PR Ethics: From Client Selection to AI Challenges – KayAnn Schoeneman

This week on Ethical Voices, KayAnn Schoeneman, President of Curley Company discusses:

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

At the heart of it, I am a communicator and an advocate. In my 25-year career. I’ve been based here in Washington D.C. I was pulled here by what most people are, politics. I had a great stint on the Hill, working on political campaigns, and having a lot of fun doing opposition research. I was taking vast amounts of information and distilling it down to 30-second ads. I worked with pollsters and researchers, doing a great amount of research touring the country.  I loved doing what I was doing, but not the subject matter and the politics part of it. So after a few successful campaign cycles, I explored how do you do this in a way that’s not political.

That’s how I got pulled into grassroots work. I had an amazing decade there in a number of different careers leading research for North America, Public Affairs in the Washington Office for Ketchum. That led me to Curley Company.

Throughout my career, the common threads that have pulled through it are being a communicator and an advocate. The advocate angle, driving, whether it be policy or issues, or even just in how you manage and develop teams – advocating for that balance and diversity and inclusion. In the communications part, what I realized I loved was being able to take that vast amount of information…dry topics and subjects… and really make it digestible and approachable for the target audiences.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

The most difficult thing is deciding who to work for and what you’re going to do. Because at the end of the day, that’s your reputation. It’s what you’re known for.

One of the most difficult challenges I had was coming up in my career.  Big global agencies provide amazing opportunities to travel, see the world, and work on everything from Super Bowl ad clients to the G8 summit. But one of the challenges is in Washington working for foreign governments and deciding whether that’s something that you want to do as an individual and as an agency. There are ethics and paperwork and guidance and everything is disclosed. However, the literal guidance to ethics versus your own personal ethics and how you reconcile that, I think is one of the most difficult things.

That was one of the challenges that I had, working for a foreign government which at the time, was part of the G8. But over the course of our partnership things turned in a different direction and our agency resigned that business.

What are some of the criteria you use for determining if it right for you?

This happens frequently. Jennifer Curley and I established over the past couple of years a policy to not just look at an opportunity today and in the moment. A prospect or a new business opportunity is a two-way street. We’re checking them out as much as they’re checking us out. Even with existing clients, things morph. And so for us, there’s a couple of things that we know right offhand that we don’t do. We don’t lobby. You have to register to lobby. That comes with a whole other list of criteria. Those decisions are easy.

But then there’s the factor of the values and what you want to be known for, and on the right and wrong side of some issues. I know there are some in our business that look at communications as much like legal defense, everybody’s entitled to have their story be told. And sure, but I am not obligated to tell it.

Ray Kotcher, the former chairman of Ketchum, has said that a few times to me as well.

Absolutely. He was a great mentor through his actions and wisdom. And that’s one of the things I ask –  can I describe what I’m doing to a friend or family member, and does it pass the “laugh test?” Would I be proud of the work that I’m doing in terms of the purpose and the impact that it has on people, communities? In some cases, society?

That’s where it becomes subjective. As leaders of agencies, we have to be transparent about our rationale and how we evaluate things, down to the easy checklists, and the ones that are a little bit more gray.

Let me pivot a bit. What are the ethics of opposition research? Sometimes you find some very personal things. How do you recommend people determine what is fair game?

This was the guidance of our team. Keep it to the factual issues with documentation proven related to the position. So voting records. Does the person vote? Do they show up to vote? Pay their taxes?

Because every time I travel to a congressional district to do opposition research, you have some people that are like, “Well, let me tell you…” And they want to share info for a whisper campaign. This is not of interest. Is that something you can footnote and put in an ad? No. So it’s not of interest. At least in the story that we were looking to tell, and I feel proud to tell.

I do know that there are times when individuals or organizations go that route, but it’s short-term wins. You may win a battle, but not the long-term impact or reputational challenge. It goes back to how do you evaluate opportunities. I’m looking three, five years from now, not today. None of us have a crystal ball, but as many years as we’ve been doing what we do, you do have a sense of how things are going to turn out. And there’s a way to make a quick buck, and there’s a way to do it that you can look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day.

