What to do when you are faced with nearness and drinking bias – Melissa Vela-Williamson, APR

Joining me on this week’s episode is Melissa Vela-Williamson, APR, an award-winning public relations expert and national columnist. She is the chief communication architect of her own virtual agency, MVW Communications, and is the host of the great Smart Talk Series podcast.

She discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

I call myself a 360-degree communicator because what I’ve done with public relations has been so broad and holistic. I’ve had both general market and multicultural integrated marketing communication experience. I was a sole communicator and had to do everything internally for employees and externally for our constituents, residents, neighbors, clients and consumers. I worked in agency settings from small Hispanic boutique to the largest in our market, as well as corporate and nonprofit seats. So, I have a pretty unique vantage point where I can see really all-around a communication challenge, but I come to all of these problems and opportunities as a public relations strategist and just lover of PR because of its focus on people and relationships.

After years of having traditional employment jobs, I started my own boutique firm, MVW Communications, in 2015. What’s really interesting is a big catalyst for that was I wanted an opportunity to work closer to where my children went to school. So that meant working out of a home office and what would be considered remote at the time. But now that we’re a little more used to that.

It’s been great because during this time I’ve been a little more resilient in sharing best practices on how to work remotely from team members and as an agency. It’s just really wonderful to be in this work where you can help impact social good and really be a champion of ethics and doing the right thing professionally. And that also impacts what you do as a person.

Thinking about that 360-degree view that you talked about, looking over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

When I saw this question, I really thought, “Where do I start?”

I’ve always been a natural do gooder and PR counselor, even from when I first started in the practice as a coordinator. I came to PR by the way of photography and creative writing. I was a published poet in high school and college and learned about PR my very last semester of my undergraduate degree. And it seemed to marry a lot of the best things of all the creative arts in my world. But what I really loved about it was the opportunity to actually be judgmental, actually say, “This is right and this is wrong, and this is the way we should go,” and be a director of what would happen. I was a drum major in high school, and I still find myself leading the band today.

In a lot of these situations, I would call myself a Jiminy Cricket. If you saw the Disney version of Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket followed Pinocchio around and was always saying, “What are the right things to do?” And was the conscience and his guide.

I’ve done that for a lot of my roles, and that didn’t always make me a fan favorite. And so when I thought about this I thought, “Well, gosh, do we want to talk about inappropriate drinking in the workplace? Do we want to talk about bad language or behaviors? Bullying? Should we get into the sexual harassment moments I’ve encountered and confronted? Mishandling of money?” With all that said, probably the hardest ethical challenge I confronted was when I was in a situation where everyone wanted to turn a blind eye to what was happening.

I worked under a vice president who ran our team much like a circus. This person was like P. T. Barnum, where the results were often embellished and the right people were charmed at the right time, and the front line staff felt overlooked or not listened to. As a PR person within that team, which had mostly communicators who were internal to the organization, I could see different blind spots and downright lies at times that others either couldn’t see or didn’t want to see.

When I’d mention them or caution against any issues I forecasted might happen, I was mostly ignored, and in the worst cases just told to fall in line. And as a former drum major, that wasn’t working for me.

One time this leader was presenting on a program I had specifically managed. And instead of saying we had about 5,000 participants take part, the number that person shared was 50,000. And my jaw just dropped and I was freaking out inside, really wondering, “Gosh, did I accidentally put a zero on that PowerPoint that wasn’t supposed to be there, or did that person just say the wrong thing? And how are we going to fix that? Should I address this now in front of top leadership or talk about it behind closed doors?”

At that point I had learned some of those difficult conversations were best done behind closed doors. So when I asked my immediate supervisor and told her after the meeting, “Hey, this happened, what should we do?” I was told, “Hey, that was intentional and that’s what happens with that VP’s reports.” And it was very clear to me that I wasn’t to say anything and move on. And for me, I think what really shook me up about that was a lot of the things I’d encountered, as someone who wants to focus on building bridges and relationships, there’s times where you can really see that it’s an ignorant character flaw or personal mishandling of someone’s life that was unethical. And because it was in the workplace or spilled over, that that made it worse.

