What is Public Relations’ First Responsibility in Ethical Situations? Linda Welter

Joining me on this week’s episode is Linda Welter, the CEO of Caliber Group, a brand marketing, public relations, and digital firm. She discusses a number of important ethics topics, including:

Why don’t you tell us more about yourself and your career?

I am currently the CEO and Co-owner of the Caliber Group. We’re based in Arizona. Simply put, we reposition and protect brand reputations. We also solve business challenges as trusted advisors to the C-Suite. Previously, I served in PRSA’s National Board of Ethics and Professional Standards, or commonly known as BEPS for the first decade of this century. Together with my BEPS colleagues, I co-authored the current PRSA Member Code of Ethics. And while I served on BEPS, we shifted PRSA’s emphasis on punitive enforcement and sanctions using the former PRSA Code of Ethics, which was in place when I first joined BEPS, to Ethics Education and Inspiration using the current PRSA Code of Ethics.

Some background on why we moved from a punitive BEPS to an education and inspiration-based board, was after years of BEPS investigations involving unethical behaviors, we really learned that members would simply resign from PRSA when they were found to be in violation of the PRSA Code of Ethics.

They would continue practicing public relations after they resigned, unlike some other professions which have the ability to take away your license to practice. So at the time, members of BEPS felt really somewhat powerless to make an impact on improving ethical behaviors among PRSA members. So we decided to approach that problem from another angle to educate and inspire the kinds of ethical and professional behaviors that public relations professionals in the organizations they represent should demonstrate. It was also our recommendation that the PRSA Board of Directors retain the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is in sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of action that fails to comply with the code.

In my PR Ethics class, I talk about Tony Franco quite a bit as somebody who resigned before decisions could be made. I think we’ve seen some interesting shifts over the past few years. I give PRCA a ton of credit for this on what they did with Bell Pottinger. They sanctioned them and a few weeks later, Bell Pottinger went out of business. I think you’re seeing a move back towards, at least in some cases and at some times, organizations looking to hold people accountable. But there are definitely challenges to that.

It was different back then. At that time, social media wasn’t prevalent. Now the ability to spread the word has a different meaning for a practitioner. So in many respects, practitioners take it more seriously than they did back then.

There were also outstanding practitioners back then, too.

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. We’re focusing on those that were quite frankly, just not ethical and not good represent representatives of PRSA.

Thinking beyond the Code of Ethics and going back to your own personal life, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The most difficult challenge I faced is when I served on BEPS and we received a complaint about a local member of my own PRSA chapter. So every PR professional I knew then, revered her and she had earned a very powerful reputation as one of the most influential PR counselors in our region at the time. But BEPS had received a copy of a letter that she wrote to a prospective client she was pitching about a competitor, another PRSA member, where she made malicious remarks about the competitor, which we’re designed to deliberately undermine that competitor and convince the prospective client to hire her firm. Clearly, this was a violation of the PRSA code provision that addresses fair competition. So, what did we do? BEPS contacted her, presented her with the letter, and requested that she stopped this unethical and unprofessional action, which she did.

She knew how important her reputation was, and she quite frankly, was really embarrassed that we had a copy of this letter. So we explained to her that if she continued these actions, PRSA would cancel her membership, which really had great value for her. She received a lot of her referrals from PRSA members, so she immediately complied. But after that experience, my earlier impressions of her were shattered. I knew that she needed to win at all costs and that she was losing her competitive edge, which motivated her to pursue these unethical actions. So it really changed my whole vision of her.

You mentioned how they had sent a letter and they were saying some very derogatory things about the competition. Where do you draw the line between depositioning the competition and being unethical with regards to fair competition?

Well, in this particular place, she was making some claims about this competitor that were just simply not true and they were in writing.

A lot of the complaints that BEPS would get were hearsay and we needed proof to be able to take further action in addressing an ethical complaint. In this particular case, we had a copy of the letter. Her claims were false. Worse than that, they were malicious. It was designed to steer that competitor to hire her over the other PRSA member.

You can deposition, you can talk about how we’re a small agency, we’re more nimble than the big agency. You can have a big agency and say we have more resources and we can do things that a small agency can’t do. It’s when you get into that malicious and unfounded rumors that there is trouble.

At the end of the day, when someone asks you about a competitor, I think that clients will see you for who you are and what you stand for if you respond and say something positive about that competitor. And if they’re just looking for dirt and something negative, think twice. Maybe that’s not the kind of client that you want to work for at the end of the day.

