Too many beers: ethics and client conflicts – Ken Kerrigan

Joining me in this week’s episode is Ken Kerrigan, a Vice President at Infinite Global, an international communications firm specializing in public relations, branding, and content. Ken discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

I guess I describe myself as a spin doctor, and I know a lot of people object to that phrase, but I don’t. I’ve been practicing public relations for 34 years now, both the agency and in-house side. I’ve worked pretty much for everybody including Edelman, Hill & Knowlton, and Weber Shandwick and in-house, I spent 11 years as Director of Communications at Ernst & Young. I am now a Vice President at Infinite Global, and I’m also on faculty at New York University where this semester is going to be my 10th year teaching classes on communications management strategy and the history of PR. We get into a little bit about ethical dilemmas that we might face in the profession, including in today’s stakeholder driven world.

We’ll have some fun discussions around that, but thinking about those ethical dilemmas across your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted without naming names?

This is one that actually, where I wish I could name names because we’d make the story a lot more fun, but I won’t because that would be unethical. This is a story I faced early in my career, and I think it’s a dilemma that everyone in the industry, I want to say faces every day, but faces a lot, and that’s client conflicts.

This goes back to when I maybe was in the business for about five years. I had some great training in ethics from NYU and without naming names, the client actually was, well, both clients were micro brews. Think the Sam Adams of the world, although this is not about Sam Adams. Those who were just starting to emerge on the scene. Very new, very hot type brands to be working with. We had launched one extremely successfully. That caused others to come knocking on the door, which is great for agency growth, but where the ethical conflict comes in is having the same person working on both pieces of business if their goals and objectives are the same.

That situation arose. I tried to get myself out of it by saying, “We can’t do this. This is wrong. Certainly, I can’t do it, because that would be cheating the other client and not disclosing that we had a conflict for the potential new client.” I was ordered to do so and ended up writing a memo to the agency CEO stating my objections of why I thought it was wrong. It was not received well. A copy was made and put into my personnel file. That’s an important point to remember in the story.

We start working and I pitch some new stories for the new client, including one that actually landed in the Wall Street Journal. It was a tremendous story that I have framed, hanging in my home office. The story came out and the original client saw it and got upset. They called the agency and they said, “There’s this story in the Wall Street Journal, we don’t know who this new beer is. Why isn’t this us? What happened?” The agency response was not to fess up and say, “Oh, well that was us. We had a conflict.” They actually said, “Oh, we need to make a change in your account leadership.” The quote that I was told was used was, “That Ken Kerrigan is a real f-ing zero.”

What they didn’t know is that the existing client really, really liked me and didn’t believe that. They called the reporter at the Wall Street Journal, and they said, “Hey, we’re this beer. We saw the story you wrote this morning and we’re curious if you worked with a public relations firm because we might be looking for one.” The reporter said, “Yes, I did. I’ve known him for a few years. He’s great. He would love to talk to you.” They said, “Really? Who’s that?” He said, “It’s Ken Kerrigan. You should give him a call.”

My phone rings and I’m summoned to see the client. It’s the whole leadership team asking me to explain myself. Fortunately, in prior meetings, I had talked to the president of the company who I was friendly with and said, “I was confused. I had an ethical dilemma. What should I do?” That guy, who we’ll call Joe, stood up in the meeting and said, “Guys, this one’s on me. Ken came to me, he told me he had a problem. I never imagined for a million years that the problem was another beer. I thought it was just another beverage and it wasn’t going to be a problem, but he came to me. I didn’t ask enough questions.” The chief council for the client said, “Well, did you raise an objection?” I said, “Yeah, I did. I actually wrote a memo.” They said, “You did? Do you have it?” I said, “Not with me, but I know where it is.” They said, “Okay, we’re going to be having dinner at this location tonight, be there at six and bring the memo.”

It kind of sounds like a movie, but I remember all of this like it’s a video of my mind. I went into the file room, and I opened up the cabinet that had my folder. I found the copy of the memo that HR had put in there to slap me on the wrist, made a photocopy, put the original back, folded it up, put it in my jacket pocket, went back to work.

Hours later, I went to dinner, the general counsel was there said, “Did you bring the memo?” I said, “Yes.” I gave it to him. He read it, he nodded, folded up, put it in his pocket. We had a wonderful dinner. It was never discussed again. After dinner, he’s leaving and before he gets into his car, he turns around, he puts his hands on my shoulders and he says, “We want you to know we consider you be a very special young man.”

