What is integrity in public relations? What happens when your client has done wrong -- do you still work with them? What makes a good client, and what reasons are there NOT to take on a client? How do you navigate a crisis situation while maintaining your ethical standards?
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Have We Ever Compromised Our Integrity?"
If you enjoyed this episode, check out the PRGN Presents podcast, hosted by Abbie Fink, featuring conversations about PR, marketing, and communications with members of the Public Relations Global Network, "the world’s local public relations agency.”
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The show is recorded and produced in the studio of PHX.fm, the leading independent B2B podcast network in Arizona.
Ethics and integrity: words that most people would put on a pedestal and would say are the values that drive their brand, their company, their operations. When it comes to public relations, how does a PR professional or a PR firm handle their own responsibility vis-à-vis clients who have done things that they now need to respond to? There's a public outcry. It may have been a slap, a misdeed, another kind of crisis. And the PR professionals are just as much in the spotlight, if not center stage, they're at least on the platform alongside their client, trying to navigate this crisis. It's a bit of a mind field, certainly for the client, but also for the PR pro. Here to talk about this is, Abbie Fink, vice president, and general manager of HMA Public Relations, a firm that has outlasted many crises and scandals here in the state of Arizona and the world. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Well, I was visiting the campus in Tucson, University of Arizona, shout out to all the Wildcats, a couple weeks ago and was speaking to their crisis communications class. And I always enjoy speaking to students. They all have a very interesting perspective on what's happening. And it was right after the incident at the Academy Awards. And so they were asking about, what would you do if he [Will Smith] was your client? And how would you handle that? And can he repair his reputation? And it really sparked some really interesting conversation about the role of a crisis communicator. And we talk a lot about planning and preparation and how to manage those things. But there are always going to be opportunities that you can't plan for. And this was the questions the students were asking, what decision making are you going through when someone comes to you and says, we need your help, can you help us? And so I thought that might be an interesting conversation for you and I to have that what we think about as we make the decision, if we're going to take on a particular client, we strongly believe that they all have an opportunity and should be represented by a communications professional, but not every situation is the right situation and we may not be the right firm for every situation. And so really good questions, really smart students, and really challenged me. I thought since they did, I can share where we headed with those conversations.Adrian McIntyre:
I am very interested in your thoughts on this topic because I don't work in public relations or I've worked with lots of PR professionals. And I have had clients in a business context as a marketing consultant and strategist, where I have come to realize that I'm no longer able to continue working with that client because there is a misalignment in values or things of that nature. And it's always a bit of a wrenching decision, not only because to fire a client means to give up the revenue, but also because I'm torn. And this parallels for me, some conversations I've had, although certainly the stakes are very different, with friends who have worked as public defenders, where they've believed very much, as you said about PR, that everyone deserves adequate representation and that for the justice system to deliver justice as opposed to injustice, that there must be legal expertise available to everyone, to mount a case, to defend themselves against the charges. And when the person is, in fact, found guilty of those charges, the public defender, the defense attorney can still feel that she or he has done the right thing by, at least under the law, presenting the case to the best of their ability. But there's a lot of murkiness here. There's a lot of ethical and personal quandaries here. Let's dig into this. Have you ever fired a client for something like a breach of responsibility or a break in trust or things of that nature? Which is different than firing a client, just because things got hot for the client. What has been your experience?Abbie Fink:
What's been my experience is all of those things all wrapped up into one. Let me take one step backwards. The conversations that happen, and I suspect they are similar between a client and their attorney as they are with a public relations professional in terms of what we learn in those early conversations, if a crisis is occurring or a situation has happened is, we need to create this cone of silence and this level of confidentiality that you can share with us, knowing that we are listening to the information in order to evaluate the options that we have. And to, as quickly as we possibly can, determine if we believe that we can help you through this particular situation. And so one of the first conversations that we have when we get that phone call, "We need crisis help, can you help us?" Is sort of set that stage. This is what's going to happen. I want you to understand that this is how I hear the information from you. And in this very short period of time, I want you to share with me what the circumstances