Paddle your own ethical canoe – Filomena Fanelli


Joining me on this week’s episode is Filomena Fanelli, CEO of Impact PR & Communications. She discusses a number of important ethical issues, including:

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

I never imagined I’d have a career in public relations. I thought I was going to be a preschool teacher. And after going to school for that, something in my gut didn’t feel right. Someone who was very intuitive told me I really ought to consider a career in PR and did I know what that was?

I said, “No, I don’t.” And they proceeded to tell me about the skills that one needs to be in PR. And it turns out a love of reading, keeping up with current events and news, and someone who enjoys writing in long form and telling stories are the kind of things a PR pro is made of.

So nearly 24 years in, here I am. I started my career at Rubenstein Associates, had a really solid and ethics filled foundation from them. Many years later I started my own PR firm.

I live an hour and a half outside of New York City. And there weren’t many public relations specialists in my market. There were plenty of advertising firms who maybe dabbled in PR or marketing agencies that did light PR, but no one who was really owning that specialist category as an agency. I saw a void I could fill. And turns out, I was right.

Training as a preschool teacher may help you pretty well in PR.

It sure does. And it’s amazing that sometimes I have to ask people to use their inside voice or, “One, two, three. Eyes on me.” These kinds of skills do come in very handy.

I think one of my most popular blog posts of all time was I wrote it about 16 years ago when I was sleep deprived from my first son being born. And I said how Dora the Explorer teaches us everything you need to know about PR. Have a map. Don’t get distracted by Swiper. Say thank you. It’s like all the core elements there. But it’s a good thing.

It’s true. We need to have a lot of tools in our backpack.

Getting away from Dora and focusing back on ethics, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

There are days where ethical challenges are around every turn. There isn’t one defining moment that I think, “Oh, that was the time that I was confronted with a big challenge.” But I’d say they come up regularly, and they ought to if you’re practicing in a way that is honorable and true to form for our profession. You should constantly be up against ethical challenges and questioning if you’re doing the right thing.

What are some of those challenges you encounter on a daily basis? What are some of the things that come up every day?

It’s a combination of many things, and they can come both internally and externally. It’s things like clients inflating numbers or saying they’re the first ever to do something and us pushing back and saying, “Well, are you really the first ever to do that? Are you the only solution in this category? Is that the exact number, or are you rounding up?” It’s our job to ask those hard but important questions.

And then internally, if you’re going to run an agency, you should have a certain defining set of values. And if you’re living up to them, you’re going to need to question if you’re upholding them, are all the members of the team upholding them, are the clients you’re working with falling within those standards you’ve set up for yourself, and then making the hard calls when they’re not.

Let’s unpack both of those, because I think they’re really interesting topics. I’ve been doing tech PR for 30 years where everything is the first, best, or the only. How do you go about probing when your client says, “Oh yeah, of course it is,” and you’re still a little bit skeptical?

Doing our own research independently is important. Research skills are underappreciated in our industry. When someone makes a claim or tells you something, do your own homework and then gently come back.

I had a real estate client once who claimed to me they were the only one doing something. I did a search, and I uncovered a specific competitor who had a similar service. I said, “I realize that you’re framing it bit differently, but someone else here has something that’s quite similar to what you’re saying. How does your product or service differ from this? Because yes, it’s innovative, but I think we need to clarify a bit more how so. And we might need to say one of the only, not the only.”

It’s a good point. Or you end up segmenting yourself so narrowly

How do you go about making sure all of your employees understand the Impact PR & Communications’ values and live it on a daily basis?

We start before they enter through the door. Right in the job listing, we start talking about early and often what we stand for and how we do business, so that there’s a deep understanding before they even walk through the door about if this job is right for them or not. It’s part of the training.

Ethics is actions, not words. How we live it out speaks volumes and calling each other out on actions if they don’t align with words is imperative.

You have to train the ethical mind and live it every day. We’re all human and we all make mistakes, though. So eventually, somebody’s going to make an ethical mistake. How do you call somebody out on that without getting them defensive or closing down?

It’s modeled from the top down and the bottom up. It is creating a culture where it’s safe to call one another out and to say, “Is this really what we stand for?,” and embracing it when someone even calls me out and says, “Well, I don’t know if this aligns with what we all believe,” or, “I don’t know if I really trust this person,” and backing them up, believing in what they’re saying, and listening and showing that it’s okay to do that and it’s not only acceptable, but it’s encouraged, and coming quick to the defense of those who don’t do that thing.

