EthicalVoices

Transparency and the industrialization of disinformation – Michelle Olson, APR

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Joining me on this week’s episode is Michelle Olson, APR. She is the 2021 national chair of PRSA and the managing director and head of the Phoenix office for Lambert, a top public relations firm.

Michelle discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

You have such an amazing career. Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about it?

I was that kid in high school that didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a journalist. I was a sports reporter and thought that was a cool way to spend the rest of my life. I liked sports. I loved writing. And I went to my guidance counselor and talked to her about it. And she asked me if I had any hesitation about writing all day every day. And I said, “Well, yeah, I don’t want to write all day every day. I want to write most of the day. But what else can I do?” And she said, “Have you heard of public relations?” And I said, “No, I’ve never heard of that. What is it?” And she painted a glamorous picture of what PR was. And I said, “Where do I go learn to do that?” And she pointed me to three colleges in my state that had accredited public relations schools.

I picked the one farthest from my home, and which was in way, way, way Northern Minnesota, and enrolled in the mass communications program there. I learned that my people were in that school, but mostly my people were in PRSSA, which I joined as soon as I was able. And what that brought to me was immediate practice of the profession, or what I thought the profession was going to be. I fell in love with everything about it. My first job was in advertising. I started at Target in the advertising department, worked there for three years and loved every minute of it.

The job that I had wasn’t exactly suited to what I thought my career would be. So I started looking around for public relations agency jobs, and I landed at Colle & McVoy working for Doug Spong. That was my first real job in PR and loved it tremendously. I was so curious about all the campaigns, and the people that I was working with were so brilliant and really taught me everything that I needed to know. There was one really, really bad winter in 1990. And I kind of threw an arrow at a map and said, “I’m out of here. I want to go find a job somewhere where it’s sunny.”

And so, 1991, I found myself in Phoenix, Arizona working for agencies here. I went to a small independent firm and then an integrated ad agency. And then I started my own firm in 2001. I sold it in 2014 to a New York ad agency. And then my journey began in an ad agency environment as the head of the PR group. When my buyout was done, I moved into Lambert, was able to buy my clients and the staff that were working on those clients, and lifted us all up and deposited us into Lambert, which is based in Michigan. We’ve got five offices, and I lead the Phoenix office.

Thinking back over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever faced?

I feel blessed to not have this defining moment in my career like some people have, where they’re faced with one moment that you stand on this side of the line or that side of the line, but rather lots of little drips of moments. I think that that’s where most practitioners fall. And those little things are like being asked to expand numbers in a press release and make the company look better, or to not tell the entire picture in a news story, or to use strict key messaging that doesn’t include the things that are really the news.

Those moments all add up and become habit forming if people fall to it. And if PR people fall to doing as they’re asked without having their line in the sand from an ethics perspective, it can be really dangerous in how they move through their career, because that becomes normal.

I bet there’s probably one or two clients a year that say, “We’ll just do this or just do that.” And I think that it’s our job as the moral compass of the company to make sure that they’re toeing a straight line and that they’re transparent and honest in all communications and that they’re telling all their publics the truth at all times. That ethical moment never was one big thing, but little things, little drips along the way, that tune your instrument to know immediately when something’s not right.

That makes a lot of sense. Very few of us have the Paula Pedene moment, but we have those death of a thousand ethical cuts. The issues you mentioned deal with disclosure of information and free flow of information. When you’re told, “Don’t answer the questions either, hide this news or don’t share this information.” How do you work through that? What’s your advice to somebody when they find themselves with their boss or their client that doesn’t want to treat fairly with others or disclose information?

It kind of goes back to kindergarten. And I don’t mean that our profession can be done by a kindergartener, but that when your mom says, “If you lie, then you’re never going to remember the truth and it’s going to follow you around.” My mom said it lots of different ways to make sure that we had a good moral guide. It costs a lot more to cover up the truth than it does to tell the truth in the first place. And there are ways that we can be transparent in our communication and still represent the company in a positive light.

