The Importance of Comprehensive Ethics Policies – Joseph Abreu

Joining me on this week’s episode is Joseph Abreu, the Chief Communications Officer for the Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller of Lee County, Florida. He is also the 2024 National Chair of PRSA. He discusses a number of important ethics issues, including:

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

I’m the Chief communications officer of the Lee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller. It’s a long name and it was statutorily given, so I can’t change it. But we usually say clerk of courts, it’s the easiest way of doing it. The office safeguards all the county public records as well as the court records. We also safeguard all the tax dollars for residents. To give you a little bit of a perspective about Lee County, it’s the largest county in southwest Florida. The county seat is in Fort Myers, and we have about 800,000 residents, which is more than the whole state of Alaska. So hi Michelle [Editor note: Michelle Egan, 2023 National Chair PRSA, lives in Alaska]

I wouldn’t say it’s a little county, but compared to Alaska, it’s an incredible amount of people in a dense population. I oversee all the communications, emergency management, and brand management. I’ve been in the government sector for about 16 years. I’ve worked at the Palm Beach County Clerk’s Office, the St. Lucie County Clerk’s Office. I’ve worked at Palm Beach County Tax Collectors office, so I have been in that government realm. But before that, I worked at a nonprofit for four years. Before that, I was in the private sector working for PR firms, and I worked primarily in South Florida in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted?

Well, working in politics always keeps you on your toes. I’m fortunate that I have worked for many people who have done amazing things for my offices and what they’re elected to do. I haven’t had an experience where there’s been an outright unethical thing in the workplace. But one of the things that did happen back when I was at the Palm Beach County Clerk’s Office, this was back in 2008, 2009, county government, which is separate from the clerk’s office, but we still work closely because obviously, we’re managing all the county funds. County government has several elected commissioners. The clerk is a separately elected official.

At that time, the county was going through this crisis because there were three county commissioners being charged with honest services fraud. Basically, whenever the county would issue debt or large projects, meaning people or companies would loan the county money, the county commissioners were picking their friends and their spouses. Two of them even got kickbacks from developers for properties that they were developing. They eventually served a few years in jail because that is illegal.

The clerk’s office did an extensive report. Being responsible for county finances, I was in that room for about six weeks going over everything about the issue and how to propose a solution to that problem. They wound up issuing a dead issuance policy. That policy is still in effect, and it’s something that would restrict people from doing those unethical and illegal things in the future.

When you realize there’s been an ethical (and criminal) misstep in this case, what do people need to look at when creating a policy?

The policy was so extensive. There were about, it was over a hundred pages of material identifying exactly what the situation was. One of the biggest things is that they never disclosed. In government, you’re supposed to say if you have some sort of conflict and you’re supposed to recuse yourself from that conflict. You’re not supposed to be voting on situations that you could benefit from.

And even in counties that I worked at after that, there have been county commissioners that really walked that line, and they may vote on certain things that benefit them indirectly. It’s never a healthy position to be in. Hopefully, they get called out on it because that is something that should never be done in a public office. We’re supposed to be protecting taxpayers and ensuring that their dollars are not being abused. So that’s something that is important to being ethical.

You mentioned it’s a hundred-page document. One of the things I always look at when we think about policies and procedures and other elements is if they get too long, do people really pay attention to them? How do you make sure people read and understand a hundred pages worth of content?

The vast majority of it was the research that went into the issue. There were key points that were identified throughout the document that were consolidated into a one or two pager. So, it made it easy for county government, but also the county commissioners who were subsequently appointed and elected to enact change.

When you see that your predecessors go to jail, it’s the last thing that you want.

So it was of the utmost importance that they address the issue, but also that we were very clear on exactly what needed to transpire. Sometimes people may think, I don’t need to go that full mile. I could stop and implement a policy halfway and say, we won’t issue debt to our spouses anymore, but how do you ensure that it doesn’t happen? So, there were a lot of recommendations that were proposed and they were implemented.

I’m very happy with the whole process. It was not something that I ever expected to do when I first joined that office and was really learning from the fire hose at that point. One of the lessons I learned from the situation that happened in Palm Beach County, and from being in government for most of my career, is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. I always feel someone is watching over my shoulders in the public records world.

I not only make sure that what I’m doing is ethical, but I make sure that I am so transparent about my actions, that it is clear to everyone around me that I am acting in the best interest of the office as well as taxpayers.

For instance, if there is any situation where I oversee financials, like with an employee event committee, or if I’m serving as a treasurer of a board, I make sure that all the accounting is clear and accessible to every single person on the committee or the board that I’m serving. It’s always important that you have super strong checks and balances to ensure no one can even question your ethics.

Beyond your personal experience, what are you seeing as some of the key ethical challenges for today and tomorrow?

I would say artificial intelligence. We have to know how to properly use AI so we don’t violate our code of ethics – Free flow of information, competition, disclosure of information. Those are just three of some of the provisions that we, as public relations professionals and PRSA members are directly impacted by AI.

I often tell people, download the Ethical use of AI Playbook that was developed by PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. It has so many insightful opinions and recommendations on how to navigate the artificial intelligence world, and I highly recommend reading it.

It’s only 10 pages, and is some of the best reading you’ll ever get, and it’s very rewarding. Right now, we’re already dealing with issues regarding misinformation and disinformation. That, in tandem with artificial intelligence, is going to create a very difficult nightmare for public relations professionals and society in general. And we need to get ahead of that to try to figure out how to ethically manage AI so it doesn’t perpetuate the problem that we already have with misinformation.

How are you working to get ahead of it?

I think it’s important that we bring our minds together. PRSA has an advocacy committee. We have a Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. We have Voices for Everyone. All of these committees work together. We also are working on the influencer series with corporate communications professionals, bringing their minds together so that way we could develop a playbook relevant to the mis- and disinformation issue.

Being ahead of the curve is really important when it comes to AI, and it’s something that I feel as a professional personally, I feel like it kind of caught us off guard in the past year about how advanced something like that is and how we should properly use it. PRSA was working on a lot of that ahead of the game, so I’m very proud to chair PRSA this year.

Are you using AI at all right now?

Personally, not really. If it’s something simple, I wouldn’t be opposed to using it. I have noticed some of my team members have tried to use it, and it’s just not quite there yet for the information that I want it to develop, but that’s just because of the way that I’m using it. But if people were using it properly and often, it could be very effective for them.

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

Ethics is all about doing what’s right. However, it is kind of subjective. But one of my moral principles that really governs who I am I first heard at one of my first jobs out of college. I worked at an LGBT community center many moons ago. I handled all their communications and events, and we brought in an exhibit from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was called Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals.

That exhibit, that very exhibit, really changed my life. I would see people from all walks of life come into the center, and many of those people through the exhibit expressed to me to never fear the unknown and to always have empathy for others. That is my moral principle. You’ll often find that I’ll play devil’s advocate for somebody that has less opportunity, and that is something that I focus on doing every day. So, some people say that I’m empathetic, I don’t always see it. But having understood that moral principle that I have, I feel like maybe it is true.

What are your goals as Chair of PRSA in 2024?

Many people have asked me that. As somebody who is a past president, a past Sunshine District chair, past National Board of Director, I feel as though we could double down on supporting our chapter leadership, our district leadership. It’s important for me that we provide the added resources to help them grow their membership, and provide the right professional development relevant to them in their industry, in their location, wherever big city or small city that they’re working.

I would like for PRSA to focus on that. In turn, our leadership would be able to provide the best quality professional development for our members and be able to elevate the society from a grassroots effort. That is probably the primary thing. There are many other things in the works, but it’s important that we address some of those issues up front.

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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