- How to avoid using people as props and authentically engage
- Ethics challenges with assumptions
- How to effectively engage and learn from diverse audiences
- How to effectively advance social justice issues
Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your career?
I have focused my career on social justice with nonprofit organizations. After graduating from Texas Tech, I worked on Capitol Hill with a couple of nonprofits. The first went through a disastrous merger with a new CEO who was a walking ethical challenge, and that sent me down the hall to work for the United Methodist Church, where I, among other things, focused on media violence and media literacy education. I moved back to Texas and made my way to San Antonio, where I found IDRA, and I’ve been there for 29 years. IDRA is a national civil rights organization focused on equity and excellence in public education. As we speak, we’re wrapping up our 50th anniversary year. I’ve also volunteered a lot with Girl Scouts, and March of Dimes, and I’m writing a memoir. It has nothing to do with public relations, but it is what I do in my free time for fun.
Possibly including your walking ethical challenge of your boss, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you’ve ever confronted in your career?
I actually want to start with a story that predated him, but it happened near me next to me. Literally, my first or second year in DC and Congress was working on welfare reform, as they called it back then. My organization did a lot of coalition work. Another coalition that was running this show, and the focus on policymakers had become child support. “We don’t have to provide more resources if we can crack down on deadbeat dads.” Was the thinking. The coalition had brought in some women who were on welfare to testify and speak at a forum. I happened to be seated behind them toward the back of the room where they had been placed.
As someone at the podium was speaking proudly about this child support plan and how it would save poor women and children across the country, the women near me were shaking their heads and commenting, “I can’t depend on that man. Mine’s bad news. He’s out of my life for a reason.” As time went on, I saw this huge gap between the women’s points of view and the words of the people, the so-called experts and advocates at the podium. I was in no position to change what was happening that day, but I was learning a huge lesson. It wasn’t just about ineffective policymaking. It was people claiming to be speaking on behalf of someone else when actually they’re not, and especially their attitudes and the bias of people considering themselves experts and flat-out not listening to people impacted who really were the experts. I did not have a decision to make there, but it did influence everything I’ve done since then.
Listening to your stakeholders and understanding what matters to them and not just what you think matters to them, is essential. How do you counsel organizations to do that? And when organizations feel they are the experts may not have the budget for research how do you convince them to check their assumptions at the door?
People are not props. I’m glad to have found my way to IDRA because we do everything differently. Everything we do is based on research and data and in concert with communities. We elevate voices. For example, we equip people to testify in state legislatures and students to conduct their own peer-to-peer research. Just an example, during COVID, within a week of school closures, we were providing information and policy updates and doing that by having webinars with students and parents so that educators could hear what they were experiencing and make changes.
School leaders obviously wanted to be supporting their students, but they didn’t have a way to hear what their experience was like. So, there were questions about whether a teacher could require cameras to be on when it could reveal what else is happening in the house? Or students were uncomfortable because of what else was going on in the house.
There were a lot of things like that that we were able to provide guidance on. It was purely from listening to the experience that nobody knew before that happened to be prepared. That’s one of the key things.
We do a lot of speaking truth to power, but we don’t do it just to hear our own voices, which is what was happening in that first scenario I was talking about. When our actions don’t result in the change we’re hoping for, the process stays. We’re building people power, so that doesn’t go away when a campaign is over. People who have learned to be advocates, who have testified, made the trip to the capitol to testify, they learned those skills. We’ve held virtual hearings for students and parents to talk about a certain issue when they weren’t able to get to the capitol. Again, they learned from that experience and became stronger advocates themselves.
You mentioned you wanted to start with that example. Are there other ethical personal examples you wanted to share?
We do have the boss I mentioned, and I actually did change jobs. It became the only way, but my first clue when he was hired, because we’d gone through a merger, and at first they tried having co-directors from the CEOs of the previous organizations, which didn’t work. Then they brought in this new person, and I had a reporter call from where he was coming from and asked me, “Are y’all sure you’ve hired the right person? Do you know what has happened here?”
Oh, that’s a red flag.
Yeah, it was. Oh my gosh, he was practicing gender discrimination and taking stipends from speaking publicly that belonged to the organization. It would be deposited to the organization; he’d have the admin give him a check. Just all kinds of things like that. There’s only so much you can do, but when I applied for a new job, which was in the same building because on Capitol Hill there’s one property that is not federal, and that’s where the United Methodist building is. There are a lot of social justice groups there. When I was being interviewed, everybody knew what was happening, and I was asked the question, “Why are you leaving your current job?” I could have gone down the path and raised all this dirty laundry, but I chose not to. I actually, looking back, think I wouldn’t have been hired had I done that.
Beyond your own personal experiences, what are you seeing as some of the key ethical challenges for today and tomorrow?
I think one challenge is just making assumptions – assumptions about problems that we’re trying to solve, assumptions about people, and assumptions about communities, especially communities that are different than our own. There’s a reason PR planning starts with research, but even outside of campaigns, we have to listen and ask, “Whose voice am I not hearing?” It’s not enough to have the right mix of gender and race in the room. We have to listen to each other in that room, and it may mean hearing things we don’t want to hear. I work with a diverse staff, and sometimes in meetings, I will just listen to what others are saying because I learn from that. It’s not their job to teach me, but it is my opportunity to learn and to listen. That’s what we do in our community groups, too.