The next day we were fired, and I learned a very valuable lesson. If you know you’re right, write it down because you’re going to have to prove that saying I was just following orders, as we learned I think in the Nuremberg trials, is not a very good excuse. When it comes to ethics, even if it means you might get yelled by HR, if you think you’re right, you need to say so and be willing to stick to it even if you might lose your job. At the end, you’ll still have your integrity intact, and you’ll have a hell of a story to tell. I’ve kept that lesson with me.

I’ve never done something that extreme again, but it’s something I’ve never forgotten. It’s a litmus test of the agencies you hire when I was on the corporate side, and the agencies that you work for, if they don’t take client conflicts seriously. It’s okay to work on two brands in the same category, as long as they’re separate teams and you make a strong effort to treat each client uniquely with the agency’s expertise. When you ask the same person to do the same work for the same clients, without either one being okay with it, that’s a problem. I think it’s something that we still see today that we need to deal with.

That is a hell of a story. You just addressed one of the questions I was going to ask – How do you handle the similar companies in similar spaces? You said different teams, but I think it probably goes even deeper than that, that you need to have firewalls in terms of shared resources. If you’re going to really do that, you got to find ways to make them extremely separate, not just different people, but the IT resources or who’s done the ed cal searches and all those things.

That comes down to the size and resources of an agency. Mid-sized independent firm, they could say they’re going to do that, but it’s really hard, especially today when teams, if they’re in the office, are all newsroom style. It’s hard to keep separate teams when the person next to you is talking to a reporter about your client’s number one competitor. All that other stuff is great to have, but what’s a must to have is disclosure.

You can’t get into a situation like that. It’s kind of like cheating on your wife. I’m not saying there’s a blueprint to get away with that. That’s wrong. Let’s put that on the record, thou shall not do that. The way you cheat on another party is by not telling them what you’re doing. You might find yourself a situation where a client says, “I get it. You need to make money. We don’t have a big enough budget to demand exclusivity. Thanks for telling us,” But both parties need to be okay with the relationship or you’re asking to get in trouble.

One of the points you brought up was the memo you wrote to the CEO that wasn’t well received. When you’re faced similar situations, how do you recommend raising those ethical issues so people will be more receptive?

That’s a key phrase, receptive. You have to be ready to accept the fact that not everybody will be. Some people will say, “I get it. I hadn’t thought about it that way,” but others are going to say, “This is my agency, not yours. How dare you?” Then you know it’s time to go. What I’ve done is I lean back, I’ve been fortunate in my career that I’ve worked for some great, great people. One was a man named Howard Paster, who was the Chairman of Hill & Knowlton back when it was called Hill & Knowlton. He passed away a few years ago.

Howard came on when H & K was trying to reset its ethical compass after some troubled years. He created a code of conduct for every member of the firm and insisted that everyone display it in their office or cubicle. If he walked by and it fell off or you thought it wasn’t important to hang on your wall, he would come by and ask, “Where is it?” If you couldn’t find it, he’d be back pretty quick with a new copy to have it hung up. It wasn’t something we put in PowerPoint presentation and said, “Well, we’re committed to ethics.” It was, in his mind, who we were.

He told me the PR practitioner has three responsibilities when it comes to ethics and integrity.

The first was responsibility to him or herself, that you felt comfortable that you were doing the right thing.

The next was to the client and our business, so that you were doing the right thing for them, much like a lawyer might do.

The third was to society. “Are we doing the right things? Would your friends and family be pleased or local politicians, anybody in society, outside stakeholders, would they be okay with what we’re doing?”

He said, “You have to check all three.” It’s not two out of three ain’t bad, a good Meatloaf song, but it’s not good enough for ethics and PR.

That was a long time ago, but I’ve never forgotten the great benefit I had of working for a man like that. It’s got to be okay with you, it’s got to be good for the client, and it’s got to be good for society. If it’s not all of those three, we need to step back and rethink what we’re doing.

