EthicalVoices

Ethical Issues with Coalitions and Front Groups – Greg Bailey

Joining me in this week’s episode is Greg Bailey, APR, Fellow PRSA, the founder of Finley + Bailey Strategic Communications. He discusses a number of important public relations ethics issues including:

Please tell us about yourself and your career.

I’m a former journalist turned public relations practitioner. I spent the first third of my career working for newspapers. Started right out of college as an old fashioned copy clerk. And then I was a reporter and a columnist and an editor. I was the managing editor of the local business journal here in Nashville before joining a local PR firm. I was there three years, then myself and two other folks opened our own firm. We were in business for 17 years before that firm closed. And I spent a few years as a solo practitioner before opening this current consulting business, of all times, in March of 2020.

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

In the newspaper business, I did have one, and I really thought I’d lose my job over it.  The publisher of the newspaper wanted me to do one story that just crossed a line for me. I had an editor who sort of pleaded my case and I kept my job for a while.

In the public relations business, I’ve had one ethical dilemma. I was working for a national association client. The work was in a 13-state region, and I was doing public affairs and grassroots advocacy. We were going into a state to start a coalition to work on some healthcare issues. There was earned and paid media in the project, as well as advocacy work with legislators. Through the years, this client had used coalitions really as front groups, which they had planned to do again.

I told them that, “You have to put your name out there as a member of this coalition. If you’re going to pay for most of the advertising, you’ve got to be out front as part of this coalition”, or I wasn’t going to proceed.”

I brought up the PRSA Code of Ethics. I said, “As a practitioner member of PRSA, I’m just not going to go forward.” I had to plead the case all the way up to the ladder. I finally ended up on the phone with the Senior VP of government relations, telling him that a reporter could walk right into the advertising department, ask an ad rep who placed and paid for the ad and their entire initiative is blown up. I mean, it’s X, Y, Z industry using a front group to pass legislation.

So I said, “Let’s collect a hundred dollars of dues from each one of these 16, 17 groups. It goes to help pay for the advertising, everybody chips in. And then I think we’re fine from an ethical perspective. Yes, you are paying the majority, but you also have these dues paying members of this coalition.” And they said, “Yes.” We went ahead and did the initiative. I worked that coalition for a couple of years, passed some bills, defeated some bills and all was right. But at the time, that was a new client for me, and I was really putting myself out there going, “Boy, if we lose this client, I’m in big trouble.” But I just stuck by the guns and said, “We don’t have any choice but to do it this way, or this is going to backfire on you at some point.”

Coalitions and front groups are definitely something that come up time and again. It seems like we understand we need to disclose, but you still see people trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes.

Right. And it’s so easy to peel that onion back and find who’s at the root of that. You would think just from an intelligence perspective, that, “If we’re not out front about what we’re doing, and we’re going to bring these groups along with us, because they believe in the same issue that we do, you’re just going to get in trouble.”

I built a couple of more coalitions for that client in other states through the years. We walked in the door with “We’re a member” and it changed that whole organization’s feeling about how to create a coalition and how to stand out on your issue.

How do you push back when somebody says that “If our involvement is disclosed, people are going to discount the work with the coalition.”?

My pushback was, look, we have all of these partners who are willing to step forward with us. It shows that there are many concerned organizations who believe in this issue or think this is a good piece of legislation or a bad piece of legislation. Yeah, it’s important to our business, but it’s also important to their constituents and their businesses that we move this forward.

 So, in some cases you’re right, it may be, we can’t win being public about our involvement. Well, that’s why you have lobbyists. You can go in and sit down and talk individually with lawmakers and plead that case. But I think in a public forum, you come out in the wash a little bit better if you’re going to go out there and be upfront with people and advocate. You’re advocating for your audiences. And yes, you may have shareholders over here or members over here, whatever, but if it’s a just and right issue, then you have no reason to hide behind that issue.

I spoke with Kelly Davis about this a while ago, when you’re dealing with advocacy and trying to influence laws, how do you ethically draw the line between public relations advocacy, and lobbying?

Take a piece of fiber optic cable and there’s your line. A lot of times, if you’re doing advocacy work, you have to register as a lobbyist in that state. I’ve been a registered lobbyist, I think in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, I’ve been a federal registered lobbyist, because if you’re doing this grassroots work in certain states, you are considered a lobbyist. Even if you’re just supplying information to a third party who might go in and speak to that lawmaker.

Every state is different. I live in the state of Tennessee. Now regulations today, I don’t have to be registered as a lobbyist to go in with third parties and begin to talk to lawmakers. Ohio, for sure in Indiana, I used to have to do that. I worked years ago on a federal issue and went and met with lawmakers in some of these 13 states. And even if you’re not asking for a vote, but you’re providing information, you have to be a registered federal lobbyist. So it’s a very, very fine line.

Thinking beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

One of them is really rooted in the higher education classroom. What are we teaching potential young practitioners about ethics? You mentioned our friend Kelly Davis, and I know she has ethics in her classes.

