Succeeding with Conscience: Navigating Ethical Challenges in Career Growth – Bradley Akubuiro

Joining me on this week’s episode is Bradley Akubuiro, a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive, where he focuses on corporate reputation, executive communications, and high visibility crisis management and media relations efforts. He discusses a number of important ethics issues including:

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

My career has spanned roles in management consulting, advocacy, and corporate communications. I have served as an advisor to Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr., to the then president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, focusing on governance reform initiatives post-civil war. I also served as the chief spokesperson for Boeing following the 737 MAX accidents. Today, I am a partner over at Bully Pulpit. For those who don’t know, that’s an advisory firm that was founded by the leaders of the Obama/Biden campaigns and administration. I lead our corporate communications practice.  

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The most difficult ethical dilemmas that I’ve faced are the ones that pit the prospect of career advancement against fairness or decency towards others. I’m not Pollyannish. I recognize that there’s going to be a level of politics played in any corporate setting. I actually feel pretty strongly that an ability to play the game is something of an executive core competency. But there is a line. Too often we stay quiet when we see others cross it in the pursuit of a goal. At times, we’re even asked to cross it ourselves.

I’ll give you an example. When I was early on in my career, I got a big promotion, and I had an opportunity to lead a corporate team with a handful of big personalities. Each one of them thought the job should have been theirs, and none of them were particularly interested in helping me be successful.

One of them in particular seemed to make it her mission to make my life harder. A few months in, though, we had a really big miss on the team. Something probably should have been checked and it wasn’t, so we ended up giving inaccurate information to a reporter. It just so happened that the person who had generated the document in question was my corporate tormentor.

I was told by one of the senior executives in the company that this would be my opportunity to drop the hammer on her and begin the process of moving her out of the organization. The only problem here was I had personally reviewed the information before it went out, and I missed the mistake also. I didn’t ask the right questions. I didn’t feel like I could comfortably say this was a fault that was on one person alone.

I’ll never forget it. That executive told me, “That doesn’t matter. You need to fire her. And if you don’t, it will reflect poorly on you.” I thought really hard about it, but I ultimately decided that I needed to take the bullet for this. My team, it was my responsibility, and I had just as much of a stake in this as she did.

I have to tell you, while it isn’t necessarily comfortable in those moments, especially since it would’ve been very easy and I actually would’ve had support to do that, it wouldn’t have been a mark of a good leader. At that particular point in my career, making a decision like that would’ve been a very slippery slope.

I’ve done more than 150 ethics interviews, and this is the first time this example came up, and I love it. Because it is something people face  – short-term gain versus long-term? Did it change your relationship with this person at all afterwards?

I really wish that I could tell you that we held hands and sang Kumbaya after that. It’s just not the reality. Interestingly, our relationship remained pretty tense until she ultimately decided to leave the company. But my belief is you do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you expect anything in return.

What’s your advice to other people that may find themselves in the situation choosing between advancement and decency to others?

If you do the right thing and you stay committed to integrity, your opportunity will come. I don’t think you need to go in and say in every circumstance, “How do I take this moment today to put myself just one little notch above?” You need to look at the long-term for your career. If you take the long view and are focused on being a decent person, you will ultimately be successful in the end. I’ve seen that proven out many times.

Beyond this experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethical challenges for today and tomorrow?

In terms of the PR industry particularly, our ethical challenge has not changed, but the stakes are higher now than they’ve ever been. Communicators have a responsibility for being the conscience of an organization, and I truly believe that. It is our job to say what needs to be said, period. I don’t know if you’re familiar with The 19th* News organization, but it is a powerful publication that sits at the intersection of politics, power structures, and the economy. It centers on stories of women, LGBTQ+, and minorities. As a member of their board, I continue to be moved by this particular story. When they were just getting started, the founders were adamant that the project be named after the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

It was the right point and would’ve been the perfect name, except one member of the team, Errin Haines, reminded the group that not all women received that right. Black and other minority women did not, at that time. After a lot of debate, she proposed that they keep their name the 19th, but they add an asterisk to it as a way of acknowledging the omission that impacted a significant subset of women and disenfranchised them from the political process. To this day, The 19th* logo sports that asterisk. And instead of glossing over what was an inconvenient truth, The 19th* name actually inspires conversations about the messy process of progress. That’s an exponentially better outcome.

Now, Errin’s a reporter, not a communicator, but I think the role she played in this scenario is one that we as communicators have to strive to play every day. The misinformation, the disinformation that exists is prevalent in the field. It’s changed the way we do our jobs. You’ve talked to many folks on this podcast about the same concepts, but there are many times when we are the only person at the leadership table who is going to raise our hand and say, “Listen, that doesn’t pass the smell test.” We’ve got to be comfortable with that role. We have to be prepared for that role. Like I said in the beginning, the stakes are only higher.

You’ve been active in a number of very high-profile incidents, including the Boeing 737 MAX. How do you recommend people that find themselves in similar situations prepare themselves? What do you recommend to make sure you’re successful?

