Respond, Don’t React to Unethical Behavior – Kami Huyse

Joining me on this week’s episode is Kami Huyse, the CEO of Zoetica, a social media agency, who for me was first and best known as @kamichat. Kami discusses a number of important ethics issues including:

Why don’t you tell our listeners in the room more about yourself and your career?

Way back in ’94 when I graduated from college, I really didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do for a living. I just wanted a degree. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. I actually wanted to be an actor or performer, but I quickly realized that that was kind of a hard path to go on.

One of my best friends in college, Jennifer Goode Stevens, who I will absolutely love for the rest of my life for this, got me to join the student newspaper. I went to George Mason University in the DC area, and I ended up taking a public relations class and just loved it. I worked in the DC area for about eight years after college as a national spokesperson and director of communications, and then I got married, moved to San Antonio, Texas, and now I’m in Houston, and I started my agency Zoetica at that time.

I had always wanted to have my own business. I just really loved that idea. I started as a consultant, and I’ve grown it into this agency that works with companies to manage their social media channels and build relationships and trust with online audiences.

Just this past year, I have also started an online training course for communications and marketing professionals called Smart Social Secrets and I love that because I’m teaching them how to leverage social media to build their business, and it’s my way of giving back to the profession that I really love. It’s been great during this past year because so many people have been struggling to find clients, so I’m taking all the stuff I’ve learned over these last 20 years and sharing it. It’s been really rewarding.

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

There were two, and I think they go hand in hand, and they speak to where I sit on this particular issue of ethics at this point.

Very early in my career, the leader of my association was let go for financial impropriety. I’ll never forget the day that the outside accountants, came into the office to audit the company, and as we sat in this glass-walled conference room, they were going in and out of the office with these banker boxes that were filled with documents. This person that was about to get let go, continued to run our weekly meeting as if nothing was happening.

I can’t imagine how he could do that and the key lesson that I got from that, was that people who fall into this kind of unethical behavior often believe they’re in the right. That they’re not doing anything wrong. And it starts with something small and moves to something that is clearly wrong to anyone who’s outside of the situation. I really got to understand that unethical behavior is really a slippery slope.  There was nothing I could do about it. I was a young person, but it was a huge impression on me.

Mark Cautela at Harvard Business School also discussed the slippery slope. You do things, and you don’t realize it, and then it starts to snowball. A small mistake becomes a bigger ethical lapse, and it’s tougher to speak up once you have accepted it for a few weeks or a few months. You said there were two challenges. What was the other one?

The second time was when I started my business back in the early 2000s. There was this man who launched this website and social media accounts. He was posing as a sexualized female PR agency owner and he targeted other PR professionals and agencies with really what I would say is unethical and abusive behaviors, including hazing and sexual innuendo. He even called people’s places of work and clients to complain about individuals in the industry.

Some people thought it was a refreshing way to show how the PR profession was selling itself out, but I called it for what it was – abuse. As a result, this person also targeted me. So a few months into this, he called me on the telephone. I couldn’t believe it. He called me. He’s like, “Hello, I’m [this person].” He said, “You’re a good writer, and you would be great on the staff of this website, and I’d love for you to come and write for us and just be a part of the team because you’d bring your credibility with you.” I just said, “No. Absolutely not.” He wanted me to come write for the dark side, and I’m like, “No way.”

As a result, I continued to be abused and followed around the internet for about two years. I was speaking at a conference once, and he jumped into that conversation as I was showing them some things on Twitter and talking to people live and he said, “I don’t even understand why you’d have this person talk to you. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

I actually was able to take that and say, “Listen, you’re going to be trolled on the internet.” It was an association of cable providers, so you can only imagine that was a true statement. I just used it as a teaching moment, but it was tough, and it continued for a long time, and it made me really careful about what I said and how much I showed up, and it did dampen me for a while.

I did come back, I’m here. But that’s why I really chose eventually to serve on the board of this non-profit, that takes a stand against people who perpetuate this online harassment, character assassination, misinformation (which is huge right now), and violence.

I think more people have to really stand up for what’s right – even if there’s a cost. There was a cost for me mentally, emotionally, and I just feel like it was a terrible situation, but it taught me some things, and it’s made me grow an even stronger backbone when it comes to ethical behavior. That’s why when you asked me to be on this podcast, I said yes immediately. This is absolutely what I’ve been fighting for for 20 years.

Unfortunately, I think too many people find themselves in that situation whether they’re working with a misogynist, a racist, or just plain old a-hole. What’s the advice you give for pushing back when you are a victim of abusive behavior?

