We need to tell the hard truths – Ed Harrison

Joining me on this week’s episode is Ed Harrison, the managing director of Inkhouse in Boston. He discusses several ethics issues including:

Tell us more about yourself and your career

I’m a managing director at Inkhouse, an integrated PR agency based in Waltham, but we have people all over the country. We talk about being an agency for change makers. Our clients want to get their audiences to take some sort of action and we help them tell stories to do that. I’ve been an agency guy pretty much my entire professional life. I’ve worked almost entirely with B2B tech clients with a handful of exceptions. Inkhouse is the fourth agency I’ve been at and I dare say my favorite one. Right now in the managing director role, I am mostly tasked with growth, working on reducing churn, exceeding client expectations, and creating relationships that are more strategic than tactical with our people. I really like telling stories. I like helping B2B tech companies with really arcane technology tell stories that people care about. It’s a challenge and I love it.

I agree with you. I loved my semiconductor days talking about silicon substrates and it’s fascinating. I could talk about it for hours.

It’s funny because I look back at the 22-year-old me, I think the very first difficult press release I had to write was something about pricing in SAP. I didn’t understand it and at the time it was like I don’t get this and I don’t want to do it. And years later I’m like, it was fascinating. It was a great exercise very early in my career.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

There were two directions I wanted to go with this and the first one is about data.

When I was a senior in college, I was in a market research class and we were working with a local small business in Washington, DC, that was trying to do restaurant deliveries to students. We agreed to do a market research project with them. Part of that was interviewing people at a metro stop and getting their takes on this.

As a lazy 22-year-old, I learned that I didn’t really want to do that work. So, my friends are working on the project with me, and we faked a lot of the data. I think the data wasn’t very helpful and I wonder was it my fault that the business did not survive?

Not necessarily, but at the same time, I learned the lesson that there are some ramifications with data. We have a responsibility to use data ethically.  There are a lot of ways to use it to tell stories, but when we’re reporting to clients, there’s always that sort of pressure to ask can we take credit for this? Is there sort of a gray area here as well?

When we use data, we should use it responsibly and we tell the story actually as it is. We’re always going to put ourselves in the best possible light. But we should do it in a way that’s ethical and honest. When that man’s restaurant went out of business because we said he should deliver soup, I learned that maybe ethically using data is kind of important.

What do you mean by responsible use of data?

If I’m reporting to a client a certain number of hits that we got for a quarter, and if there’s a handful that we know we didn’t really do, we can’t take credit for it there. There are ways to fudge the numbers and maybe no one will ask questions, but if the data doesn’t tell a great story, owning up to that and saying, “Well, here’s the things we could do differently or do better” is more effective.

I always say data always tells a great story. What you can take from it because not hitting your numbers is just as important because it tells you we need to change something; people don’t get it.

Ideally, we’re way out in front of that, so we’re not at the end of the quarter and going, oh crap, we’re short. As we’ve gotten more digital and easier to track action/response here, we’ve had to be. There are some uncomfortable truths we occasionally have to tell clients things that maybe years ago you could have said, oh, this coverage in the Wall Street Journal is everything you wanted, but did it help them reach their goals. Data can help us do that, but we need to use it in a responsible way.

How do you recommend people push back on their clients if the clients are pushing them to be the best or fastest and the data may not always back it up?

If you’re making a specious claim that there’s no data to back it up, you might as well not do it. How long have we been writing press releases, calling somebody the leading provider of X. You can’t all be leaders here. I hone into the specifics and say let’s be honest about the bruised ribs in your story, as well as specifically what are the things that you do better than anyone else? We should be thoughtful about that. More importantly, what does that mean your customers can do with that? We always talk about how the laziest thing to do when you’re banging out a product press release is to get right in on speeds and feats. What does that mean ultimately? Put some context around that.

What other ethics issue did you want to discuss?

I want to talk about avoiding difficult conversations both with clients and colleagues. And I think I’m one of those people that went into client services, and I have an innate need to be liked. A lot of us are people pleasers. It draws a lot of similar people into the industry. Sometimes we avoid some hard truths because of that. If it’s a junior employee that missed the mark on something or is continually missing the mark or if a client is hell-bent on saying they’re the fastest when they’re actually not, you need to have those conversations.

There is a sort of level of appeasement that happens sometimes. I can only speak for me; I often confuse being kind with being nice. So for an employee, the nice thing to do is say, oh, the press release is good enough. We’ll figure it out. The kind thing to do is to say, you really missed the mark here. How can we help you figure this out? Walk through the edits with them, do not just track changes. We have an obligation to our junior people, to our colleagues or all levels to help them get better at things. And if there are things they’re not good at, give them the resources to get better at it, rather than just sort of getting frustrated with them and doing it yourself.

I spoke with Mark Cautela at Harvard Business School and he mentions one of his biggest ethical concerns and challenges when not speaking up when he was seeing some misogyny and some other things in an organization.

