Public Relations Professionals Are Failing to Address the Ethical Threat of Incivility – Brian Peterson

Joining me on this week’s episode is Brian Peterson, the principal of Greater Life Communications. He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

Why don’t you start off by telling us a little bit more about yourself and your career?

Since I was 16, I’ve been in communications. First, I was in radio journalism doing the DJ thing with album rock at night and high school during the day. Radio was my first love. I went into magazine publishing after that, then onto website content strategies, starting a dot-com site. For the past couple of decades, I have focused on strategic communications for NGOs, non-governmental organizations and other non-profits that are really getting to the root causes of human suffering.

If you were to say, “What do I do for a living?” I use all of my communications skills to get to the root causes of what causes people to suffer the most on this planet. I started my own communications business, Greater Life Communications, back in the early 2000s, to provide purpose-driven communications, to create understanding and build bridges and make peace for the end of making life easier and better for people around the planet.

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

There’s been a few. As you can imagine, working in a global setting, it gets even more complicated. The most difficult was a situation where I had to choose either the high road or not the high road. The hard part was that my executive team didn’t necessarily see it that way. I was risking my own job by speaking up or saying nothing and going through a lot of contortions in my own thinking to justify going the low road and trying to make that work in my own head as I think they had done, because they weren’t necessarily unethical people either.

But in that way, they were able to go through mental contortions to say, “Hey, this is fine. We can do this.” Thankfully, I did go ahead, and I did have that confrontation, and thankfully it was received well.

Now, that doesn’t always happen that way, so it’s not a guarantee. My colleagues trusted my expertise as a PR person, as a communicator and my judgment, because I think I did it as respectfully as possible. Taking the high road meant that we had to tell our publics the truth and the whole truth and taking the low road would’ve been telling part of the truth. Telling only part of the truth can be very misleading. That’s sometimes what lawyers do, they tell the part of the truth, but not necessarily all of it.

What is your advice to people that find themselves in similar circumstances, to increase the chance that their counsel is taken?

You can almost you say anything in partial truth, and that doesn’t make partial truth the ethical thing to do. The important thing, if you find yourself in a situation where you think there is dishonest communication, is no one is necessarily telling lies or wanting to tell lies. Let’s say you’re doing corporate messaging and you think that it’s unethical because it’s using partial truth only.

The key is respect. If you can enter into the thinking and the world of your colleagues who perhaps are the decision-makers superior to you, using their language, using their logic, being patient enough, so that it does not escalate into any kind of emotional response. We are all emotional beings. Don’t put away your emotions but is it’s amazing what you can do when you show people respect.

Another step is showing kindness and empathy when you face those situations. It’s often less risky than we think if we confront a situation respectfully and as privately as possible. Explain our rationale from our expertise as communicators.

In the long run truth will prevail and you will end up better off telling that truth. It’s the healthiest option for any organization.

I always say you have to think about why people are making the decision and make sure you’re not coming up just saying, “You’re unethical,” because the minute you do that, it gets very defensive. Find what motivates them and address it appropriately.

Absolutely true.

Is there anything you wanted to highlight in terms of ethical challenges you may face with NGOs or other organizations?

One of the NGOs I worked with had offices in 82 countries, and one of my more recent clients was across five countries in Europe, Southeast Asia, and East Africa. The ethical issues are also cultural-related as well.

What happened in the two organizations I’m thinking about right now, I spent a lot of time with them, and you must absorb how cultural norms intersect with ethics. If you’re dealing with an organization where you’re multinational, then you’ve got to find the common ground. It’s much more complicated because, say in my case, building bridges between Muslims and Christians and the norms, the culture and the ethics that are related to that. You try to have common ground, which there is, but it’s the expression of common ground that is so different across different countries.

You’re trying to create a sense of family, a sense of unity for staff and external audiences where these voices are heard and there’s a brand that’s cohesive and unified, but that is not rubbing your own organization the wrong way because of their cultural norms and their ethics.

Just explaining it like that to you, you might start to realize how complex communications can be when you’re talking about offices in a number of different countries, and also employees with different religions.

