- What to do when a colleague lies
- The evolution of ethics globally
- The five most dangerous words in the world
I know about your great career, but why don’t you tell others more about it?
The first 20 years of my career or so was on the PR agency side. I have been incredibly fortunate to have some really good clients and just great experiences through the years. I started with a mid-sized firm that was acquired by one of the large firms. Then I went to one of the other large firms. So, 20 years working with clients and then leading practices at both of those bigger firms.
I always used to say that going over to the client side will be like going to the dark side, but it was also a kind of grass is greener type experience, I think, because we always look on the agency side of the clients and thought, “Wow, that’s Nirvana.” To be able to focus on one client and really get in deep is wonderful.
Some agency people always seemed to think, “Well, you have less work to do because you’ve got just one company you’re focused on.” And not at all the case. The workload gets even larger when you go on the client’s side, or deeper. My first client-side job was with HSBC. I was the head of communications for North America. I had primarily external communications, some internal communications, and then also corporate social responsibility was under me as well. HSBC had just come to the US a few years before I joined. Nobody knew who they were.
It was just like going from high school sports to professional sports in one leap. It was an incredible experience, very different from agency side. I worked through the financial crisis with them, and then moved to what some thought was a kind of strange move. I went to work for one of the big global white shoe law firms that didn’t really have a communications function at the time.
The chairman was very advanced in his thinking and believed very much in communications, which a lot of law firms did not, and brought me on to start the department and to really hire a team globally to support their business. They had a lot of marketing folks, as most law firms do, but not really true communications. So that was just a wonderful experience because I was able to really build the function and build the team out to support that organization. I went to MSL. Then I was recruited from there to go to work for NASDAQ and be their global head of comm. I couldn’t pass that up. It was an incredible experience. From there, I left and went half a block east to work where I am now at Assurant.
You’ve been on the agency, the corporate, the financial service, and the legal side. What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
It was much earlier in my career on the agency side. It happened during a new business pitch. It was for an existing, very large client. A colleague who was actually senior to me, I would say stretched the truth, but he kind of lied about certain experience that we had, and it was just incredibly uncomfortable. I just felt wrong and bad and had a hard time sleeping. It was a very difficult thing to experience because I very much respected this person, and they were incredible at new business development and really jumped far in their career quickly because of their ability to win business.
I just felt like I couldn’t sit quietly, and I had to say something. When I did, there was a bit of a kind of tribunal that was called and I found out I was not the only person that had that same experience. So that person ended up leaving the firm, but it was very difficult to manage through and to actually say something about, because I was the first person that kind of raise my hand and caused that to happen.
When you raised your hand and caused that to happen, did you talk to colleagues? HR? What process that you recommend somebody else in a similar situation follow?
I went to the CEO, basically, and just spoke very frankly. I grew up in New Jersey and always worked in New York and so I’m a very straight shooter, very candid kind of person. So I just had a meeting with the CEO and just said, “Look, I’m feeling really bad and awkward about this. I’ve been doing this for a long time and this happened. And I just need to share it and say, it’s just wrong. And I don’t feel good about it.” I wasn’t asking for something to necessarily happen, I just felt like I needed to say something and expose it.
Where do you draw the line? Because I look at resumes and I know people inflate what’s on their resumes. And I work to drill down to see what they really did versus what they claim. How do you work with folks to keep them from crossing that line?
I just never think that it’s a good thing to do because it will always come out at some point. You’ll notice it. When you hire someone, if they’ve fudged, it always seems to come out. I have a teenage son and we deal a lot with this because there’s a lot of shadiness, so to speak, with the truth around what really happened…was the homework done? Where did you really go with your car?
It’s a challenge. And I always figure, somehow, the truth will out. I tell people, “You’re always able to learn, so why fudge it?” Showing your willingness to learn and grow is much more important than to fib around the fact that you may have done something or had an experience that you didn’t have.
Absolutely. I was having a conversation with a global brand recently and I said “If you want us for this and this, we’re not your right agency. Don’t even talk to us. But we can do this”.
Thinking beyond your personal experience what are you seeing as some of the key communication ethic challenges for today and tomorrow?
I guess I would consider myself old school, or maybe just old. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started as an intern at New Jersey Nightly News. That was one of my first forays into news or media. Part of my job was doing all of the research to back up the stories that we were putting together. We had to have sources. We had to have the actual experience and credibility to be able to share this is what happened in this particular instance to lead up to whatever story it was that we were developing.
I have grown up so much believing in news. This is going to sound very trite and silly, but I love Mary Tyler Moore. The whole idea of being in the newsroom and delivering the news was always of interest to me.
That’s kind of how I directed myself to being in the job I am now in communications. I have worked together with some tremendous reporters, who are super credible, facts based and fact checking all the time.
I have so worried over the years, as we’ve moved into everybody’s the media and everybody’s a reporter, that there is just not that credibility anymore. What worries me, is people or organizations presenting themselves as true news organizations, which I’ve always come up to believe have incredible ethics. And these kinds of newer outlets, I’m not so sure about. Not to say that I don’t love social media and the way things have evolved from a communications perspective, but from an ethical perspective, I worry about where the line is for some outlets.
I think that makes a lot of sense. And I think you’re right. Some folks talk about the tyranny of speed. Others talk about the industrialization of disinformation. Both are coming from the broadening of the discussion. How, as a corporate communicator do you prepare for those potential disinformation attacks or media with a bias against you?
It goes back to having your facts straight, having your facts sourced and responding as well as you can. You have to know what you’ve got lined up to make your case.
It’s an interesting question. Back in the nineties, I was dealing with the World Gold Council, and we were doing some work in Germany. With the news outlet it was more pay to play. It was kind of like paid content. They were telling us we could write anything we wanted, and that was just foreign to me.
I think now things have really changed. With digital media and the internet and all kinds of things like that, there’s a greater consistency of ethical behavior across the world. I wouldn’t always necessarily say that in terms of business, having worked for the global law firm and dealing with and understanding ways of business and other parts of the world.
But I think from a communications perspective, we really try, certainly at my current company, to keep very focused on facts and ethics. A lot of it has to do with our CEO. And that’s the reason I’m here at Assurant. Because the CEO, when I interviewed with him for this job, it’s one of those things where you just can feel it right away. It’s kind of a gut check that this is an honest, good, ethical person, and he’ll do the right things and make the right decisions. That, for me, is my own north star for the company, just working for someone that I know I can trust.
Always tell the truth. Because it’s always going to come back to bite you or find you somehow if you don’t. I would also say that, for myself, after that original experience years ago, I always try to escalate and communicate what is going on, what am I seeing. I think that’s really important.
I could say honesty is the best policy, but I think it’s just trying to raise an issue as soon as you see it. Escalate it quickly. My dentist used to have a sign on his wall that said the five most dangerous words in the world are, “Maybe it will just go away.” And I think it’s true for the way people sometimes think about ethical issues. If I just ignore it, maybe it’ll just go away. If I don’t talk about it or I don’t raise it, maybe it’ll just go away. And I just don’t think that’s the best approach.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you, that you wanted to highlight?
My husband is a project manager, and I will say to him, “Don’t project manage me.” And he’ll say, “Don’t PR me.” Oftentimes what he means is that I’m kind of twisting the story. PR, in general, has sometimes gotten a bad reputation and it’s not really well deserved because the majority of the people I’ve worked with are ethical and above board. And I would say we have to keep doing our own best PR for the PR function because it’s an honorable and ethical profession.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, click here
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