Joining me on this week’s episode is Niel Golightly, a partner at FGS Global, where he brings clients more than 25 years of experience leading corporate reputation, crisis and sustainability strategies in Fortune 100 companies. He discusses several important ethics issues, including:
- An important lesson he learned flying an F-14 over the Indian Ocean
- What is the hardest ethical decision?
- The power of humility
- How do we redefine a corporation’s role in society?
- What societal issues does every company have an ethical duty to support?
Why don’t you tell my listeners more about yourself and your career?
I started my career, I won’t say how many years ago, as Navy Pilot back during the Cold War. I spent about six or seven years as an operational aviator in the Navy, but I was also doing a lot of writing at that time for professional journals that got me involved in speech writing at the Pentagon. I wrote for the Secretary of the Navy and was very, very fortunate to have an opportunity to write speeches for Colin Powell. He was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. From there, I left the Navy and went into the corporate world and found my way into corporate communications starting at Ford Motor Company where I spent some time not only in communications but also in sustainability. Then moved on to Royal Dutch Shell in London, where I did communications and sustainability. Then I did a stint as the Chief Communications Officer at Fiat Chrysler before they became Stellantis and then at Boeing. And now I’m a partner at FGS Global, which is a global communications strategy advisory group.
When you think about all of the activities you’ve led, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?
I’m going to start the answer to that with a story, and the story goes back to my time as a naval aviator in the Indian Ocean. Part of the responsibility of the fighter squadron on the carrier that I was deployed on was to intercept Soviet spy planes as they came over the task force. They would come over every couple of weeks. On the very first opportunity as a brand-new member of that squadron that I had to go intercept of these spy planes. I was very excited about the fact that I was on the front lines of the Cold War. The only thing standing between democracy as we knew it and the Evil Empire was me and my F-14. I pulled up alongside the spy plane and I could see that there was somebody in the portal of the fuselage of the spy plane that was making some gestures. I assumed in that moment as a young twenty-some-odd-year-old fighter pilot that this meant that somebody in that plane was getting ready to give themselves up.
They were defecting!
They wanted us to go escort them to some neutral field. Naturally of course, my adrenaline started to flow, and I started to imagine myself being on CNN and everything else. I pulled up a little bit closer, and what I realized was there was a guy, an aircrew in this Soviet plane that was in the window gesturing to us. He had a bottle of Coca-Cola in one hand, he was pointing at it with a big thumbs up, a big grin on his face.
Why do I tell that story? Well, first of all, it took a little bit of the wind out of my sails in terms of the role that I was playing, but it also got me thinking about what is the appropriate role for somebody like me to play in the rest of my career. The Cold War was going to be winding down because of the economic opportunities that the Soviets saw and the fact that they wanted Coca-Cola more than they wanted other things.
It wasn’t too many years after that I decided that service to this thing called the United States of America could be just as rich and as fulfilling in the corporate world as it could be in the Navy. It was an ethical decision insofar as I had to decide what did service mean to me and where could I make the most powerful contribution? I will confess that at the time I was also thinking about personal opportunity as well, but in a sort of metaphysical way, in a way that we don’t normally think about when we think about ethics. It was a decision between two courses of action. This was, as I think back on it, one of the biggest pivot points and moments of inflection for me, and it did have an ethical component to it.
It’s looking at your purpose.
While I know more people than you would think who used to be in combat aircraft that are now in public relations, from your corporate work, are there any ethical issues you’d want to share from your time at the Fortune 100 companies?
Typically, the hardest ethical decisions are not the ones between the right course of action and a wrong course of action. The hardest ethical decisions are between two right courses of action that compete with one another.
I have found this tension between two rights in many of the roles that I have filled. Let’s take the energy industry just as one example. There is a compelling need to continue to develop more energy for a growing population and for a growing population that has a growing standard of living. At the same time, there is an existential need for a solution to climate change. Those are two rights, and those of us who are in the PR profession typically find ourselves right at the cusp between those two imperatives.
How do you balance those? How do balance them both in terms of messaging, but also in terms of advising the company you belong to in terms of what is that right sort of juxtaposition of those two competing imperatives?