Taking a step back and looking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

The first ethical challenge comes to what I would call the disintermediation of media and this hypothetical sense that corporations can themselves be media enterprises. Richard Edelman, who I’ve the utmost respect for, has called this idea collaborative journalism. I think it feeds into a certain utopian ideal that corporate America is capable of having the transparency and integrity of the Wall Street Journal, which I think we all say, “No, that’s never going to happen.”

Because of the lack of media, we lean into this idea of truth becoming more and more irrelevant and truth is what I want to believe or what my friends tell me to believe. We’ve seen that obviously over the last four years, is actually part three of my most recent book, Our Future in Public Relations, it’s called the death of truth.

The first dilemma is the media’s gone away and that puts a lot more ethical pressure on the practitioner to make sure. Just because it’s easy to get your news out there in a clever video or blog post or LinkedIn post, it needs to pass the litmus test of being true and at a much higher standard. That’s not happening.

I think the second biggest challenge we face as a profession is, we’re not regulated. Yes, I recently rejoined the PRSA and yes, I’m aware of their code of ethics. Yes, I do applaud them over the last year for sharpening their teeth a little bit more than they have in recent years. We all know as practitioners that there’s no punishment for doing the wrong thing, unless it’s so egregious that it makes the New York Times and everybody throws up their arms like Inspector Renault in Casablanca and says that they’re shocked, shocked to find out there’s lying going on here.

We’ve seen that just this year. We had a certain agency in New York. We’ve seen it in the UK a few years ago and we all look like, “How could we not know this was happening?” I’m like, “Yeah, how could you not know this was happening? Really, it took this one journalist to discover that there was a lack of ethics here.”

I think that’s because everyone knows, “I’m not going to get disbarred from the profession of PR.” That’s a huge problem that legends like Ed Bernays fought for and didn’t get. I think there’s no interest in it. It’s never going to happen unless we screw up so badly that the government comes in and regulates the entire profession, which I think is never going to happen.

Something I tell my students is, as you learn about PR, we’re training you in superpowers. The challenge is how to use your superpowers for good and not for evil because we can use them for evil if somebody wanted to and do some amazing, look at that case of Bell Pottinger. What Bell Pottinger was doing in South Africa is abominable.

I agree. You mentioned superpowers. As a PR man from Queens, I feel obliged to quote my fellow Queen’s native Spider-Man. Ingram Street is just a few blocks from my home. Of course, with great power, comes great responsibility.

I don’t think that’s taught enough to the next generation of PR leaders. It’s not about just getting coverage or throwing a party, it’s about being responsible for your actions.

How do you help brands maintain that ethical focus and not play fast and loose in the open communications landscape?

Wow. If I knew the perfect answer to that, I could retire.

I think a simplistic answer to that is one word, no.

We as practitioners and especially agency leaders, need to become more comfortable and practiced in saying the word no, firing a client, refusing to take a piece of business. I’m proud of the agency I currently work for. We won’t touch anything that has to do with guns. Period. Just in the last year, multiple clients have come to us who were either directly or sometimes tangentially connected to the gun industry. It could’ve been very lucrative for us, but we said, “No, we won’t do it. We won’t even entertain it.” I credit people like Harold Burson back in the early nineties, was one of the first to say no to big tobacco and started telling people, if there’s an industry you don’t want to work on, it’s okay to say no.

That’s what we need to do as a profession. How we reclaim ethics and truth is, not to quote Nancy Reagan but, “Just say no.” That has a powerful effect. When agencies won’t talk to you because of your business, people figure that out eventually and say, “Wait, we can’t get communication support because nobody will work with us. We’ve got a problem. We need to fix that.”

Oh, Steve Cody likes to say, “Everybody is entitled to PR council, but it doesn’t have to be me.”

What are some of the ethical challenges or issues that most interest and engage students?

It’s when they look at companies they admire and then step back and pull back the curtain and realize the reason for why they admire certain companies has a whole lot to do with ethics. We could replace that with a different word and use purpose. Being purpose-driven as a brand, is in essence about behaving ethically. that. There’s a case study I use that’s older because this company I believe has figured things out and does things much different today, but there’s a famous case that’s taught in law schools, and it’s Nike V Kasky.

I teach this and I start by show of hands. I look around the room and at NYU, a lot of students wear sneakers and I do a little survey about who’s wearing a Nike brand, either on their clothing or on their signature. It’s usually at least half the room.

