Joining me on this week’s episode is Sandy Young, the vice president of J. Walcher Communications, a public relations and marketing firm based out of San Diego with a diverse mix of local, regional, and national clients. She has spent her career in PR agencies with a penchant for crisis communications. Sandy discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- What to do ethically when a reporter wants to showcase a vulnerable person
- How to handle PR with asylum seekers
- How to help people understand “No” is an option
- The ethics of how we are covering Kanye West
- Why we need to update disclosure rules
Tell us more about yourself and your career
I’m originally from Sacramento, California. I moved to San Diego to attend the University of California San Diego, and like many, never left. One little note from my time at UCSD is I did take a class on ethics there, and I was told on one of the message boards there that I couldn’t be ethical or moral because I was an atheist. That in itself could probably be a whole other episode, but I definitely told them that was incorrect.
I started my PR career interning at The McCray Agency in San Diego and ended up graduating early to start my PR career there. I then moved to another PR agency and ended up being a product of the Great Recession and was laid off. I worked my way through that and then got a job at J. Walcher Communications where I am today as the vice president, as you mentioned, and have been here for 12 and half years. Just a little note on the personal side, my husband and I just adopted our nine-year-old daughter from Taiwan just eight months ago.
It sounds like your most difficult challenge in college was being told you can’t be ethical due to your being an atheist. But thinking about your work career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?
I face my most difficult challenge on a daily or weekly basis. And that really has to do with a lot of my clients and the fact that the media that we work with are looking for those human-interest stories, and they’re looking to speak to the person on the ground who is receiving the services and getting the help.
We work with a lot of nonprofits and community-based organizations, and those are the stories that are the most interesting. They’re the most interesting to you and me. They’re the most interesting to the media, to the public, and really are the ones that do end up getting the volunteers and the donations pouring in.
At the same time, these same individuals that have not been asked to be put in the spotlight. They are not the CEO. They’re not a staff member. Often, the ones that the media want are the most vulnerable. We work with asylum-seekers, refugees, people who are unsheltered, individuals who have low incomes, women from tough backgrounds. The list goes on and on. But really, it’s every time and every day taking a look at those old reporter five Ws and an H and figuring out, yes, this could make a great PR story, but should I ask this person if they want to be interviewed? Should I push my client for them to be interviewed? Should I be pushing this individual to be interviewed? Or should I be pushing back to the media and telling them to lay the heck off? Because a great story is one thing but impacting someone’s lives for a longer period of time than the two-minute story it might be, is a lot of a different situation and definitely an ethical consideration that I face basically all the time.
So how do you work through work through and determine yes, this one’s okay, and this one’s not?
It takes a while, it’s a complete case-by-case basis. One of the things that is always top-of-mind for us first is the actual condition of that person and whether we think that they are able to handle this interview. Of course, one of the things that we run into from the ethical side from the media is they were like, well, why are you making that determination for them? Shouldn’t that person be able to make that determination for themselves? Why are you acting as a gatekeeper? Why are you stopping them from doing this? And it’s tough because I see what they’re saying. I believe that that person has a right to make that decision and has that freedom of will. At the same time, one of the things that we’re always really cognizant of is that they sometimes will think it’s a condition of receiving help.
For example, for the past three years, we’ve been working a lot with asylum-seekers with a couple of our clients, and they think, okay, well you need me to do this interview because if I don’t, you might not represent me in my legal proceedings.
We need to make it very clear that it’s completely optional. And then, I mean, you have to think about the background of these people. In the case of asylum-seekers, they have been fleeing, literally, persecution and death and violence and extortion. So, who’s going to interview them? Taking a look at who that person is and what’s the angle on their story? Are they going to have someone on the other side that’s going to be interviewed at the same time? What does that look like? Often the media are coming to us and asking for these stories.
If they’ve built a good relationship with us, just like we have to build a good relationship with the media, and they have an understanding of the issues, then they’re more likely to be able to get an interview. It sucks sometimes when we have to turn down CNN or a Vice or New York Times for a story because they want that human interest story.
But at the same time, it’s like, okay, well you can talk to our spokespeople who were on the ground day to day with them and talk to them. But we are not going to ask the 500 people in our care each if they are interested in an interview. We will see if there are any that we think might be good interviews and might be in a mental and physical space where they can do such a thing.
And if they can, then great. But in the end, it’s about helping the people, not whether they can do a media interview or not. The other thing that we really try and do is prep them. For example, we’re working on the first guaranteed income project in San Diego right now where individuals will receive $500 for two years, every month, no strings attached. It’s a project that’s been working around the nation. Everyone wants to follow this story. They want to follow someone from the very first moment that they get that first check all the way through.