First of all, protect yourself first. That’s number one.

Get an ally. I think that’s the first thing that you need to do and often the ally, it could be somebody in your business or company or whatever, but it’s usually not. It’s usually somebody that’s a good sounding board. That’s going to give you that understanding. That’s why I loved working with CiviliNation is because we did a lot of that. We were an ally to a lot of people.

Get somebody you can talk to. I always talk about responding, not reacting. It’s this crisis communication idea that if you react to the abuse that is then putting yourself in harm’s way or also making you look like, “Oh, I don’t know, there’s that crazy woman again.” I like the idea of responding, which takes time. You have to think about what you’re going to do. You have to make a plan and then execute that plan.

If you need to have legal help, get legal help. If you need to stand up for yourself in a more constructive way, like going and telling people and showing them, do it. I think a lot of companies now see, people have been awoken in many ways and how can you show them that this is how you make a positive change.

I still remember one woman in our office back in my first job. We were in the D.C. area. 9/11 was happening. We were all stressed out, and she stood up and just prayed and calmed everybody’s nerves right in the moment. She didn’t care if you believed or didn’t believe. That wasn’t the point. The point was is that somebody needs to stand against the wake. I know it’s not easy. But I do believe it’s necessary.

I think we’re having challenges as an industry where we’re talking about this and a lot of organizations are now talking about how they don’t tolerate this, but too many of them still do.

Honestly, what it takes is for all of us to continue to look at ourselves and be aware of what is happening around us. I think we often don’t. I’m a white woman. So, it’s easy for me to look the other way or say, “Oh, I don’t know if I should be involved in that.” But what I’ve done is I’ve talked to my friends who are having these situations and asked them what would be helpful right now. It’s a conversation.

As public relations professionals, that’s what we’re supposed to be great at is two-way communication. That is the model. The model is not to wonder what you should do. The model is to ask what you should do and to reach out to people.

There was a friend of mine I reached out to when Black Lives Matter was just coming up and people were all very upset. I reached out to her and I said, “I’m just thinking about you. How can I help?” And she goes, “You know that you’re literally the only white friend of mine who reached out to me.”

I’m like, “Okay.” And it was not because they don’t love her, because I know lots of people who do. I’m not even making it about them being bad or me being great because we then talked and she brought up one situation to me where I didn’t defend her in the moment, and it was years ago. She forgave me for it. She didn’t hold it against me, but she was like, “I couldn’t believe you didn’t.” We had a chance to talk and clear the air. I feel like we just have to have conversations. I think that a lot of it is just people trying to avoid having conversations that’s causing the problem.

You’re right, we need to have more do it. Thinking about business and thinking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

For the profession, I think our biggest challenge is fighting against misinformation. This year I’m working on the PRSA Ethics Committee, and they’ve asked me to be a part of that committee and I think that having resources available, especially for behavior and guidelines on social media can be helpful.

For the PR profession, this fight against misinformation is critical because this drop in the trust of news media is very bad for us as a profession, because we rely on that third-party credibility and that’s really hard in a world where no one trusts third parties anymore. The PR profession needs to be arbiters of the truth, and we aren’t seen as neutral to that cause at all.

One of my earliest blog posts way, way back was one about the idea of the PR professional as the ombudsman to the customer and the company. They used to have an ombudsman for media. The newspapers had them, but I always thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a company had an ombudsman for the customers? I really do think we should try to play that role. It would be helpful because if you think about the customer first, and you think about what they need versus what the company needs upfront, I think you’re going to have a lot of things shift.

It goes back to Arthur Page and some of his principles. You need to listen. That’s going from being a technician to being a strategist.

I agree with you with regard to misinformation. People call me dystopian because I get really negative when I talk about what AI and machine learning are going to enable people to do with misinformation. There was a NexGov study earlier in June that showed how misinformation is positively swaying behavior and how AI can amplify that. I say it’s going to be as profound for us today, or the next generation, as the rise of the internet was for you and me when we were first starting out.

Absolutely. The fact that you can put somebody’s face onto another person’s face and then make them say stuff and make it sound exactly like that person, is really scary. We need to know and be aware of what’s going to happen with that. Also, I think, not just as a profession, but as a society, we need to have our critical thinking skills amplified by quite a bit because the scams are going to get a lot more sophisticated. They already are. You’re going to have to have a much higher BS meter.

I think you hit on something with the deep fakes. We all know digital images are manipulated, but when people can easily manipulate video. Going back to what you talked about with Black Lives Matter, one of the reasons that the George Floyd issue was so powerful was the video that we saw that absolutely shocked everyone and people are going to start distrusting that more and more. That’s where my concern is where video doctoring undermines trust.