It goes from whether you’re talking about universal versus absolute ethics, and you may have a guiding principle, but how do you adapt it for the localities? David Herrick discussed having a speak-up culture, and what that means in Korea versus the United States are very different.

Absolutely. You also must work with local languages. I guess we do have a universal language, at least it’s arguably English. But there are always ways, to find the right words and phrases and messages that really can build bridges. It’s not impossible by any stretch. It’s hard work, takes a lot of patience, but you can bring it down to an essence where it appeals to humans. We do have enough in common as human beings to where you can craft a beautiful sense of family through the choice of words and language, as long as you have the patience to go from point A to point B.

Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?

One of the largest threats to our democracy here in the U.S. and our economy is the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation. I have been focusing more what has resulted because of the storm of misinformation/disinformation – the division and the incivility that has ensued. You see it everywhere. We see it in our families. We don’t even want to go to Thanksgiving dinner anymore because of the division and the incivility, and that’s pretty alarming when it gets to the family level. Because it gets to that depth of level, it’s going to happen in organizations as well.

I’ve heard this from CEOs and other leaders that they’re really worried about this pandemic of incivility that can go through their organization or is already going through their organization.

For PR professionals, it’s really interesting because we, as PR professionals, communicators and strategic skilled communicators…we are the ones that know how to use the tools of information and how to counter disinformation. We can be the enablers for either good or evil because of our skills, and so have to take a position of leadership in this profession. And I’m so excited about PRSA and some of the work that they’re doing now with Voices 4 Everyone and other ways that they’re providing learning opportunities and networking.

But that’s really the biggest ethical issue, is disengagement of PR professionals. We’re still focused only on the next press release or our next campaign, and we don’t feel a sense of responsibility for a much larger issue that even does exist within our organizations. It should be at the top of our list – countering the incivility in the organizations that we work for. The biggest ethical issue is the sin of omission of PR professionals instead of commission, meaning we don’t have that sense of responsibility and duty that is much larger and bigger than the next campaign or the next PR or the media coverage.

What is your recommended approach for dealing with this pandemic of incivility? Is it speaking up when we see it? Is there something more systemic we want to put in organizations? How do you see us effectively engaging against it?

Civility will conquer incivility or at least counter it. Civility will counter incivility, but kindness will conquer incivility. So, creating a culture of kindness is going much further than creating a culture of civility. One encompasses the other, but it goes further. The best way for PR professionals to counter this is to start thinking about extraordinary acts of kindness that we can get going within our own organizations that will smother incivility in due course, or at least will reveal stories of extraordinary kindness among staff or among customers in our communities.

Those stories of kindness are contagious and elevated. I recently wrote something challenging PR professionals to put forth a campaign based on kindness, using the same objectives as launching a certain product or service. Raising morale on staff if you’re doing internal communication and you’re working with HR to do so. But actually saying, this whole campaign that we do this next time is going to be built with the underpinnings and the foundation of kindness, what would that look like?

I like how you’re saying it’s going beyond civility to focus on kindness. A lot of PR people love dates, what is being done around World Kindness Day.

World Kindness Day has been around for a while. This year, it’s early November, right during the PRSA International Convention. PRSA observed World Kindness Day at ICON. And of course, those who are listening who are members of PRSA, know that we have a wonderful, vibrant, exciting PRSSA for the university students, and they have latched on to this.

I’m just so proud of them because they are going to do some work on their campuses the week before World Kindness Day to really activate this kind of kindness, this extraordinary kindness, and even random acts of kindness that aren’t necessarily extraordinary, but they make a huge impression on someone. They’re going to go do that, and they’re going to capture some stories of how it works out, just these acts of kindness on campus, and then talk about that at the PRSA Conference.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

I found it in the Bible, and that is do unto others as you would have others do to you.

If you ever wonder, which way should I go on this? What better question to ask than would I want this done to me? What would I want done to me? And usually, you come up with the right answer. A lot of the stuff we’re facing right now with ethics seems so complicated, and it is, but I think still that simple question based on that wisdom from the Bible will really go a long way.

I agree, and it’s probably one of the three most quoted answers that I receive right after the New York Times Test and tell the truth. It’s been valid for thousands of years. It’s a great resource and a great guide.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
Follow Me
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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *