Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Roger Bolton, the president of Page, the premier global professional association for senior corporate communications executives. He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
It’s great to be with you, Mark. Thank you so much for the opportunity.
- What to do when a reporter is writing a story that you know will quickly become inaccurate
- Why we need to confront the uncomfortable truths
- The ethical use of technology and AI
- Understanding the Page Principles
Why don’t you tell us a little more about yourself and your career?
I started in engineering in college, and I couldn’t hack the math. I was spending all my time working for the school newspaper, and I had to tell my dad, “I’m not going to be an engineer.”
He said, “Great, what are you going to do?”
I said, “I want to be a journalist.”
He said, “Great, be the best journalist ever.”
I thought, “Oh my God, that was easy.”
So, I was a journalist, but I couldn’t find my second job after the first small paper in Ohio. I was desperate for the next thing. A friend of mine from Washington said, “Quit your job, come to Washington. We’ve got an extra room, you’ll find something.” I went to talk to the congressman I’ve been covering as a reporter and he said, “How’d you like to be my press secretary?”
It was not what I had in mind, but I said, yes. It was the end of my journalism career, but within two weeks I knew that I’d made the right decision, because not only was I writing stuff for him, but I was influencing the way he thought about things. That’s the biggest thing that I loved about my career in public relations was the opportunity to be a senior strategic leader in the enterprise.
I spent 16 years in Washington. I worked in both the Reagan and Bush administrations. I’d still be in Washington if my wife hadn’t said, “Let’s get the heck out of here.” So, I ended up taking a job at IBM as head of global media relations. I didn’t get the promotion I expected to be the CCO there, because when Akers got fired, Gerstner came in, brought his own guy with him, and it became clear that it wasn’t going to work.
So, I went to Aetna as the CCO. I thought it was going to be the stepping stone to my next great job. I ended up staying 12 years, five CEOs and it was the pinnacle of my career, because I got to be a part of one of the great turnarounds in business history with a key role working with great leaders. It was just a joy.
After I retired from Aetna, I spent five years figuring out what’s next. I didn’t expect to end up working for Page. I’ve been a member for a long time, I’m a former Chair of the Board, but we were desperate for somebody to come into this role, and I said, “Okay, fine, I’ll take it until we find somebody else.” That was 11 years ago. I love it.
My career is a succession of I didn’t think I wanted to do this, but actually it turned out to be great.
Thinking over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?
No one’s ever asked me to lie, but there was often an expectation that we would not disclose everything that wasn’t favorable to our point of view. But I always felt it was critical to tell the whole truth.
One of my favorite memories is the reporter from The Wall Street Journal covering us at Aetna used to read her stories to me over the phone before she published. If her editor knew that, she wouldn’t probably be still there. But she trusted me, and I trusted her, and she came to me one time with a story that was very favorable to Aetna.
It was a great story, but I knew something she didn’t know. I couldn’t tell her, because it was proprietary information. I couldn’t disclose it for legal reasons, but I said, “Barbara, if I were you, I’d be careful. I’m not sure that I would go with that story in this way.”
“Well, I know something you don’t know, and I can’t tell you, but it’s going to make your story look different in a couple of weeks.”
Of course, that got her on the phone. She was trying to figure out what it was, but I just felt that allowing her to go forward knowing that that was not the truth wasn’t fair to the public, nor was it fair to her.
I’ve had CEOs at times tell me to make those people go away, meaning the critics, because they were crazy, they’re stupid…just make them go away.
I would tell them, “Sorry boss, that’s not my job, actually. My job is to listen, to bring in different perspectives. Maybe they are crazy, but maybe there’s a germ of truth in there that we need to know about.”
To me, it was always about being willing to confront the uncomfortable truths and the different points of view, and I’ve worked within my organization to make sure our organization worked that way.
