He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- What to do when your competitor intentionally causes panic
- How to effectively fight disinformation
- What the PR industry needs to do next
Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your career?
What’s probably most notable about my career is that I’ve spanned a lot of industries, from Fortune 500s, like Honeywell to Babcock & Wilcox, a global company, the Cleveland Foundation, which is a billion dollar plus foundation, and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, which is a regional economic development organization. And now the YMCA. So, a lot of different looks at our profession from a lot of different lenses. But if there’s a constant theme it has been branding. My focus really has been on brand, brand development, brand perception, et cetera.
The most difficult challenge I faced was when a competitor tried to lay into my organization. I worked for a company that made heavy duty braking systems for semi trucks and for buses. One summer, we did an upgrade to the software, and our engineers realized that there was a flaw, that buses moving under 25 miles an hour could lose their brakes for up to two seconds. While less than 25 miles is slow, a multi-ton vehicle that can’t stop for two seconds is a big problem. So, we immediately notified the makers of the buses that used these braking systems. We immediately notified NHTSA, the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, and began working on the fix because school was coming.
Well, one of our competitors found out about that and there was a manufacturer of buses that did not use our air braking systems. And the CEO of this company had decided, “Well, this will be great.
It’ll be great for my market share. I’ll just do something simple, like throw panic into the marketplace and I’ll gain competitive advantage.”
So, he tried that. He contacted media outlets and said, “Hey, these buses had this problem.” Well, the media wasn’t all that clear about what buses had what problem. And certainly, the readers, the parents, didn’t care what bus it was. They heard some buses couldn’t stop, and that was a big problem with schools coming. I remember sitting at home one Labor Day weekend, getting ready to go out with my family for a nice weekend to have some family fun. And I get a call from this CEO I’ve never met, who was just swearing at me and telling me, “This is all your fault. I got CNN calling. I got the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and the Today. Everybody’s calling me. And it’s all your fault because of your buses. I’m sending all these calls to you.” And he’s just swearing at me.
Well, that was interesting.
I’m big in crisis communication. So, I had already set up a joint information center at my organization. We had practiced. So, when it hit the fan, we were ready, and we were up and running and took all of those media calls. I did 150 media interviews in three days, and it didn’t matter to me if it was the New York Times, the Today Show or some small newspaper from some small community, because the parents of a kid in that small community that read some small paper are no different from the parents of the kid in New York City that read the Wall Street Journal. We treated everybody equally.
Ultimately, a fix was found, and the buses were running and everybody was safe. Nobody ever got hurt, injured, or killed. But not long after that, the CEO of that company got fired. And I can’t tell you that’s the only reason why, but I can’t help but imagine that had a big part to play.
Was your executive team on board with your response immediately?
Early on, when we were setting up this, they didn’t have a joint information center when I got there. I set it up when I got there, and there’s always questions about how much information can we release? Especially when you’re working on a technical problem for which you do not have the solution. But I was blessed in this case with an extremely motivated, extremely visionary leadership team that got it. They were attuned to why this was a big deal. So, things went very smoothly. I had expert spokespeople lined up, ready to go and media trained.
But there have been instances in my career where I found barriers internally, when I wanted to say something that lawyers in the company didn’t want me to say or leaders in the company thought, “Let’s just see if we can’t lay low and just keep it quiet.”
I understand that’s a natural instinct, and all of us in this field have probably run into this from time to time, but it falls upon us. We can’t just say, “Oh, the lawyers won’t let me.” Or “Oh, leadership won’t let me.” We can’t draw the line there. We have to use our power as an influence, which hopefully we’ve honed through our profession, to try to change minds internally that this is the better path and ultimately this will lead to the better outcome. You’re not going to win every one of those battles, but you have to pitch it
Any advice to help people pitch it and win those battles?
There are a couple ways to look at it. First, who better to wage those battles than public relations and communications people? Because truth is supposed to be our true north, and we do have professional associations to fall back on. There are all kinds of code of ethics for various communications organizations. There’s solid networks or pros and mentors who we can speak to and help guide us through it. There are all kinds of ways we can get help. But the most important point I think I’m trying to make is we have to wage the battle. We can’t just walk away and say, “Well, I tried.”
Let’s take a look at it from a different perspective. We’re all tempted, at some time or another when a competitor has a misfortune, or something goes wrong for them. What’s your recommendation for determining, ethically, when do you engage or when do you not engage?
You have to look at your own morals and your own ethics. You’ve all heard about the book, Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten. So much of that really does play out in real life. In the case that I described, here was a CEO that was literally putting panic into the marketplace. I can understand gaining competitive advantage. If there’s something about your product that’s better than somebody else’s or your service and somebody else’s, of course you’re going to use that. That’s a very different scenario than, “I’m going to scare the hell out of all these parents, because I might sell another few buses.” That’s where your moral compass kicks in and say, “Look, it’s not worth it.”