are so that I can make the decision if it's a good fit for us. And there's a couple things that will come into that. Is it a good fit, as in, do I have any experience in this particular area? Do I have a conflict? I might already have a client that might be in the same space, maybe not facing an issue or a crisis, but in the same space. Do I have the bandwidth on my team at that moment? Because crises always occur when they're not an eight to five, Monday through Friday thing, so you've got to manage the time expectation. If we can get through all those things and come to the place that says, yes, we think we can, we want to pursue this. We set some ground rules with those conversations so that they feel comfortable about sharing with what's happening. We offer high level recommendations because, obviously, what we have to offer during these circumstances is our intellectual property, they're our brain power. But one of the first things that we share is we are not going to hide from this difficult conversation. If we come on board with you, you have to know that we are going to advise you to answer questions from the media. We are going to advise you to have a positioning statement that may be shared on social media platforms or on other digital space. We are going to advise you to have an internal communication strategy. And doesn't mean big public announcements all the time, but there needs to be communication with the stakeholders. If you are comfortable that, that's the approach we're going to take, then we can continue. If you would prefer someone that is going to not advise those things, then we're probably not a good fit. If we can get past those particulars in the beginning, we are more likely to be able to have a successful working relationship and get to the point where we are able to help and work them through that. If at any point along the way that things change or the dynamic of the relationship gets altered, we are not able to advise in the way that we have set forth, then it is time to part ways. And I think it's not as dramatic sounding as we fired a client. It's more about, we are no longer able to provide the kind of counsel that you are requiring. And so we're going to step aside, and hopefully, we have the ability to refer them out to someone else. And in my many, many years of doing crisis work, we have declined to work with clients before for a lot of those reasons, but we have never had to fire a client or stop working on behalf of a client because we ended up with a conflict in terms of the way that we were providing the service. And I think a lot of that has to do with that initial understanding of where we're at.Adrian McIntyre:
I think it's an interesting insight. And certainly as a parent, I can relate to this. Although the service professional client relationship is not a parenting one, it would be dysfunctional if it was. But I think about what I want from my own kids, it's less about whether or not they did something wrong and more about what they're willing to do to make it right. And we all make mistakes. We all are human. And I think sometimes, especially when people are a certain stature of notoriety celebrity, what have you, we don't give them the same grace that we would want to give a close friend, who's made a mistake. Having said that, there's no excuse for a lot of the bad behavior that we have seen and continue to see. And reputations are funny fickle things. You started by saying the students were wondering, could, Will Smith, for example, repair his reputation with the Academy? We can talk about that specific example or not. But it's interesting that in the moment that that event happened, sitting in the room was, Mel Gibson, who had a very, very public display of absolutely unacceptable antisemitic tirades. And yet, here he is, back in the room. The same academy had given a lifetime achievement award to, Roman Polanski, who, if you don't know what he's been accused of, you ought to go find out. Then the following weekend at the Grammys, Louis CK, who had a huge impact for his own sexual misconduct, won the award for best comedy special. Clearly reputation. And I guess we should and could get into some of the nuances of, well, who's allowed to make a comeback and who's not? What are the characteristics or qualities of the people that have society give them a free pass, or at least at some point, be willing to forgive? Some things may be more unforgivable than others depending on who you are. I don't know, it's an interesting thing. You are saying, it sounds like, that as a professional, you're trying to make a measured decision based on the quality of the work you can do for the client. And there's something that you haven't quite nailed down about whether or not you think their head's in the right place, their heart's in the right place. Can you say more about, specifically, what would be warning signs to you, having been in this game a little long time?Abbie Fink:
Well, you said it, I mean, you're right, this is not a parenting relationship. But that answer that you gave is exactly right on. There needs to be a willingness and an acceptance that what you are dealing with is not appropriate, wherever that is, whatever the level of appropriateness that we're going to measure against, and that you are willing to rectify the situation and stand by the changes that you're about to make. I've been asked the question in a variety of different settings, and it's typically a celebrity, can they repair their reputation? And the answer is yes, they can, but they have to be sincere and willing to do the work to change the immediate response that we all have had. And I think some of the examples that you've given are, over time, we have either forgotten or allowed it to just be in the past, or they've demonstrated to us that who they were before is not who they are today. Now, we have a different society now than we lived in before, in terms of access to information instantaneous. Things that have happened, we know the minute they happen. And so it takes a little bit more to be able to do that. But I say a lot of times, I rely on my gut instinct in those early conversations and a lot of it is how they approach, even that initial phone call about what they're calling me to help them with. And hopefully, the fact that they are calling means they recognize they need to do something about this, and this is my advice, this is how I'm going to do it. And of course, the level of crisis is impacted by the business itself. I mean, what's a crisis to one is not a crisis to another. And when managed correctly, and we talked a little bit about this when we had, John Goldberg, on the podcast with us a couple weeks ago, it takes forever to build a reputation and seconds to destroy it. What have you done to help build that reputation so that you have the ability to try to get that back? And so this is a lot of where it comes in, in those conversations is what are we doing or what are you as the individual needing assistance willing to do to make this right? And are you sincere, and will you be able to stain that activity? I don't want you to write a check to make yourself feel better and say, that's how I fixed the problem. You need to do something, you need a full scale change in the way that we're doing things or how we are going to address it. What are the systemic things we're doing in order to fix the circumstances? And just because we're talking about having a public relations practitioner on your team, doesn't mean that we are there to, A, publicly announce all these things or the other side, which is shut it all down. It's a combination of things. There are times when being public and discussing it is appropriate, and there are other times where a conversation needs to happen that's, we aren't putting this out in the press. And I think what happens is the reputation of the people you hire to bring around you to help you through this, helps those conversations come forth. I can pick up the phone and call a reporter who I've had a relationship with and worked with and said, can you give me the benefit of some time here to deal with this situation so that when I do have the ability to talk to you, it is valuable information, because I'm not going to allow a client to respond on the fly, especially in the midst of a potential crisis? Relationships and sort of building up that equity over time, gives us the benefit regardless of the type of client that we're talking about.Adrian McIntyre:
We've touched on this in a number of episodes on the podcast. We went deep into apologies in an early episode. I thought it was quite a good one. It's quite relevant now as well, if someone wants to go back and check it out. But when you are advising somebody who admits that they have done wrong, they have harmed others or the environment, or what have you. They've made mistakes, there are consequences, there is an impact and they want to apologize. They want to make it right. This is a very tricky and delicate thing because we have seen apologies that fell absolutely flat. They were wooden, they were clearly going through the motions. I'm not going to name any names, but a certain world class golfer comes to mind. And then there's apologies that seem to be heartfelt, own the problem, take responsibility for it, communicate that in a way that touches us. And sometimes I wonder, is that just a function of either the individual's own charisma and ability to deliver a difficult message? Is it a function of their PR team's ability to craft the right kind of statement? Is it something else altogether? How would you advise a client to deliver the kind of apology that makes a meaningful difference in a difficult situation?Abbie Fink:
Do you agree that we all, to some extent, can have our BS meter up when we see something or we know they're not being sincere, they're just saying the words? We all have this instinct about what we're hearing. And I think there are so many nuances that go into that apology and that I am admitting X, Y, and Z, and this is what I'm doing, and again, it's you put people around you that can help you guide you through those situations that are much more objective. I can look at that circumstance much differently than the person that's in it. I can come to it from an outside view and ask the difficult questions. How did we get here? Why are we here? What are we going to do about it? What are we going to do about it next week? What are we going to do at about a year from now? And have the confidence that I will tell you no if I don't agree with what you're doing. Again, from the very beginning, I'm going to tell you, those are the things you should expect to hear from me. I think as a society in general, we want to forgive. We want to see improvement. We want to see the good. We want to see a change in behavior and outcome. But we are very, very aware when we are being hoodwinked in that scenario, we can see right through it. And so the sincerity of the act is so critically important. And oftentimes, again, it's not about being public, it's about your actions. I can say, we are going to give a million dollars to an environmental organization to make up for the oil spill that we did and we're this, and we're this, and we're this and we're this. And if we go right back to business as usual, we have not resolved that particular issue. If we make full scaled changes, and we do some different things, we, because