Joining me on this week’s episode is Amy Coward, APR, Fellow PRSA, the President of AC Public Relations. She discusses a number of ethics issues, including:
- How to respond ethically when someone with an agenda attacks you
- Effective ways to approach your boss to tell them they are acting unethically
- Why you need to remember – what you allow, you condone
Why don’t you tell our listeners about yourself and your career?
I went to the University of Florida. So let me just start there, go Gators. I’m a native Floridian, so it was a natural for me to go there, and I started out in the area with a small agency in the nearby community. I moved to South Carolina, where I worked with consumer products, financial and health care companies. Then I landed at a bank for a while and got a little taste of the corporate world and corporate PR, marketing, and consumer relations. At some point along the way, I landed in the nonprofit sector at the Girl Scouts local council here in Columbia, and I’ve just never looked back.
I’ve loved the nonprofit sector. I moved around within it a good little bit here in the area and worked at, United Way, City Year, and a hospital foundation. It was just such meaningful work that I have just remained here for 30 years in this community. I always had a good feeling at the end of the day doing that kind of work.
In all of those arenas, I’ve kind of touched on a little bit of everything – integrated marketing, PR, fundraising and event planning. Everything gets thrown in when you’re in the nonprofit sector. it’s been a whirlwind, but I have I’ve loved every minute of it.
Thinking about all of your experiences, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
Well, one that comes to mind was many years ago. We represented the National Broiler Council, which is now the National Chicken Council. All of the chicken producers in the country were a member of this council and we did the public relations to promote chicken consumption. And it so happened that one Sunday night on 60 Minutes, there was a lovely program about chicken producers and the facilities where the chickens are actually processed to go to market.
And it was a horrific program. It painted the picture that all of these processing plants were completely filthy, that if you ate this product at any time, you were going to die from salmonella poisoning, and it just painted it with such a broad stroke. It didn’t really say this was one bad apple. It implied that this was a rampant problem across the country. Of course, the images they showed were disgusting to anybody that saw them and had quite an impact in the community, in the market.
We worked directly with food editors all across the country year round in our efforts to promote chicken, we provided recipes, we did events, we did different things. So we did have a base of people to go to, to try to correct some of this disinformation before disinformation was a thing, but that was one of the tallest challenges that we faced because people just believed anything they saw on a program like that. And it was kind of hard to turn that around.
I think it’s a challenge a lot of people will face, maybe not to the extent of 60 Minutes issue, but someone that has an agenda. They’re bringing a bias and they’re not showing the true story. How do you go about ethically pushing back and saying, “You’re not getting the full story here.”
We immediately had to go into action mode. We had an emergency meeting first thing. This was before social media, so we didn’t have that real-time, quick, get the word out, so we were working with some of the more dated methodologies, but we did have our allies and our food editors, we had built relationships with these people all across the country at all the major newspapers and magazines. So, we reached out to them immediately. We sent out fact sheets about salmonella. We sent out fact sheets about chicken processing plants and inspection reports and whatever else we could gather to send them. And they kind of helped us get the word out with some of the facts to help correct it so that readers of their newspapers and the viewers of their local television shows could actually hear what the truth was. We just had to get the truth out.
Was there long-term damage? I think about like Oprah and the negative impacts that happened there when she was talking about it, how long did this negative perception last?
It lingered, and we had to continue. It wasn’t a one-shot, fix-all, by getting the word out. We had to continually put that kind of content out with other content. We had to just keep weaving it in there about any kind of meat consumption. You have to cook it properly and you have to wash your utensils, we had to continually put that out there because it went on for quite some time with people questioning it. So, we just made it a regular component of our communications from then on.
Who was involved in the decision making? Who did you convene to help come up with the best reply?
Our client, of course, was working closely with us. We met with the executives at then the National Broiler Council and met with them and came up with our communications plan and our strategy and they were all supportive and providing us with a lot of those facts that we needed to then push out through our connections and our relationships. That part went very smoothly because the facts were the facts and we just simply had to get that word out through the appropriate channels and do it as quickly and as often as we could. So those internal hurdles really weren’t there. It was just a matter of speed and then persistence.
Did you have any conversations with the producers? Were they upfront in how the story was going or were blindsided with how this turned out?
We didn’t know that that story was to air on 60 Minutes at all. We have relationships with several of the major processing plants. I had toured one. I had been in one. So when I saw it, I thought, “That’s not what I toured. That’s not what I saw.” Who knows where they found this processing plant. It was probably just not one that was reputable and they found out about it somehow and went after it as a juicy story. But we did not know that story was going to air.
There had been some pieces in the news about salmonella. That would come up regularly, and other kinds of issues with consumption of meat, but we would address those when they came up. This was just such a big story. And with 60 Minutes being so respected at the time, people just kind of believed it hook, line, and sinker.
Beyond your personal experience with the chickens. What are you seeing as some of the ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think it’s disinformation and misinformation in general. That’s wrapped into a lot of different campaigns that are out in the public now, mainly through social, but in other methods. Climate change, vaccinations, immigration, elections, all of those topics have a lot of propaganda on different sides.
I think that’s our biggest challenge as communicators and will be for some time, because people can be online 24/7 producing content that is just not accurate for whatever their agenda may be. That’s going to be a challenge for some time.
You work for nonprofits and there’s a lot of people that have issues with some nonprofits and may spread some disinformation against them. How do you recommend they respond?
This is where we have to be as proactive as we can. We need to be tightening our communications plans and getting our facts in order and making it a regular part of our communications about our organizations, because we do have people that are against certain nonprofits.
You see commentary all the time about executive pay with national nonprofits. There’ll be some commentary on social about that. And yet I very seldom see a response with, “Well, let me give you a comparison of what a national executive for a nonprofit makes versus a for-profit and what they’re both required to do.”
When you look at it from a practical standpoint, you can explain it and people can maybe begin to see that they’re not looking at the whole picture.
I just think it’s on us to really be formulating those campaigns and thinking about things in advance. You need to identify what are the things that people can find an issue with and let’s have some communications ready for that when it happens.
The challenge I’m seeing though, is there’s so many different avenues for issues to crop up and nonprofits don’t have big budgets. How do you recommend they prepare for all the different things that could come their way?
Contract with public relations professionals if they don’t have one. And if they do have a team, at the very least provide some professional development so that they are armed and ready to do the best they can. The one advantage in the nonprofit community that I always found is that we often had a committee around communications, public relations or marketing, and community volunteers from either local agencies, corporate PR departments, or the media, were more than willing to provide professional consultation and advice and strategy to beef up a very small or inexperienced PR team.
That’s what the nonprofit community can certainly lean on. I know I did. It was invaluable to me all those years to have somebody to bounce ideas off of or go to with an issue that was bubbling up and say, “Hey, what should we do here? Let’s strategize.” It was just an invaluable resource, and I would certainly recommend that nonprofits lean on their communities.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I don’t know if this was intended to be clearly just ethics advice, but I’ve never forgotten it and it applies so I’ll share it with you. A former president of a nonprofit that I worked for always said, “What you allow, you condone.”
I never forgot that because I feel like that plugs into so many things that we do. For instance, a social media policy. You often see people getting in a lot of trouble either commenting or liking. If you’ve got a policy for your employees and something’s not done to correct that or there’s not measures taken with employees that break those policies, in essence you’re condoning that, and it can cause great harm to your organization if it’s perceived that you are taking sides in a controversial matter or that you have employees that are chiming in on things that are very negative in the community, that can harm your organization.
What you allow you condone. We had an incident once where some information was distributed that had donor information on it, with the specific dollar amounts that they had given. That kind of thing had to be corrected immediately. There had to be a reprimand. There had to be something done because that was an unethical breach of confidentiality that was very harmful to the organization I was with at the time. And you simply can’t be silent. You have to speak up.
Sometimes it’s someone on your leadership team that messes up and you as the communications professional have to be willing to go speak up and say, “We’ve got to do something about this” or “that can’t happen again.” You have to say something or do something instead of just letting it slide or burying it.
This is one thing I think some communications professionals have challenges with, particularly the younger ones. What’s your advice to getting them to listen and change and address the behavior?
Yes, you can’t go into your CEO and shame them or tell them they’ve done something wrong, but you do have to go in and point it out and say, “This could potentially be a problem so I know you’re relying on me to advise you in things that may be a problem. Something in this communication could be a problem for our organization so that’s what I’m trying to do today. So here’s a problem that we have with what was just distributed. And I just want to give you a heads up that we might hear something, so let’s be prepared to respond.”
It’s very touchy and it’s very hard and I have definitely been in those shoes a few times when it was awkward, because it’s your superior. So it’s very tricky, but it still has to be done. And sometimes it’s good to have another ally on the leadership team. There may be someone else that can be in that conversation with you. It can be handled in a number of different ways.
Shannon Bowen talks about that a lot, about having a partner, an ally. If you’re not autonomous, make sure you bring somebody else who can, and the CEO will listen to.
There’s often somebody like that in the mix and sometimes if you talk with them first and say, “Okay, this is the issue. This is going to be a problem. This is going to affect us adversely. Let’s go talk to the CEO and just make him or her aware that we need to be braced for some pushback on this that just happened.”
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I think right now, we’re just in a really interesting time. With the real-time ability that everybody has, I think PR professionals are going to have to be on their game more than ever before and be ready to respond in a professional manner with facts and support their organizations. We’re going to have to really sharpen all of our tools in the years to come as we face the [disinformation] campaigns that are out there in the community.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
- This Week in PR Ethics (5/18/23): Taking on Climate Lies - May 18, 2023
- How Can Businesses Create A More Ethical Environment – Erica Salmon Byrne - May 8, 2023
- We Must Confront the Uncomfortable Truths – Roger Bolton - April 17, 2023