A couple of things. One is humility is key to positioning oneself, whether it’s as an individual executive, or as a company. What do I mean by humility? Humility means acknowledging that there are strong views across a wide range of agendas, across a wide range of needs, wants, and desires. Humility means going out and actually engaging with that wide range, sitting down with people and listening to them, having a dialogue with them, understanding where they’re coming from, looking for the places where there might be common ground between not only the company or the individual executive and that particular set of stakeholders, but even more interestingly, how does a big energy company or a big car company or a big aviation company find the common ground between differing stakeholders and having the humility to listen, learn, acknowledge that there are different points of view and be willing to find that common ground is part of the whole task of finding that ethical balance.
Thinking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think that the most compelling, most pressing corporate PR ethical challenge right now is helping to define a changing and evolving role for the corporation in society. That’s big. It’s existential, it’s metaphysical. I get it. It is something that transcends a lot of what we do on a day-to-day basis, but it infuses, and it informs what we do on a day-to-day basis.
What do I mean by the role of the corporation and society? For years and years, certainly much of the time when I was both growing up and as my own career was evolving, corporations could invoke Milton Friedman and that whole concept of pretending that business sort of lived on this island that was populated only by shareholders to excuse itself. It sat over here separately from the rest of society. From this island, it sort of exported goods to the rest of society and it brought in revenue and society off the island could kind of take care of itself.
The social problems were over there someplace. The governmental problems were over there someplace. The responsibility for the environment was over there someplace.
Now more and more CEOs, more and more companies, more and more people at senior levels within companies are realizing three things. One is that companies actually do not exist on their own island. They’re actually truly part of a society that gives rise to them. They’re part of that justice system. They’re part of the politics, they’re part of social cohesion, they’re part of how resources get shared. They are integrated in a way that I don’t think we fully acknowledged for many years with society, so that’s number one. Number two, corporations don’t say things and do things. The people in corporations say things and do things, and those of us who are in corporations are human beings first, we’re citizens first, and we happen to be corporate executives second.
So as we think about our role in life, as we think about even our role in our companies, thinking in terms of what is the ethical, moral, purpose-driven things that we need and want and should be doing as human beings is part and parcel and certainly integrated with what our responsibility and our obligation to the company is. And then finally, and this is very self-serving from a corporate point of view, but I think it fits nicely into this picture, which is that the institutions that we depend on, that business depends on…like political systems, like the democratic process, like legal systems, the norms of truth and civil behavior. All of those institutions that we have come to take for granted over say the last 50 or 60 years or so are absolutely essential to the survival of our businesses.
That means we as corporate executives, if we want our businesses to survive and the economic systems that our businesses depend on to survive, have to be actively supporting all those norms – norms of truth, norms of legal systems, and the norms of a fair economic model, a democratic processes and so forth.
That does not necessarily mean that companies have to take very specific positions on very specific issues. There’s a great debate out there on all of those, but a company doesn’t necessarily have to go out and take a position on, for example, abortion or gun rights or the balance between climate change and economic opportunity. Those are all issues on which reasonable people and intelligent people can take nuance to different points of view.
A company doesn’t have to commit to it, but I think a company should and does have an obligation to actively support the structures in the institutions and the infrastructure that those institutions depend on. Voting rights, civic education, maybe even police reform and professionalism, supporting truth in media. Those are all things that the stability of our economic system and the stability of our corporate system depend on. And by God, if the corporations aren’t out there supporting and actively defending those things, it’s hard to look around and see enough people who are doing that.
There is one heck of a lot to unpack there. It looks like what you’re discussing is really kind of what happened in 2019 where the Business Roundtable for the first time acknowledge stakeholders in addition to just shareholder matters. Have you seen a change where more businesses are actively valuing stakeholders over shareholders or are businesses just giving lip service?
It would be silly to even suggest it’s universal, but I am seeing it in a way that really reassures and encourages me. In the companies that I’ve been part of at very senior levels, there have been very active, very rich discussions on what is the appropriate role for the company to play and how can the company play not just a positioning game in these sorts of topics, but actually make a meaningful difference in a way that moves the needle. Again, in a way that’s appropriate not only to the shareholder because the shareholder’s still very important in all this.
