EthicalVoices

Ethical Issues in Merging the Science and Art of Public Relations: Aaron Kwittken

Joining me on this week’s episode is Aaron Kwittken, the founder and chairman of KWT Global, a global PR and brand strategy firm, and the founder of PRophet. Note: This interview was conducted before Aaron and PRSA NY spoke out and drew greater attention to the Crain’s Story on the horrible actions of Ronn Torossian.

Aaron discusses a number of important issues, including:

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

I spent the last 30+ plus years, mostly in agency PR. I started in Washington DC in Public Affairs and Crisis Management. Still am a crisis guy and always will be, I think. I worked for multiple agencies over the years and eventually found my way back to New York. Back in 2010, I left what is now HAVAS as their CEO of North America and I started something called Kwittken, a PR agency. I founded Kwittken in 2006, sold it in 2010 to MDC Partners, which is now Stagwell. And I’m chair of the agency today.

Then a couple years ago with Stagwell and Mark Penn, I founded a company called Prophet, which is the first SaaS platform for PR people that uses AI to predict media interest, sentiment and spread before you pitch. I also have a podcast called Brand on Purpose, I’m a contributor to The Drum. I wrote for Forbes for 10 years and I’m also president of PRSA in New York. I am just finishing my term as president of my temple locally. So, I’m always busy, always trying to create, always trying to innovate and disrupt this crazy business that we call PR, that we all love.

Thinking about all the crisis work and all the different hats you’ve worn, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

It’s interesting the way you phrase the question, because I don’t think ethical challenges are difficult if they’re truly ethical challenges. The decisions might be difficult, and the consequences of your decisions might be difficult. There’s no such thing as a difficult ethical decision, because you always have to make the right call and that means really being able to wake up the next morning or to look at yourself in the mirror and be very content with the decision that you made.

There are so many challenging decisions I’ve had to make. There are challenges associated with agency management and the types of clients that you take and work for and there are challenges that clients bring to you that you need to counsel them through.

I learned the ethics challenge very early on in my career. I worked for a company that’s now called MSL (Note: I worked there as well), at the time it was called Manning Selvage and Lee. I worked for some great people there. Hal Warner of blessed memory, Joe Gleason, still with us thank God, amazing people, all crisis and issues. And they combined with another firm.

Imagine this Mark, I was working on a dairy farmer’s account. I was working for really Monsanto, but not really. I was basically managing an education campaign and information around bovine somatotropin, which is basically a growth hormone used to increase milk production and cows. I was doing a lot of crisis work, working in the video game industry, and with some other trade associations. Classic Washington stuff.

The other firm was representing the Conference of Catholic bishops and Scientologists. Fine, there’s plenty of cohorts and folks who are in favor of both those organizations, not a big deal. And with the conference Catholic bishops, it was all pro-life campaigning. And the folks that worked on those accounts hated anything having to do with biotech or the stuff that I was working on.

I came into this newly formed organization as a senior account executive with zero authority, zero influence, just a paycheck working my butt off like they all do in Washington DC. I was told by certain people, who I shall not name, that I needed to work on these other accounts. My moral compass did not believe in working for the Scientologists or the pro-life movement. It’s not making a judgment on that, but I should have the ability in the agency to work on stuff that I want to work on. They said, “Well, it’s either our way or the highway.” So, I chose the highway. I decided to quit and find another job and I moved over to Ketchum actually, which was an amazing experience.

That’s just one example of so many, but the reason why I mentioned it it’s because I was 22 years old, I was right out of college, and it was hard. It was a hard decision. But was it really hard? No, because I knew that I was employable and I could not sacrifice my moral compass, my values and my interests just for a paycheck. It’s not worth it.

How do you recommend people facing work through it? What do you tell folks if they’re concerned that, “I need this money, I need this paycheck.”

Great question. I do think that today all employees have far more latitude, more rights, more allyship, and more resources than ever before. We still have a lot to do, especially in DEI and B, but I do think people have far more agency than they ever had before. Having said that not everybody really has that.

The best advice I could give somebody is to just believe in yourself. I know that sounds very silly and it sounds like lyrics to a bad song from the 80s, but you have to believe in your abilities and be very honest to yourself and transparent.

When you’re out there interviewing for another job and they want to know, why’d you leave your last job? Say, “My principles and my values supersede everything about me.” Most agencies, and certainly most brands that are worth working for, will respect that and if anything, you’ll stand out as a candidate, more so than someone who did not take that chance or make that tough decision.

I was speaking Kim Sample a while ago from the PR Council, and she’s said things have changed since we were first starting out. We would say, “Don’t put me on this account.” Now it’s, “This agency shouldn’t be working for this brand.” Junior staff and getting more agency and helping determine which brands some of the large agencies represent.

One other thing that’s really been bothering me and I can’t change history is, there were moments in my youth where I should have stood up for others. I should have taken a stand on things that weren’t as obvious as the example I gave you and I did not. For example, when I was working at a certain agency in Washington, we had a client who twice walked through the office and picked his team based on how women looked. Others and I, and these are still people who are operating and working in this business who are good people, let it happen. We’d laugh.

This is in the early ’90s when we still had like people are smoking in the office and full wet bars. I’m not proud of that. I should have said something, I should have stood up and said something, not just laughed. Ultimately, we never, ever picked teams based on looks or based on a client who just wants a certain type of person on their team, but the fact that we never shut them down or said something or stood up to them. I should have said something. I could have done something. What would have happened? Would it have changed things? I don’t know, but there’s a lot of things I’m not proud of, that I should have done better.