What are we doing at that level in higher education to prepare these new practitioners for the professional world they’re going to step into? I know that a lot of our friends who are educators definitely have lessons on ethics and ethical behavior, but I think it needs to be strengthened and we need to make sure as practitioners and professionals that we’re talking to our educator friends about the importance of ethics.

Once you come out of school, what are companies and organizations doing to emphasize ethics? How are they creating and maintaining a corporate culture that follows a moral compass and makes sure those young staffers understand ethical and the difference between ethical and unethical behavior?

We have to turn a mirror on ourselves a little bit and make sure that we are modeling appropriate ethical behavior. Make it a part of company culture. When you hire a new associate account executive, they come in the door knowing the highest of ethics or practice in your firm and the expectations

Then, when you run into an ethical issue, you get a call from a client for whatever reason, and they want to slip something into a news release that you’re going to your direct report, you’re saying, “Hey, I got a call from the client. They want this in the release. I don’t think this is factual. Let’s play this out.”

Another issue is disinformation. Our profession must continue to lead the way in combating misinformation and disinformation. Recently I’ve learned of malformation. Voices For Everyone is a campaign that needs to be heightened. It’s really how we, as an industry have to attack this.

We need to be really, really out there talking about what misinformation and disinformation is doing in terms of our culture and how we’re educating people about what is fake news and how you spot that.

Very quickly, the last thing, if we think back in our careers, in 2012, did anyone in our profession use the word algorithm on a daily basis? Bots are either friend or they’re foe and we’re being targeted every day.

This information age is so different from any other. It’s just like no other. I mean, maybe the creation of radio might have been like this at the time in the early 1900s, late 1800s, but artificial intelligence is here. It’s being used by big firms. How do we use this big data that we capture? Are the individuals who are programming these algorithms doing so with an ethical mindset? The Canadian Public Relations Society have a great guide on ethics and artificial intelligence and public relations. Read it.

It all comes back to respect and fairness, transparency, fact-based communication. As we move into the artificial intelligence age, we have to be standing there waving that ethics and transparency flag.

I couldn’t agree more. Those that have listened to me and know me know I am very dystopian when it comes to what AI is going to enable us to do and how it’s going to be used against us. But I will say as a tech PR guy, I’ve been using the world algorithm daily since the mid ’90s.

 

A lot of my guests have talked about misinformation and disinformation. You’re the first one to mention malinformation. Can you elaborate what you mean by that?

It’s stated information that’s twisted upside down. It’s a first cousin to misinformation. I picked that up while doing some research the other day. It’s not necessarily factually wrong, but it’s definitely twisted in a particular pathway that might be construed as false information.

The way I understood it too, it’s that, plus it’s also information that’s used to intentionally inflect harm.

You said it’s our job as professionals to inculcate the new hires we have and help them understand our values. What do you do at Finley and Bailey to help people understand your ethical values, your morals and how they should behave?

We’re a small consultant business. So we bring in contractors when we need people and we work with people that we already know and have a history with. But if I’m going to hire somebody, they’re going to have a handbook as an employee that includes everything from here’s your healthcare insurance to, a whole section on ethics. The code of ethics is going to be there. You’re going to sign a pledge to uphold the PRSA code of ethics, even if you’re not a member of PRSA. It’s going to be front and center and everything that you learn as you intake a new employee. I really do believe that you have to set that ethical standard from the very first, with a new hire and bring them in. In my previous firm, we had an employee handbook that it was vetted by HR consultants and lawyers and everything else.

And it was a notebook full, but sitting right there was the PRSA code of ethics that you are going to agree to follow and uphold.

You also have to talk to that young employee about, “Tell me a little bit about what you learned about ethics in your courses in college.” That way if you happen to know the educator, you can follow up with your friend and say, “Hey, what are you doing over there about teaching ethics versus how you incorporate that into the campaigns class?” Every PR major takes a campaigns class to sort their last hurrah in college. How are you incorporating ethical behavior and that the code of ethics into that campaigns class?

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

I have two.

The term family values unfortunately, has been twisted upside down over the last few years, but I do think your ethics are shaped by the values you learn from your family and your parents, being true to what you were taught. Honesty, integrity, live that belief system. I was fortunate enough that my parents instilled in me all of those values and they are important, and I try to live them the other every day.

The second I learned much later in life, and it’s a north star and that’s the Rotary four-way test.

  • Is it the truth?
  • Is it fair to all concerned?
  • Would it build goodwill and better friendships?
  • Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

If you can’t answer yes, then you must step back and see, how do we work through this? I think of the lessons my parents taught me as a kid when I run into these problems, but I always can use the four way test as a barometer.

I think you’re the second person to mention the Rotary four-way test over the years. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

We, as a profession, are challenged like we haven’t been in a long, long time on the issue of ethics. You hear all the time in PR circles that we must be the conscience of the corporate world. It’s true now more than ever. We must continue to uplift truth and integrity and all the things that make up ethics. And then our code of ethics, we must live that every single day. And it’s never been more important than ever.

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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