If it’s a client and they’re acting in an abusive manner towards our team, if they’re not acting ethically, they’re lying to us and we keep catching them in lies, it is not continuing to work with those people, because it’s our reputation on the line.

Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

One of my biggest concerns is shrinking newsrooms, so the fact that there are fewer checks and balances, leaner newsrooms, fewer people to do the research and fact checking. I would say the speed of communications is also an enormous challenge. Information is going out to consumers more rapidly than ever. Those of us on the public relations side are gatekeepers, and it is a deep responsibility and an honor to be in charge of that kind of information.

And in our hands, it could change people’s actions. It could alter their opinions. It could drive the market. We have an enormous responsibility before us to work around that rapidly moving communications and sometimes to be the people who slow them down.

How do you go about convincing folks to slow down, practice the pause, take a step back so they can fact check and make sure things are accurate and ethical?

Within my team, I don’t let things head out the door without multiple sets of eyes. And even if a client is really eager, I tell them it’s important that more than one person review this, because you don’t want to be called out by the public or by the media after the fact. Slowing down is important. And it’s up to me to have that conversation and to model it for my team.

That is a key point, because it’s not just typos, but it is the biases that you’re bringing and the things that you’re not considering. That’s why it’s important to get that diverse perspective.

It can happen on so many levels. I know we both are involved with PRSA and have been involved with Counselors Academy. This past year, I was chair of conference. I purposely had a nice committee of people who would fact check one another and help make decisions together, because we all benefit when more than one person is checking to make sure actions are ethical, information is accurate, and that diverse perspectives are welcome around the table.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

The best ethics advice I was given was watching other people practice PR ethically in my career. I remember seeing, early in my career at Rubenstein Associates, predatory lending was a big problem in the market. I watched the person who I worked for put the kibosh on a really high-paying account when they discovered what was going on and that it was in fact predatory lending.

Seeing those examples throughout my career very much shaped what I believe about ethics. But all good things start with how we’re brought up. And I remember my mother as a child used to tell me, “Love many. Trust few. Always paddle your own canoe.” Cute and catchy, but more important than that, a reminder that we are ultimately the ones in charge of our own canoes, nobody else.

I think predatory lending is an interesting issue and it’s something that I’ve dealt with a lot. How did you go about addressing that when you’re saying, “Wait a minute,” because they may say, “Well, this is the accepted business practice”. Everybody in the industry does this for payday lending or whatever else the case may be. We’re not different than any of the other thousands of companies?” How do you frame the concern and advocate for it?

What I witnessed firsthand was somebody going in trusting that what the client told them was true and accurate and that it was okay, and then slowly, as we got to understand what was at play, seeing that someone’s dreams and hopes and financial position was being taken advantage of, and then them talking to others within the company so that it did reflect group decision making and going and have a discussion about, “The way that you’re practicing business doesn’t line up with our beliefs and what we think is ethical and right. And therefore, we wish you the best of luck, but we’re going to terminate this account.”

It’s so brave to turn down money or to disappoint someone. I’ve had to do it in my own business this past eight years a few times. Sometimes, you discover something isn’t what it appears to be. And it’s important to speak up and to do it with kindness, because we don’t all have the same ethics and same values, but we do have to stay true to the ones we have.

You’re reminding me of when I talked to Chris Penn. He used to work for student loan organizations. And as he realized, a lot of them were putting students in debt they weren’t going to get out of. And how could he reconcile that? And what he ended up doing was writing a daily blog and podcast about how to get tuitions and scholarships for free. It was an interesting way to reconcile some of the ethical dissonance that he was facing.

There is dissonance, but at the end of the day, all of us, regardless of what we do, and those of us in the PR profession also have to lay our heads down at night and feel good about how we’ve used our talents and our skills. And for me, that supersedes everything.

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

No. I’d like to flip the script on you, though, Mark, and ask you for a piece of advice, because you’re a leader I admire. What’s one piece of advice you have for me as I continue to grow and evolve in my own PR agency practice?

One of the biggest challenges as leaders is we need to have regular discussions around ethics. You need to prepare people for it and train their ethical mind. So, when they face that situation, they’re ready to react.

I recommend having ethics discussions at least monthly. Have people share what’s a whoopsie, what’s a mistake, what’s something horrible you saw somebody do. And it gets the whole team understanding the importance that you put on it. It’s great with the clients, because the clients can see how you can do it as well. And it’s really a way to reinforce further the importance of it and what can happen when you are not acting ethically.

I love that idea. And I love the idea of bringing young professionals into these conversations in the early parts of their career, because they’re watching us and they’re listening.

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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