Joining me on this week’s episode is Renea Morris, APR, Fellow PRSA, the Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications at the University of Denver. She discusses a number of important PR ethics issues including:
- What to do when you are uneasy with your company’s growth strategy?
- Why organizations should worry less about filtering people’s comments on social channels and trust the people doing the work?
- Where can Higher Ed improve?
Please tell me a little bit more about yourself and your background?
I spent the first half of my career in corporate, doing marketing and public relations for really large companies. I had a little bit of nonprofit experience. I actually started a nonprofit in the early ’90s in Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots.
After probably about 10 years at the company that I was at before I moved into higher education, I started to really think about what kind of difference I could make with young people. It’s part of my story when I talk about the nonprofit organization, because it really was put in place to help young people find jobs and to pretty much get ready for work.
And so when I decided to switch gears and go from corporate to college, it really was a full circle moment for me, because at the end of the day, I really do feel like I am making a difference with what I’m doing now, knowing how much of an impact higher ed can have on a person’s life. Being a first-generation college student, I just had a heart for this kind of work.
So I’ve been in higher ed now for a little over 12 years. I’ve worked at Ohio University, which is a public institution, and now I’m at the University of Denver.
You can imagine having a career as varied as I have, there would be more than one ethical challenge that I’ve dealt with over the years, but I would say that probably one of the most difficult challenges that I’ve had to deal with was something that happened over time. It wasn’t an in-your-face moment. It was a dawning that came on me after time.
I was working at a very large company. We were publicly traded. We sort of began from merging two companies together, so we had a legacy, but at the same time, we actually needed to solidify our place in the market, if you will, without having a lot of cachet in the marketplace.
One of the things that the company did was we opened lots of locations around the world, probably about 45 to 50 locations by the time we were as big as we were. Coast to coast in Canada, several locations in North America and also in Europe and Israel, and just a lot of different places.
I developed a local public relations strategy for these locations that we were moving into. The hallmark of that was to really get to know the communities in which our employees lived and worked. I was responsible not only for public relations but also for community relations. We would always try to find an organization that resonated with the residents. We would donate funds, our employees would volunteer. We really wanted to be a part of those communities. In addition to having a grand opening and meeting with local officials and business leaders, we got really involved in the community.
What started happening was as the markets started to change and things got to be a little more difficult for the company, we started having layoffs. I’m not talking about just a few people here and there. We were actually closing entire locations.
So here I was, the communication person responsible for everything that had to do with getting that place up and running, if you will, getting a local person to be our spokesperson on the ground and getting involved with the community, and what I was finding is that after a few years, we were pulling out of these locations, and it became a dilemma for me, because I didn’t want to falsely go into a community with enthusiasm, and then a few years later, completely pull out. This happened more than once. It ended up being one of the things that sort of made me want to move into a different industry altogether. That’s how I ended up in higher ed, because it not just wasn’t fun anymore, but it just didn’t seem right.
I spoke with Tony D’Angelo and Mike McDougall, about ethics scenarios and layoffs and they had great insight and advice. Was it just that you were giving the people more encouragement than you felt you should? Where was the negative feeling coming from?
I think one of the hallmarks for me when I think about ethical dilemmas in general, I think it’s a personal thing. This may not be everybody’s experience, but for me, it just made me feel a little disingenuous, because it was happening multiple times. One time, two times maybe, okay. We understand that we can’t guarantee anything, but it just started to just not feel great to me.
Did you raise this issue with others in the organization?
The conversations that I had mostly were with my team and with HR in terms of how we felt about what was happening. But of course, there was really nothing that I could do about it, because it was a business-justified decision. And fortunately or unfortunately, when you’re a publicly traded company, you don’t necessarily get dinged for slimming down.
What is your advice for other communicators that find themselves in similar positions?
First of all, I would hope that the position that I found myself in is not something that happens every day. But in any situation, I would feel that if something just doesn’t feel right, the important thing to do is to trust your gut and start asking some questions to get clarification.
