Joining me on this week’s episode of EthicalVoices is Kelsey Bohl, the Senior Manager of Corporate Communications Press Office at Walmart. She discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:
- Why corporations need to be careful they aren’t the ones spreading misinformation
- Ethics of data analysis
- Why PR pros need to change their definition of media
Tell us more about your career and yourself?
I grew up in West Monroe, Louisiana. I went to LSU for college and have a degree in textiles, apparel, and merchandising from LSU. Right after graduation, I moved back home to Monroe. It was the height of the recession, so I went back to grad school and got my MBA at the University of Louisiana Monroe.
Right out of grad school, I started working at a company called CenturyLink as a lead product manager, helping lead new product development for the company. I also did communications for our vice president of product at the time, where I handle internal all-hands meetings and things like that. That was my first exposure into the communications world.
I left CenturyLink after about three years and went to the University of Louisiana Monroe. I knew I really wanted to work with students, so I started in the international student office working with our international students doing recruitment, student affairs, event planning, communications, all of it.
I moved from that role into a completely different role at the university – the Executive Director of University Planning and Analysis, which is a long title for essentially a chief data officer. I did data communications for our local, state and national reporting. I also worked very closely with the president, who was very data-driven at that time, and the Office of Marketing Communications to create talking points for him.
I then became Executive Director of Marketing and Communications at the university in January 13th, 2020. Then you all know what happened in March 2020. I helped lead the COVID response for the university.
I got my doctorate degree in higher education administration and thought I would stay in higher education forever, but I’d been doing so much focused on the Northeast Louisiana region, I didn’t really feel like I was growing. I started looking, and was very interested in Arkansas and Walmart. That’s how I ended up here.
I started in supply chain operations communications doing internal operations comms for our associates, communicating to them changes in their roles, changes in processes that they do every day, and then in April moved to the press office. We are the liaison between the company and external media, do lots of crisis communications, media relations, and that’s where I am today.
It’s something that I face every day. I think we all do as public relations professionals, and that just how easy it is to spread misinformation and how quickly that can spread.
Throughout my career, I’ve dealt frequently with crisis situations. Those first few hours of a crisis situation are very critical, and we could be getting pressure from our leadership and organizational leadership to get something out very, very quickly. We need to say something right now, even before we have all of the information gathered.
With that type of pressure, and not having all of the facts could lead us to say something to maybe try to get ahead of it, even when we are really not ready to say something. This could lead to the spread of information that’s not always correct, or maybe they are the facts that we have at the time, but learn in a couple of hours that here’s really what happened, and we then have to go back and amend what we said.
That’s a challenge that has been really prominent, especially since COVID with all the information that would change all the time. But there are also severe weather situations, security issues and things like that. We have to respond very quickly, but also have to know when it’s appropriate to take the time, gather the information, and communicate with your leadership that are requesting something to be done immediately.
We should let the media know, “We are still gathering the information, we don’t feel comfortable saying something right this second. Give us 30 more minutes, an hour, to reach out to a number of other people to really gather the facts of what’s happening so we can make sure that we have the most accurate statement released to the public.”
I think you’re the first person who talked about how the corporate comms team can accidentally spread misinformation. Walmart’s a major brand, you get a lot of phone calls, and there are a lot of questions. How do you then balance that concern with the reporter who wants to get their information out now?
What’s different at Walmart that I didn’t experience at the university, is that we have a very set process, of the steps we take to make sure that we gather all the appropriate information as fast as possible.
We have a very robust emergency operations center that we work with, but at the university it was only us, the Department of Marketing and Communication. There was really no central point to where if there was something happening on campus, all information originated from this point and had all the contact information. So, it was really grassroots us trying to gather information when I was at the university.
Here at Walmart, it’s much more efficient. I know who to contact, who would have the information, and who would have accurate information so I can start pulling to get together a statement to help us respond to whatever inquiries we receive.
You’re describing almost a textbook-perfect response. We all realize sometimes life isn’t textbook perfect. What do you do to convince that executive who’s saying, “Now, now, now,” when they don’t want to wait to get all the information?
I’m a very blunt person to begin with, but just be very straightforward with them and let them know the ramifications of if we are too aggressive with our response, when we have to go back and amend it. If we say something externally, and it turns out not to be correct, or things might need to be tweaked a little bit to make it more understandable to the external public, that makes us look even worse than if we had just waited a little bit, took a beat, and then responded once we had all of the information.