What are you seeing as some of the key PR ethics challenges of today and tomorrow?

Artificial intelligence and how that’s morphing in platforms, and inconsistencies in how and when it’s being used is a key issue. I know that that is a challenge that many are grappling with. I love that PR Council and leaders have come together and provided guidance for the PR industry. I know that there are no requirements, and that’s not the case in other industries. Going back to where I started in politics. This campaign season and AI being used in ads and what you see on Twitch and other platforms with the president and words and what they’re saying, and you can’t tell if that’s real or AI generated. It’s a big challenge. Beyond that, a huge ethical challenge is just how content is even being created.

I think another ethical challenge that we’re facing constantly is just the workforce in general, and the impact of the pandemic. If you’re looking future and visionary, as of May, the government officially declared the pandemic over. What that means is that for some individuals, they’re just starting to process it. For others, it’s post-traumatic stress. As business leaders, you still got to run a business. You see lots of coverage about grappling with return to office. What’s right there? What are the boundaries in terms of behavioral health, structure at home, performance, tax codes, all of that.

I think the workforce is at a tipping point where it continues to evolve, and we’ll see in the next five to 10 years when things stabilize. I don’t believe where we are today or where we’ll be next year. It’ll be a continual evolution.

You still have some that believe you got to come into an office. What are the ethics of those who do? And then there’s presenteeism, and you’re looking at impact and what type of work you’re doing. How we measure the impact and value of employee and employer … because again, I do believe it’s a two-way street. Are still to be determined, I think.

How are you working your way through these issues?

We are a small firm, about 20 people in Washington, but we are always looking to be creative and not be cookie cutter. The proof is in our accolades of being outstanding agency of the year and a best place to work. What we have done is we look to recruit and retain the best talent. In some cases that means that we are looking at years of experience, impact, and what market they’re in. Does that work for us? Our clients? We do have more flexibility. I know a lot in Washington are doing three days a week in the office. We have mid-level leaders that we have empowered to lead groups based on experience level. We have them drive the in-office experience that’s really geared towards having the more junior levels learn and train and collaborate.

You think about this next generation of amazing talent that comes to the workforce during a pandemic and they have no idea how to assimilate to that culture and collaborate on a team, which is very different than higher ed or other experiences. We’ve been more bespoke, and focused on the impact of engagement, performance, and training. That’s been working for us. I do feel a sense of a shift that’ll pivot again. That might not be enough now. So we’re looking at what that looks like in the fall, and next year as well.

You brought up AI. In 2022 when I asked the question about what’s the biggest challenge you see, it was misinformation and disinformation. Now it’s AI at almost every interview. But those two are actually connected. What’s your advice when it comes to the use of AI and misinformation or how brands can protect against it?

I always believe that transparency and sunshine is what’s most cleansing. If you are using AI, if you’re using an image and creating content – disclose it. The same way in the pharmaceutical industry and medical industry, discloses in those ads “this may cause” and in politics, “paid for by”. Having clear, transparent disclosure of the use of AI to create the content is helpful as a consumer of information, and as a content creator.

Not just because of the misinformation that it can perpetrate and the impact of that, but also the impact on diversity and inclusion and the impact that AI has on that in further complicating and diminishing strides that have been made. Transparency is a first step. It’s not the solution for everything, but disclosure helps.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years and I never land on a specific quote or conversation. It always goes back to actions and leadership of mentors that I admire and have worked with. Some made it clear that as a leader, it’s important for us to do our job, do it well, and make sure that clients are taken care of. But also to bring others along. And to make sure that we’re giving those without a voice, a voice.

Jennifer Curley has great advice as well. We have at Curley Company the Curley House Rules. It was one of the first things I saw when I visited Jennifer. It’s 10 rules, we have them on the wall. And it’s things like leading from every seat, being solution seekers, treating people with kindness, respect, and collaborating. It’s not that I’m told to do that or that they’re on the walls, I see it in the actions and how we live and partner every day. Your reputation is what’s said about you when you’re not there. Hey, who’s KayAnn? What’s she about? And ethics, to me is similar, in that how my actions are described when I’m not there. That’s what I’ve observed with others and try to live by.

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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