I think it’s a great example, as my wife reminds me, “Just because you hear me doesn’t mean you’re listening.” You have got to make sure that you’re listening as well.
When you feel like you’re not getting the insights that you need, how do you go about working to elicit them and find them anyway?
First, it’s creating a safe space. So, there’s with my coworkers, but even outside of that, I’ll give you an example. It was the start of the classroom censorship issue here in Texas, and it just seemed to come from nowhere. There was a group of students in another part of the state who had been collecting stories from their peers on a Google form about discrimination that they were experiencing. They had been doing that on their own. Something came up where those stories could be shared with the attorney general, that he was considering a case, and they asked us to help uplift that. So, we had to be very careful about how we did it to not reveal full names unless we had parents’ permission, but there was a lot of retaliation happening in that town.
We were able to support them in doing that. But we also held a virtual press conference. Reporters wanted to talk to the students, and we wanted to make sure that it was done ethically, it was done with respect to student privacy and protection. So, we hosted the press conference. It was virtual. Students’ pictures were not on-screen, and their faces were not on-screen. Their full name was not on-screen, but they were able to answer questions about their experience and their peers directly to reporters, which also built the students’ skills. But that was a way we were able to navigate it and support the advocacy of the students and their protection.
You mentioned a focus on ethics and social justice. Are you actually seeing a commitment, or are we still seeing too much performative action?
So at least in my circle, and we do a lot of coalition work ourselves, I’m not seeing as much of the performance. Nationally, I think we are. It really depends on different issues, but we are partnering with groups who are committed to the long game that’s part of this. We may lose a campaign right now, but it’s a long game, and the ends do not justify the means. So how we work with teachers, how we work with students, that’s paramount. But I do see it. I guess if you watch TV news, you’re going to see it all the time.
What advice do you have for folks to make sure, when they’re engaging in social justice issues, they’re actually helping in moving the needle and not just doing performative action?
The key thing is to speak up. I was ethics officer for our chapter for a while, and we would talk about how PR people are often in a unique position to guide our organizations. It could be because when somebody makes a bad call, ethically, we have to pick up the pieces, or it’s because we’re in a position to know what else is happening in the organization. We have teams where I work, but I am involved in each team and with each project, I can maybe spot problems brewing. We have to speak up, and we have to actually even provide training. We may be the ones who can say, “No, we’re not going to use that photo. No, we can’t. We can ghost-write this but not that. We have permission to use the student’s first name only.” Or whatever, to speak up when you start to see things going away.
Speaking up sounds simple, but we have to remind ourselves that we are in that position, and people look to us for that. I remember once, this was many years ago. It wasn’t even with IDRA. We were doing one of those knot activities. Everybody holds hands, and then you have to get yourself out of the knot, and you reflect on it afterwards. I remember the person who was actually my supervisor at the time saying she didn’t know who started giving directions, but she was glad that person did, and that was me. So, I’ve always gone back to that. That people appreciate guidance, and if we have the expertise to provide guidance, then we need to do it and feel okay doing it. We must have the confidence to do that.
What’s the best piece of ethics advice you ever received?
Ask the question, “What assumptions are we making?” But also ask, “What could go wrong?” It could be operational. It could be messaging. It could be, “Who could misinterpret what we’re saying? What are the words we’re using?” But ask the question, “what can go wrong?” Then deal with the answers. Most of us are not in the Tylenol recall situation. We’re not going to be faced with that. But the day-to-day is where we have to be paying attention to those assumptions and to our words.
What’s the role you’re seeing with AI in engaging diverse communities, and is it being effective in sharing the insights? Are you seeing too many organizations starting to use it and not engaging the communities anymore?
I’m not seeing how others are using it a whole lot, actually. I think we’re still learning. I know we have done some training with teachers on how they can use AI to engage students. So, for example, students learning English, and I don’t just mean translation, but positive ways that it can be used, but we have to do it with the guardrails of not revealing content before it’s released or if it’s private and that kind of thing. But I think we are in a new phase of learning. When I started at IDRA, we were looking at should we have a website. Then we went into the phase of social media. Should we be on this type of platform? We’re still asking that question now. Should we switch from Twitter to something else? How should we engage on TikTok? Things of that sort, and is it appropriate?
So, AI is, I think of as a new frontier in terms of what’s available, the technology, and there’s good and bad. So, we have to navigate that. I’m really grateful to PRSA for providing learning opportunities. That’s how we do it. I also listen to a podcast called For Immediate Release from Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson, and they are leading and trying new technologies from a communications point of view. I think that’s what we have to do, whether it’s AI or something else, is we have to keep learning the pros and cons and what are the guardrails, and then provide guidance with people we work with.
Is there anything else you wanted to share?
Get in the habit of asking What could go wrong? What assumptions are we making? Make it a habit, and then when something big comes, you’re ready. It’s like planning for crisis communications, but it’s not even that. It’s just a good practice in meetings to do that planning.
Listen to the full interview, with bonus content, here.
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