That all comes back too to that ethics of being responsible with information, knowing that you’re going to have people’s lives changed. And you can’t disclose all those details, but you can certainly prepare them and help them get through that change.
What are some ethics issues that most engage your students?
Today’s students are very sharp. They can see through fronts. So I think that the ethical issue for students today is if somebody’s being honest when they’re speaking up. The other side of that is I worry that students are not looking broader than just people who are saying what they want to hear. And I think disinformation and misinformation gets them riled up, but they are limiting themselves by not going out and really researching it or listening to other opinions. So they’ll jump on the bandwagon versus maybe step back and think about it, question it, explore it.
Again, I’m making some broad generalizations. I wouldn’t say that all students are like that or all those things get them going. But I find that the authenticity, the give me a voice, and the listen to me are things that get them going.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
A vice-president I worked for said to me, “Whatever you do in your career, always remember to stay focused on the goals of the business. That is your responsibility, and you really need to weigh what you do and you say and you plan against the goals of the company.”
Along with that, another key piece of advice was really be absolutely able to substantiate your actions. I think those have been big influencers in my life and in my career.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I would just like to say to listeners that it’s very important for all of us to always be weighing what we’re saying with what we’re doing and to do it with responsible thought and action. Ethics is kind of tricky. It’s not always black and white. When in doubt, talk to somebody and check it out.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
- This Week in PR Ethics (1/27/22): Front Groups, Misinformation and Historical Transgressions - January 27, 2022
- What do you do when you fire a client who has prepaid you? Lisa Gerber - October 18, 2021
- Why businesses need to stick to their purpose and avoid wokewashing – Rebekah Iliff - September 13, 2021