Laura discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- Why you always have a choice
- How to make sure everyone understands your mission and values
- The need for the industry to hold itself accountable
Will you tell us about your career?
I started my career in Washington and worked for two global PR agencies there. Then I made my way back to the Northeast in Boston, where I’m from, and I worked in house for Hasbro, VP of PR for one of their divisions, a lot of fun and some games. I also did a stint in nonprofit communications. I was head of marketing for a nonprofit arts institution. Today I’m speaking to you from 360’s Boston office. I founded the agency in 2001, we marked our 20th anniversary in 2021.
We are a midsize agency with expertise in consumer brand work and B2B communications. I spend my time working with clients across a number of industries.
No one singular moment stands out, but I think about a series of, I guess what I would call micro moments, where if I’m being honest, I had to take a step back and just ask myself, “Is this something I believe in and can get behind? Is it ethical to be telling this story in this way?”
Looking back earlier in my career, I didn’t feel that there was a lot of choice. I was eager to get into the business and to start learning and work for some very good organizations and really terrific people and highly ethical people. One of my first clients was a chemical company, and the campaign we were working on encouraged recycling of polystyrene, and it was all about recycling, and the recycling message was a good one. It was a grassroots campaign. We were in schools. There was a lot of content we were creating and distributing, a lot of really good information, all based on the facts that we had at the time.
I think as I look back on that, gee, did we need more polystyrene in the world? Probably not. But based on the facts at the time, though, it wasn’t a real question. Things are a little bit different today.
We learn and we evolve, and it’s important to always ask questions and make sure we’re vetting stories and holding ourselves and our sources accountable.
That’s just one example. At another agency I was working for the contact lens industry. We had a study break from the Lancet journal out of the UK. It essentially said disposable contact lenses caused blindness. And that really wasn’t true, but there was this study in a leading medical journal, and I was representing the industry at the time.
The industry responded in really the right way. We convened a panel of ophthalmologists to review the study and really understand it. It wasn’t a case of simply removing product from shelf. “Geez, we have a faulty product here.” It was really how people were wearing and caring or not caring for their lenses. Sometimes they were in the restaurant industry, they were sleeping with their contact lenses on, or they just weren’t cleaning them when they got home. And our focus became this massive education campaign about the proper wear and care of disposable lenses. And that was, as I look back on it, a very ethical, responsible way to respond to a very serious issue and study.
What’s your process for working through deciding if it is something you believe in or the right approach?
I think it’s a little clearer for me today sitting at 360PR+, an independent agency, 20 years in. The process is really steeped in our mission and values. Because we are so clear on who we are, it’s pretty clear-cut, most days anyways. Is it a brand or business that we want to align ourselves with that we think is contributing to making the world a better place in some way. And if we can advance them, their mission, and the audiences that they serve.
When it is gray, particularly in this politically charged, emotionally charged time – you really need to drill below the surface and understand both sides. There’s typically multiple sides of a topic or issue. In my experience, organizations and people want to operate ethically and that stems from as much what the facts are, what the truth is, what they know. We’re only as good as the information that we get from our clients.
It’s a great, timely question, because we just went through a whole training exercise. Everyone participated and there were some very wide sessions, and part of one of those sessions was a values exercise where people had to talk about like, “What are my personal values? Okay, how do those align with the organization?” For those of us that have been here a long time that’s second nature, but what’s interesting is we’re getting pushed by a new generation. Because they come in being pretty clear in their values too. And they may challenge us.
And I can think of one other example of an ethical issue. We were invited by a partner agency that we really have a lot of respect for to do work with a restaurant chain whose most senior executive had been in the news multiple times for expressing strong anti-LGBTQ sentiments.
The business is a thriving business with a lot of brand fans. And I think for us, knowing our people and knowing our values, we just said, “Okay, unfortunately, we’ve got a partner agency here, we would love to do work with you, but at the same time this one just doesn’t align with where our people want to be and we can’t take it on. We can’t help you.”
There’s a lesson in that – do not be afraid to say no. In our business we’re often chasing business. You’re focusing on your numbers, and you’re trying to move things forward financially. But I’ve always felt that you can say no to something and then go find the right opportunity.