So how do brands respond in your opinion to misinformation?

First of all, be very careful about what you pass on. I saw an example of this on LinkedIn yesterday. There was an article about this young man who took the bus to graduation, and he didn’t have anybody to support him. The story is really powerful. The power of story is huge. They told the story about how he went to graduation, and he had no support and people reacted and were like, “Oh, we got to help this kid. He’s amazing. We should start a GoFundMe.” That’s how it always works.

I saw this, and I thought, “What is the rest of this story?” I actually went out and researched it immediately, and I found out that he graduated in 2018 in Georgia, and he did get a lot of help. He did have a GoFundMe. People did give him a good amount of money, which is great, to help him along, and I think Tavis Smiley gave him a car, and so he’d had a lot of amazing help, which is awesome, but there was a lot of people in the thread saying, “Well, great, take a picture of him, but don’t help him.”

There was just a lot of anti-sentiment, and so I just came back in, I put the media clip of what had happened. It was an interview with him and his mom and people [on the thread] were really grateful. They’re like, “That’s the whole story, rather than just part of the story to try to get people emotionally hyped up.” So then what, did they do what? Because there was nothing for them to do. There was no call to action. There was no way to help this kid. It was just a story that ended up being clickbait. It’s easy to pass on information that you don’t have the whole story.

I have examples from my own personal life. I remember one time I was sharing a startling stat about veterans and suicide. It is a huge challenge. But the stat I had, which I got from a person I trusted, wasn’t accurate. I had some other veterans call me on that. So that’s the case. You always got to trust and verify everything.

The fact that they called you on it is actually a good thing.

We are going to have to be able to call each other on these things because we are going to make mistakes, and then we have to be willing to take them down, make sure that we own up to them.

Really, if you asked me what’s the best piece of advice is to always tell the truth because your truthiness is going to show up. If you’re not truthful, it’s going to sink your career and if you do stand up as a beacon of truth, somebody that takes responsibility when something goes wrong, that’s going to shine a bright light in the situation that we’re in right now.

So always tell the truth, no matter how hard it is to do it because, in the end, the truth is the only real way out. Otherwise, things are always going to be hanging out in the background, threatening you, and you’re going to worry that you’re going to get found out. Plus, as my grandmother always said, no one has to remember the story if they just tell the truth, right?

Absolutely. The truth is how you stop digging until you can start rebuilding.

Exactly. It’s pretty simple advice but it’s not easy advice.

It’s easier to tell that little white lie to get out of the current situation, but that often leads to bigger and bigger lies to cover up the first lie, right?

As PR professionals, I think the best thing that we can do for our companies and clients is just to convince them to take the hard way out, which takes a spine, but which paradoxically turns out to be easier in the long run. So even if you have to walk away from a job, which I kind of thought I was going to have to do in that first example for a while, if you have to walk away from it, do so, but in the end, all we really have as PR professionals is our credibility.

I was talking to Michael Smart, who talks about having a freedom fund. Basically, you make sure you prepare, and you save even young in your career, so you can walk away to maintain your reputation if you need to.

That’s great advice.

Tell me more about Smart Social Secrets.

I’m really excited about this. I created a course last year that teaches small businesses and communicators how to take social media and leverage it for their brand in a very strategic way. I felt like a lot of social media is very like throw it at the wall and hope it sticks, and so I put together a strategic framework. My APR background has led me in this direction.

Over the years, what I found is that people really need community and accountability, especially if you’re a consultant or a small agency. In the first five years, there’s just so much to learn and know, and social media is such a great way to build your reputation online and build your business.

And right now I just feel like a lot of people are starting small consultancies around communications and marketing. I have 20 years of experience just sitting in my back pocket and I’ve built this really great brand on credibility and have a big community, and so I want to help these smaller agencies and groups.

I’m going to be actually launching a little thing called Smart Social Mastery, which is going to be basically a year-round program where we can just support each other moving forward. How to use social media, all that stuff. I really want to give back to the industry in that way.

The thing about little people like us that have these little businesses, we often don’t make our business our first client. We don’t treat our business as a client and the big thing is that a lot of people don’t want to have to go back and work in a job, which I love my job, but they really want to make a go for it with the consulting and stuff, so that’s what we’re doing.

If anybody ever is thinking like, “Oh yeah, someday down the line, I really want to start my own business.” This would be good for them too because this will set them up for success when they get to that point. It’s really about the visibility content, the thought leadership, and how you build that without being slimy about it and pushy.

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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