That’s one of the toughest things. At one point in my Aetna career, they were grooming a guy to be CEO. He moved into the president role, and I was asked to report to him for a brief time until he went up to be CEO. I’d go into Joe’s office and say, “Joe, we’ve got to decide between A and B.” As I’m taking my breath to say, “Here’s the pros and cons of each,” Joe would say, “Let’s do A.”
I’d be saying, “Well, hang on a second. There’s some things we need to consider here.” I’d be going through it and he’s looking at me like, “Why are you still here? I just told you go do A, off you go.”
I was in the process of making the uncomfortable decision that I was going to leave, because I’m not going to work for a guy who’s not willing to hear what I have to say, to think about the pros and cons of the issues, and work through them. He’s so damn smart, he doesn’t need me. As it turned out, he left within six weeks, so I ended up staying at Aetna and I had that great subsequent CEO experience that was absolutely fantastic.
My advice is you need to find a way to be heard. That doesn’t mean that you pound your fist on the table in the middle of the meeting. That probably is not going to work. You may have to go to the CEO after the meeting and say, “I’ve been thinking, what if we thought about it another way? Or I was talking to so-and-so.” Or you build an ally. I would go across the C-suite, and I’d find Lisa and I can share this. Then you can say, “Lisa and I have been talking and we think.”
You find the way. It takes guts to speak up.
First, you have to know what you’re talking about. You have to understand the issues, you have to understand the business, you have to think like the business people do. But you also have to bring in that different perspective that they sometimes don’t want to hear. You need the guts to be determined to make sure that they do hear you, and you’ve got to have the EQ to think through, how can I really get them to hear me here even if he doesn’t want to?
That’s a great point. It also circles back to something you started off by saying when you decided not to go into engineering because you couldn’t hack the math. Too many PR people don’t come prepared to talk about the business and the math justifications. They look at it from a communication and not the business perspective. The minute you do that, you’re cutting yourself off on the knees.
Yeah, I couldn’t hack the math, but I ended up being assistant secretary of the Treasury for Public Affairs and the chief spokesman for U.S. economic policy, so I figured out some stuff along the way.
But you know what? I didn’t have to be the engineer; I didn’t have to be the economist to be able to understand the principles that the technical guys were really working through. To understand it at a strategic level and to be able to articulate it to the public and to be able to talk as a peer within the C-suite is critically important.
When I see students who just really don’t want to understand the business, I say, “You may be in the wrong place. If you want to do sports or celebrity, a lot of them do great, somebody needs to go do that. But if you want to be in strategic communication in corporations or government, you really need to understand the economics of the business and of the world.”
Thinking beyond your own personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethical challenges for today and tomorrow?
Technology is at the heart of it. The ethical use of technology is critically important. We’re just at the beginning of the AI thing and the issues there. We need to be focused on transparency, fighting misinformation and disinformation, and be really respectful of privacy. It’s really, really important that we not use technology to exploit people.
We need to use technology in creative ways to help people, to help our organizations, but also to help people that we serve achieve their goals. Not manipulate them into doing what we want them to do for our purposes, but to be an organization that is determined to make the world better by providing people with services they need and reaching them in creative ways through technology, but using that technology ethically and transparently and in a two-way sense so that we’re not just messaging and trying to get people to move down paths, but also listening to feedback and being willing to iterate and evolve as we learn.
One of the things about AI currently is you’re not getting any sourcing from the AI. You ask the AI for information and it responds. Where did you get that? Did you get it from Tucker Carlson or did you get it from The New York Times? And it makes a difference to me.
I know how to evaluate information that comes from different sources if I know who they are, and if I don’t know who they are, then I’m going to damn well do my research until I understand who they are before I rely on that information. To just give me information without any sourcing is worthless to me.
We’re at the stage of the TRS-80 color computer or the Apple II. What we’re going to see in five years is going to be unbelievable compared to where it is today.
How are you recommending CCOs and senior communications executives prepare to handle the flood of disinformation?