Kim Sample from the PR Council discussed this and she was saying it’s really changed. It used to be if people didn’t agree with the company it was, “I don’t want to work on that client.” But now really with this generation it’s not that I don’t want to work with the client, “We shouldn’t represent this client.”
That’s really interesting. Kim has a great perspective. She sat in agencies herself, but now also represents the industry at large.
Your question and your comment made me think about our food and beverage practice. Years ago we were just launching that practice, and our partner, Victoria Renwick, who was taking us into food and beverage, had a real passion for healthy living. So that became the strategic focus. We decided to follow her lead and we said, “Okay, we’re not going to just do food and beverage. Our brand at 360 and our expertise in food and beverage is going to be better living,” better for you products, a lot of organics, a lot of naturals, but also products that aren’t necessarily organic or natural but are otherwise promoting better living. You don’t have to be organic or natural to do that.
Sometimes things get championed by an individual. And at the time she wasn’t a partner but she was just passionate about this. And we said, “We’re going to follow your lead.” And as a result, we have lots of expertise for certain category within food and beverage. And I think that benefits us and it benefits our clients.
Just thinking back the last 18 months plus, we had the summer of social justice last year. I think most in the industry are really focusing on diversifying our talent. And I think the challenge is not to just say, but to do. I think about those signs as you walk through Penn Station, and admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve walked through Penn Station, but that, “See something, say something.” I always think it should say, “See something, do something.”
For our industry it’s our responsibility to hold each other accountable and make sure that we’re dotting back to, “What did we say we would do? Did we actually make any progress there?”
That’s part of the challenge.
And completely different challenge, is just how fast things are moving. I remember I was at an event last night and someone said, “Well, I know that this is happening because I saw it on Facebook.” I was like, “Okay. Yeah.” All of a sudden Facebook is the reliable source. Just because things are moving fast, our job is to take a step back and really vet things, have multiple sources, have the right sources, and to, as I said before, go below the surface level.
How are you getting your employees to do that?
We have someone in a research role here that’s helping with that, but that’s just one person. This past summer we hosted a group of students and we employed them for some research, Gen Z on Gen Z. It was interesting, they kind of schooled us in sourcing. Because they’re still in school and they’re pretty particular about their sourcing and things in quotes and double checking multiple sources, making sure things are footnoted. So I think the kids that are just coming out of college, I think we could learn something there, and just being vigilant and questioning when a statement is made in a proposal or a plan or a press release, what is the source for that? Should we be quoting that?
If we’re linking out to that, how old is that source? Is it truly a credible source? Are we sourcing different viewpoints? Not that we need to always quote Fox News, and maybe it’s the New York Times, but it can’t just be the New York Times or the Washington Post. We have to find some balance too.
You mentioned the summer of purpose. What is your recommendation for helping brands go beyond just saying it to actually doing it? What are you recommending as some of the first steps?
We have to help our clients be accountable to their stakeholders. Just because we get a brief that is about a moment in time, do not shy away from recommending ongoing efforts. It shouldn’t be episodic. How do we pull it through?
Right now we’re in a bit of a bubble, the economy’s chugging along at a better clip now. We all have some new opportunities and maybe aren’t feeling the need to move on some of those issues and tougher topics we were tackling. But they haven’t gone away. The companies that do stick with it are the ones that are going to win in the end for their employees, for all of their stakeholders, their customers, for themselves too. The benefits will accrue there. Stick with it and think about, ultimately what is that promise you’re making and how do you deliver on that quarter to quarter, year to year?
That’s some great advice. And speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
We talked about not being afraid to say no, but I guess I would just bring it back to values. I can remember someone earlier in my career talking about really knowing your values and what’s important to you, because values are the principles that ethical decisions are rooted in. And so you have to start there.
I would also add that being truthful is a prerequisite to operating ethically.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
We’re living in a really interesting time now. If you look back at what was going on in 2020, there were more tough topics that we were having to deal with and there still are today. None of that has gone away. We’re continuing to see rise of the CEO as storyteller, and not just around financial events like earnings, but also the tough topics.
Those instances can be really proud moments for an organization and a brand. It doesn’t have to be that we communicate just when we have that new moment, that new product or new service, but when there’s an issue that matters to the people that your organization is serving, now we can be vocal on those. And I think it’s really encouraging. We are seeing more senior executives step forward and really want to communicate in those moments.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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