Often what I tell our clients is, “If we rip the Band-Aid off now, this will be news for one day versus news for three weeks. And I’d like for it to remain news for one day and then just disappear into the ether, or really only be covered by those who really, really, really are in that inner echelon of the constituencies that the company serves. And in that case, you have numerous opportunities to talk to them, to set the record straight, to provide more background, to be more explanatory than you do for general news media.”

My advice typically is, “Let’s rip the Band-Aid off. We’ve got the strength and the capacity right now to manage this and the spokesperson can do it. I have confidence in them that they can do it.” And often that’s the CEO. The CEO can handle that because they’ve got that position, they’ve got the trust, they’ve got the gravitas, they’ve got the experience of facing numerous audiences to be able to navigate difficult conversations.

Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges facing the profession?

Transparency. It’s not a new one but we’re faced with it every week. For example, there are issues happening at Facebook and their struggles that they continue to have in sharing information outwardly there, they seem to be more in tune with making sure that the company’s reputation is solid, that they are seen in a positive light than they are in being honest. I think transparency at all costs almost is what you need to be. Honesty and transparency can’t take a backseat to reputation. It can’t take a back seat to image management, because that’s what we’re accused of. Most of the time when people are throwing darts at the PR profession, they’re throwing darts at, “Well you just manage reputations and whatever it takes to manage your reputation in the best interest of the company.” And that’s not true at all.

With social media and the immediacy of news and cameras everywhere, companies are still not moving as quickly into that immediate transparency line that I think they need to be.

A close second in terms of issues is how we manage disinformation. Since the advent of all things digital, and it just gets more and more prevalent. The better the technology gets the stronger the disinformation gets. Organizations can create images that didn’t exist, never happened, and it’s hard to tell the difference. And that’s a scary place for us to be.

In navigating this industrialization of disinformation, I think that it’s our jobs to make sure that we have the right tools to be able to define and identify when things aren’t true and help our organizations and our constituencies define when things are not true, but also not responding to things like managing AI and artificial intelligence and what that means in algorithms and social media and being able to really work within that.

So, when we think we’re helping, because we’re so transparent and honest, and we’re forwarding things and sharing things like, “Hey, be careful, this is disinformation. Just an example.” That’s just making things worse. But as PR people, we want to make sure that people are realizing that, “Hey, don’t look at this, don’t click on it.” But just the mere fact that we’ve forwarded it is telling the algorithms that this is something to pay attention to, and it increases its popularity and it proliferates the problem.

Teaching those things is a way that we as communicators can help our organizations, our communities, our families and society as a whole. I said in a couple of speeches I’ve given in the last year, if communicators can’t help at least bring down the tenor of disinformation, I’m not sure who can. We’re equipped differently than someone who’s not so in tune with the media. We understand media literacy and what’s real, and what’s not real.

Transparency and disinformation are probably the hottest things that we’ve got to deal with right now, outside of a resurgence in the pandemic and other things the universe is handing us right now.

I can’t agree with you more. I tell my students I think we’re entering the disinformation age and it’s just absolutely chilling. The reason George Floyd was so powerful is because it was the video that we saw, and it really drove it home for people. And if people start not trusting those images, that’s going to have a very chilling effect on us as a society. And it’s going to be tough, especially for smaller brands and nonprofits to keep up with the disinformation potentially leveled there.

I agree with you 100%. And I think that’s one of the roles that PRSA can play is making sure that the smaller nonprofits and independents have the tools that they need. That they feel the strength of our membership behind them, that we are sharing vetted, accurate, best practices, so they can go out into their communities and stop it or raise awareness about it. That’s not the answer entirely, but it is chilling to look at some photos that are composites of two different photos and the trajectory that those took and they were completely made up.

I was talking to Hasan Zuberi, who’s the head on the PR Council of Pakistan, about a year ago. And he was saying that people were sharing information on COVID at the time. And when they looked at it, I think it was like the top three or the top five were complete disinformation elements.

You mentioned transparency and speed, and I’ve had other people discuss the tyranny of speed and how the 24-hour news cycle is now the 24 second news cycle. How can practitioners prepare themselves to thrive in that 24 second cycle?

There are some preparatory measures that are helpful. I talk frequently about universal key messaging and how organizations, even when they’re not in the mode of preparing a crisis plan, that they have universal key messaging. This means that we say these three things and they can live as truths no matter what is happening in the company, no matter what elements they’re faced with, no matter what crisis, no matter what issue, these three things can always be true.

