Joining me on this week’s episode is Scott Brooks, a public relations specialist for the TVA. I saw a column from Scott in a local newspaper and reached out to invite him to be a guest. He shares several ethics insights, including:
- Your client is accused of price gouging, now what?
- How to keep truth at the forefront
- How to ethically deal with advocacy
Tell us more about yourself and your career
That column is a great opportunity to how I got to where I am. My background is in radio and television journalism. I have a degree in broadcast news from West Virginia University. I spent about the first 15 years of my career doing radio, television and also some print journalism over the years. Then I switched over to what we always joke as the dark side about 15 years ago.
But it’s not the dark side, it’s the better-paying side.
Exactly. Well, when you come from a journalism background, that’s kind of how you refer to it. But absolutely, it’s been great the last 15 years in public relations phase, working for the last 13 years at Tennessee Valley Authority. And between there I had a couple of years at an agency here in Knoxville.
Coming from a dual background, I can recall one time in particular where we had a client that I was representing in an agency, and they had some issues going on with what looked like price gouging. I raised that issue to my employer and we made the decision to try to help them explain and defend it.
I had a real hard time with that because as a consumer what I saw was what it looked like. But as a client of that agency, we were kind of bound to help them at least explain, if not defend…and that was a real issue.
On the flip side, as a former journalist, I’ve watched how over the last couple of decades, there are a lot more journalists who seem to be advocates rather than straight down the middle. When I was brought up in journalism, you would do your best to tell both sides and not necessarily present any kind of bias. These days you find more and more you have a lot of environmental journalists who come at stories from a particular angle. I have a hard time with that because to me, you should be trying to give equal space to both sides because somewhere in the middle is the right answer.
Let’s dig into the price gouging a little bit more. I had a conversation with my students about the tweets from the fake Eli Lilly account where somebody bought a fake account and tweeted out that insulin is now free, which became a nightmare for Eli Lilly because they had to respond to it and it said, “Actually, no, it’s not.” Full disclosure, I used to support Lilly at a prior agency, and I know there are reasons for different prices, so I definitely have a bias there. But when it comes to that perception of price gouging, how do you go about ethically addressing that if you have some concerns?
I did really the only thing I had the power to do, which was raise the issue and the concern and if it was handled properly. I did what I think every public relations professional has the obligation to do. If you have a concern, you raise it as far as you can. That’s all you really can do in a lot of cases because you don’t have control over how your agency will respond or how the client’s going to respond. I think we all have an ethical duty to at least speak up in some form or another when we see something that doesn’t seem quite right.
When you’re raising the difficult ethical question, what’s your recommendations for presenting it in a way that can make the clients more receptive and make your messages more compelling to them?
The way that the situation was handled on behalf of the client was probably the right thing to do. The first thing that we told them to do is you need to get out there and tell your side of the story. That’s the first bit of advice you would always give. No comment is never an option, especially when you are on the defensive. The first thing that you have to do, whether you’re in the wrong or not, is try to get out there and at least explain your story. If you realize you’re in the wrong, apologize and say, “Here’s what we’re going to do to make it better.”
You mentioned journalists as advocates. In PR, advocacy is one of our core values: We are responsible advocates for those we represent. How do you recommend businesses deal with journalists with a very distinct point of view?
We deal with it every day and the advice we usually give our executives goes back to PR 101 – you have three or four key messages and you keep bridging back to those and you don’t allow yourself to be dragged into a debate or down a rabbit hole. You can’t control how the journalist is going to respond. You can’t control what story they’re going to write, but you can control what you give them, for better or worse.
Stick with your key messages, and if you start going down a road that you’re not comfortable with, you just say you’re not comfortable with that discussion, “That’s beyond my scope”, or “We’ll get you an answer and get back to you.” Those are all certainly appropriate answers to keep from going down a road that there’s no way to win. You can’t win in a debate with a journalist because they’re still going to print or report or broadcast whatever they think the story is.
Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I’ve been the chapter ethics officer here in Knoxville for three years, so we’ve addressed some of these over that time in local programming.
I certainly think social media is a game changer when it comes to ethics because it’s the Wild West. In my earlier career, I was in talk radio and at that time we considered that the Wild West because people could call in and say anything they wanted to, and you really don’t have a chance to message or defend that. It’s opinions on social media all day long, 24/7. There are ethical challenges that go along with how you respond or don’t respond, how you try to keep truth at the forefront when nobody has to be accurate or truthful when they’re on social media.
It doesn’t change the tactic. All you can control is your message. We put out a lot of great content where I work. We do our best to generate content and then we have to deal with the response. If 75% of people commenting on a particular post is positive, we consider that a good day. And then you just manage the rest. We’re not big fans, especially as a federal entity, of having to edit anything. People have a First Amendment right to say what they want as long as it is not hurtful or inaccurate. If it’s completely inaccurate, we will respond back. But again, all you can do is try to direct the narrative to the truth as you know it. And we spend a lot of time doing that on social media.
I was talking to somebody in the Air Force recently about the same thing. On social when they have folks that are spreading inaccurate information, they have the guidelines about don’t feed the trolls.
Do you also recommend if folks have bad information but aren’t trolling, you respond to them, but leave the trolls alone?
That’s about right. If there’s something we know we can correct, we will provide the accurate factual information. Then if they continue down a rabbit hole, just like if you were being interviewed, if they continue wanting to engage in a debate, then we just kind of leave it alone because again, don’t feed the trolls. That’s something we’ve heard all the time.
Are there any other challenges you’re seeing?
As I said a minute ago, just the overall impression that more journalists are taking an advocacy stance, and it’s very difficult when you’re dealing with facts versus emotion. You have journalists who passionately believe in what they are doing. That’s really true in environmental journalism in particular. They want to engage you in a discussion about what could happen and what the potential is and climate change and all you can do is keep coming back to the facts as you know it.
As a former journalist, it is difficult to watch that happen. Because when I was writing, you try to get both sides, and if you can’t balance the story than you at least do your best.
If you look at it back in the early days of the Republic, there was definitely bias in journalism. I spoke with Peter Loge at George Washington University, and he was talking about the Adams Jefferson campaign. Adams was saying, if Jefferson’s elected president our wives and daughters would be subject to legal prostitution, I mean, there was a definite bias and inflamed claims there. I think when you and I were first entering the workforce, it was more of that be neutral, but now we’re seeing it swing back again.
As I pointed out in the article itself, muckraking is not a term that’s new. That term has been around for a hundred years or more. So, it’s certainly not a new idea that there can be bias.
And now PR people use MuckRack every day. We love it. It’s a good tool.
Indeed. We all have a duty to take a look with an uninformed, or at least a neutral eye, at everything we see and read every day. Because if you hear something that sounds like it’s too far in one direction or the other, then it’s probably worth taking a second look and judging for yourself, and making your own decision based on what you’re seeing and hearing. It is definitely personal now more than ever.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
You have to be truthful. That’s really what it comes down to. Ethics is all about being honest, being truthful, telling the truth, and repeating the truth, even if people don’t necessarily want to hear it or believe it. That’s really all you can do. It may not be the best news for everybody. It may not be what everybody wants to hear, but as long as you are telling the truth as you know it, then it’s hard to get backed into a corner you can’t get out of.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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