What to do when your boss doesn’t value honesty as much as you do – Gary McKillips

Joining me on this week’s episode is Gary McKillips, a freelance writer and broadcaster, a regular contributor to the Atlanta Business Chronicle, and a correspondent for AP Radio Sports and MLB on Sirius XM. He’s a former public relations executive with Turner Broadcasting.

Gary discusses:

Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

My public relations career actually began back when I was in college, when I became the student sports information director for John Carroll University. And then upon graduation, I went into the Army, and for three years was an information officer. First state-side at Fort Lee. Then I went to Vietnam and became a public information officer over there. I spent about 10 months in Vietnam and came back and hooked up with the telephone industry, my first job in upstate New York. It was with a communications company known at that time as General Telephone. They merged with Contel and I stayed with them for about 20 years until another merger took place. They became part of Verizon and I subsequently left during the merger. Fortunately, I found a job at Turner Broadcasting and spent about seven years there doing PR for the corporation, also doing sports PR and at times serving as the media person for Ted Turner, so that was indeed an interesting experience.

After that, I decided to shift gears and get into education. The Turner-Time Warner merger kind of ended my career with Turner, and I got an opportunity to go to the University of Tennessee. I really liked that because it blended what I was doing in terms of corporate PR, but they also have a major sports program. After about three years, I went to Georgia State University, where I headed up the business school PR program. So it’s been an interesting career.

I am semi-retired. I am in broadcasting now and write for the Business Chronicle and a few other publications.

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

As I look back on my career, one of the first ethical challenges I faced was when I was in the telephone business. I had a supervisor at that time who was intent on getting rid of an employee. I think when it comes to ethics, you really have to start inside your own organization. And if you’re in any kind of supervisory capacity, you have people that you have to worry about, and you have to be ethical in the way you treat them. I cannot overestimate the importance of that. A lot of times we see how organizations will let people go without any notice. Or we’ll call them on the phone and say, you’re finished. That’s not the way to do it.

So I had this particular situation where my supervisor was not high on this particular employee. I thought she was a good employee. But he was the guy in charge, so I was trying to figure out how can I handle this because I didn’t want to just cut this person out. So what I tried to do was to find an alternative, and the alternative was to either put her in another position within the company or help her to find another job. I thought it was very important just from an ethical standpoint, to really try to work the situation out in fairness to the company and in fairness to that individual. We did find another position for her. Actually, it worked out outside the company, but that was one of the first things I ran into when I was kind of early in my career. And it was kind of an eye-opener, to say the least.

You mentioned treating employees ethically. What does that mean to you?

It means being very forthright, not trying to keep any secrets, Not trying to massage a message so that you make the employee feel better or worse or whatever. You just have to be straightforward. And a lot of times that’s very hard to do because we’re dealing with a person’s livelihood. You have to be as fair as possible and, hopefully, you can work things out to the benefit of both the company and the individual.

Giving feedback can be a challenge, but it makes the employee better. It makes the company better. You’re doing yourself a disservice, and the employee a disservice, unless you’re being honest and transparent with them.

Absolutely. And that comes down to the personnel reviews. A lot of times people will just rate everybody highly and really don’t necessarily mean it. They are just doing it to say, okay, let me just give this person a good rating, and let’s move on. But you’re doing a disservice to that person if you’re not honest with them.

We won’t even get into military reviews and how those things are inflated beyond all belief.

That’s true. I’ve seen that.

Beyond that example, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

There’s a couple of things. Back when I was doing PR social media was becoming a really big thing. I think honesty and integrity in communications, be it in the conventional way, or through electronic means, are becoming more and more crucial. No matter what medium you use, it all goes back to trust.

First of all, you, as an individual, have to be trustworthy, or you’re not going to get anywhere because the first time somebody discovers that you are not upfront about something, your reputation could be ruined, and you will never be trusted again. And that goes for organizations, too. If an organization is found to be deceptive, it’s a black spot, and it certainly takes a long time to recover.

Organizations have recovered. The classic example is of the Tylenol situation and how they were able to recover from that. But trust is key for an individual or for an organization.