A lot of companies don’t have that. We’re onboarding new clients right now, and I asked them about their universal key messaging, and they’d never heard the term, they didn’t have any key messaging. And these are multi-billion dollar companies.

I think that that’s a really low bar to set just in that preparation, having that at the ready, having your CEO or who your spokesperson is at the ready to be responsive to the issue, having a nimble PR team that is there 24/7, not just in case there’s a plane crash or another issue, but in case something is on the internet.

Businesses should empower their social media team for making the responses. Spend rehearsal time in advance, “If this happens, then here’s our response.” And just talking through it and empowering a social media team so they’re not just a community manager, that they’re empowered to respond in real time to things that are happening and to move them offline and to try to deal with it before it reaches the media. But just the preparation isn’t always on thing.

Something we’re struggling with is the ethics of this. We look at it at our firm is yes, you and I are always on, but how do you make sure some of the other staff can actually disconnect and not be overwhelmed? How can you preserve that work-life balance? Whether you set guidelines like, “Don’t check your email, we’ll text you if it’s an emergency.” Or things like that. What’s your guideline for people to really help maintain some of that balance and not burn themselves out?

We have just exactly that. If it’s a real emergency we’ll text or call. It’s not an email situation or even a Teams or Slack or anything like that. We ask our teams to have their phones with them and that there’s a guideline that what makes an emergency so that it’s not just, “Hey, check your email, there’s a note there for you.” But it’s, “This is on fire. I need your attention. I promise it’ll take a half hour, sorry to bother you.”

There’s making sure that our teams give themselves the appropriate downtime. We have summer hours, we call it, every Friday afternoon we take off. The only requirement is that you have your phone with you. So, one o’clock, office closes, people do what they’re going to do, but they have their phone because you never know when somebody is going to be needed. If it’s a real crisis, it usually comes up higher in the org chart, and then try to handle it without burning out the staff. If you’re prepared in advance, the number of steps that you have to take to get to an answer are fewer.

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

The best advice I was ever given was draw your line in the sand and never cross it. So your moral line is a line in the sand, and I’m often tugged at, pushed, my toes get close to it because I think I need to help somebody it’s the right thing to do. But every single time I’ve been tempted to cross the line, or I have crossed the line, it’s never worked out. It’s always been bad. That advice was given to me by my grandma when I was really young. It’s one of those things that’s really embedded into who I am, but that code of morality lines up with our PRSA code of ethics so well.

When you’re getting close to the line in the sand your stomach starts to hurt, your shoulders go up, I start to sweat, and I can’t get the thoughts out of my head. My body reacts viscerally when my code of ethics is tugged on. And so I use that in my day-to-day job every single day, and it’s always proved to be helpful to me. There’s all kinds of other little tips and tricks that people suggest. But the best advice that I was ever given was by my grandma when I was 10 years old, and it was just draw your line in the sand and never cross it.

 

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

One of the things that I would love to see happen in our profession, and not just in PRSA and not just because I’m Chair this year, it’s that the PRSA Code of Ethics has a broader reach than our members. I would love if there was a way that we could get that out to all people who call themselves communicators and say, “We know you’re not a member, we know that you’re probably doing these things. But hey, read this, and if you could just sign here that you will abide by these rules in our profession, I just think it would raise our profession up so much.

 

It’s a reminder of how PR professionals and communications professionals should behave, how we should think, how we should act, and how we should translate that to our client and company relationships. If there’s anything that I would love to see happen, it would be well, one, you can join PRSA and have our Code of Ethics, or that our Code of Ethics just goes well beyond our ranks, because it is worth having and abiding by.

 

Check out the full interview, with bonus content here.

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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 EthicalVoices.com

1 Comment

  1. Julie Smith-Taylor, APR

    August 9, 2021 - 6:00 pm
    Reply

    Mark, I love your commitment to Ethical Voices! Thank you for all you do! I find these to be very helpful as the Ethics Chair for the San Diego/IC PRSA Chapter. I’d like to discuss an opportunity with you. Will you reach out to me?

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