I agree with you 100%. And fear doesn’t drive change. It may get headlines, but it’s other things that are going to really help people make the change itself. I could see them talking to some of the school boards or the superintendents of those with the purchasing authority. That’s an ethical way to capitalize on it.
Absolutely. And we could completely understand that, being the competitor, that our competitor would do that. We might do it ourselves, but not the way they took.
What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges facing the industry for today and tomorrow?
Every time I think we’ve beaten the disinformation topic to death at professional association meetings and articles, along comes another incident in our field or outside of our field that pushes that bar even lower. I’m old enough that when I entered this field, there wasn’t even the internet. So, we saw this digital age change everything in our communications field. Well, now we seem to be in the disinformation age, which is not a term I’ve made up. But the disinformation age is just as transformational for our profession as was the digital age. Of course, digital has a big role to play in disinformation. But in our society, there are now always going to be people who will pick their cause over the common good of society.
And they’ll use paid influencers, and they’ll use biased media and they’ll use unethical spokespeople. We used to say, “We have to call that out.”
Well, okay, we can call it all we want. But the fact is they prefer we do that. Those people spreading that disinformation want that attention, so we have to drop back and think, “How are we going to beat this thing?” We have to come back to our codes of ethics, our ethical practice, and our true north compass, and come up with more compelling information, more compelling reasons, more compelling communications channels to reach those audiences that are being infected.
And you know what? It’s challenging because there are barriers. A lot of these organizations behind disinformation are very well-funded. If you’re at an organization that’s doing 50 things and one of those things is being affected by disinformation, you can’t take your eye off the 49 other things. You’ve got to sit back and say, “Is our organization organized to combat disinformation? Are we resourced properly? Do we have the tools and training we need to combat disinformation?” And then we have to overcome those internal barriers and try to get the message out.
I interviewed Scott Monty, the former chief digital officer at Ford. And mentioned in some other countries, it was common practice for all auto companies to spread disinformation and do fake reviews on competitors and pay people to do it. He’s stopped the practice, said, “Nope. Not going to happen whatsoever because I don’t care what other people do. It’s not relative.”
In my past life, to do business overseas, often bribing was literally part of the culture. Bribing was exactly how it was done, and that’s horrible for us. Ethically and morally, it’s really horrible for us. In some places, that’s how business gets done. A lot of companies will go through third parties. We’ll do that business for them so they can say, “Well, I wasn’t personally involved in what was happening there.” But those are ethical conundrums and they cannot be swept under the carpet.
You mentioned how responding to disinformation sometimes helps spread it. What’s your advice for people when they find themselves a victim or a target of these campaigns?
There’s no one answer to that because the scenarios are all very different. But I think as a guiding principle, we have to understand what the other side is trying to accomplish and not get too distracted by the disinformation. What is their real goal? What is their real objective? And attack that. Try not to get too distracted by all the different paths they’re going to take to blur the whole marketplace so that they can achieve their objective. You have to figure out what are they actually trying to achieve here, and attack that and not get distracted. Because you’ll waste all your time fighting this argument, fighting that argument, going after this point, after that point. Forget it. A lot of that can be ignored. What are they really trying to accomplish? And make sure you’re hitting that head on. That would be my advice.
Speaking of advice, what’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I think back to a piece of advice I got from the father of a priest who was going to do our wedding 33 years ago. And the father of this priest said to me, “Would you like some advice on being married?” And I said, “Sure.” And he said, “For a successful marriage, always do a little more than you think you should have to.” All these years later, I still remember that. And from time to time, as you go through marriage or even dealing with your kids, you’re like, “I think I’m done.”
And you realize, “You know what? I can do more.” And you do. Find it in you to just keep doing a little bit more. And when it comes to ethical practice, you know what I find? It’s the same advice is true. When am I ethical enough? Where do you draw that line? When you draw that line, just think about it a little bit and think, “You know what? Can we do a little bit more? Can we do a little bit more to bring more ethical practice to our profession, to our organizations?”
That’s great advice from the priest. My marriage advice was from my grandfather-in-law, who basically told me, “Listen to your wife and do what she tells you.”
We are living in interesting time and we’re seeing ethics challenged on more fronts than I’ve ever seen it in my whole life. What concerns me is I don’t think we’ve reached the peak. We have to make this our mantra moving forward, that we are going to be ethical in our practice and we’re going to be ethical in our behavior because it matters. It matters. And we’ve seen, even in our own profession, I mean, think back to the beginning of this profession, the ethics of some of the fathers of our field were quite questionable of what they were trying to do in the marketplace. So we’ve come a long way since then. Now, it looks like society is looking to us to help get through what is a very difficult and challenging time.
Check out the full interview with bonus content, here:
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- The most important ethics priority for healthcare communicators – Kena Lewis - September 26, 2022