We’re all human. We’re all going to make things and think about where we can go. And it’s tough, because if you don’t speak up initially, it gets tougher and tougher to speak up as it goes on, because you’re giving tacit agreement or there’s some implication of that.

What do you see as some of the big PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

I think technology is both an advantage and potentially a challenge. I have learned a lot in this tech startup that we created called PRophet. I built it through the lens of a customer of a trade. Somebody who understands what we do and appreciates what we do. I’m not a developer. So, while I can create the logic behind it and the developers write the code, one of the things I’m starting to see, that is a little troubling, is science actually not converging with, but potentially replacing some of the art that is in our business.

Let me give you an example. In this dashboard that I created, some prospects ask something like, “I know you can tell me whether or not my pitch is going to be of interest to a certain number of reporters and which reporters, but can you help me rewrite that pitch? Can you use predictive text?” I’m like, “No, that’s our job.” We are in charge of the art of narrative, right? A computer can’t replace that.

And I worry that certain tech platforms are going to be data mining in ways that we’re not necessarily aware of. They’re going to take data, either a narrative that worked or didn’t work, and then use it to automatically pitch reporters. But the narrative might not be true. It could be a false narrative or could just be narrative for placement versus narrative that’s actually interesting and serving a greater purpose to a community. So, I do think, even though I’m a coms tech advocate, we need to gate and to regulate with a lower case R, how we use tech in our profession.

What’s the pushback? What do you do when someone agrees but says using this technology is going to increase my company’s profit, visibility or awareness?

The pushback right now revolves around the fact that, I don’t think the technology is ever going to replace the human. The pushback needs to be around, who houses the data, who minds that data, and how is that data used. It all comes back to data and privacy and transparency. That’s what we need to focus on right now.

We must also watch the biases in collecting the data.

You’re absolutely right. And the other bias, or misunderstanding is, what does AI mean? When I say AI, I actually don’t mean Artificial Intelligence, I mean, Augmented Intelligence, because there’s really no such thing, at least in our business, an Artificial Intelligence. It’s all human intelligence, to your point about bias. And we’re really talking about augmentation.

Unlike our siblings, we have only relied on our gut and our instincts to drive our strategy. We don’t have as much data as our marketing siblings. All clients, brands and most people think they’re more interesting than they really are. Our job is to make them interesting. When a client presents a pitch idea, all you can do today is say, “Well, in my experience, this is either going to work or this is not going to work.”

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to say, “In my experience, I think this is going to work and by the way, we ran it through a platform that can predict media interest. Here’s how we would position it. And we did A test, B test, C test, we changed the pitch this way. Here’s where we think you have the most opportunity with these outlets.” Its not just media or TV, there’s all also newsletters and their sub stacks and podcasts. There’s just so much more opportunity now than ever before, it’s one of the most exciting and terrifying times in our business. I focus on the exciting not the terrifying.

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

You can talk to as many people as you want, but you have to live with your own decisions, you have to live with yourself. I have to be able to look myself in the mirror and say, “I’ve done right by others, not just myself.

I do believe that what goes around comes around, but not in all those karma type ways, but also in good ways. You put good stuff out into the world, it’s going to come back to you and it might come back to you in health, it might come back to you in wealth, it might come back to you in health and wealth, it doesn’t matter, try to lead. Follow a decision tree where you put others before yourself. That’s the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

You mentioned ethics in DEI and B. What more can we be doing as an industry?

We need more allyship. The reason why, and the women’s movement is not done and still has a lot of daylight – but the reason why the women’s movement eventually was able to accelerate, is primarily because they said, “We can’t do this without men, we need to do this together. We can’t demonize the other. We need to bring ourselves together and be collaborative and create more ways of collaboration and allyship against common interests and goals.”

And I think the same thing is true for DEI and B. There’s been a lot of talk, but I have also seen a lot of action. The biggest hurdle in moving from pandemic to endemic is recognizing that the way we work is never going to be the same, at least for the rest of our lives. How do you create belonging in a hybridized environment?

Belonging is anchored in trust and as much as I like you, Mark, and I trust you, we met just moments ago, we’re looking at each other in a screen, we don’t have established trust yet.

We don’t know how to work together. We need to be with each other to understand each other and the screen does not do it. So that is my biggest concern for DEI and B, is the B, because it can’t be done virtually. That is my biggest worry right now and I don’t have an answer. I’m working very hard with people like Carmela Glover from Diversity Action Alliance and Page and others, on what is the most diverse board ever in PRSA New York’s history. We don’t have answers yet, but it starts with identifying the problem and the issues and having more informed discussion on allyship.

The last thing I’ll say, this is controversial. This is some just white gender, middle aged white guy saying this, but we have to be careful not to view inclusion with a lower case I, it needs to capital I. What do I mean? It means that inclusion absolutely and positively should include the BIPOC community, as much as it also should include people with physical disabilities. The neuro divergent, people who have mental health and wellbeing needs, LGBTQIA plus community.

There is a very large spectrum of inclusion and while the murder of George Floyd catalyzed equity and equality issues for the black and brown communities, we cannot forget everybody I mentioned plus Latinx. That doesn’t mean “All Lives Matter”, that’s very different. It means we need to look at inclusion through a larger aperture and make sure that we are truly being inclusive. Otherwise, ironically, we’re actually being exclusive at the expense of being inclusive for just a few, when there’s so many who have needs.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here:

 

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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 EthicalVoices.com

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