This isn’t an either or. The shareholder has to be served as well as this broader social domain. And I do think that the opening to that conversation has been the realization that the social structures, the political structures, the democratic structures are essential bedrock to the success, the growth, and the economic development of all of our companies.
You also mentioned on some of the more controversial issues you need to find the middle ground. I spoke with Jim Olson, a former senior comms person over at Starbucks and US Airways, and Jim loved to discuss it with regard to Starbucks, gun control, and bringing guns into stores. He said, it’s not choosing between two right answers because you’re going to tick off half the people either way, it’s find a third answer. How do you advise PR pros to best work with executives on the more controversial issues?
It’s a tricky one because as you say, in an interesting sort of way, companies more than politicians are having to find the common ground because companies still have to serve all the customers that are out there. Those customers range on the political spectrum from way over on the right to way over on the left. Politicians typically only have to play to their base. Companies don’t have that luxury. Companies have to find the way to navigate through increasingly polarized sort of public opinion about some of the very, very hot-button issues. Sometimes the better part of valor on these very, very controversial topics to take a very low-key, almost non-committal point of view.
That sounds like it’s dodging the bullet and maybe to a certain extent it is, but I think a company is quite justified in making an assessment that says, wait a minute, do we really have a dog in this hunt? Do we really have a role to play on this particular specific issue? Again, I come back to, however, those questions on which our ability to make those decisions depend, such as do we have a robust political system? Do we have a robust understanding of the truth? Do we have a robust education system that helps people understand what their civic responsibilities are? Then companies can, and should in my view, actually have an imperative to step out much more strongly.
Globally there are a lot of political systems that don’t align with the United States’ political system. How do you recommend brands navigate the different imperatives in the different political systems worldwide?
The firm that I’m part of now, FGS Global, is working with a number of clients that are dealing with exactly that issue. Even more specifically, and I’ll just come right out and say it, the relationship between the U.S. and China is a fantastic example of exactly what you’re talking about. Not only are there different political systems, and different expectations in the societies of both of those marketplaces, but now there’s an increasing level of tension. Just think about the balloon episode. There’s an increasing level of tension between those two countries. But you also have to realize, politicians have to realize, business leaders need to realize, the pundits need to realize that there is such a deep integration of the markets, the capital structures, the supply chains, the manufacturing infrastructure between those two countries and between those two markets that companies are increasingly finding themselves having to navigate that.
It comes back to what I said very early on. There’s a big component of humility in all of this, humility is defined here as being sensitive, deeply, deeply sensitive to not just the political ins and outs of where different countries are coming from, but also the cultural understanding. The politics in these two different countries are driven to a great extent by culture.
What are people in China hearing? What are they seeing? How do they respond to certain actions, certain messages, certain words that an American company may say, and vice versa? When an American company is wanting to, for example, import goods from China to support its manufacturing in the U.S. and having a very, very acute understanding of how those words land, how that positioning lands and where the cultural expectations are.
I think that is great advice. Speaking of advice, what is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
The best ethical advice I received was not so much a set of words from somebody, but my observation of that individual’s actions and how they behaved. That individual just happened to be, and this is a shameless name-drop…but when I was writing speeches for General Colin Powell, when he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one of the things I realized in the couple of years that I did that with him is that he had enormous power in Washington, D.C. and enormous power in the world because of the knowledge he had. He had that knowledge because people could trust his ethics, people could trust what he did with the knowledge he had, and as a result, it really worked in his favor because people would tell him things that they could tell nobody else.
Even as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior most military officer in the U.S. military, he had ambassadors, senators, heads of state, cabinet officers, CEOs calling him up, telling him things, sharing information, sharing insights, because they knew he would never turn around and use it against them.
With all of that knowledge, with that understanding of what was happening in the world, how different people were observing their particular domains, he was able to find ways to bring organizations together, to bring policy positions together to advise in the most constructive possible way. He moved the needle in a positive way.
That’s a longish answer, but the ethic of how you treat confidences, how you treat information that people give you and how people are able to trust you as a result is just a huge lesson that I learned. It demonstrated to me the value of politics with a small P and politics doesn’t have to be pejorative. Politics can be very, very constructive.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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