I carry tremendous regret with me of things I saw in the 90s and 00s that I didn’t speak up about. Sure, I’ve evolved somewhat since then, the time. You can use the excuse….it was a different time…but there were some things that were just wrong. As a would-be ally, I had a responsibility to speak up and I didn’t do it.

And if you don’t speak up initially, it gets tougher.

The longer you defer these conversations – I don’t want to hammer on junior employees here – but we have a responsibility. It’s been hard for them because a lot of them started these jobs during the pandemic where there were no face-to-face connections. So, you’re trying to train people over Zoom and Slack. But you’re either having a difficult conversation now or you’re having a much more difficult conversation in two months when you have to put them on a PIP.

It’s not always easy for some folks to say, “We need to improve this. It’s a suboptimal decision. Let’s talk about how we can help you.” What’s your advice to people to get over that concern?

Two years ago, I made it a goal for myself to start tracking the difficult conversations that I have. In my Apple Notes app. I have a little thing that says difficult conversations. I decided to have at least two of these a week or really track these things. Part of it is holding yourself accountable. If the choice is saying nothing and hoping it will work itself out or addressing it right now, do it right now.

If it’s with a client and you’re not hitting your goals, you should come with some solutions and ideas. Do not just say “Well, hey, we’re not hitting the numbers.” They’re paying us for those ideas. At that point, you’ve got to get the creative juices going and come up with another campaign.

What are some other things we can do beyond if the media pitches aren’t landing? Maybe we talk about owned content, maybe we talk about social. It’s really important though to go have a plan with some other ideas.

If you haven’t done a lot of these difficult conversations, they can be a little daunting at first. But the person on the other end of the phone is someone just like you. They’re having the same challenges, facing the human condition right now. Remember that as well.

I also tell folks; you’re going to screw up and it’s going to get better as you learn.

And that’s a great point. You need to have the grace to mess things up for there are going to be times when you’re going to.

Last week I sent a new client an email to confirm something, and I spelled his name wrong. I immediately emailed to apologize. I was sending a messaging document and made a joke that I can assure you that the work in the messaging document is clearer and better than me misspelling your name.

It’s important to just own up when you mess up. Say “I messed up. It won’t happen again.” I’m sure if you and I have sat down, we could think of dozens of really stupid things we did for clients back in 1997.

That’s what I tell my students and my staff. The reason people like Ed Harrison seem wicked smart and wise is because he’s been screwing up and seeing others screw up for 30 years and can learn from those mistakes. So, we’re trying to coach you, so you don’t go through them. That’s why I can answer these questions easily…because I’ve screwed them up time and again.

We have an obligation to tell these hard truths. If an employee isn’t doing well, they’re going to be perpetually stuck there. We owe it to them.

I spoke with Beth Monaghan, and she discussed something similar with toxic employees.

Talk about someone with great ethics.

We have a dozen or so values that our agency lives by and when we don’t live by them, we talk about it, we address that. But I think with programs with clients in general, in the absence of having that difficult conversation, you’re again, you’re pushing off a much worse conversation where at the end of the quarter when you have three pieces of coverage, what are you doing here. The earlier you can get out in front of either of these things, ultimately, you’re getting better at these things and you’re reducing some stress in your own life too.

What are you seeing as some of the key ethics challenges facing in the industry today and tomorrow?

This is hardly a unique take; we’re all trying to figure out where to go with AI. As an agency, we put together guidelines, but it also creates a bit of an existential fear for us as well. But do we embrace the robot overlords or do we fight them? I don’t know.

At this point, it’s just sort of really understanding how this can help us do our jobs better but ensuring that we’re not trying to present AI-driven work as our own. Just having very honest conversations, disclosing when we use it.

I’ll use it occasionally for first drafts and things like that just to clear the cobwebs in my head, but I feel like that’s the big one we’re all sort of grappling with right now. I think that the other day I had a client, they were trying to name a product and just for fun, I had ChatGPT generate like 50 product names and they were all terrible. But the client contact was like, I appreciate you using this thing because it’s probably going to put you out of a job someday.

She’s being a little bit glib, but we do need to figure out how to both use it responsibly but also not give it too much power.

It is like electricity. It is going to make what we do much more effective and efficient down the road. But it could also shock you if you touch it inappropriately.

That’s a very good metaphor.

You asked if we embrace our robot overlords? One of the things I’ve been saying for years is we already are owned by the robot overlords. Our iPhones tell us when to get up in the morning, where to go, and it’s the last thing we look at before we go to bed.

I feel like I’m disappointing my Apple Watch if I don’t walk enough.

There’s a lot of good reasons why we’ve done that, but we need to figure out how we can make it work for all of us.

What is Inkhouse doing to help train and educate your employees re: AI?

My colleague Keith Giannini is leading the AI task force at Inkhouse.  It’s a work in progress. Right now, we’re working with Berlin Rosen to come up with a real ironclad sort of code of conduct here. But we’ve done a couple of things. We have a lot of clients who have an AI play one way or the other. Either they’re selling the technology to other companies or are injecting it into what they do. Most of our employees have a conceptual level of understanding about what AI is and what it’s not, maybe better than most people do. We recently hosted a panel of AI reporters who discussed the stories that they’re looking to cover. So, we understand how it works in the abstract.