But that’s also extremely invasive. These are all low-income families. These are all individuals who are fighting to make ends meet. To have someone come into their home and follow what they’re spending their money on… Money in itself is an extremely sensitive issue. The great majority of individuals don’t discuss their salary or how much they spend on everything day to day. So, we’re actually working with our client to build a storytelling cohort, a group of individuals that is willing to share their stories. But what we’re finding is a lot of them are still uncomfortable and they want to use a pseudonym. They don’t want to use their faces. They just want to give a written quote. We have to respect that. It’s a great story, and we need money in order to be able to fund those projects, but we also need participants, and we need to prove that it works. We can’t do that if they’re too scared to do so.
You mentioned the pressure that end-users and employees may feel. How do you really work to earn the trust and help people to understand that “No” truly is an option?
It’s really hard because power structures are so built into our society at all levels, and we’re also taught to observe those power structures and the respect that comes with them and that you do need to listen to your authorities or superiors.
The first part is acknowledging that it exists and that I can’t go to all the people that are underneath me at the agency and expect that what I say doesn’t hold a certain weight. I’ve actually had a situation recently with several of our interns where they’ve been unclear about the instructions I’ve given, but they are too afraid to ask questions. They’re not afraid to ask questions to my other colleagues, but I’m too high up and they get too scared. I have never really run into this as much as I have recently over the past couple of years.
But a lot of it’s reinforcement, so just explaining from the get-go and continually asking do you have any questions? Do you want to talk this through? Why don’t you come into my office, and we’ll walk through it together? Same thing with the interviewees. I usually do mock interviews with them on the phone or on Zoom or in person and explain to them that this is exactly what it would look like. Here is a sample story that this reporter has done in the past.
We know that this person has done a lot of stories on homelessness, and they’ve always been very sympathetic to people that are homeless and tried to help them and explain where they come from. And then being very clear, if you’re not comfortable with this, that’s okay. We don’t have to do this. This is an option if you would like to. We’d love to help tell your story if you want to. But if you don’t want to, no is okay. Sometimes people pull out at the last minute, and I have to be the one to make the tough calls to the media and let them know I’m sorry. And sometimes they’re not happy, the media are not happy at all.
But it’s my job to be the messenger that gets killed then, not the person who is just trying to live their life.
Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some key PR ethics challenges today and tomorrow?
Keeping that human-centric component in mind in everything that we do…and consent. With more multimedia platforms and digital and social platforms there is invasiveness in all forms of human communications. I think we could all take a better look at stepping back and remembering the individuals that are in there. Just because they’re on a public street and, depending on where you live, you have the right to video them or record them, doesn’t mean you should or that it’s the right thing to do or… We need to take a look at if that was us in our shoes, what would it be? I don’t know.
For me right now, as one example, this whole Kanye West or whatever name he’s going by is kind of an example of that. He has bipolar disorder. He is in a completely manic state. We are amplifying the messages of a person that is ill and needs help. And by doing that, we are hurting him instead of helping him. And we are justifying what it is he is doing. To me, it’s just really bad. Yes, it’s entertaining. But I personally know individuals that are going through that, and they don’t need their voices amplified further. They need assistance.
We could all step back and remember. That doesn’t mean that we can’t watch what’s happening, but we don’t need to make a spectacle out of it.
The other thing I just wanted to mention, at least briefly, as far as challenges go is I continually grow more and more concerned about the disclosures for media in all platforms. This has been an issue for a very long time, but at least when you used to be able to read the newspaper or a magazine, you could see at the very top in small letters paid for by so and so, this is a paid advertisement, that sort of thing. There are several shows on TV now, all levels, from national to regional, where we as PR professionals know what’s being paid or solicited, to know what is a paid segment or what is a paid mention. But the average public cannot tell at all. Not at all to mention, obviously, social media where sometimes there’s a hashtag ad, but a lot of times there it’s not.
That is an extremely concerning ethical issue where people think that they are getting a third-party endorsement of something or objective information about something, and they are getting an advertisement. Which is completely fine, but I believe that it should be listed as such.
How do we deal with this blending of content?
I really do think that the rules on disclosure need to be updated. What the FCC and the Communications Act have put out, I don’t know the last time that had a major update, but I definitely think we’re due for another one. And I think not only having those rules in place, but some sort of enforcement of it is necessary so that people know what is advertising and what is not and what is true.
That’s an interesting dilemma as far as enforcement, and will it actually be effective? But then I would say, is it a thing where you need to actually be working with the platforms and should there be consequences for the platforms? Or consequences for those particular accounts on those platforms? Those are things that those individuals care greatly about.
What’s the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Obviously, there’s little gems here and there, but I go all the way back to watching and listening to Pinocchio and that you need to tell the truth. That doesn’t mean that if your client did something bad, you should just go on top of the rooftop and start shouting it. But if we go back to when we were talking about crises, it means being honest and transparent to your audience. It means being truthful and not telling lies whenever you can. To me, that’s the basis of ethics.
Check out the full interview, with bonus content, here
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.
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