One key PR ethics lesson from the Pulse nightclub shooting – Ann Marie Varga

This week on EthicalVoices, Ann Marie Varga, the internal communication manager for AdventHealth discussed several important ethics issues, including:

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career

I grew up in central Florida and most of my career was spent there. I now live in the Tampa/St. Pete area, but I’ve worked in agencies, corporations, and my experience spans a variety of industries including academia, banking, government, healthcare, tourism, and utilities. My very first job out of college was unique. I joined the circus, well, sort of.

Mattel owned Circus World, a circus-themed park, west of Disney World, and it really was an incredible first job, a cool place to work. We had elephants, lions, tigers, trapeze artists, and we literally hosted media from the world on-site.

Thanks to the flexibility of our profession, I had the incredible good fortune to have my own business several times, first when my kids were young, and then most recently, several years ago up until COVID hit, when we decided to return to Orlando. Interestingly, within two weeks we moved and I was offered a job with AdventHealth. I call it divine intervention, and I’ve worked there since May 2020. My role has changed slightly and I’ve transitioned to the West Florida division in Tampa.

I think you’re the first person I have spoken with for this podcast who worked for the circus. Thinking about your career from circus to healthcare to agency, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

The most difficult ethical challenge for me occurred following the Pulse nightclub tragedy in 2016. I was working for Orange County government and I led the communications team through a nightmare week. It was definitely something that no one ever wants to go through, and it definitely is a career mark for me.

To put it all in perspective, I need to back up and give you the history of that weekend. On Friday night, June 10th, Christina Grimmie, who had been on The Voice, was shot and killed at a theater in Orlando. Then the Pulse nightclub massacre occurred on Sunday, June 12th. Then on Tuesday, 2-year-old Lane Graves was killed by an alligator at Disney World.

The only word I can use for that week was surreal. We had so much media in central Florida because of those events, we literally were running from press conference to press conference. We had many agencies, a total of seven different agencies, City of Orlando, Orange County, Police, Fire in the city and the county, two hospitals involved.

It was really frenetic and the county medical examiner’s office performed all of the autopsies for all of those events, and the strain on that team was immense. We received hundreds of public records requests, and when the autopsies were complete, the county attorney told us to post them on our website.

That was just absolutely unthinkable to me.

Autopsy reports contain a lot of detail and private information and out of respect for the victims and their families, I pushed back, I didn’t follow the order. I struggled with that initially, but I thought, “We have to abide by the law, but let’s just provide the reports upon request. Let’s not post them online.” There are too many people who would’ve viewed them just out of sick curiosity. They’re graphic, and like I said, they contain a lot of personal information. Years later, interestingly enough, a member of my team, she was the lead PIO for health services, told me that she didn’t initially agree with me on that decision, but now she deeply respects that decision and really saw it as an ethical challenge that we rose above to protect the victims.

The law required you to post it?

No, the law requires us to make them available. So we didn’t break the law, but we didn’t follow the orders to make it easy.

When somebody gives you an order you do not agree with, what’s your recommendation to other PR folks in that situation? How did you go about convincing them that your approach was the right approach?

I think that the key learning for me out of that was don’t just follow orders. There’s no reason why as a counselor, you can’t push back and say, “What about this option?” We were still following the law. We were sharing upon request, which is really all we were required to do. Put yourself in the position of others and use your common sense and your heart to guide you. As a mother and a grandmother, I was truly shaken that week. I had to be the advocate for those people who didn’t have a voice, for those victims and those families. The key lesson is stop, think it through, and follow your heart and follow your gut.

Were folks receptive when you made that suggestion?

Yes, absolutely.

That sounds like an absolutely horrific week. I think we’ve all had horrible weeks, but yours is one of the most horrific I’ve ever heard.

It was so much pain and so much loss, and I remember when I heard about the little toddler that was snatched by the gator, I was in my car and I literally pulled my car over and just sobbed. But there were a few key learnings from these events, and one of them was that I was able to show the leaders at Orange County government what I’d been asking for for a couple of years, and that was for a newsroom, a manner in which we could share news and information real-time.

We were sitting in the war room and waiting for updates to be posted on our website because we were the content providers and the information technology team posted it, and it just wasn’t practical. That event showed those leaders what I was talking about, and now Orange County has a real-time, live, 24/7 content management system, and it is the primary way that they share news and information to the media and also to the community.

That was a good thing that came out of that. Personally, what came out of that for me was my avocation. I was so inspired by the comfort dogs that came to Central Florida, that visited the teams of the city and the county and the two hospitals that treated the victims. I have an incredible picture of my team and I with these beautiful Golden Retrievers. We are covered in golden hair, but we were laughing and crying, and it just lifted our spirits. I tucked that away in my heart because I have a big, old, chunky Chocolate Labrador Retriever, and he and I today are an animal-assisted therapy team, and we’ve just celebrated our five years bringing joy to kids of all ages. Hundreds and hundreds of hours we’ve volunteered.

That is outstanding to hear. Now I want to take a detour from what I typically talk about because hearing about that and hearing about when you had to pull the car over and you had to cry. One of the challenges we face is we’re dealing with horrific issues that may come up, hopefully many not like yours. How do you recommend your team take steps to preserve their mental health and their wellbeing?