In terms of training our teams. We’ve done a handful of trainings, we’ve walked through some ChatGPT things if you use it to write something, you have to disclose it to us or you don’t use it at all. For me it’s good for kicking the cobwebs out if I can’t get started, it helps me get started there.

We’re going to approach it I think from the right direction that it’s not going to do everything, but we can’t have it do nothing. We’re trying to take a tempered approach. Let’s be aware of everything happening, but sort of a wait-and-see outlook toward it.

What are you hearing about that Mark? What are you doing?

I’ve developed a training module on AI ethics and prompt engineering. The key thing for us as an agency is we’re making sure the team examining it is a multidisciplinary team. It’s not just earned. It’s bringing in the creative, the data scientists, it’s bringing in the multicultural to help really understand their perspectives because they’ll bring up issues I haven’t considered. And then it’s also keeping in mind, as I like to say a lot, if all you’re using ChatGPT for or any Generative AI for content creation, you are missing the boat. There is so much more it can do in terms of helping you be a better PR counselor and the way you can structure prompts to help you. Ask it “What am I forgetting to ask?” And it will tell you what you’re forgetting to ask, so you can be smarter when you’re talking to the clients. There’s a lot of elements that I think people are overlooking.

What about things like Otter?

I’ve looked at Otter, I’ve looked at Supernormal. We do have some concerns about the security of the recordings because arguably the data is going outside of a secure network. But the biggest concern we have explains why our agency is not using Otter and Supernormal. I love them, but we feel like one of the key things is when you’re working with younger staff having them be in charge of notes and action items from a meeting helps them identify the key themes and become better counselors.  If AI does it, they lose the opportunity to hone their insight

That’s a really good call. And I think you’re right. One thing I will add, we do actually have very clear guidelines about putting client data in ChatGPT.  Do not do that. Anything that you don’t want to have shared externally, do not put it in.

I think a lot of this is learning through doing. I think for most, I keep saying young people, but they are much younger than I am, there is this sort of excitement, enthusiasm to learn these things, but also not getting, at least with the first year when we’re all remote, not getting that sort of in-person, real-time feedback. It was much harder. We’re going to see the ramifications of that for a while I think.

I agree from the education standpoint, plus we lost the in-person brainstorming, coaching, and deskside chats.

I’m going to keep going back to the nineties here, but there was a lot of Tom Foolery that happened in the Schwartz office. But it was a great place. You could walk down the hall and talk to somebody and ask a question and they would give you great advice. And now you’ve got to Slack somebody and see if they’re free. We’ve missed out on that for two years. It’s hard to replicate that.

What is the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?

I’m going to go way back. This is my very first job out of college. I was working at a USOC Organization for Disabled Athletes. I was their sort of grant writer and did a little PR, and things like that. We were planning a world championship for disabled sailing, and I don’t remember the specifics, but my boss, the executive director, gave me this communication that I had to share with all the participating nations.

And I messed up something in that somehow, I think I either sent the wrong draft or I missed something that was meant to be in there. And it created this complete hullabaloo. It was really bad. The complaints all went to him because it appeared it was coming from him. And I remember…he took it. He could have very easily thrown me under the bus there or blamed it on the 22-year-old kid who just started here.

But he said, “I have a responsibility here to own up to my mistakes.” He was this great guy, a disabled Vietnam vet, one of my first bosses, a mentor, and he just said, “I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t take the hits for this. I mess up here.” And I feel like, the blame was probably shared because I’m sure I should have caught some of these things.

If you make some sort of a mistake or you say something that’s not true, you own it. It’s good for people that work with me to see that I’m willing own it when I mess up. I’m not going to self-flagellate, but I’m also going to say, “I am sorry about this. Here’s what I’ll do better the next time.”

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

I’m actually curious to get your take on this. We’ve been an integrated agency for a while, and I think there are some stories that earned media just isn’t the solution for, there’s not the audience for it. We’re pivoting clients to doing more social and thoughts leadership content. Are you seeing that as  well?

Yes. It comes down to the breaking down of the silos. If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. You need to make sure you have a toolbox with a hammer, a wrench, a screwdriver, and Dremel, and use the right tool for the right job. That’s why I think you’re seeing much more expansion into integrated firms because the strategy is still the important part. I remember telling folks back in the day, don’t get wedded to any technology. If all you’re doing is that one thing, you’re not being a good strategic advisor. Look at the full suite of tools. We understand strategy, we understand communication. We understand the stakeholders that you’re trying to engage, and then build whatever is the best solution to reach them. It doesn’t always have to be you. You can tell folks, I’m not the right firm for you, or I have partners that do it better.

Since we’ve become part of the Berlin Rosen network, that’s something we’ve been able to do, exactly.

You can listen to the full podcast, 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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