What should you do when you think you received an unlawful order? Dave Honchul

Joining me on this week’s episode is Dave Honchul, APR Fellow, PRSA. He’s a public affairs specialist at the US Department of the Treasury and a docent at the National Museum of the US Air Force. He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

I’m one of those folks that you would never have imagined if you saw me growing up, ever being in public relations. My high school teacher probably is still rolling over in a grave that I’m doing this as my job. I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1985 as open general, which meant I didn’t have a job, and the job that I fell into was public affairs. That became my life passion, and I continued growing in that career field. In my enlisted career, I did just about everything a public affairs person could do including media relations, internal information, community relations, the works. About 10 years into my career, I was offered a commission as an officer, and amazingly enough, I was given a commission as a public affairs officer, so I continued my career in public affairs.

The last 20 years of my total military career were all in various leadership positions, leading public affairs efforts at just about every level of the military there is. I ended up retiring in 2019, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and I’m now working for the IRS. I do internal communications within the IRS and then just to help keep my sanity a little bit, I go up to the Air Force Museum because you can take the boy out of the Air Force, but you can’t take the Air Force out of the boy. I went to the Air Force Museum and I’m a volunteer docent up there.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

It’s amazing. You would think that within the military, you really don’t face much. That’s the perception. There’s a lot of times that you face varying levels of ethical challenges. I faced one early on in my officer career that could have been fairly significant. I was at a base and the issue was a construction project that had been broken out into several minor projects to keep it under a certain cost level. While there was nothing technically illegal by what they did, it’s questionable of why they did it, and that’s why it gained a lot of media attention. It gained so much media attention that there were national news networks that were covering the story and trying to get more information and trying to do their angles on the story.

My boss was the lead in responding to everything, but I was the gathering all the materials and all the research. I had all the information. One day I’m sitting at my desk and I get a call from the Pentagon and the Major on the phone asked goes, “Lieutenant Honchul, have you received any kind of documentation from X, Y, Z demanding these papers?” I’m looking at my notes, I’m looking in my email really quick and I’m saying, “I do not see anything from them.” The next words out of his mouth was, “Good, that means the FOIA hasn’t hit your desk yet.” For those that don’t know what FOIA is, it’s the Freedom of Information Act request that especially media agencies use to try to pull information from the government that they feel that the government government’s hiding.

He goes, “The FOIA hasn’t hit your desk. That means you can honestly have plausible deniability so that you do not have any bit of information on your desk.” I am stunned on the phone going, “You’re actually asking me to go shred everything because you’re afraid of a FOIA. That doesn’t sound right. That just rubs me wrong.” He goes, “Remember Lieutenant, I’m a Major. You need to do this,” and he hangs up the phone. My boss wasn’t around so I couldn’t consult with him. I ended up going down the hall to the lawyers and talking to them and starting educating myself more on what FOIA required, what the exemptions under FOIA was, and explaining to them and showing them what I had, knowing that it was coming.

It turned out that everything I had, the lawyers classified as working documents. They weren’t final documents, which we had final versions that the media already had. Since working documents were not releasable under FOIA, I didn’t have anything to worry about. I did not follow that unlawful order. I didn’t shred anything, and life went on and it worked out well for me. Had I shredded that and folks found out about it later, it could have opened up a whole other can of worms and another investigation about me trying to hide things and potentially violating the law. That was a very big ethical challenge that I was confronted with right away. I was glad that I chose the right path.

Let’s dig into this a little bit more. The situation you brought up is one that I can see many PR people facing, that when their manager or their manager’s manager or somebody outside of their chain of command who’s in senior management ask them to do something that is just triggering some alarms in terms of, is this really being ethical? What is your advice for that PR person who finds themselves in that situation?

The first thing you have to do is dig deep into your soul. In my military situation, every airman, actually every soldier, marine, every military member takes an oath that they will obey the lawful orders of those appointed above them. If you think you’ve received an unlawful order, you have to really dig deep within yourself and ask is that an unlawful order? Am I willing to call that out? If you choose to ignore the order or ignore your boss’s requests or demands, you’ve got to be willing to deal with the consequences, which can be very painful and very uncomfortable.

The best advice, and this was the key lesson I learned from it, was that as much as we make jokes about lawyers, lawyers are our friends in the ethics fight. Get some good advice. I don’t mean barracks lawyers and asking friends, “What do you think?” I mean, get an actual legal thought. It drives me nuts when I see people asking their friends, “Well, this is what’s happening to me. Do you think this is legal?” Why are you asking a non-lawyer? Get with your lawyers to ensure that what you’re feeling is correct. If it is correct, then you need to be able to go in not with emotions, which is hard to do sometimes, but go in with an objective conversation and be willing to take the consequences. If you’re not willing to take the consequences, then you need to either find another path to go, or you need to find another job unfortunately. That’s the uncomfortable truth. You’ve got to be able to look at it objectively and give some true legal advice to help you.

Something else I’ve seen in the public sector, is when you’re having the lawyer as part of your conversation in your email chain, you can mark it privileged and confidential as part of the discussion, and therefore that is something that can be protected from discovery.

Absolutely, absolutely.

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

I think we all can agree that technology is an amazing, amazing tool for us, but it’s a double-edged sword. We need to be watching the AI issues. It’s not just AI, we’ve been dealing with this for years as soon as Photoshop became in vogue. We have to be careful about the images we use, the words we use, and make sure that what we’re doing is a true and trustworthy representation.

Disinformation out there gets much easier and easier to happen, and it’s very easy to fall in the trap of seeing something and running with it without actually digging into it and going, is this true? Then we end up becoming unwitting accomplices in disinformation. That’s one of the biggest challenges we’ve got to keep on top of and keep watching because it can come back to bite any practitioner.

