She discusses a number of issues, including:
- How to successfully advocate for transparency
- How to protect your company’s reputation when other similar brands are having ethics failures
- Why we need to keep ethics front and center
Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I am a utility nerd. I came up through utilities. I currently am the Communications Manager at Toho Water Authority in Kissimmee, Florida, which is just outside of Orlando. I currently manage a small team here, but I have a background at other utilities, as well as the private sector working at an engineering firm.
As ethical public relations professionals, we need to be transparent at all times. Sometimes putting it into practice can sometimes be challenging. I was looking back at some things and those were things that perhaps our management didn’t want to get out. However, as an ethical public relations person, I have to share the news. Some of them can lead to lawsuits, so what you want to do in those instances is make sure you stay true to yourself and give the best advice to your clients.
Several times in my career, I had to decide if I was with the right management team during those moments.
What’s your advice to people that find themselves in similar circumstances? How do they work to push back on the management team?
You have to hold true to the code of ethics and to your own self. Who you are matters. You can’t go back and recreate those things. You need to be in, every instance, transparent, even when that’s hard to do.
Tell them, “What we will do is tell what happened, and then why it happened as best to our knowledge, and then what’s going to happen so that it never happens again.” But what you can’t do is ignore it, especially on a hard day in public relations. That is when we are the voices when there’s no voice.
What is your advice for professionals who have to consider leaving, but they realize, “Oh my God, how am I going to pay my mortgage? How am I going to pay for my kid’s school?”
That’s a tough decision, but you have to make sure you’re aligned ethically with your organization. I am right now with a CEO that I know his moral compass is pointing due north and it’s well aligned with me and my ethics, because I live the Code of Ethics for PRSA. Back when I think I first memorized it in 2004 when I was testing for the APR, everybody remembers the HEFAIL, right? It’s honesty, expertise, fairness, advocacy, independence, and loyalty, right?
We don’t HEFAIL, we always succeed, because we follow the code of ethics. But I think that making those decisions, especially as a younger professional, you might just want to look at the opportunities that are out there if you’re not consistently aligned with your leadership.
What are the benefits and what are the drawbacks of being in a regulated industry like utilities?
We are in a highly regulated industry, and I think that shouldn’t matter. You should be acting ethically anyway. But one of the things I love about utilities is our altruism. You will find utility folk will do the job whenever there is a job. I’m from Florida. When we have a hurricane, let me tell you, it’s all hands on deck. We have our families, but we have our responsibility to make sure our services are back online for our many customers, because quality of life is what a utility does. If we are not doing our jobs, the water’s not coming out of the tap or you’re not able to flush. Either way, you don’t want to be in that building.
But getting back to your point, it’s just making sure that we are all not just following the letter of the law, but that we are doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. Then you don’t have to worry about following the letter of the law, because you’ll exceed it.
At my utility, we have a promise. Our promise is that our customers, our community, and our employees trust that Toho cares. And that’s our litmus test. If we can’t say in our jobs that it’s proving that we care, we don’t do it.
It’s great that the brand has the purpose for every single employee, and they understand it.
Before I came to Toho just before the pandemic, we had the old vision mission values statement that I think a lot of companies have, but we did some research. I follow RPIE, and we asked our employees, and guess how many could tell us those vision mission values?
I’ll go for 33%.
How about a big goose egg?
Zero. Not even our top management could recite. I mean, these were not even that long a statements, but the 10-word Toho promise has really taken root and we live by it.
Thinking beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
Keeping the ethics conversation front and center is a challenge. I think that the younger generation isn’t getting involved with organizations like PRSA, which I think is a huge detriment to their career growth, but the organizations like PRSA need to keep it front and center.
My favorite month is September. It happens to be my birthday month, and it’s Ethics Month. So during Ethics Month, making sure we have programs and talking to people about those tenets that I talked about, that everyone should remember and know the code of ethics.
How do you keep it front and center?
I keep it in my wallet. I keep a really tattered old card in my wallet between my wedding picture and my rosary.
That’s how important ethics are to me. And I’ve taken this little, what was in my wallet out at several PRSA events, because it’s really tattered. I don’t want a new one. This is when I learned it, this is what I love, but I wish that people would really think about it. I think that we assume folks are going to know in their gut what the right thing is to do. They should be able, though, to put into words exactly which part of the code of ethics that follows and how they align with it. They really should.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you’ve ever received?
My college professor at the University of Central Florida, Frank Stansberry, APR, Fellow PRSA, told me, to keep it front of mind. Frank downplays his knowledge of ethics, and he goes, “I’m just a retired school teacher.” Well, let me tell you about that retired school teacher. He would come to our PRSA chapter and do some hands-on ethics activities, and that was my favorite day of the year to come. And so I think the best ethics advice is to keep it front of mind.
Having ethics conversations are some of the most important things that we can do as public relations professionals.
In our Orlando chapter, currently we have Ethics Minute at the beginning of the board meeting, just to ask people, “So, in this situation, what would you do?” And ask people their opinions and do a little poll. It’s interesting to see how many people don’t know the answer.
Quizzing people, keeping it active is really good advice. If it’s not practiced, it’s out of sight, out of mind. And you want to make sure that you are, with this important issue, absolutely front and center.
In some of the Florida utilities, there’s been some interesting discussions around lack of ethical behavior. How do you keep your utility from being tarred with the same brush as some of the other utilities that have had that issue?
As with any issue you will get some critiques of your ethical behavior, particularly when you have some of your colleagues at other companies accused of maybe being not as ethical. I personally think that it’s living by example, and like I said, we’re living the Toho promise here. We are ethical. We’re very responsive here, and we can’t worry about what the others are doing. However, I get that the public would kind of lump us all together, but we try to make sure that we’re doing the right thing at all times.
That’s the best that you can do. But I think that there’s also a difference between an investor-owned utility as well as a municipal service-oriented utility. It’s more important than ever, right? Because if you have someone who’s garnering headlines that aren’t advantageous for your sector, you want to make sure that you are doing absolutely everything and your peers are doing everything to make sure that there’s a different light.
With every customer and every relationship we make, we have found that those are the opportunities to show who you really are, and that’s exactly what we try to do every time. One bad thing and people will remember, and it takes 10 times to make it correct.
Ethisphere said it before, ethical companies aren’t perfect, because we’re human, we make mistakes. Companies who make mistakes. Ethical companies are the ones that when they have a mistake, they fix it and they’re open about it.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
I think that ethics and math are super important. I’ve always appreciated what you said when you were Chair at PRSA, and you encouraged people to love math. I was one of those cheering that on. I do teach PIE classes here in Orlando. People kind of know me for my pie. I bring a pie to class and I have the layers of the pie equal the RPIE process, and I’ve had successful candidates for the APR tell me they actually taste the pie when they’re in taking their test because of the lessons that are learned, and I will always remember that about you and math.
People don’t talk about math, people don’t talk about ethics, and they really should, because these are really important things that we as PR pros need to embrace, and it will strengthen who you are as a professional.
I’m famous for knowing how to break down the budget to show people what the return on investment is, because you have to tell the story. And if you’re like, “Well, I don’t do math,” that is definitely not in my lexicon anymore.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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