How to Effectively Counsel Those That Want to Make Unethical Decisions – Cathy Morley Foster

Joining me this week is Cathy Morley Foster, the principal at Morley Foster Consulting. She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you tell our listeners a little more about yourself and your career?

My experience in public relations started when I was in college, I was at USC (Go Trojans) and my mentor was Kenneth Owler Smith, who many people who are involved with PRSA, will know. He really is the one that got me interested it, I had no idea what PRSA before then.

Over the course of my career, I stayed in touch with him while he was still with us. And I still adhere to the principles that he espoused, which were principles of PRSA, but they were also his personal values and how he viewed ethics. Most of my career has been in the agency side, but I started in house with a department store chain and did public relations and promotions and special events and all that kind of stuff.

I’ve worked with both Southern California agencies and have been in Northern California for the last about 20 years or so working on pretty much every subject you can think of and all kinds of things from crisis communications, public outreach, et cetera. It’s been a really interesting and diverse experience and I’ve even had a chance to be in house again, as a contractor for Cisco. I was working with them for about 10 years as a contractor, and many people thought I was part of them.

Today, I have got my own enterprise and doing more in the world of cyber security. So, from McDonald’s to cyber security.

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

Well, when you were talking to me about that before, I was thinking, I don’t know that I’ve had a difficult one and I couldn’t even think of any examples. Then I started thinking about it and I started putting a bunch of them down on paper and realizing, I guess I have been through a number.

A lot of it has to do with how you view what ethics is and what that means. At the end of the day, it means trust. You need to have trust from your clients and your clients in turn need to have trust with you. The same thing with your constituents that you work with, including media.

One issue that comes to mind was there was a fellow that was head of marketing with a technology company.

He was very upset about a perceived conflict of interest with one of their competitors. They felt that they had stolen some of their proprietary rights. So, he wrote a news release and wanted us to put it out. I took one look at it. First of all, I thought why are you writing a news release? This is what you pay us to do.

The news release was not badly written, but it was just not the right message that they wanted to say. We had a conversation about that. We went back and forth, the agency principal got involved and he walked out of the meeting room at one point.

And so that was fun. Because we were advocating not to do it, of course, and he just didn’t see that. He was going to go ahead and do it on his own. And I said, I strongly advise you not to do this. You’re going to regret it. It’s not what the kind of message you want to put out there. He went to his legal department and his legal department confirmed it. Finally, we were all on the same page and he later called me and thanked me. He said, I appreciate you saying something because I didn’t happen to agree, but I understand now why we shouldn’t be doing it. We wound up having many conversations after that, even after he left that organization and went to others. We haven’t had a chance to work together again, but we’ve often talked about it. At least we ended on a good note, and he understood where we were coming from.

Conflict of interest is such an interesting issue because it’s rampant right now. I was speaking with Elise Mitchell about that from the Cannes Lions when she was on the jury. There are so many cases where people are stealing ideas and passing them off of as their own. What is your advice? If you don’t want to attack your opponent for stealing your ideas or stealing your IP, what is your advice for people that find themselves in that situation?

In this case I said, you need to leave that to the legal people and is this something that they have truly stolen from you? But aside from that, we always tell folks for the most part, take the high road and look for the key messages that distinguish you from your competition. That’s often harder than you might imagine. People haven’t always completely thought through what their key messages are. What are they trying to convey? Why are they different? Why should someone be working with them? What message are you trying to get across?

The best thing that we can do is provide the right kind of counsel and courage them to take it. They’ve brought us on board for our opinion and we can give them plenty of examples of how things might work and also give them examples and recommendations as to what they can do on how to communicate that to the right audiences and through the right vehicles.

Is there anything else you wanted to highlight directly from your experience?

