Why businesses need to stick to their purpose and avoid wokewashing – Rebekah Iliff

Joining me on this week’s episode is Rebekah Iliff, a writer, humorist, and the founder of WriteVest, a writers’ collective focused on developing thoughtful, creative invoice, and voice driven content for brands.

Rebekah discusses a number of important ethics topics including:

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

I am the founder of WriteVest. We work mainly with B2B tech, finance, and business services clients. But really the core of what I’m doing now is writing and editing and research for those clients. And then I have my humor and satire that I’m also pursuing. I have my first book coming out in February 2022 actually called Champagne for One. Between the client commission work and my personal writing, it keeps me pretty busy.

Based on my history as a PR communications pro and then tech founder, it’s really quite a different cadence than it used to be. Things move a lot slower, which is nice. I just feel like I can spend a lot more time on my work and with clients, and it’s not quite as much a hamster wheel quite as it used to be. I always like to call myself a recovering Silicon Valley entrepreneur. I co-founded AirPR actually, now called Inclusive. We built the first attribution model for earned media. I stepped away in 2017. Moved to Nashville and pursued other things.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

That’s a great question. There are so many all the time. Ethical issues are a death by a thousand cuts kind of a thing. The biggest one that came to mind is about halfway through my tenure on Inclusive, which at the time was AirPR, we had a pretty predatory competitor, which will go unnamed, but were known in the industry as a bit of snake oil salesmen.

About halfway through us building this technology, they started really going after our business and saying they were doing the same thing that we were doing. They had taken lot of our language, and they were using it in their pitch meetings. It was a very difficult situation because we were starting to lose customers in head-to-head pitch meetings. They eventually ended up getting acquired by a company that had been courting us for a while, and these guys got super rich.

We were just kind of like, “What the heck? This is awful.” We had made a decision when it started happening that we were just not going to fall to their level. We were not going to start badmouthing them and talking poorly about them. I would call it probably the biggest ethical dilemma of my life, because of course, I wanted to go after these guys with the shotgun.

That’s just the Kansas girl coming out, but it was just disheartening and I think at the time really soured me in general on what was going on at Silicon Valley. You’re just seeing like a lot of really not great people being rewarded heavily. In retrospect, we made the right decision and there’s been rewards since then, but that was hard.

How do you counsel other executives not to get down in the mud and to take the low road and fight back?

That’s a great question. At the time it was just to stand behind the technology and the product. It wasn’t just the messaging that they were stealing either. It was the actual language that we had developed around the product that was proprietary. For us, it just meant sticking to our message and continuing to say to the customer or the prospect, “We have the first to market strategy. We have the proprietary technology. We are better because of X, Y, and Z.”

When they would ask about the competitor, we would say just simply, “Well, they don’t have this and they don’t have that.”

Going into character assassination, no matter what you’re doing, just ends up making you look worse. It was really just saying to the sales team, just stay above it and just keep talking about the product and reference all of the other customers that we have.

It’s what they say about tennis, not playing down.

If you play with someone who’s worse than you, someone who is not as good of a player, if you start to go there, then you end up there essentially.

In tech you see a lot of times companies, especially challenger brands, try to punch up above. The way they’re going to get coverage and attention is by attacking the leader in the space. But you have to make sure though when you’re making the claims, they’re honest.

There’s a way to attack a competitor, and this goes for anything, if you’re trying to date someone that someone else is dating or you want anything. There’s a way to do it. If you just be better, just be that thing and continually hone your product and continually become a better person and more confident, eventually people and companies that don’t have integrity will implode. It’s just, how long was it going to take?

Unfortunately, the lesson that I learned in that situation was that unethical people often make a lot of money and those with integrity and ethics seemingly finish last. But for me, the fact that I can sleep at night and didn’t give into the temptation that the ends justify the means…Maybe I’m not going to get super rich right now, but I can keep my soul. That mattered more to me.

I think we’re seeing a shift though. Brands that have a purpose and are doing good are outperforming the brands that aren’t. The same thing with brands that are more diverse are performing than non-diverse brands. In the end, by doing the right thing, you’re going to see the benefit.

Yes. My only pushback with that would be, and you know this from a PR standpoint, but a lot of that is done for optics. I think that it’s very difficult. I mean, if you look at Facebook or name your tech company at face value, all of the big ones, they all have people internally in their companies that are very bad people. This is just how it works, right?

I think that the key is there are bad people and there are good people, and there are people that are trying to figure out who they are. I think that the only thing we can be responsible for is our own response to things and our own decisions. This is my personal ethics, personal value system, and I’m going to stand behind that.

I do think that companies now are talking about having a purpose and being conscious capitalists.  But at the end of the day, it’s very hard to tell who’s actually living up to that and who is doing it from the standpoint of PR. I think the point being, it always comes down to the individual to decide who you want to be and how you’re going to operate. Don’t let the wind shift you, “Oh, well, that person is saying that, so I should go over here.” You really have to have a very strong sense of yourself, particularly now, because there is all this noise and there are all these messages flying around. If you say one thing, you’re going to get canceled.

I think there’s a ton of ethics washing going on. I mean, even I think after the George Floyd when that came to light and every brand suddenly took a stand. But frankly, most of them did nothing beyond issue a nice statement that sounded similar to every other statement out there.

And their stock prices dip. If you’re a stakeholder or a shareholder, you’re like, “Can you please just stay in your zone?” Ethics doesn’t mean becoming a political activist when that’s not your core business. I think that what is happening now is that is being conflated. People think, “Oh, well, I have to show my ethics.” And the only way to show your ethics a lot of times when you’re a company is to hook into whatever the “popular” topic of the day is in terms of this makes you a good person.