It’s one of the toughest things we face. You’ve obviously got to have really good social listening. You’ve got your ear to the ground through all the social media sources where things spread. You’ve got to have early detection and quickly understand what’s starting to happen and have the ability to quickly know whether it’s right or not. I don’t care if it’s midnight on a weekend, you’ve got to be able to quickly start to marshal the forces of true information to counter it and be ready to go.
I’m sure there’s a better answer than the one I’ve just given, but that’s the best I can tell you. Be ready for it and be prepared to counter it with the truth as best you can, and look for allies.
What about in terms of privacy? We have the ability to gather so much information on consumers. Where should we draw the line?
I won’t pretend to be an expert here, but I think that it’s really critically important. The first thing is obey the law and be very, very careful about that, but I think you can go beyond that. You really have to protect people’s information and only use information that is appropriate to use.
Again, I don’t want to pretend to be the expert on what pieces of information you have access to. When I was at Aetna, I worked at a health insurance company and we had access to tons of data that was legally protected, and we did everything we possibly could to protect that data from hackers and other possible ways that it could be lost. I remember one time, there was a truck full of data and the truck got in an accident and the data started spilling out, and we had to go out and pick it up and get it back.
You have to start with the Page Principles, which were I hasten to add not written by Mr. Page himself. Arthur W. Page was a real person. He was the CCO, VP of PR, if you will, of AT&T from 1927 to 1946, but he was long gone when the Page Society was founded. When AT&T was broken up in 1983 with the consent decree with the US government, the regional VPs of PR became the CCOs of the Baby Bells and they wanted to keep meeting, so they created the Page Society. Initially, it was kind of their way of getting together to have their annual golf outing.
They weren’t all guys, actually, there was one female, and she was the second president of the Page Society. We’re 50% female now I hasten to add. But the Page principles were created by our founders based on the lifetime of work and writing of Mr. Page, because they admired him so much as the kind of leader that they aspired to be as a senior strategic leader in the enterprise, and not just that guy down the hall you call when you want a press release or there’s a crisis.
The first two Page Principles are tell the truth and prove it with action. The way I think about those is telling the truth, doesn’t mean just fail to lie, it means tell the whole truth. As we swear on the Bible when we testify in court, tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Meaning that you have to be willing to confront the uncomfortable facts that don’t fit with the narrative and address those and try to fix those.
That’s where prove it with action comes in. The job is not to tell a story to get people to believe something, the job is to get the enterprise to be worthy of trust. That’s why we advocate so hard at Page and work so hard, and this is probably the most important ethical initiative we have, is working to ensure that the chief communication officer has a seat at the table where she is a senior strategic advisor in the enterprise, and she is there every day helping the enterprise to define itself and to actually become authentically who it aspires to be, so that the story that you tell about it is authentic and accurate.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
I’m going to cite my mom and my dad. My dad was all about hard work, honesty above all, respect for all people and do your best at everything you take on. He was an engineer and I thought he expected me to be an engineer, which is why I was studying engineering. When I finally had to tell him, “I’m not going to be an engineer, dad.” He said, “Great, what do you want to do?” I said, “Be a journalist.” He said, “Be the best journalist you can possibly be.” Wow, I should have known that.
My mom was love, compassion, kindness, acceptance.
When I was a teenager, I don’t know how I came to this thought, but I decided that when I was on my deathbed, I wanted to be able to look back on my life and say that the world was a tiny bit better because I was on this planet. I feel so blessed to have had opportunities throughout my unplanned career to do stuff that has allowed me to work with and for enterprises that did make the world just slightly better in important ways.
A health company, government administrations, that when I was at USTR, the Office of the US Trade Representative, we brought in a new global trade agreement that ultimately lifted or gave the opportunity for billions of people to be lifted out of poverty. I didn’t do that, but I had a small role in helping a major global change that made the world a little better.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.
- Tell the truth,
- Prove it with action,
- Listen to stakeholders
- Manage for tomorrow
- Conduct public relations if the whole enterprise depends on it
- Realize that an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people,
- Remain calm, patient, and good-humored
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