Joining me on this week’s episode is Laura Kempke, the Vice President of Communications for Acquia and one of the most strategic public relations professionals I know. She discusses several important issues, including:
- What to do when executives lie frequently?
- Dealing with misinformation and the increasing need to take a stand
- What can PR professionals learn from the open source community?
Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?
I’ve worked in public relations for more than 20 years and right now I’m heading up the communications program for a Boston-based technology company that has about 1,100 employees around the world. Prior to that, I’ve worked for a number of agencies and in-house positions in the technology industry. I’ve also worked in life sciences. When I think back on my career, I never intended necessarily to go into public relations. I wasn’t a communication major or a journalism major. I sort of tripped into it fortuitously because I’ve always loved the news, even as a young kid. My earliest memories, honestly, were of hearing journalists talk about what’s new and things that are happening in politics and society. I became super excited by the news and as I came out of graduate school and thought about what was next for myself, I really felt like communications could be a place where I could make an impact, but also something that was very much in line with my interest in what’s new and in translating technical messages to audiences who just want to kind of hear the high points.
The hardest thing is dealing with executives who lie and who will say things that are not just stretching the truth and not just painting an overly optimistic picture of certain things. I’ve run across a few executives over time who I know are good people, but they’ve been sort of backed into situations where their reflex was to very quickly say something that I can’t reel in and that they can’t reel in, and now something is out there that’s untrue. To me, that’s actually the hardest thing because it just puts you in a very stark position where something that can be demonstrated as false, now your reputation is tied up with that and you have to manage around it. Sometimes there’s no easy way to simply set the record straight.
What’s your counsel for other communications professionals when you have executives that tend to go beyond embellishment?
In my experience, I think it tends to happen when an executive is caught off guard and where they’re put on the spot by a reporter or someone in the industry who they respect and who they’re perhaps trying to impress. To me, I think it often comes down to helping executives prepare for any conversation that they’re going to have and helping them think through all of the possible directions that a conversation could take. You need to help them practice answering tough questions. Helping them get comfortable with the idea that they as an executive, as spokesperson, aren’t actually expected to have all of the answers and that’s it’s okay to say, “I don’t know,” or, “I’ll get back to you.”
I know that sounds sort of basic spokesperson training, but sometimes executives feel the weight of the company on their shoulders, and perhaps feel pressured into sometimes saying things that just are not true. It can have financial, legal and ethical implications for the company. Some of these have been pretty big. They’ve been doozies, and I think that that’s hard. To me, I think it’s because it’s very difficult to go back to a reporter and say, “The executive you just spoke with, he or she simply misspoke.” If, for example, in the middle of the conversation they kind of backed up something with a lie and then another one. Then you’ve kind of created a whole fabric that constrains the way that you can move. To me, that’s been hard. It’s only happened a few times to be totally clear, but it’s harder than almost anything else.
When somebody tells that doozy, and you’re suddenly like, “Oh crap,” what’s your reaction? How do you address that and mitigate the damage?
I talk to the executive just as soon as it happens and ask “How is it that we got to the point where you said that?” I do try to be clear with them and say we cannot just sweep it under the carpet or pretend I didn’t hear it. I say, “This now puts us in a position where we’re having to navigate a lot more carefully and where we need to ask ourselves, do we go back and correct it?” Do we let this person continue to believe something that’s false? Do we let them figure it out on their own, perhaps years down the road?
I would encourage them to give me permission to go back and say, “I want to set the record straight on something. Here’s what you heard,” and just fill in the blanks on why that may not be the case. I would, of course, always encourage people to try to set the record straight, but you have to do so in collaboration with the executive. If they don’t agree with it, then you are absolutely as the communicator, just in a tough position.
You and I have both been in technology most of our careers and one of the common refrains happen here as well, “Everybody else is lying and everybody else embellishing. If we don’t do it, we’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage.” What’s your reaction to that or how do you address that point from the executives?
I would, and have, told them point-blank, “I don’t believe that everybody else is lying. I think that it is common, to sort of stretch it or be very optimistic about your projections as to where you’re going with the product or a roadmap, but it’s one thing to kind of give people a directional view into where you’re going and it’s something completely different to say that something is the case when it simply isn’t.”
I always encourage people to understand is that despite the reputation, public relations is actually not lying most of the time. In fact, as communicators, we’re trying to never lie.
That is what we strive for. When we do come up against something like that where it’s not spin, it’s not messaging, it’s not, “Yeah, we thought we were going this way and we went that way.” It’s these really rare occasions in your career where you’re confronted with something that really did sort of put you at that kind of crossroads where you had to do a gut check and say, “Is this something I believe in because I don’t want to be a part of something that is misleading somebody?” Even if that’s something that feels small, that’s it’s not cool, it’s not right, and it creates a difficult situation that isn’t necessarily going to be easier over time.
