Joining me on this week’s episode is Dan Farkas, a lecturer of strategic communication at the Ohio State University
He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- Why we need to think slow cooker rather than Instant Pot when it comes to PR measurement
- How can you ethically blend empathy and accountability?
- What is the most engaging PRSA ethics case study?
- What ethics lessons can we learn from Ted Lasso?
Why don’t you tell us about yourself and your job and your career?
Oh, Lord. Life story. One minute. So I was a TV person. I did TV news for 10 years, Iowa, Michigan, Tennessee, everything but the weather. I got to do PR work for an autism education project with the state of Ohio. This was probably 14 years ago when that was really sort of coming into to a thing. State budgets, stunner, weren’t great. Social media became a thing, so I got involved with that to create awareness. I always had an itch to teach, and my old advisor said do you want to come down?
I thought it was for a day. He said no, I want you to teach for a quarter.
And I thought 10 weeks we’re done. I was there seven years. Now I’ve been at Ohio State for four years. Both places are very gracious to let me practice when not in class. I joke to people that professional wearer of many hats is a terrible LinkedIn profile, but probably describes me pretty well.
What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
Oh boy, I will answer that in two ways. There is client stuff and there’s student stuff, because I think they’re very different.
On the client side, it’s not a single issue. I think a constant challenge is helping people understand how do we measure what winning and losing looks like? There are plenty of people who will vent till the cows come home about things like ad value equivalency (AVE), and I get it. But I also know I’ve worked with a lot of nonprofits who will look at the idea of we got X number of clips, and here’s what this could mean. And they’ve been able to get grants and donations and ways to really help make the world a better place because of it.
The real ethical situation is I want to get away from that stuff and better measure our work, because as an industry, I think we do a very terrible disservice to ourselves. But I also see others who are able to take those things and help. And so trying to be that kind of golden mean if you will, for me, is sort of a constant process of being able to say, we can look at some of those things and they tell part of a story. But can we do it in a better way? And the answer is yes we can. And trying to educate folks, I think for me professionally, is a real challenge I deal with.
There’s no one silver bullet when it comes to PR measurement. You must understand the challenge and the budget. From that, you can determine what’s the right thing to measure. Adam Ritchie had a really interesting discussion on that over how PR people are addicted to fake meaningless metrics.
You’ve had Lisa Gerber on this podcast, and Lisa is a saint of a human being and does a really good job talking about measurement and how we’re going to connect it to what businesses need.
The thing I really talk about is the idea with measurement that we have to treat PR like it’s slow cooker versus Instant Pot. If you can have that sort of incremental sense of what’s happening, you can do a much better job telling a much more accurate story of what you’re doing and how we’re helping people.
What are the ethical issues with students?
The last two years have been surreal for them, because you go to college expecting something and you look forward to this experience. The goal posts have been changed, and there’s no right way of doing it. It’s not people acting maliciously, but, boy, there’s a whole lot going on. And I think the real ethical challenge is saying, I have a responsibility to maintain the standards of the university. I also have to have a degree of empathy for students who are struggling in ways that I don’t understand from my academic experience. And how do you do that in a way where you can help them and be accountable to those standards? There are only so many things you can do and put in a syllabus to get there. It has been an increasing challenge in the 10 years that I’ve taught, certainly in the last two years of COVID.
I think that applies beyond students to employees as a whole. They’re facing moving goal posts. What are some of the things you’re doing to help the students?
One of the things I’m really trying to do is just tell people to be honest, and to not play sort of charades that really don’t mean a lot. I have a lot of students who get really stressed about attendance, and my philosophy on attendance is I want you present. I want you in the moment.
One of my greatest experiences teaching, is when I was going through something, at Ohio University. I had a student who was in the back with a computer, and you don’t know what they’re doing. I mean, you probably know what they’re doing, but I’m not looking over the person’s shoulder.
I’m going over something. And one student yelled “Yeah!!!” My point wasn’t that exciting. Well, his football club, Liverpool, had scored in the Premier League and he was really excited about it. So did he pass the attendance requirement? Absolutely. Was he the least bit in the moment? Heck no. And so what I’m really trying to tell students is I will deliver material in a way that represents the diversity of this situation.
So it’s online, I’ll have class recordings. There are short videos. In person is the best, but it’s always not an option. It’s on you to catch up, and I’ll give you the tools, but just be honest about it, and we’ll figure out a way to get through it. That’s really what I’ve been trying to do. And for a lot of students, that’s difficult, because other faculty, for whatever reason, are rigid about attendance requirements. And if you miss a second class, you get whatever punitive damage. I’m trying to get people away from that, because I think you see this in the working world. Can you deliver? If you can, we’ll figure it out. And if not, we’re going to find somebody else.
My ethics class meets every Wednesday night for three hours. Keeping students engaged and present is always one of the challenges. You’ve got to make it interesting and make it interactive and realize that sometimes real-life things come up and be accessible, just like you would as a manager to your staff.
We know this. At least for me, some of my best writing and best work happens at 6:30 in the morning. It is. And so, I want to respect the night owls, the early risers, and the people in between.
What are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think some of the biggest challenges now revolve around this notion of transparency and helping people understand what the landscape genuinely looks like. My students love hearing about influencer marketing. Understanding what that actually looks like, and what the product is, and making sure people understand exactly what they’re seeing is really important.