I say, “Do you admire Nike? Do you think it’s a great company? Are you proud to have the swoosh on you’re a shoe?” Invariably the answer is, “Yes,” or some will say, “I never really thought about it,” but mostly it’s yes, it’s a symbol of status and pride. Then we talk about Nike’s behavior with sweatshops and Marc Kasky and what he tried to bring to light. They’re all stunned to say, “Well, this is so wrong. Nike’s code of conduct was a lie. How could they have done that and denied it? This was a terrible, terrible thing.” I said, “Do you think the public relations profession stood up in umbridge and said, “Nike, you better get your act together or else?” They said, “Well, of course.”

Then I show the amicus briefs that went to the Supreme Court. I said, “Get a load of this. Page Society, PRRSA, PR council, IPR, it goes on and on and on.”

The entire profession sided with Nike because they thought there’d be a chilling effect on free speech if Nike wasn’t allowed to say it did not operate sweat shops in Indonesia, but it did. Bob Herbert of the New York Times proved it, but the public relation profession said, “Oh, if we say that people can’t lie, that will have problems going forward.” We talk about that for two whole lectures and say, “What would you have done if you were a leader in PR in the early 1990s? Would you have sided with Nike and why?” I think today, if that case came up today, people would say, “You can’t operate sweat shops in Indonesia, Nike, and you certainly can’t lie about it.” I think we’ve changed radically as profession, but we explore that in the classroom to make them think critically about ethical conduct and responsibility of the PR professional.

That’s a great example. I usually use it to highlight the difference between corporate and commercial speech and really that’s what it really clarified and where the regulations got to be added. It’s definitely one of the more interesting discussions we have each semester.

You shared some advice earlier, but what would you say is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

The best piece of advice I was ever given? It was, “Never lie.” It was by now a fellow faculty member at NYU, Fred Garcia. He then added caveat with a smile and said, “Now that doesn’t mean you need to always tell the truth, like you’re always tied to a lie detector machine because there is positioning. There’s what needs to be said that’s maybe different than a complete confession.” He said, “That’s why your profession is a little bit more like a lawyer than anything else.” He said, “If you lie, you will be found out and good luck reclaiming your credibility and integrity once you’ve been labeled once as a liar. People don’t forget that.” It’s why I said earlier, I wear the title spin doctor with some pride because positioning or spinning something, that’s okay as long as it’s done through the lens of truth and fairness to self, client, and society. Too often I think that word is defined as lying and it’s not the same thing.

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

There’s so much.

I think the question becomes, what’s next? Guys like us are starting to gear up for the next generation of practitioners to come in and take our place. I often talk that the profession of public relations is celebrating a Centennial right now. If you think about, a lot of things that made it a profession happened in the 1920s. Here we are in the 2020s, Ironically, a couple years after Ed Bernays handed out the first business card that said, “of PR Council,” was just about two years after a global pandemic. The irony is between the two, a hundred years later, is sort of surreal. Where do we go next? It gets to where we started.

I think the conversation that needs to happen is, that the next generation of PR practitioners need to come in realizing that they’re entering a discipline much like being a doctor or a lawyer or other professional. I think we’ve regressed a little bit because of the power of social. It’s become about eyeballs and impressions and what we used to all hits, and not about shaping conversation. Because of the death of media, I think that’s the problem we have now, is that the vaccine, for example, fighting with people to say, “No, no, we have a vaccine. You should get it, so you don’t die.”

Seemed like a simple truth, yet it became a political statement and globally, I think we’re in a very precarious position right now. I think conversation needs to happen in classrooms, in boardrooms, in agencies, in corporate America, is the value of the PR function to help us see things through the lens of truth and how to communicate things the right way for full stakeholder engagement.

That starts in the classroom. There are not enough programs. I think there’s 90 plus graduate programs and communications. There’s very few that actually teach ethics. If they do, it’s an elective. It saddens me that I can only think of a handful of agency leaders that have already talked about ethics openly in the workplace. The most visible was the great Howard Paster. I think that’s the conversation that needs to happen, is that we could have another a hundred years of great success, or we could crash and burn real, real quick and play a leading role in the death of truth as a profession, by helping to put out half-truths or plain old lies by clients who are willing to pay for it. That’s what keeps me up at night and I think that’s the conversation that needs to happen next. If we had another 10 hours, we could talk.


Listen to 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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