- How can we best balance safeguarding confidences and disclosure of information?
- How fast should we move on AI?
Why don’t you tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I didn’t really take a typical PR path. I graduated with a finance degree. I was a financial analyst and planner for the early days of my career, and then went into investor relations. It’s kind of where the PR side started to kick in. Over the past 15 years, I’ve primarily worked with trade associations and professional societies, starting back in marketing communications, then moved to an ops role leading public relations, marketing, event planning. and for the past four years, I’ve been a CEO. Currently, I’m the president and CEO of the American Pet Products Association.
What really hit me was a more recent thing with the pandemic. It was really striking the balance between protecting the information that I had to share with the board, and knowing when and how I must trust and keep and safeguard confidences both internally and externally, while really trying to foster our transparent culture with my team. This includes what are our future plans? What are contracts that we have out there? What staffing are we going to do, our financial data, HIPAA issues?
We had to pivot to a virtual event, but we didn’t know when. We were supposed to be in Nashville and I had members calling up and saying, why haven’t we canceled this? It’s because we have $4 million dollars in contingent liability sitting out there if we just cancel it, but we can’t say that right now.
The team wants to know, and you want to tell the team everything, but it’s a moving target. When everyone’s looking for concrete, I’ve got mud. I was a tough time doing that. Trying to keep the staff well informed and looking at financial information. We were very strong. But if we go out there with too much of a message, my CFO’s saying they’re all going to want a piece of it, and they’re all going to want more money, and we can’t really do that long term.
It was just a never-ending balance. Things were changing so quickly. The good thing is I had a great leadership team and we were able to sit there for sometimes hours and just talk about what’s not only right and wrong, but what’s ethical and really kind of debate it. And it was interesting how we all got to the same place, but in a lot of cases we got there in very different ways from our shared perspectives.
You hit on one of the most common issues I see people face, which is how do you balance disclosure of information, safeguarding confidences and transparency?
I definitely don’t do it in a vacuum. I had a great leadership team. They were not afraid to tell me that I was completely wrong. We all take information, assumptions and data differently. I think it was being able to take a CFO’s point of view, an event planner’s point of view, a PR person’s point of view, and really work through those issues together as a team to create a shared vision that we felt good that we could share out to the rest of the team and externally, but it didn’t come in days.
Robert Johnson, the former head of comms for the TSA, says sometimes disclosure is – I know the answer to the question, but I can’t tell you right now. If I can, I will, when the time is right.
What helps you decide now is the time to flip the switch and talk about things?
I’ll go back in time when an old mentor of mine said, “Wait till your book is 80% done, that’s why we have second editions.” He said it as a bit of a joke, but I kind of took that to say, look, you can always add another chapter. You can always add another page. I’ve always tried to balance the 80/20 rule. To me, it’s about 80%. It still gives you some room to back up, but you’re pretty sure. Things are going to change around the edges, but if I’m 80% there, I think I can probably share with those who I can share it with.
Is there another ethics scenario you wanted to discuss?
We’re starting to see more ethical issues with data and privacy, and what information is shared. As a member organization, some people are confused why a member wouldn’t want to share their information with other members, but they don’t. What lengths do you go to in order to ensure that their wishes are maintained How much are we safeguarding that data? We’re not in a technology company. We’re a nonprofit trade association. What safeguards do we put in so we are protecting that data and making sure that what our members entrust us with is safe and secure?
How do you work through that?
You bring in people who really know the security space. We went to outside counsel on what our legal obligations were. We work through what is right, what is legal, what can we practically do, what can we actually deliver on? Then we come up with our best plan forward and communicate it. This is what we’re doing, here are our challenges. I think our members and our team respected us more when we say, here’s what we can do. Here’s the ideal world. We can’t do that. We’re not Salesforce, we’re not IBM, but here’s with the resources that we have, here’s what we can do. Here’s how you can continue to opt-in and opt-out. And at some point actually saying, look, at some point, it’s on you. This is a shared responsibility.
I spoke with Shonali Burke and she shared a story from when she was doing PR for the ASPCA. She brought up the point about donors having an impact potentially on your content. How much do you listen to your sponsors and your donors when it comes to the right thing to do as opposed to your members and your own executives? How do you balance the conflicting demands?
Carefully. Prior to this role, I was with the American Academy of Optometry, and we had healthcare rules and legal and compliance issues, so that made it a little easier. But you’ve got to be an advocate for your members. In this case, our members are our sponsors, our exhibitors. The buyer of pet products is kind of our customer. It’s a careful balance and it’s more in fairness and equity than it is on money.
I’m a big champion of trying to find every opportunity for the small guy to get a big voice. The big companies out there in whatever profession, they can buy their voice. That’s not hard for them, but how can somebody that says, I’ve got 50 bucks a month, that’s all I can spend. I can put it on Google or Facebook, but how could I spend it with you and get a little more impact? We really do bend over backwards, and our board and our team is really on board with bending over backwards for the small business owner and the rest can take care of itself.
Thinking beyond your own organization, what are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges for today and tomorrow?
I go back to technology, data privacy, and AI. Beyond what people post, but what data leaks, how it’s captured, how it’s used, and how PR professionals are going to deal with both internal practices and then those external factors that come in. It’s just changing so quickly.
The technology always evolves, especially when it comes to AI, at hyper speed right now. Because you’re not a technologist, you’re not a data scientist, how do you evaluate where the boundaries are?
For me personally, I play with things for a long time before I roll them out. That’s how we’re probably going to approach things like ChatGPT. We don’t have to do it right away. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean we have to be first, second, or third. Let’s see if it works. Let’s see how it works, and let’s just bench test the sucker. Let’s just see how well it does. Then it’s the old crawl, walk, run. We don’t have to go all in and change everything. Let’s test it out first and let’s see if we can break it. Let’s see where it doesn’t work.
In the semiconductor manufacturing industry, it’s the race to be second. Because the people that are first are going to make a lot of mistakes and spend a lot of money. I remember when Meerkat and Periscope were the greatest two things and about a week and a half later, one of them was completely out of business.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
You’re never an expert, you’re always a practitioner. The best litigators lose cases, the best surgeons lose patients, and the best ethical minds still get it wrong. The day you think you’ve got it nailed is the day you’ll be humbled.
Also, ask yourself would your mom be proud of what you’ve done? Or if it ends up in New York Times. But I’ll go back to you’re always a practitioner. You’re always practicing every day.
Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wanted to highlight?
I miss the opportunity not being on BEPS anymore and getting a group of people together and work through something, even if it’s fictitious, even if it’s an old case. Just how do other people think about ethics? How do you approach it? How do you come together to understand different perspectives? We don’t do that enough.
I talk about training your ethical mind. You need to make sure you have the discussions. And as the leader, you shouldn’t go first, because you’ll be amazed at the things you hear you haven’t even thought of. I love doing that with my students every week or the first half an hour of our classes, what are the ethics issues you saw this week? And 75% of them are ones I hadn’t even noticed. It’s really good to have that ongoing discussion both with your employees and frankly, as part of the hiring process.
I agree. When somebody comes to me to be interviewed, and I’ll interview everyone, we’re a small team. Those are the things that I want to know. By the time you get to me, you can do the job. And honestly, most jobs out there that we hire for anybody can do, if you train them enough then people can figure out how to do them. There’s nuances and experience, but it’s not that hard. But it’s who you are as a person. What’s your character? That’s what I can’t train for.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.
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