It could be a situation where you don’t have all the information that you necessarily would need to have. But once you have a really good picture and an understanding of the situation, and if it still isn’t quite right, then I would say you need to raise the flag about that. Not just keep it inside, not just let it blow over, not ignore it.
Beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key public relations ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I find that communication is always a challenge when you think about all the various vehicles that we have now that weren’t in place 10, 20 years ago, and I just really think about the misinformation and the disinformation, even campaigns in some respects that are going on. That to me seems like one of the major issues that we’re having to deal with as PR professionals.
As the Vice Chancellor for Marketing and Communications, you’ve got a lot of students who are all digital natives and using these channels. What is your recommended approach for dealing with this spate of rise of disinformation?
I think one of the most important things to do is to be as authentic as possible. When I say that, I mean that we’ve got to look at things from the positive and the negative in terms of the flow of information and the ability for individuals to share their thoughts and opinions. S
This may sound almost counterintuitive, but I actually think we need to be a little less worried about individuals being expressive on channels. Sometimes organizations feel as if they have to filter the message, and I think that that sort of feeds into a little bit of the misinformation that’s out there, because it may not be completely accurate. Authenticity is important.
One of the things that we have been talking about doing as we are introducing a new brand at the university is to have more opportunities for students to just take over the channels and be real and authentic. Because at the end of the day, we’re all responsible for a set of experiences, not just the PR people, not just the marketers. We all are responsible for it. Being able to enable individuals the freedom, if you will, to be who they are, I think, is one of the most important things.
When you try to put guardrails in place that are too restrictive, it’s just not going to go over well. People aren’t going to like it, there’s going to be negative reaction. You’ve should set some parameters, but otherwise, trust the people that are doing the work.
Trust the people that are doing the work. I love that phrase, because I think that as leaders, we have sort of an extra obligation, to do that with our teams. When we set that example, that helps to calm down and just spread that to others to say that we have individuals that are experts in particular fields. Sit back and let them do that.
There have been so many changes in higher ed due to the pandemic. Are there any ethical issues that you’re seeing colleges and universities grapple worth in terms of helping the students realize their full potential?
Well, I think that as long as there are people, Mark, there are going to be ethical challenges. I don’t think that’s something that we can ever get rid of. I really do applaud you sort of providing this forum, though, because I think the more we talk about it and the more that we’re comfortable discussing it, it helps people be forewarned, if you will, and also be able to recognize it when they see it.
One of the things that higher ed needs to do better in general, is really being true to who they are. We do a lot of work with trying to elevate the brand and making sure that we’re telling the university’s stories. At the end of the day, though, we’re not making anything up. We’re really just taking and discovering and finding ways to express that, in words or video or pictures.
Pandemic aside, all organizations need to be true to who they are. We can be aspirational, but at the same time, we also need to be realistic. Sometimes organizations get a little too far ahead of themselves with what they might want to be in terms of how they show up in ads and uBooks and other forms of marketing collateral to get that class to the university.
I was discussing this with one of the partners in our firm today. Were we being too far ahead of ourselves with our vision and mission? Was that North Star really too far away? I was a really good discussion.
What is needed more than anything, is recognize those moments and have those discussions. At the end of the day, you may not decide to do anything different, but you might. So you always have to give yourself that opportunity.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?
Trust your gut, ask questions if something doesn’t sound right or look right. That advice goes for a multitude of things, and it definitely goes for ethics too.
Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?
One of the things that I’d like leave everybody with is to really just think about the impact that one decision can actually make. We’re all going to be faced with some dilemma at some point, and one decision that you make to have a conversation or ask a question could have a really big impact. Don’t be afraid to do that. Don’t think about what the implications of that are, because what I believe is, regardless of what could happen, it’s going to be positive, because you’re being positive, truthful, and acting with integrity. You can never go wrong doing that.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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