But in this situation, I knew that the intentionality and brazenness of this leader would cause harm and I didn’t want to be connected to that. I knew I had to make a change because I wasn’t really able to be the change in that job. There were too many people who were okay with what was happening and I didn’t want to jeopardize my own reputation or integrity just to fit in there better.

When others look the other way and you don’t have that support in the workplace, sometimes leaving is just the best option. That’s what’s hard about ethics, it’s black and white from the outside, but when you’re in-house or you work for someone and the situation’s tough, whistleblowers are often in very vulnerable positions and don’t always have the agency to confront the situation in the way that they may want to.

It’s a challenge, and any time you can speak up and tell the emperor they have no clothes there’s the retaliation that may come back and you need to be prepared for what the results are. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, because if you don’t do it, you become complicit in it.

That’s an interesting situation where you found the culture was embracing and acknowledging somebody lying and not being honest. If you’re in a case where you don’t want to move how do you recommend communicators in that situation address the issue to try to solve it internally?

In most situations you take it to your immediate supervisor and, like I did, check to see if there was just some kind of error made. When it was clear that wasn’t, I would find myself in different positions where, in careful situations, I would make sure the numbers were accurate.

It is tough. I studied for my APR last summer in the height of all this pandemic craziness, and the segment I got my lowest score on, and it sounds terrible, but was on applying ethics in law. It is not because I’m particularly naughty or anything. My highest score was on managing relationships. And for me, what I have seen is there are some battles you need to lose so that overall war is won.

That’s the way I think about that. What really matters? What’s worth dying on that hill for and what is something you can just let go because it’s a number or it’s really not going to harm anybody? But there were times where I found the right people and told the right people, but sometimes they’re the ones that ultimately control the levers that are doing right or wrong, it’s very hard to go against your leader when you work for them. So I have really loved to be my own boss so that I didn’t have those kind of issues. If there was a client that was doing wrong and would not do right, that client is no longer my client.

You’re right, you can’t fight and argue over every Oxford comma, as much as you would love to. If you do that people are going to be like, “Oh my gosh, it’s the Oxford comma person coming again,” and tune them out. But the big ones you can’t let slide at all.

I want to circle back. I’ve interviewed 125 different executives now and none of them have brought up inappropriate drinking at work. Do you mind shedding a little bit more light on that situation and how you addressed it?

Oh, golly. I guess it just, what wasn’t the situation? I started my career in a very small agency. We focused on the Hispanic market and we would partner with these larger general market or English language agencies to implement big campaigns. It was interesting for me to dive deeper into the culture I come from and learn about that.

In just about every job I’ve had there’s an element of having to attend banquets, having to pursue new clients or build relationships at mixers, or maybe happy hour. There were just different leaders I worked for where a couple drinks in, all bets were off and things just got a little more sexual very quickly.

I was married pretty early on in my career, so it was a no-go for me to date anyone in the office. I had no interest and that was very clear, but it was interesting for me as a woman to walk through the dynamic and be intentional about the vibe I was putting out, and very quickly what I wore when we went to different events and whatnot. Just because of how behaviors change or where eyes went. It’s very honest for me to say, but it’s something that I wonder if my male counterparts ever really endured.

I had one leader I worked under that if you did not leave with that leader to go to happy hour several times throughout the week, you were not favored anymore. There was a lot of really important conversations and decisions being made at those happy hours. But I wasn’t comfortable drinking that often throughout the week, driving home after it and having to leave work. I had a lot of work to do, and meetings on top of the meetings. So when I made those more ethical decisions that no, I’m going to stay at my desk and focus on the work, it didn’t make me a fan favorite. And I learned, again that I want to be respected and I’m not going to worry necessarily about being liked.

Wow, we could spend another hour just talking about that one situation. From recency and nearness bias to sexist misogynist a-holes. One of the things we are discussing at my company right now is making sure that the folks that are still remote or the folks that aren’t there have the same opportunities and how do we bring equity to the process?

I’m glad you’re thinking about that. That sounds very smart to think about. I often feel like it’s interesting me intentionally putting myself remote from clients in my business model. I also felt on the flip side I was heard when I came in for a meeting or when you got an email from me or a call from me. This was before we did a ton of Zooms, it’s like maybe they were desensitized to each other internally because they worked together all the time and you’re not always perfect in every single meeting. I would come in fresh, I was ready to go, I was prepared, because I had that time to deep think and prepare on my own. I was heard a little bit louder as a consultant than I ever was as an employee.