Also, they may think if you’re saying bad things about them, will you be saying bad things about me in a few years? That’s why I always try to take the high road.

Take the high road, take the high road. It’s interesting, a lot of these ethical behaviors that are recommended through PRSA, for example, if you look at all of them, there are things that really govern actions beyond the profession. It’s just how to be a good citizen, a good neighbor, a good friend, a good family member, a good partner, a good spouse acts. At the end of the day, they’re just good practical recommendations on how to guide your behaviors.

You mentioned your opinion of this person was shattered because of the desire to succeed at all costs. We have all in our career run into the boss that wants to succeed at all costs. What’s your recommendation to effectively push back?

Well, the first thing that you should do, and this is recommended in the PRSA Code of Ethics, is you need to educate those individuals. You can’t just assume that everybody knows the right thing to do. So your first responsibility is to educate, inform, explain the consequences of your actions, think ahead, 10 steps ahead, connect the dots for that individual. And if that individual doesn’t listen to you and proceeds, take the conversation further and let them know that this is something that you don’t support. And then talk about the consequences of that.

Then you’ve done your job. If the person goes ahead and continues with those unethical behaviors, then you have a choice to make. You can stay affiliated with that individual, employer or client, or not. You have a choice. You are in control at the end of the day.

What are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges of today and tomorrow?

So many challenges. How long is our podcast today? But I’m going to just focus on a few that I see as the most severe challenges. One, I think traditional media is focused on ratings and not on reporting complete, fair and balanced news stories. I’ve been working with the media for 30 years and I have in the last couple of years seen so many journalists focus on the ratings and not on complete, fair and balanced news coverage. That’s really disheartening and it’s concerning to my clients. It’s concerning to the PR profession. That’s not to say there aren’t some really wonderful ethical journalists out there, but I have seen a shift.

Another concern is the speed at which misinformation can spread on digital and social media and the negative far-reaching effects with quite frankly, devastating impact. The reduction in media reporting resources and in the rise of sponsored content that’s not always identified as sponsored content on all channels, which could be deceiving to audiences.

Also, influencer content can be a particular concern. Although  I have seen a shift recently like the SEC crackdown on Kim Kardashian for not disclosing $1.26 million sponsored content. I am encouraged that I am seeing a shift in that area. Given the size of that penalty, other influencers will be motivated to do the right thing.

Finally, I don’t see clients willing to invest in strategies and tactics to build their own list of stakeholders, which would allow them to communicate directly to their audiences when misinformation is running rampant. Brands need to shift from defense to offense, especially in crisis situations. I’m just not seeing clients taking the time to really invest in building first-party data. That’s a real concern.

Al Golin talked about the trust bank. The worst time to start building up your stakeholders is when you’re in the middle of a crisis. You need to do it in advance.

And so we get the call when they’re in the middle of a crisis and they have not invested in building up their stakeholders or building up goodwill with those stakeholders. And then they want miracles to happen. I’m constantly telling our clients, build that goodwill, positive reputation and relationships with your stakeholders, year-round.

What’s your advice to PR pros to help them make sure they’re getting the accurate story out there and responding effectively when a reporter go sensationalistic?

If you have taken the time to build your list on all channels, I mean be building fans and followers on social media, use all channels to communicate with your audiences. When someone’s spreading misinformation about your brand, you have the ability to very quickly jump in and communicate directly to those audiences.

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

Incorporate ethics into your company values, employee training and culture. At my company, the Caliber Group, one of our core values is integrity. We explain this when interviewing prospective employees, and we ask them to describe a situation that demonstrates that they share our core values and ethical choices. I’ve also learned that ethics training and education is mandatory as well as needing a non-punitive method of reporting ethics violation. You have to have a system. You have to find out what’s going on behind the scenes.

And also a longtime friend and former BEPS member and also a mentor of mine, Jim Lukaszewski, once said, it’s our job as public relations professionals to advocate to our clients and employers to do the right thing that is in the public’s best interest. Even if it may not always appear to be in the organization’s best interest, time will demonstrate that doing what’s best for the public will strengthen a brand’s reputation and create more brand loyalty in the long run, which is much more valuable than a short-term financial gain that may be achieved by not doing what’s right in the public interest.

Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you wanted to highlight?

The foundation for good ethical practices is learned at home by the time a child reaches kindergarten. Some of the best advice I’d ever got came from my dad. He said that you need to tell people what they need to hear, even if it’s not what they want to hear. I followed his advice throughout my career and today it still serves as a foundation for the strategic counsel that I provide my clients.

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 *