One technology company I worked with, their new marketing person came in and she saw public relations as press agentry. I don’t know where she got that term from. That’s such an old throwback. There were the things that she was asking us to do and the methods and who we should be working with and so forth. She was quite insistent on it. We just kept trying to sort of switch up the conversation to let her know, well, this makes more sense for us to do it. This wasn’t the kind of organization where you would do any of those kinds of things anyway. And even the people in the entertainment business, weren’t doing those kinds of things anymore. That took a little bit of convincing, but she finally came to a common ground.

A more recent experience I’ve had was working with another technology company where the client CEO felt that he could communicate well with media. He wanted to send out his own pitch letters and put why the organization was great. The organization did have a very good message, but they still hadn’t completely refined it. We were trying to convince him that this is not the way to go and to let us refine it. We didn’t come to a complete resolution about that, but hopefully they’re on the right track.

When you’re trying to convince somebody that what they’re doing is not in their best interest, what have you found to be some of the most effective tools in your toolbox to make your point?

Common sense. People forget common sense means something. Come back to a client and explain here’s what we recommend. Sometimes that is all it takes for them to help them understand what path they should be going down. We can have a lively conversation about why we might want to do something or not. Sometimes we can agree to disagree. It just depends on the situation, but usually talking it out and explaining that the reason that they brought you on board is because they feel that you have the expertise to help them.

What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges facing the industry?

There is always going to be some kind of conflict or some kind of ethical or moral challenge. You have to look at what we’re facing now.

The thing that probably concerns me the most is disinformation, which has been promulgated by of course, social media. People are free to say whatever they want to say and that’s good and bad, but when there’s disinformation, then it’s hard for anyone to sort through what that means.

I’m concerned that does carry over into all the work that we do as well as everyday life and the tone has become so challenging and it’s distracting, it’s unpleasant. And it gets in the way of getting the right kinds of message and truth, if you will, if there is such a thing to get the word out about whatever it is that you’re trying to do, it creates kind of a mess.

Peter Loge, who’s one of the more popular interviews I’ve done, highlights that so many people say well, the stakes are so high, it’s okay to cut the corners and to do these unethical things.  Where I think this happens a lot is in the technology industry. I mean, we know there’s a gold rush. How do you help companies address that when they’re the victims of disinformation?

For anybody that’s worked in technology there’s so much out there that’s supposedly new, different whatever. There was a day, and there still is to a certain point, where somebody has founded a company and they have an exit strategy that they want to sell in three months. They want to be on the cover of the usual Wall Street Journal, New York Times, et cetera. And they can make things very difficult and get in their own way by putting out messages that aren’t particularly clear, aren’t particularly accurate. And so again, it kind of have to take each one on its own merits to figure out, okay, what is this person’s strategy here? How do we help move around that? And sometimes you just can’t. Sometimes in the crazy days in particular, that one company that wanted to have this three month exit strategy and be on the covers of everything, wound up selling the company in three months and made a lot of money. But that’s changed a little bit as the technology market becomes more mature. That’s somewhat changed, but it’s still there.

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

At the end of the day, you have to look at yourself as a person and what your values are and what your morals are.

What can you do and still live with yourself makes sense and is not something that’s going to make the client look bad at the end of the day? Save them from themselves sometimes.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

One thing I was going to note because of the times that we’re in, and I’m sure there will be plenty who will disagree with me, but the current administration in the White House – Jen Psaki and her team have done an excellent job at fielding questions at helping kind of cut through the clutter, cut through the snarky remarks that come from reporters from time to time and really cut to the chase.

If she can’t answer something, she’ll say she can’t answer something. And I think that’s important for executives to know too. They don’t have to answer every question if they don’t have an answer, as long as they can come back and tell folks, I will get back to you about that. I’ll let you know. And I’ll find out more and can share more with you. I think that’s just being straightforward is probably the best thing.

That’s a great point. And I found so many folks that want to make something up because they don’t want to seem stupid and just say, no, I don’t know, let me check into it, let me get back to you, or I’m not an expert. It’s such an important element.

Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here.

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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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


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