There’s a challenge that comes with that. And I know even for our clients, we’re doing a lot of writing and topic selection. I’ve had experiences with clients where they say, “We need to write a paper about political activism,” or whatever it is, I’m making this up. But it’s only because they think that that’s going to make them relevant. I will say no, because it doesn’t have anything to do with your business.

I don’t think anyone is going to stop buying your widget if you don’t say anything about some big headline that everyone’s talking about. I think when we talk about what the challenges are for PR people and communicators in general or anyone who’s in the driver’s seat of telling stories, it’s that you don’t just hook into something and become part of a conversation because you want to be relevant for five minutes. You’ve really got to look at, is that core to the business strategy? Is it going to set the client or my company up for future success? Does it impact my shareholders?

Not to throw Delta under the bus, but I’ve been a Delta customer for 20 years. I have a ton of stock in Delta. And when the CEO came out and made some public statement about one of the headlines, the stock tanked overnight. The second it went back up enough to where I didn’t lose money, I sold it all because I’m like, this person, he should be flying airplanes and giving the best customer service.

To me, that was a very clear indication of stay in your zone. And as a communications person, whoever was telling him what to do should be fired because they were only thinking about, how do we look as a brand? How are we going to get into a conversation? How are we going to get a press hit? Instead of what’s going to happen to all of these hundreds of thousands of people that have bought into the Delta ethos, our paying customers, our shareholders?

What did that do? That made all of them lose. I think PR has a lot more power than people realize. People that are sitting in those positions of communications and public relations and content creators have a responsibility to look at the business as a whole and to be able to push back on the C-suite and say, “Hey, you know what? I think we need to stay out of this conversation. I think we need to walk it back a little bit and talk to our customers and say, ‘Hey, are we serving you well today by what we’re doing? How’s the chicken,'” for a restaurant example.

“Are you liking that hot chicken? Because if it’s not good, then we aren’t going to be in business in the next six months.”

What are some of the other ethics challenges you’re seeing in communication for today and tomorrow?

Hyperbole gets clicks. I think it’s easy to get sucked into this machine. You want these short-term spikes and notoriety that come with simply fabricating things in order to look important or relevant or “woke.” We need to try not to get caught up in these short-term spikes.

Because I can tell you from building a technology that tracks media attribution and sees data over time as to what type of content performs the best, never ever in the history of millions of data points was it that that spike that you got from the front page on The New York Times or a headline in Tech Crunch, those events over the long-term, there’s a long tail effect there, but that initial spike never does anything for your business.

It really does very little for pushing people to a website or buying a product. The challenge is when you’re in this pressure cooker, which media relations is, it’s a very short period of time to take a small amount of information and then have a lot of impact. You have to decide to take the long-term view. This may be a little bit longer road, but in the end, it’s going to be better for the business, and always looking at the business objective.

The other part of it is you also have to manage expectations for the client. If a client expects outsized returns and is willing to fabricate things to get there and is just hellbent on saying anything to get them in the conversation, just run fast and furiously in the opposite direction because it never ends well.

Vanity metrics are things like impressions, “Oh, we got 10 billion impressions.” Well, two people walked through your doors, so I’m pretty sure that half the planet didn’t click on that or didn’t see that. It’s the entire earth plus Jeff Bezos and all of his friends in space on whatever planet he’s going to. It’s all the aliens and ghosts of Christmas past. Yeah, it’s just ludicrous and that also devalues, I think, writers, content, creators, PR people. It’s a really hard job to tell a story, and then to have that story translate to sales. That’s a really difficult thing. When you do things that you think are in the short-term going to make you look like a rockstar, in the end just might make you look like an idiot.

It goes back to having self-confidence. I know I do good work. I know what works. I know what doesn’t work. And then saying here’s the data to show why this is a good idea or why it isn’t. There’s a huge opportunity too with PR people and communicators of any sort now with all the self-publishing and a lot of ways of getting the message out.

In Deirdre Breakenridge’s book, Answers for Ethical Marketers, you discuss the grandparent rule. Do you want to talk more about that?

It is my favorite rule. It’s very simple. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do with your grandparents standing next to you, or don’t write anything or say anything that if they saw it, they would be mortified. I think I told a story in there about a photo shoot I did one time, and I was like, if they ever saw something, I would be mortified. I said, “Nope, you can’t use that. I’m leaving.” It’s a really good rule.

You mentioned at the beginning that you’re writing a book. Tell us more about it please.

Yeah, sure, I’d love to. It’s called Champagne for One, and it is essentially a collection of satire and humorous essays, mostly just poking fun at myself, but also really exploring this idea of solitude and being alone and how important it is to take that time for yourself. Particularly now, certainly during COVID, we all were kind of forced into this position of a lot of alone time. I think that what I’m getting at with the book or trying to in a lighthearted way is it is really important to take time to reflect.

You can really be your best self and know what you think and know how to think and how you want to show up in the world if you commit that time to solitude

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

Well, as the child of a doctor, the do no harm advice was always lurking around. But in general, I think the people I’ve admired the most were always emphasizing just be kind and loving. Especially now you have to be sure of your own value system. Don’t commit politics, as they say, by swaying whichever way the wind blows. No one will trust you if they don’t see that you have integrity.

People want to work with you if they see you as someone whose kind and generous and a truth seeker. When it comes down to the PR industry our goal is really to bridge the gaps in telling the truth. And if we aren’t doing that on some meaningful level, then I just don’t think it’s possible to have joy or success on some level in our careers, because that’s really I think what we all want is we want to tell the truth. We want to tell stories. We want people to be moved and influenced in some way.

It’s just a matter of deciding I’m going to keep my side of the street clean.

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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