I think the other issue I see a lot is this notion of how we as communicators can be proactive with our crisis communications to build equity and try to make the world a better place. When we try to help and be there for people when we don’t need something from them, that it’s going to make it a lot easier when. Notice, I don’t say if. When something goes wrong.
We’re all going to make mistakes.
We all are. Just going to happen. How we approach life prior to that, I think, helps you manage the situation and be in a circumstance where you don’t feel like you are getting “canceled” after the fact. And too often, we’re so focused on just getting through today, and we’re so tired because of the last couple of years. But how do we build up that equity? How do we do it in a way where it’s transparent as possible? We’re not always batting a thousand. That’s an unrealistic expectation none of us can meet. You just can’t do it.
I have two kids. I have an 11 year old and a nine year old, and this is what I tell them. If you make a mistake, we’ll figure it out. Where it gets really hard is when you don’t tell me the truth, and we’re trying to navigate in these very murky waters. And as odd as it is, I think that transparency creates a much more clear way of working through whatever it is that’s going to happen.
What other ethics scenarios are really engaging your students today?
Full disclosure, I advise the PRSSA chapter at OSU. I’m part of our board, all that good stuff. Obviously PRSA has its Code of Ethics. And there are scenarios that they will go through that are online on the PRSA website that anybody can access at any point. Those are fascinating for any journalism student, comm student, marketing student. In part, because it helps you realize just how ethical circumstances can arise in very unforeseen places.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the case study where they’re at a holiday party or something, and somebody has a little bit too much to drink and says something to a journalist. That is an amazing case study. And students are just floored to think that, wait a minute, I could have a really horrible ethical situation at a non-work event.
I love going through those scenarios and seeing how students try to navigate that structure and realize that in many cases, the ethical circumstances go far beyond their sort of internal sphere of influence, and how it can impact a community of people that you don’t even work with.
I agree, the PRSA case studies are outstanding. The two hours that I think have driven the most engagement recently with my students are two from the Harvard Business Review. What do you do when your brand is racist, and how do you choose between your company and your cousin? That one really got people going. And that’s a fun discussion point, too.
It is. And it’s this notion that good operations is good marketing, right? If you think about it, you can’t “spin” bad decision making. When people make mistakes, it’s going to happen. I think Molly McPherson talks about this, the idea of own it, explain it, win it, and she’s spectacular, but it’s that idea of owning it. And I think one of the challenges we’re facing is this idea of, when we admit fault or error, or when we feel like we’re not perfect for whatever reason, we’re having a hard time with that.
That’s where the best growth happens. That’s where the best learning happens. Good things come when you admit to people that you know you don’t know everything, and you’re not going to be perfect. I think it’s very liberating in a weird way. Not that I want you to screw up, but I want people to know that when mistakes occur, you can get through them.
Absolutely. As I tell most of my students and all my new employees, the reason senior people sound wicked smart is because we’ve been screwing up for 30 years. We’ve learned from it. And so that’s okay. We expect it, own it, and move on.
What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
This is a weird story, but bear with me. My ethics professor from Ohio University’s philosophy was, if you don’t want to come to class, you can skip if you send me an email explaining truly why you didn’t show up. So, if you had a little bit too much “Diet Coke” on the night before, just tell me, be honest, and I’ll tell you maybe there are some other choices you could make, but just be honest. And if you’re not feeling well, great. And so I did that once and then I got mono, and I was horrified because I have mono, I went to a doctor and had a note, but I wanted to explain. This is, I don’t know what to do.
And I went to his office for office hours and he gave me this look of, Dan, what the hell are you doing here? You’ve done everything you need to do. Take care of yourself. You can’t do this the right way if you physically and mentally can’t take care of yourself. You can’t make the right decision, if you physically and mentally aren’t taking care of yourself. And I’m going to give you an incomplete, and you’re going to get this done within the first five weeks after spring break. And we’ll take care of it. And so, it’s that notion of tell me what’s really going on and tell me realistically what we can do, where you can take care of yourself and we can meet the expectations for the class. If we’re working together in a state of trust and a state of respect, we’re going to figure this out. And that’s exactly what happened. And that has, to this day, that has been just impactful and a huge factor anytime I have to make a tough call.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I think that we’re in a fascinating time for strategic communication. Whether you want to call it PR advertising, whatever, the PESO model, thank you, Gini, any of that stuff. We’re in a fascinating time right now where a lot of the lines are maybe not as obvious as we want to see them. So often when we are chasing tools and chasing tactics, we exhaust ourselves. My hope for listeners or anybody else is that when, notice I don’t say if, when typical situations arise, when you focus on your fundamentals, when you focus on your core, when you know who you are and what makes you you, I think that is the easiest way to quickly and effectively get through the problem. And too often, we spend our time just dealing with noise and not really internalizing our firm, our agency, our individual values.
When you know that… you may not get along with everyone, but at least you’ll know where you stand, and you’ll be able to move forward in a way that I think is reasonable and respectful for everyone. Let’s be honest, we all know this. It’s the reason we all like Ted Lasso. It’s about nice people doing nice things. That kind of approach, a service oriented focus, I think has real capacity to make a big difference. And I hope that in the midst of all of this hustle, there’s so much hustle and it’s so easy to get caught in the hustle, take a minute, breathe. And I think you’ll be really surprised by what you see.
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