Kind of related to that is the number of public relations practitioners that don’t follow the news closely. I’m not saying pick one particular news agency and follow that agency. I’m saying follow news, follow both sides of the story because it doesn’t matter whether you’re following a conservative news network or a liberal news network, if you’re following both, there are nuggets of truth in all their reporting. You just have to dig through it. The important thing is get out of your social media echo chambers, because if you’re relying on that as news, you’re only getting the news that perpetuates and echoes your beliefs and it doesn’t challenge you. You need to be a little more broad-based in the news that you’re looking at, so that you can have a better sense of what is actually going out there. That helps also in the fight against disinformation.

It’s essential because it helps you understand how the other stakeholders are thinking.

Absolutely. Also, make sure your bosses understand that too, because I’ve run into a few times where my boss, we were working a story and the boss thought, “Oh, this is a great story. Everybody will love it,” and I’m like, “No, here’s exactly how the media is going to portray it.” He looked at me in the eyes and bet me going, “You are absolutely wrong. This is how they’re going to portray it because this is great, and here’s the information we’re giving them.” He really hated paying up on that bet.

How do you keep on top of the news right now?

I’m trying to do everything I can. In my last job in the military, I had it great because I was the director or the commander of American Forces Network which provides all of the radio and television programming for all the service members around the world. I would have our news channel on all day while I was working. One hour, we would show Fox, the next hour we’d show CNN, the next hour we’d show CBS, the next hour we’d show NBC. I was so well in tuned with the media that it wasn’t even funny. Now, I am struggling a little bit more on the civilian side of channel flipping and trying to keep changing the channel to different news channels to keep having that same effect. Yes, I do look at the social media. I know I said, “Get out of your social media echo chambers.” I don’t mean ignore those echo chambers, but don’t rely on them solely for your news because again, it makes you less effective as a public relations practitioner if that’s all you’re doing.

I agree, particularly if you talking about certain demographics, that is their primary news channel and that is how they’re talking about it. I mean, if you’re looking at my son and others that are using Reddit as a news source and we can say what we want about it, that’s what they’re using. If you want to understand what they’re seeing, it’s important to leverage those as well.

I’ve had plenty of discussions with my kids who solely rely on social media and I keep going, “You’re missing the full story.” It’s amazing, sometimes they’ll come back going, “Wow, how did you know that dad?” I’m like, “Well, it’s because I looked at more than just social media.”

How many levels of checks should we be doing to see if something has disinformation?

It’s different for every issue. There’s not a one solution answer to that. I will see something, for instance, that pops up on my social media feed and it looks truthful. It’s probably true, but the first thing I will do is depending on the time of day, is I will go to Google News and see is there a bunch of news stories on that topic. If there is, then that’s making me go, okay, maybe I only need to do one or two more checks. Then I’ll look at what are the sources of those articles? Are they radical blogs? Are they really weird sites or are they mainstream reporting? An argument I have with a lot of people is that even when you’re using only social media, a lot of the truthful factual, hard-hitting news that is going around social media, actually begins with mainstream media. The same mainstream media that people argue about, same media, that people are constantly going, “Fake news, fake news, fake news,” about.

I keep digging until I get to a point of where it’s ridiculous I’ve had to dig this far and I can’t find a legitimate news story. That tells me that, okay, it’s probably disinformation. Or if I come across legitimate news sources that are covering it, then okay, then it is legit. I also use a variety of different fact-checkers, and I know that that provides its own conspiracy theorist connotation as it is. Those fact-checkers, if you do more than one, usually they’re all pretty consistent as far as telling what’s disinformation or what is unproven. Dig until you’re satisfied that you’ve dug deep enough, and it really is issue dependent.

I spoke with Col. Ann Knabe about that, and she was clarifying the difference between misinformation and disinformation too, because sometimes people are saying things they believe is true, and they’re not doing it from a negative purpose.

A lot of people don’t understand that misinformation is not disinformation. It’s just that somebody either is misquoted, misstated something, or as you said, they totally believe it’s true and then come to find out later that instead of five, it was four, stuff like that.

The example I use with my class at BU was about the image that allegedly showed the bombing of the Pentagon, which had the smoke in front of the building, and it was picked up by major wire services. The stock market went down 24 basis points. It was a completely fake generated AI image and it didn’t look anything like the Pentagon. But you still had major wire services fooled by that story.

Absolutely. I realize not everybody has been everywhere, but if you look closely at a lot of images like that, you can tell right away whether, especially in that kind of case, that that was not a real image. Unfortunately, you just cannot believe a picture anymore. You have to look at it critically and decide for yourself whether that’s true or not, or whether you need to dig a little deeper on that.

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

I would advise everybody, get yourself a mentor that can be a sounding board to you.

I had a mentor once who was talking to me and said, “Dave, trust your gut. You have good instincts. You have good perception of what life is like and what’s going on. Trust your gut.” From an ethics standpoint, if your gut is telling you that this just doesn’t smell right, this doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Trust your gut because as a public relations person, you’re looking at things a little more holistically anyway. If you’re looking at it from an ethics standpoint or thinking from an ethics standpoint, if your gut is giving you warning signs, trust it.

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

Oh, there’s lots of things we could talk about on this and we’d go on for hours. I love being able to have opportunities to pay it forward. I was very fortunate in my career, had lots of opportunities, and I just want to see others succeed as well and have opportunities to succeed. There’s always folks out there who want to talk to that love to share with you. Don’t look at them as just old war horses. There’s a lot of wisdom and sage advice that can still be applicable no matter what generation it is. As you said, there’s a lot of negatives out there. We need to work towards the positives and try to help our society move forward.

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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