it becomes a "we", the organization makes some changes, I think you start to see acceptance of we messed up, we are fixing it, this is what we're doing and this is how we are going to do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. I expect that if you are smart enough to bring on a crisis communicator, because you've identified and recognized that this is bigger than what you want to handle yourself, that you are smart enough and wise enough to allow that council to take place and let the people that you brought in on your team help guide you through those circumstances. And really, a crisis communications team is more than just your PR professionals. It may be your attorneys, it may be your other members of your executive leadership team, non-profits, it could be your boards of directors and such. There's other people that might come in and advise on that. And we all likely have very different views because of the lens we're seeing it through. But there's value in bringing all those people together to help guide you during those circumstances. And again, there will be times where it's difficult and you might not want to do it and you may not see the benefit of it, but the knowledge and expertise that these advisors have brought to the table, you should trust that what they are doing comes from experience and that they are guiding you in the right way.Adrian McIntyre:
Let's talk about that experience for a minute. The Public Relations Society of America has a code of ethics like most professional associations, bodies guiding the work of their members, informing it anyway, because there's rarely a disciplinary function except in certain licensed professions. But these codes of ethics, well, good and accurate, talk about things like honesty, open communication, things of that nature. But there's situational nuances that you can probably only develop through experience. The scenario that you started this episode with, talking about students, asking you questions is one place where junior members, potentially future members of the profession are getting insights from a seasoned pro and trying to understand, what would I do in this situation? But so often, the abstract, the hypothetical doesn't cut it, because you're now in this situation where the emotional entanglements are very different, where the financial entanglements are very different. And navigating that and keeping true to yourself becomes very difficult. Speaking for yourself, over your 35 ish year career in the field, how have you learned these things? What situations, what mentorship, what challenges helped shape what you're now bringing to these conversations?Abbie Fink:
I don't know that I ever set out to necessarily have an expertise in crisis communications. It happened upon me. And so okay, this is intriguing. And I believe this was even in those earlier days when I was first doing the work, I rely on what I know to be right and wrong. And those things that I know instinctively are the right thing or the wrong thing. And it's not about you did something wrong, I can't help you, it's about what we're going to do about that. And so a lot of it truly is gut instinct and how those conversations happen. And at the end of the day, I want to be able to stand next to that client and stand there and be able to be comfortable that what we are doing on this particular instance is the right thing to do at the time. And it may be different in a week, and we might look back and wish we'd have done something different. But in this moment, I can stand there, side by side with you and know that we're doing the right thing. If I can't do that, we don't get anywhere close to being able to work with them. I really have to feel like we are lockstep in this conversation that we can work together. Will we argue? Will we debate? Will we come up with different scenarios? I hope so, because that means that the client's involved in the decision making as well. But I would rather walk away knowing that we did what we needed to do, we kept our reputation, our integrity, our business practices, front and center, and say, you know what? We are not a good fit. You deserve council. We are just not the right place for that to be. And I would rather do that than go down the path that I, somewhat have to compromise my own belief system in order to do that. And this might be my rose colored glasses a bit, but I believe that in the long run, the client would rather hear that at that stage of the game than let us go down a few weeks into the scenario and then have me say, "You know what? This isn't really my thing anymore." Then I have damaged my credibility, right alongside of providing them not the best service, if I was never 100% into it. And at the end of the day, as a communications professional, all we really have is our reputation and the knowledge that we bring based on experience. And if at any point we feel that's being compromised, then it's not a good fit. And I think it's okay to say that. I think it's okay to acknowledge that the relationship is not one that's going to be a good fit. And it's important for me to say that, that's not just crisis, that same conversation happens on any client that comes our way, whether they're opening up a new business or they're just your average ongoing regular work. If we are not in line with that kind of business, or we somehow feel like it is not a good fit for us, that's the time to have those conversation. And there's nothing wrong with that. Not every PR firm is a good fit for every client that's out there.Adrian McIntyre:
It's certainly difficult in an age of increasing polarization, the collapse of civil conversations in the public sphere, the rise of, as we've talked about, distrust of institutions, governments, non-profits, the media. It's hard for those of us who have convictions and causes that we are committed to, that we see being attacked to make these decisions on the basis of our professional code, rather than in our personal preferences. There's certainly times when there's clients that I might not think are a good fit that I have to ask myself, why is that really? Is that because we have a difference of opinion about politics or religion or global warming or whatever, or is it something more substantive? And I will have to say that I think the times when I've decided to end the relationship, it was usually after talking myself, rightly or wrongly, talking myself into keeping it going longer than I probably should have. For what, I'm not always sure were the right reasons, either I didn't want to rock the boat or upset somebody, or I really thought maybe it is me, I could do a better job, I need to work harder to get this done. Usually though, the breaking point came when I realized that there is an uncrossable chasm at some level, either some operational issue that had not been disclosed. And I realized I'm not going to be able to fix that, that's on the business owner. And as much as I try to help, no amount of marketing can fix a broken operational system, it just makes it worse. It just exposes it. Or when I realized that the agreements that we had, despite our differences, were, in fact, being broken and that what we had agreed to upfront was not, in fact, the way that they were carrying out their side of the thing. Sometimes that's not in the core area of our work, which makes it especially more difficult. Just because I see a client post some crazy thing on Twitter, doesn't mean I have the right to go out and fire that person, unless maybe it crosses a line. Again, ambiguity, let's end with this, you mentioned staying true to yourself and your own values, your business's mission, clarity of vision, etc. How do you do that as the world burns, as the ambiguity increases, as there's more and more anger and vitriol, does it get easier or harder under those circumstances?Abbie Fink:
You packed a lot into that question.Adrian McIntyre:
That's my unique superpower, by the way.Abbie Fink:
Yes. Here's the thing, if you are doing your job correctly, you bring yourself into the job. So you bring the things that matter to you, and you have to decide along the way, what you are willing to do and where that line is that you're willing to cross. And so there are lots of businesses and organizations that are just not going to be a good fit for the makeup of your firm. And it's all sorts of things. It could be faith-based. It could be other cultural. It could be political. There's all sorts of things that say, they are not a good fit. It's not right or wrong, it's just, they are not a good fit. And I truly believe, we know those things from the very beginning and we're willing to work around it. And then that's usually where the conflicts happen, as opposed to saying, I don't feel this is a good fit for us. And there's no harm in that. And honestly, the client wants you to tell them that. They're investing in you. They are giving you their hard earned dollars. They have come to you for assistance. They want to know that you're 100% in on whatever this is. And if you're not, then you are not doing a service to that client and it really isn't an appropriate business relationship. And so I think for me, and we talk a lot about this as a team as well, when we are evaluating, and again, outside of the crisis work. But when we're evaluating whether or not we want to take on a client, so much goes into those discussions about, what do we know about them? What do we know about the people? Do we think we can do a good job for them? Are they going to give us the time and the resources we need? Are they invested in their success so that we can be successful for them? And are we comfortable being able to say no to them when they come to us with something? And will they respect that, no, in the same way that they will respect the yes, that's a fantastic idea? And I had a conversation with a client earlier that we have a budget, we are trying to figure out how to make this budget work. And the numbers are not aligning where we want them to be. It's like, well, we have to rethink this project then, because we can't put this together in the same way that we thought when we had a little bit more money to work with. We can still do it, we still want to do it, we just have to rethink differently. And to me, that conversation sets the tone for how that relationship will work and how we will be able to move forward with it. And at the end of the day, as the communications counselor and the advisor to our clients, the only way we are successful is when we, as that professional, feel good about the work that we're doing. And then what we are bringing to our client is smart and clear and well thought out advice, recommendations, strategy, and implementation. And if at any point along the way that's not there, then we have to walk away from it. And when you do that, your reputation is intact, your integrity is intact, your ethics haven't been compromised and you walk away saying, I did absolutely the right thing to do and I will be around to do another client at another time, because this is not the right fit for me. In the same way that you know exactly when it's the right fit, all the bells and whistles go off when you make that connection. And the same thing, you stand there, proud of the work that you're doing, and there is no compromise, and there is no questioning of your ethics or your integrity when you know you're headed in the right direction.