EthicalVoices

How Can Old School Strategies Counter Disinformation? – Ellen Crane

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ellen Crane, APR, Fellow PRSA. She provides strategic public relations planning and execution to both companies and marketing and PR agencies. She specializes in a wide variety of industries, including healthcare, legal, real estate, education and nonprofits.

Ellen addresses a number of important ethics issues including:

Why don’t you start off by giving an overview of your career?

I’m a graduate of the University of Georgia. Go Dawgs. Champions.

I started my career at Alcoa in Pittsburgh. I was actually an intern with them during college and they hired me so I moved from Atlanta to Pittsburgh. And then after that, I really did a variety for the first part of my career of corporate and agency. I worked for American Airlines, for Hill and Knowlton, a real estate developer, law firm, national restaurant chain, and then I started my own firm. I had it for about 15 years. Then I went back to corporate America. I joined a national chain of cancer hospitals, but today I’m back doing consulting and I’m also a coach. I just founded a company called Women Elevated. I do group coaching for women, but still doing PR after all these years and having a good time.

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

I have to say that this was a little bit of a hard question because I vet my clients very carefully. Ethics is very important to me. I have had lots of crisis communications and uncomfortable situations to deal with, but I’d like to talk about when I worked for a restaurant chain, and I was hired by the local company that was purchased by the national chain.

They were a hugely popular local haunt for people in Florida, and the national company that purchased them promised that they would keep the recipe that made this particular popular.

We were thrilled that we were going to grow all over the state. After we opened, probably three or four new restaurants, we realized that they were not going to keep the recipe. They changed it completely.

I had a dilemma on my hands. I tried with the new stores to engage the local community. We did a partnership with the Florida Library Association. We handed out coloring books and did readings with kids and really tried to build a new image for the restaurant in the new markets. But it was a struggle for me ethically. Over time, as we grew and grew, I felt like we had not fulfilled a promise that we made to our patrons and for me it was a personal ethical decision. And I eventually chose to leave that company.

This is a challenge any PR person can face. Whether their company they’re at is acquired and things are changing in terms of the culture, or they just see the culture changing and not agreeing with some other personal values. What do you recommend to somebody who finds themselves in that situation?

It’s not an easy answer. Everybody has their own personal values, and everybody draws the line in the sand in a different place. For me, I take a two-step process. I first try to persuade and counsel either a client or an employer. I have to at least try. If that doesn’t work, I have to choose to walk away.

For me personally, this was a very difficult decision. I had kids to support and bills to pay and it was really tough.

I sort of go back to Simon Sinek, he wrote the book, The Infinite Game and it goes back to companies having a heart. For me personally, I can’t work for somebody that doesn’t have a heart and doesn’t have that humanity. That’s personal though. The decision is different for every person and it’s hard to make a blanket recommendation because each person has to make the decision based on whatever situation they’re facing.

Ethics are kind of like this creepy crawly disease, sometimes it’s slow and it’s not just black and white. You have to pay attention to the signs and you just have to be super vigilant. So I always say, as the coach in me, you have to listen to your heart and stay strong with your values.

Most ethical issues aren’t the big black and white obvious ones. You don’t wake up saying I’m going to go embezzle money today. It’s the little compromises we make that aggregate until suddenly you’re in this hole and you’re like, oh my gosh, where do I go?

Exactly. And you know, that’s the one thing they don’t teach you in school, these ethical dilemmas that you have to make these decisions. And I’m sure every single person has had to face them.

Beyond your own personal career, what are some of the key challenges you’re seeing when it comes to ethics for today and tomorrow?

There are so many blurring lines that didn’t exist before. When I went to school, you were in advertising or you were in PR, never the twain shall meet. Now, from my experience, PR often gets blended into an overall marketing department. Some clients think that it’s only placing articles in the paper and if you can’t do that, what other value do you bring?

It is really important that we as PR professionals continue to toe the ethical line and counsel our employers and our clients about the difference between an advertorial and real editorial and that the media are not evil. They are important conduits to the public and to our audiences and as PR people, we need to serve as valuable resources. That’s a really important tenant for young professionals to maintain as they go through their careers. I think that ethics and reputation are all we have. As professionals, the skills are just a given. You have to have the skills but having an ethical and integrity are really important as well.

Skills make you a great tactician. When you have that ethical insight and what ability to adapt into business, you become the counselor and the strategist.

Where are you seeing the lines blurring? What are you seeing as some of the challenges?

The disinformation campaigns are really challenging for PR people. How do we, with social media and people getting the word out with their own channels, and how do you constantly watch for disinformation and counter it and try to get the truth out? I think that’s our biggest challenge.

In my business I counsel a lot of lawyers. I always go back to some of the tried-and-true principles of creating relationships because sometimes you just can’t fight the noise that’s out there. We can’t forget those grassroots reputation building relationships and how important those are. Those don’t go away just because we have a lot of technology.

You mentioned how you’re trying to convince people that the media is not the enemy. They’re not evil. What’s the advice you give to executives to help change their mindset when it comes to that? Because I am seeing, in some cases, PR becoming more of a gatekeeper than a relationship builder.

Exactly. It takes a lot of training and I’ve been very lucky to have a very wise mentor in my life who has trained every single company I’ve worked for, because it does take that and it’s an educational process of helping them understand how the media work and how important it is to be prepared. If you’re prepared and you’re honest and transparent with your answers, then even in a crisis, it might sting at first, but over the long term your reputation’s going to be preserved if you handle the media properly. Plus, again, let’s go back to relationships. If a local reporter knows that they can call me and I’m going to give them an honest answer then when there’s something positive to talk about, they’re going to be more likely to take my call.

It’s an education process. It kind of goes back to our earlier conversation. If we can’t convince our client or employer that the media are not evil, maybe it’s not the place to work.

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

I go back to the mentor I mentioned before. His name is Virgil Scutter. He’s trained corporate executives all over the world and he taught me the importance of the long game. That our behavior stays with us for our entire career and ethics has to be the cornerstone of our career. Our reputation is everything. So pay attention, even if you’re a young professional. Pay attention to the choices you make because they will live with you throughout your career.

I think that’s great advice and it’s what I tell all the other folk. Everybody matters. When you’re a junior person starting out and the person you’re talking to is a young reporter starting out, when you’re a senior executive, they may be writing for the Wall Street Journal or Fortune. If you’re blowing them off, they’ll remember that. Everybody is valuable.

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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