Thinking beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think fighting for what’s really good and helpful, what’s right and sustainable versus sexy, flashy, and fast is a big challenge. I’m seeing socially responsible work and the kind of work that we do as PR professionals is a lot like seed planting. We may not see the results of that hard work, particularly if you’re working inside a nonprofit or on a societal issue. You may not see the results of that work happen quickly or even in your lifetime. And when you add the gamification and addictive nature of social media, everyone just seems to be clamoring for more and more and faster and faster. And that leads to more and more mistakes, mistakes in terms of what we put out there, even grammatical little typos and errors, but people making rash decisions that can become ethical problems.

And I think how we measure success, as a PR pro we may look at that a little differently than a marketer or an advertiser, someone who’s just focusing on social, and those vanity metrics of followers and more shares and more views and viral is not in alignment with what we may measure as important and what we advocate for. We’re looking at outcomes, we’re looking at behavior change, social media talk, conversions, those real substantial outcomes. They’re important, but when they’re not commonly accepted or revered or even appreciated, that can be really tough.

As a communicator, when you’re feeling pressure to put a complex issue into a sound bite what’s your counsel to all the executives to push back on that? How can they do it effectively?

I try to manage expectations right out the gate and introduce them to my style of thinking, the meaty metrics and what really matters. I ask what are your key performance indicators? In your world, in your reality, in your business, what’s really going to matter? Because of the pandemic, it’s also a review of what mattered then and what matters now. Public sentiment has changed a lot, but this focus on what’s essential and most important and tangible seems to be resonating still. And so I want to audit clients and I talk with them about, “Look, here’s what you see out there and here’s how we can play that game. So you want more followers? I’ve got a DM right now in my Instagram that I can pay this bot thing and buy you 40,000 for $50. Yeah. Is that what you’re looking for?” But it is not a good idea and the FCC and everyone else is rounding up these practices.

We lead through influence. And my whole career, I never had too many direct reports until probably my last position. It was dotted lines everywhere. So, I learned to lead through influence and building trust.  And so that’s what I try to do with clients. A lot of it is teaching, a lot of it does feel like advocacy. And I have found that that really helped me differentiate in this last year when all of a sudden everyone’s like, “What do we do?” The real counselors that came out, those were the winners.

What are some of the ethics mistakes people are making when it comes to multicultural communication?

The one I’m hearing about a lot, and it’s tricky, is appropriation. I have one organization right now asking me to take a look at the products that they want to make for a cultural month. And the question was, is this appropriation? And so we have to dig into it. And it’s part of, “Well, what does your leadership look like? Do you have a pattern that we can point to in terms of supporting this group or being of the culture, in the culture? Do you work with them? Do you at least talk to them? Are they a target demographic at all? Do you serve them? And what are the pieces of the culture that you’re trying to work with?”

If it’s something that’s stereotypical, a negative, don’t go there. And if it’s something that’s revered and precious, you’re going to need an advisor that’s got a historical background that can tell you which way to go. So there’s typically a middle ground. A lot of it starts with not listening and actually working with that demographic or that culture and real positive influencers in that space. I don’t mean social media and influencers, people that are in it and doing a lot of aesthetic work in that space, but real community influencers that have a history in researching and advocating and working with that culture.

And I’ll tell you, I worked in diversity and inclusion specifically for four years in my career, and even in that time, the acronym changed so much, the vocabulary. And there’s a real lexicon in that space that is the go, no-go areas. And it’s so fluid, and you have to be very committed to constantly learning and being okay with the awkwardness that’s involved by asking and having the tougher conversations that lead to better answers.

I think that is great advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

My mother used to always tell me it’s not worth it. So if you’re questioning, “I’m not sure if I should do this or that,” if something is questioning your ethics, you have to really consider, is this worth it? And it’s probably not worth it. And I’ve found myself saying, my own mantra is, when in doubt, don’t.

I use that a lot for posting. If you’re not sure about how something comes off in social, if you’re not sure about how that resonates, if you’re in any kind of doubt before you send out a message into the world, whether that’s social media or in any other space, if you’re in doubt, just don’t.

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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