No Good Deed: Can ethics be compartmentalized?

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No Good Deed is a column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession. Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Dilemma du jour: 

I am the senior communications advisor in a major sports and entertainment organization. Two days ago, social media posts revealed our high-profile CEO has been conducting a long-term extra-marital affair. The response from our Board and staff is split: many believe he has lost credibility and should resign. Just as many think it’s his personal life and doesn’t have any impact on his professional abilities and leadership. Most of the athletes and artists we work with have their own media platforms with significant influence and they haven’t been shy in airing their opinions about his behavior. 

The CEO hasn’t asked for my counsel and I’m not sure what to do. Can someone have one set of ethical criteria for his/her work life and another set for personal decisions? Can ethics be compartmentalized?

Some of my colleagues have urged me to provide advice on the management of this issue to protect our organization’s reputation. Our legal department says it’s a private matter and we should just ride it out. What are my obligations and options?

Signed, Rocky in A Hard Place

What our panel says…

To use a sports analogy, I’m not sure there’s a playbook for this one. Although the current context of #MeToo and #TimesUp may be changing norms and expectations on sexual conduct, an extra-marital affair may still strike a lot of people as a private, personal issue.

However, if the situation involves sexual harassment of any kind, you and your company would be well advised to address this issue transparently and fully, whatever it takes. But an extra-marital affair, assuming it’s consensual, might not register so strongly as damaging to the company’s reputation, unless the company brand is strongly linked to the CEO’s personality (think Steve Jobs or Richard Branson) and that identity had a strong moral component. The closest recent comparable situation I can think of is Tiger Woods’ marital infidelity, which led to Accenture carefully but quickly dropping his endorsement contract.

Ultimately, you report to the CEO and if he doesn’t want the company to deal with it, the only people with the power to stop him within the organization are your board or shareholders.

If I were in your shoes, I’d assess the all the evidence you can access to determine if this ‘scandal’ is indeed negatively affecting the company’s reputation. If it is, I’d then draw on all the relationship capital I have with my CEO to carefully broach the topic, present him with this evidence and suggest some options to mitigate the damage.

~ Scott Jackson, APR Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

Some things in life lend themselves to compartmentalization - like brothers-in-law who drive you crazy at family gatherings. But not ethics. Sure, you feel like you’re in a tough spot, but this is also an opportunity to demonstrate your value to the organization.

While the CEO’s affair may be none of your business on a personal level, providing counsel to protect the organization’s reputation is your job. It’s the primary reason you were hired, so riding it out is not an option I’d recommend. Your personal opinion of his actions doesn’t matter in this moment. You work for the organization and it’s your professional obligation.

Approach it like you would any reputational issue: do your research, identify the risks, analyze the situation and develop strategy options. Are there others in the organization you need to talk to for help in assessing the risk or identifying strategies?  If you’re nervous about providing counsel to the CEO when he is at the center of the storm, try compartmentalizing the fact that it’s the CEO. If the behavior of any other senior leader or member of the board was a risk to the organization’s good name or profitability, you can bet your CEO would want your best advice and efforts.

As CEO, the organization’s reputation is ultimately his responsibility and while he may not be personally grateful to you for identifying him as a risk factor, he could benefit greatly from your professional advice.

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, Senior Program Manager, Donation and Transplant, Canadian Blood Services

Ah, scandals! With half the board calling for his head and the potential for the CEO’s actions to impact your organization’s reputation, it’s incumbent upon you to learn more about the fire burning under all that smoke. Since legal says butt out, there’s obviously no morality clause in his contract. Nor is sports and entertainment an industry whose success rests on the marital fidelity of its high-profile members. Still, before you can make any kind of strategic recommendation, you need some answers. Is the CEO in an open marriage? Is his spouse also cavorting? How is she planning on handling this news? If she stands by her man or goes quietly, there’s a lot less room for professional fallout than if she starts slinging mud. It also matters with whom he is having the affair. Particularly in these days of #MeToo, even a seemingly consensual affair with a subordinate could be an abuse of power. And let’s not forget the impact of the CEO’s plans for how he intends to move forward, or not, with the women in his life.

Talk to your CEO. He isn’t going to like it, but should understand the necessity of the conversation. What you advise could influence whether the board shows him the door. If the story doesn’t have more salacious details yet to come out, it may well be the blip legal thinks it will be – particularly if people like him and he’s great at his job. We don’t have many Canadian examples but lots of high-profile cheaters remain celebrated: witness JFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bill Clinton went through a rough patch but survived nicely and Trump was elected to lead the USA despite several affairs. Prince Charles carried on with Camilla for years behind Diana’s back and just look at them now.

Regarding your question about ethics being compartmentalized: since no one really knows the reality of another’s personal relationships, it can be very hard to pass appropriate judgment, though many will try. Just do your due diligence and your issues management plan should become clear.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

About the Author

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.