I think that’s a great point. I was talking to Mark Cautela, who’s now the head of comms over at Harvard Business School and he was mentioning that when you don’t say something when it’s small it gets to be bigger and bigger.
Beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think a key challenge is misinformation and that right now is affecting us at a societal level. There are a lot of people who have learned from the effectiveness of public relations techniques and are using misinformation deliberately. They’re taking those lies and they’re spreading them to further their own agendas. I think we can all think of lots of examples most likely where we know that to be the case, but they are taking advantage of traditional PR techniques to capture somebody’s attention, use messaging to persuade, establish trust and create engagement over time? They do it across different technology platforms, like SMS messaging, social media, and various online forums.
They are taking all of those techniques and putting them to use for agendas that really are not in our country’s best interest or in some people’s best interest.
People are watching with a lot of interest because clearly the technology is there to do it and is so far ahead of anything that the government has been able to do to regulate.
I think another thing that I’m sort of watching and paying a lot of attention to when I think about ethical challenges that are with us right now is that employees and customers of organizations are looking for businesses to take a stand on things that are important to society as a whole. This has been bubbling for many years now, but people are looking to their employer or they’re looking to the companies with which they choose to do business, to take a stand on environmental issues, social justice issues and even things that pertain directly to international affairs. As the communicator, we’re all aware that there can be a lot of friction between those constituents and then the management within companies.
I think oftentimes you see companies that say, “Well, I just want to be neutral. I don’t want to engage.” I think it’s of course debatable whether there is a neutral position. Maybe there isn’t a neutral position. As the communicator, it is super interesting right now providing guidance on those issues when there is no clear right or wrong sometimes and where companies might feel like they need to take a stand, but all of the executives within the company don’t necessarily agree. I think that that’s directly pertinent to our profession right now and it will only become more important in the coming years.
There have been a lot of studies recently from the Arthur Page Society about how business is moving from corporate social responsibility to corporate social activism. You’re right, there’s no neutral position. Frankly, if you’re in the middle of the road that’s where you get run over by a car.
You are one of the best open source technology PR pros. What are some of the ethical issues people should keep in mind when it comes to open source or just technology in general?
As I think about the open source community, which is really a multitude of communities, what I’ve learned from the benefit of about 20 years of working with many of those folks, is the importance, of I want to say openness, but it seems trite. One thing that characterizes communication within those communities is that no one is really trying to meter it out and say, “Well, we’re not going to talk about this particular topic until this date.” They tend to prize, “Let’s collaborate in real-time.” Those people are typically communicating across organizations, across time zones, and they just don’t have time for anything other than just speaking the truth in the moment.
I feel like PR people actually have a lot to learn from that. Just because we can control a message, doesn’t mean we necessarily should. I think that there’s great value in oftentimes just understanding that the value that we provide as PR people can be to amplify those voices, to help them hone their message if they want to, but not to try to control it, not to get in the way of it, not to try to tell them when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen, but to work with them to understand what’s important to them. Then we help them tell their story far and wide. To me, that’s been one of the most important learnings and I’ve really enjoyed it and I think that it actually runs counter to the way that a lot of people view the public relations profession.
They view it as that we’re trying to spin, that we’re trying to control, we’re trying to massage and manage. I prefer to view PR, particularly technology PR, as taking all those good things that are going on within software, within technology in general, and understanding the stories behind them and understanding the motivations of the people behind them, and trying to bring those stories to a wider audience. To me, that’s way more exciting than feeling like I’m trying to tell a software developer what to say, because they’re not going to say what I want them to say. It’s far better for me to simply help them tell a story that for them is genuine and authentic.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
The best piece of ethics advice that I try to keep in mind every day, even if I’m having a bad day, is to treat other people with kindness.
The best thing that we can, as PR people, can kind of bear in mind is that our jobs are hard and we’re going to have bad days. We’re going to have bad weeks. Probably the best thing that we can do, though, is to continue to approach our work in a caring manner and to understand this is a relationship business. It really, really is. We’re not going to get along with everyone. Everyone is not necessarily going to like us or love what we’re doing, but I think it still behooves us, honestly, to remain kind and patient and tell our truth, and to understand that the people who we’re representing have stories that they want to tell that are important to them, and to try to understand what those stories are and to tell them with respect.
Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here
- Why businesses need to stick to their purpose and avoid wokewashing – Rebekah Iliff - September 13, 2021
- Ethics, Chickens and Biases – Amy Coward - August 30, 2021
- What to do when the story you are told just doesn’t add up – Andrew Healy - August 23, 2021