You mention honesty, integrity, and trust. What’s your advice when the communicator finds their boss isn’t putting the same emphasis on that? How can they steer them in the right direction?

That’s a real good question. I ran into a situation like that when I was with an organization. I found that the individual in charge was covering up a misdeed on the part of the football program. One of the major networks wanted to put this individual on camera. My decision was not to have him speak because I was afraid of what he was going to say, that he was going to, basically, not tell the truth.

We bypassed that request. Unfortunately, the situation for me grew worse, and I had to leave the organization. And I guess that’s one thing that you run into from an ethical standpoint. And it’s the toughest thing you can possibly run into is when you know something’s going on in an organization, it goes against your beliefs, and what do you do?

Ultimately, you’d have to get out of there. Now, that’s not an easy decision to do because you have to put food on the table. It’s so much an individual decision, but I think really you have to look in the mirror and say, can I really do this and feel good about it?

As you get older, I think you start reflecting back on your career. And if you don’t feel you did the right thing, you have to live with that. And if you feel you did do the right thing, you kind of rest easier as you get older.

Doing the right thing pays you by being able to sleep well at night.

There you go. That’s exactly right.

You were talking about sports and mentioned honesty and integrity. One of the biggest scandals I’m seeing in terms of ethics right now is around SpiderTech and foreign substances on baseballs. What’s your opinion on that situation, or on situations where other folks seem to be cheating, so you are pressured to bend the rules too?

I think you find that often that people will go along to get along. This whole thing of the baseballs is really tricky because it’s been kind of an unwritten rule for years and years and years that this was being done. And now all of a sudden, they’re putting the clamps down. I think that whole thing is still up in the air because I don’t know that it’s really an ethical situation because they really haven’t proven that it is to the detriment of the game. I think that right now there’s a lot of injuries taking place because of that. Maybe this is a good thing to give them more control over the ball. Maybe it’s a bad thing if you just aren’t able to control it and you hit somebody in the head, so I think that that whole issue is kind of murky right now.

There are a lot of murky issues in sports. You go to the name, image, and likeness situation in college football. They’re saying, “Well, athletes should be paid.” Well, is that right or wrong? I personally think it’s okay because these guys do so much for the university. I mean, they’re the ones who are out there on the field. But there are other differing opinions.

What’s some advice you have for folks trying to break into sports public relations?

It’s tough because so many want to get into it now. Many universities have sports management programs now, but I think instead of going the sports-management route, you need to have something to support that. You need to have marketing as a minor, or maybe that’s your major, and sports management’s your minor, or you need to be in finance. You need to bring something to the team that is in addition to just sports management because that’s kind of generic.

I know a couple of friends here with the Atlanta Falcons who started out as accountants, and now they’re very much part of the management team. In fact, the guy I’m thinking of, Eric Beadles, who is the chief financial officer now, started off as an intern. He was in college. I think he was at Georgia State and managed to get an internship with the Falcons. They liked what he was doing. He worked his way up, and that’s it.

Sports is a business like anything else. It’s not all glamor. But if you get a public relations degree and supplement that with sports management and some internships you have a shot, so that’s my advice.

Speaking of advice. What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

My old college roommate, Paul Dillon, heads a management consulting firm. His father was a great businessman, and he would always tell him that you got to look at yourself in the mirror in order to have peace of mind. To me, that’s the best advice ever. His father was in printing and when the company was unable to provide the right kind of materials, he went out and bought some higher quality paper and gave it to his customers for no extra charge. It’s things like that that reinforce your reputation and are the ethical things to do.

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

The organization you join is very important because again if you can’t match your values to the values of the organization, that eventually becomes a problem. Maybe at first, it looks okay, but if you work for a company that disregards the environment, and you’re a huge environmental person, you’ve got a real problem. And the same way with clients you represent, if you’re with an agency, and you’ve got to represent those that reflect your values and reflect the general ethical standards that you live by.

I think it’s important to always protect the confidentiality of your people, of your clients, or the people within your organization, because if it is something that could be deemed derogatory, you’re hurting that individual’s reputation. So you have to be very careful of that. Never disclose confidential information.

You’ve got to develop that trust, and you do it through ethical behavior.

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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