I think I’ve been very lucky in that the leaders that I’ve worked with are very understanding of that, and they don’t want to have to backtrack and risk a reputational hit. At least in my career, I’ve been very lucky to not have to try to work really hard to persuade the leaders that I work with and that I support that that’s the right thing to do. They’ve been very responsive and trusting and really do trust my communications expertise and their counsel.
The other argument I’ve used a lot of times that I think is effective in addition to the reputation damages, is if we then have to amend it, you’re creating a whole another news cycle out there.
That happened so much during COVID, and then it was a turning point, I think, for communications professionals. I keep going back to that year, 2020, 2021, ’cause we were hit with the pandemic, hit with social unrest, that I think that was a turning point for us as communications professionals, in that things were happening that we typically would not have responded to as a university, national events that we had to respond to. But it was that specific point in time where it was expected then, and now it’s expected from now on that these larger national events that have major impacts to people as Americans, people as citizens, organizations are expected to respond. I just remember the murder of George Floyd and that specific moment was really a turning point for comms professionals.
The unfortunate thing is brands took a stand, but a lot of them aren’t walking the walk anymore.
I want to pivot and go in a completely different direction, something you said earlier in your bio. You were the chief data officer, and I love data. What are some of the ethical issues you’ve run into over the use of data and communications?
What’s that saying? It’s like lies, damned lies and statistics.
It’s so true. Someone comes to you and says, “I have this thing I want to say and I want data points to back me up. Can we do it with numbers?” As communications professionals, we have to be very cognizant of this. You could shift your methodology and data points to tell any story you want to tell.
As consumers of information need to understand that. You must be very wary of shifting your methodology to feed into whatever narrative your client may want to say. I’m just the type of person where if the data tells that story that they want to say, “Great. Here it is, here’s the methodology that I used and I feel very comfortable in that.”
If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m not afraid to tell them, “I know you really want to show that this thing is going up, whatever it may be, student enrollment, graduation rate, but it’s just not, it’s been static,” or whatever the data are telling us. We need to look at information we consume, information we release, definitely through a critical lens, in that when you are dealing with numbers, it’s very easy to manipulate the output of those numbers to back up any story you’re trying to tell.
That ties into spreading misinformation again. If the number’s not what you want and understand what you want, that’s an experience for us to have insight into how can we change the programs If you’re not hitting your growth number, it doesn’t mean you failed, it means you need to change something.
Beyond misinformation and data issues, are there any other key ethics challenges you’re seeing for today and tomorrow?
There is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I think that our definition of traditional media is going to change very soon. We’re seeing these anchors that have their own YouTube channels or reporters that only report on TikTok, and it’s accurate and legitimate news. Beyond getting inquiries or outreach from the traditional media outlets that we’re used to, we’re going to have to start looking at it through a different lens, in that it’s not always going to be those people that we respond to.
We’re going to have to be looking at the social media news teams and people that have alternative channels for communication that we’re not really used to. I’m seeing those get bigger and bigger, especially with Gen Z. I’m sure they don’t even have cable in their homes, and they’re only consuming information digitally and specifically through social media. As a user myself, I look at TikTok. There are a few TikTok news channels that I listen to and get up-to-date information myself.
I think you’re right about Gen Z. I was talking to my son who’s going off to college, and I’m like, “We got to buy you a TV for the dorm room.” And he’s like, “Why?”
So how do you evaluate media? Is Walmart, and you don’t have to speak for them, putting processes in place to evaluate who the press office would engage with?
Right now, we engage with traditional media channels. That’s the first question we ask when a media inquiry comes in, okay, is this a legitimate channel that we feel like Walmart as a company, as a brand should be responding to? But that’s a conversation we’re having right now, in that that’s going to change and we need to start looking through a different lens.
Is right now today the time to do that? Probably not, but it’s something that we need to have in the back of our minds. We are probably going to have to shift that very soon.
What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?
Take your time.
Years ago, I did a crisis communications certificate through PRSA. One of the things that has really stuck with me through that training was to ask yourself what would a reasonable person want you to say?
That’s how I take crisis situations. If something happens, we need to respond very quickly. What would a reasonable person want us to say and what would they expect us to say? I mean, I’m not taking my time, I’m not lollygagging, but I’m making sure that I have all of the information gathered that I need to be able to speak and release a statement on behalf of the company to the public that would meet their expectations reasonably.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here
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