We took such good care of each other. One of the things that I appreciated about the team that I had was that I had a colleague at Orange County government, a very senior person, Lisa Nason. She’s a wonderful practitioner. She was there beside me, helping me think about how best to take care of my team. And I had a PIO who was on the ground in the middle of all of this. We assigned an intern to her to make sure she ate, to take notes, to answer her phone, to take messages. We put a lot of things in place to just kind of synchronize ourselves because oftentimes the media will call everybody on the list of contacts, and if you’re not coordinated, you could all be answering the same questions. So we had everything go to our email. We provided information on our email, a link to updates on our website.

We tried to take care of one another, and one of the things that came out of that event actually was I created a backpack for the team and it had things in it, like all the wires you might need for your phone, your computer, we all had shirts, raincoats, various things that you might need in a crisis. We call it the go bag. Those are the kinds of things that you can do in advance. We had a great crisis plan on the shelf, but my gosh, who could have anticipated something like this? So you augment it, you update it, and you just take care of each other.

I usually tell younger professionals and the students they need to make sure they have a pair of emergency pants. But it sounds like you’re taking it and gone to the next level.

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

We’re all looking at artificial intelligence, and we can talk about other things if you’ve looked at that deeply with other folks, but the fact that artificial intelligence developers are human, so the developers of the artificial intelligence, that they may have those biases and the historical data will train the algorithms, and that may not represent the whole population fairly.

I’m a novice in this area, but definitely it’s on our radar and I’m trying to attend the sessions that are offered because I think we’re all going to be dealing with this now and in the coming years and the other impacts that come along with AI, such as unemployment and inequality due to automation. There are such far-reaching issues that we all need to be aware of.

This has been a key focus of mine for the past year and I have been doing a lot of training around it. Another agency owner I talked to, Anne Green, she brought up that one of the horror stories of AI was when a CEO was using it to draft layoff announcements, and that was, “Hey, I wrote this great announcement with  AI.” And it’s like, “No, that’s not the way to go.”

Yes, you’re losing the personal touch. So you have to be cautious with that.

Even just the concept of future work, let’s look at the changes in our lives since COVID. Many organizations have found that workers can be productive from home. I work from home. I rarely have to go into the office, and it’s afforded us so much, so many benefits. Those organizations that haven’t embraced remote or hybrid options, they need to really look at it and also maybe look at reskilling and upskilling current workers rather than displacing them. I always say, “Grow or die” because you just have to constantly work on your skills. Looking at future work and what that looks like for different organizations is really important.

How is AdventHealth looking at future work? When I think about an organization like yours, as an agency it’s one thing, but you have a place where some folks have to be in and they have to be in 40 hours a week plus whatever else, and there gets to be some concern about potential lack of equity, that, “I have to be here and these folks are working from home.” How do you address that?

For the communications folks, for the comms folks, it’s certainly more flexible. Obviously in our organization, there are roles where you can’t work remote, so that’s just not even a possibility. But for us in the Tampa area, most of us do work remote. Our boss is in the office more frequently, and we do go in as needed. If I am called in, I hit the road. And that’s been my career: get in the car and go. But for us, it’s a lot more flexible when it comes to the different roles, and the communications role is certainly flexible.

Let’s face it, we don’t work normal hours. Around the clock, 24/7, when you need me, I am there. And so that’s sort of very natural way of evolving for us. It hasn’t been a challenge really for us. But when you live in an area where the geography is so vast, for me to get from St. Petersburg to Tampa literally is about an hour, but I can be there and I’ll be there if needed, and I’m there as often as needed. So, very long way of saying it differs by role, but for us, it’s worked.

Are there any other specific ethical challenges you wanted to highlight?

We all are looking at different issues for healthcare. Health disparity in low-income communities, that’s an ethical issue. I work for a faith-based organization that is focused on whole person health and body, mind, spirit. It’s so inspiring to work for an organization like that because they’re concerned about the whole person. There is the transition in healthcare too, they don’t want you to just come see your doctor when you’re sick. Let’s get ahead of these illnesses. See your primary care physician regularly. Let’s get ahead of it. Don’t just think about your doctor when you’re ill. So it’s whole person: health, mind, body, spirit. And that is inspiring.

If you look at other industries, such as the energy industry, where I worked for seven years. A colleague shared with me that they’re as more of the energy system is decarbonized, new technologies, there are a lot of considerations that need to be made so that greening the economy is fair and inclusive.

It depends on your industry, what your issues are. I think one thing that’s interesting for us as internal communicators, and we’re dealing with it as well, is there’s a celebration day or celebration month, and there are so many different holidays that we celebrate, how can you be inclusive of everything? That’s a struggle. What are the federal holidays? We say Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays because we’re faith-based, but it’s such a challenge to not exclude somebody somehow.

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

I’m going to quote William Shakespeare here. And for me, “To thine own self be true” is really the best advice that you can take. I am an Italian Catholic and that guilt keeps me very honest and forthright. That’s always been my barometer, but I think that we all have to just be true to ourselves, our heart, our gut. I’ve always followed my gut. It’s never led me wrong. If I have a gut instinct about something, I just stop and listen to it.

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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