Editor’s note: In a bit of a departure from our usual offerings, this month’s No Good Deed column is devoted to introducing our hard-working ethics team.
A professional communicator for over 25 years, Jackie earned a communications degree from Simon Fraser University and has honed her craft in a range of environments, including in-house PR and public affairs and independent consulting. The majority of her career, however, has been spent working inside two large public relations firms – the first national and the second international. In her current role, she specializes in issues management, crisis preparedness and reputation protection. She is also an expert in content creation and is sought after as an executive coach and trainer for media interviews and effective presentations. Over the years, Jackie has supported local, regional, national and international clients in industries ranging from biotech to resource extraction, and from professional sports to the finance sector. She notes that her career inside agencies with multiple client projects on the go is a perfect place for her. “I’m much like a Labrador retriever, loving to give chase in all directions.”
When I was asked to join the No Good Deed panel, I was honoured but a bit intimidated by our subject matter. That’s likely due to the gravitas I attach to words like “ethics” and to the concept of being and acting “ethically.” Communicating accurately and ethically is not only a badge reflecting excellence in business practice; it is increasingly (and thankfully!) an expectation from the public at large.
The half-truths and questionable authenticity of messaging in the “Mad Men” era plays less and less well in our advanced information age – although that doesn’t stop the occasional client from believing those tactics might still work.
Many years ago, with a former employer, we received a call from a CEO struggling in the face of an impending crisis. They were in real estate development and through a series of misunderstandings, something had gone terribly wrong at a key property. A ruptured pipe and leaking gas impacted not only one of their high-rises, but the pre-school that was housed within an adjoining annex. The threat of large-scale evacuation, panicked parents, city and utility inspectors, as well as media interest, all factored into our immediate conversations. As our consulting team moved quickly through information gathering and into charting a strategy for action, the client called my boss aside and provided direction on what he felt we should do. “What I want is for you to get out there and find a decoy issue,” he said. Needless to say, it turned out to be a very short assignment.
At this point in history, perhaps more than ever before, being ethical about the way both individuals and organizations communicate matters. It reflects our values, judgement (good or otherwise) and fundamentally our commitment to honesty. If we strip both accuracy and ethical considerations from the content we offer to our audiences, the outputs produced should very rightly be consigned to the growing junkpile of “fake news.”
Presently an independent consultant in Vancouver, Martin has more than 30 years experience in developing and implementing corporate communications programs for a diverse range of organizations including the BC Unclaimed Property Society, BC Wildlife Federation, Ethical Funds, Coast Hotels, Goldcorp, Geoscience BC and Westminster Savings Credit Union, among others. Earlier in his career, he was Vice President, Marketing and Communications for Vancouver Foundation, managing the five-person team responsible for the integrated communications program supporting Canada’s largest community foundation. A former financial journalist, Martin’s work has been published in the Financial Post, The Financial Times of Canada, Canadian Business, Marketing and the Financial Post Magazine, as well as many other business and special interest publications. He specializes in strategic communications planning, media relations, brand positioning and key message development, as well as financial communications, speech writing, issues management and crisis communications.
One of the nicest compliments a client ever gave me was "I like working with you because you tell me what I need to know, not necessarily what I want to hear." Over my whole career in PR, I have always tried to follow this credo.
One thing that’s always concerned me working on the agency side was the tendency to pretty much take any business that walked through the door no matter if it was a good fit or not. Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not bashing big agencies. I think they do great work, employ really talented people, have high ethical standards, and I have enjoyed the camaraderie and professional atmosphere when I've worked agency side. However, the pressure to generate billable hours is intense. I've watched from the sidelines when small companies have been sold extensive publicity programs when, in fact, their story wasn’t enough to generate the exposure they were looking for. In the end, they walked away with a big bill and little results.
I’m all for believing in your abilities and skills and giving a challenging project the old college try, but are we really doing our clients or employers a service when we blow smoke up their proverbial patooties for the sake of landing an account or protecting our jobs? For that matter, are we really advancing the reputation of our profession when we tell a prospect or employer what they want to hear, rather than counselling them on what is realistic and actually obtainable? Sure, you might get the business or live to work another day, but this approach is not sustainable.
I realize that we all encounter or work for senior executives who have their own “special” ideas about what constitutes an effective communications program and may not necessarily listen to the voice of reason or experience. Whenever I encounter an executive who wants me to take a particular approach I don’t necessarily agree with, I try diplomatically to dissuade them and provide an alternative strategy. Failing that, I’ll follow up with an email tactfully explaining why I don’t think their approach will yield the results they’re looking for and recommend other options. That way, if the program does fall flat and we have to pick up the pieces, the client can’t come back and say, “You should have told me.” (Actually, I do that. No flies on me!)
As PR professionals, we all impress upon our employers and clients the importance of open, transparent, and honest communications. I believe we would all be well served by embracing this same approach in our professional careers to elevate the standing of our profession, too.
An independent consultant since 2008, Karen provides communications counsel and services to clients in the corporate, non-profit, charity and professional association sectors. Prior to launching her own firm, she was Vice President at Optimum Public Relations (part of the Cossette Group) for 10 years and in that capacity managed Bell Canada, the agency’s largest client. Karen earned her undergraduate degree in English and Economics at Simon Fraser University and achieved the highest standing in Canada when she obtained her APR designation in 2000. Karen says her favourite aspects of public relations are media training, speech writing and issues management because she “finds it energizing when the stakes are high.”
Since birth (or thereabouts), I have loved words. They have the power to bring clarity, build community, take you on grand adventures, and overcome challenges. As a career, public relations is the natural fit for me, bringing words and actions together.
One thing I have always found a bit frustrating, however, particularly since our profession centres on facilitating effective communication, is that ‘public relations’ means different things to different people. Ask your person-on-the-street what an accountant, doctor, computer programmer, barista or even our close cousin, a marketer, does and you will get a pretty standard answer. Try that with PR and you hear a wide variety of responses. Some are accurate. Others make it clear that PR is not completely free from the spectre of the “spin doctor” who has no trouble wagging the dog to get the tail to do what we want. That makes it all the more vital for us to uphold the highest ethical standards and to demand the same from our clients.
More than once in my career, I’ve informed attention-hungry prospective clients who wanted guaranteed media coverage why I could not provide that from a practical perspective and also, that any such promise would contravene CPRS’s code of conduct for ethical practice. It may be telling that this response either had people heading for the door or was seen as a big plus that launched long, professional relationships cemented with mutual respect.
I like to think that PR pros are hardwired to do the right thing and to support our clients or employers in choosing the fair, open and honest road, even when it’s more difficult or the potential reward might not be as great. In recent years, we’ve seen how unearthed wrongdoing can ruin a sterling reputation overnight. Even those driven by self-interest see the wisdom in avoiding that.
As strategic communicators, we have the opportunity to help ensure the best interests of all stakeholders are taken into consideration. The world we live and work in is changing. Operating ethically doesn’t mean people and organizations will never make mistakes. As long as they operate in good faith, their reputations – and ours, if we are representing them – remain intact. Grandma’s golden rule shines as brightly today as it ever has: treat others as you yourself would wish to be treated.
Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.