There are two parts to this. The first part is, to your point on preparation, you are the person in the organization in the communication seat who most often has the pulse of the organization, or at least you should. You have the ability to look across the organization. You touch just about every issue, every department, and every perspective that the company has. You should really take that platform and that responsibility seriously. When you have an opportunity to understand what are the things that impact your stakeholders, particularly as the organization is making decisions, what are the things that impact your employees? What are the things that impact your investors? What are the things that impact those who are in all of these seats that are watching your business and who are making determinations as to what type of organization you are at the core?

You have the ability when sitting at the leadership table to step forward and say, “Hey, as a person who knows how this is going to be received by X, Y, or Z audience, I can tell you this is actually going to set us back, not put us forward.” When you are able to bring data into the discussion about this as well, whether that’s through poll surveys, whether that is through focus groups, anecdotal conversations, or it’s past experience, it’s things we’ve seen happen successfully or unsuccessfully in other organizations. It’s our responsibility to bring that forward.

Also, we are one of the few groups that has the ability to actually stand out on gut and say, “This just doesn’t feel right.” If I feel that way, I suspect that the reporter at the Wall Street Journal may feel that way too. That’s actually a pretty powerful tool in these discussions.

What is the best ethics advice you ever received?

My father told me when I was much younger – you got to do the right thing because it’s the right thing, not because you expect anything in return. That’s the best advice that I’ve ever received. Because when I think about the opportunities to do the right thing in a lot of the circumstances we were talking about, it is categorically and without exception never been the easiest thing to do.

I love the question you asked, how did that impact the relationship? In my mind, how that was going to play out was, after this was over, I was going to get some type of apology, even if it was not a real apology, maybe a sheepish look and a, hey, let’s just be friends after this. It did not happen. If I was expecting that or if I was doing this in order to achieve that result, I might not have chosen to do the right thing in the next opportunity.

At the end of the day, we’ve got to not only as individuals, but as organizations, think to ourselves, what actually is the right thing? What is the best thing for our communities? What is the best thing for the markets that we participate in? What’s the best thing for our society? That plays a major role in how we actually view our responsibility as leaders in these constructs. I’d encourage anybody who is thinking about this or facing this dilemma to always harken back to, let’s find our own personal North Star, and then work to that.

If I can add one more thing, I would say that organizations, and particularly CEOs in these organizations are now trying to figure out, what are the issues that I weigh in on? How do I do it? How do I do it authentically?

The question shouldn’t be, do I talk about this issue that I didn’t know about last week that is in the top of the news or not? It should be, what are the things that truly matter that resonate to the folks that actually are with us in the trenches day in and day out, who care about the things that we are focused on? How are they going to feel about us weighing in on this?

Is it going to feel like something that is natural to what we do and what we stand for and things we’ve said in the past? Or is it going to feel like it’s out of left field? When you’re thinking about this, this goes back to the North Star comment, you should always be tying back to your sense of relevance to who you are and stay true to that. If you can do that well, you’re going to be okay.

I agree with you a hundred percent. Unfortunately, I think too many companies are doing performative actions when it comes to CSR.

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

The only other thing that I’d like to add, and I think this is a pretty critical one in the discussion we’re having societally right now, is, we are operating at a time of two Americas. We are in a space where everything feels hyper-politicized, folks are moving in different directions on just about every issue. It’s very hard to do things that we used to do and take for granted without creating some form of churn, of not having folks light their hair on fire over it. It’s a really challenging time to be a communicator.

But I would say as you are thinking about how to navigate these times that we’re in, one of the most important things that you can do is really take the time to create. Whether it’s an exercise that you do with the leadership team or maybe even just with the communications team, look at what are actually the most important issues of the moment to us? How do we create a framework to think through issues, whether it’s something that is happening that we weigh in on because it’s relevant to us, something that’s going to advance us or something that’s going to set us back.

Even if there is a challenge and there’s a risk associated with it, if it’s something that you should weigh in on, it is something that you should actually take action on. I think particularly about the conversation around DEI…you got to do it. It’s the right thing to do, you got to do it.

I bring up the DEI example because I think post-George Floyd, a lot of organizations got up, made big commitments, and talked about how important this issue was to them. And three years later, almost to the day, we are now looking at an environment where many organizations have not only lost sight of those commitments but aren’t talking about them at all.

I think that there is a window of time where organizations can reassess this and think, what is it that I need to do in this new environment to maintain the credibility that I had on the commitments that I made? Because there’s a subset of your population that was looking to you, that was proud of the decisions that you made at that time, that are now watching and saying, “Well, if that was just a blip on the radar, just a moment in time, then what place do I truly have in this industry, in this economy, and in this company?” I think companies may not fully appreciate what a tremendous opportunity they have to really show up as their authentic selves while actually making sure that a portion of the population that’s been disenfranchised in many cases has an affinity to them and understands why this company is making them better for being a part of them than they would be on their own or in another place.

Listen to the full interview with bonus content here.


Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA
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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


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