Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Rethinking the Meaning of Ethics in Public Relations

It’s September. That means it’s ethics month in PRSA and an appropriate time for every PRSA member to ask themselves: what does it mean to be an ethical public relations practitioner in 2020?

I believe developments in the past nine months have fundamentally changed how we need to think about our responses to this question. The pandemic and heightened attention to racial injustice in the U.S., among other events, have raised myriad complex, emotionally charged issues. We can no longer avoid these issues; social media stokes the flames so we have to make choices, each of which has consequences for us and our organizations. 

Given this current environment, public relations practitioners would be wise to actively engage all of an organization’s stakeholders. That commitment to engage everyone—not just media—is by its very nature an ethical choice. That is, it shows we take seriously the potential ramifications of what’s going on around us on the lives of all those who matter most to the organizations we have the opportunity to serve. 

To this end, I believe public relations professionals ought to step back and consider six sets of questions. They’ve been crafted with an eye towards helping practitioners recalibrate what they do given current and future challenges, as well as accelerating our collective evolution as ethical practitioners of our craft.

  1. Do we say or do something when something happens outside our organization (especially when our organization’s interests aren’t necessarily clear)? Why? Why not? 
  2. If we choose to act, what do we say, how do we say it, when do we say it, and where do we say it?
  3. How do we best advise organizations (and their stakeholders) on how to manage this new, ever evolving maelstrom of events and issues?
  4. Do we have the skills to take on this advisory role with clients? In other words, do we have strategic and tactical tools to think through the complexities of what’s involved, how developments impact our organizations, and how to implement our guidance at the most granular level?
  5. Do we have the opportunity to assume these responsibilities? That is, what does the public relations function actually do in our organization? Is the focus on social media and traditional media? Or is it framed more broadly in terms of public relations’ role in managing the organization’s reputation? Does senior management look to public relations for guidance, or consider them solely as tacticians? 
  6. Are we as public relations professionals willing to assume these broader responsibilities? In other words, are we willing to grow our skillset and/or move to a different organization that would provide us the opportunity to take on an expanded role?

In short, our willingness to grapple with these questions tests our ability to flourish as ethical public relations practitioners. I believe our times, and the future of our profession, demand we rise to this challenge.

(The Public Relations Society of America San Francisco Bay Area Chapter recently published this article on their web site, here

Monday, July 13, 2020

The True Meaning of Surrender

To “surrender” means “to cease resistance to an enemy or opponent and submit to their authority.” Synonyms include give in, yield, concede, submit, give way, defer, and back down.

Indeed, there are other definitions. But this one comes up on top in my search results.

When you surrender in this sense of the term you stop doing whatever you were doing, as you no longer can do it. Because if you do there will be negative consequences, and you’ve decided you no longer want to face them.

Then what? If you take the definition literally, you may tend to sit back. You allow something or someone other than yourself to be in charge. That can lead to a passivity, and with it a relinquishing of responsibility. You get lazy, even soft; why do you need to do anything seeing that after surrendering you’ve no longer in control?

No wonder surrender has a poor reputation. Because giving up control and responsibility reflects poorly on us, right? It suggests we’re weak, irresponsible, and at the mercy of others.

But surrender is a positive. It shows courage. It’s often easier to “go along to get along” than to do something different. Because to surrender means you change direction. You give up AND you get going in a different way. To that end, surrender demands constant action in support of the change. In other words, if you’ve given up something you’ve taken up something else. That “something else” needs reinforcement to enable it flourish in your life.

To surrender is necessary to improve and realize one’s potential. Don’t let the definition of the term, or its reputation, obscure that very important point.


Thursday, June 11, 2020

"Public Relations Ethics Through Leadership and Organizational Lenses" Presentation Scheduled for July 1, 2020

On Wednesday, July 1, 2020, I'm presenting "Public Relations Ethics Through Leadership and Organizational Lenses." It will be a webinar on Zoom sponsored by PRSA (Public Relations Society of America)'s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards. The program is free to PRSA members. 

PRSA's Code of Ethics represents a starting point for public relations professionals as they ponder taking action. Yet, it represents one piece of a broader ethical landscape. In my talk I will challenge attendees to consider individual, professional, and organizational ethical issues that rightfully fall to public relations. In turn, these issues can provide professionals a platform to solidify their standing as trusted advisors to clients. I'll be drawing on my work in organizational behavior and leadership, and will offer suggestions on how public relations professionals can apply it as they grapple with a range of high-profile issues that clamor for their attention. 

PRSA members can go here for more information about the webinar.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Three Failings of Coronavirus Communications, and a Valuable Resource to Help You Address Them

I've been critical here of organizational communications regarding the coronavirus. Why? Three reasons:
  1. They fail to address the "what's in it for me." I've received a lot of email from entities I don't recall engaging, or ones that might have engaged once, or others that I've never heard of at all. In the vast majority of instances there was little connection to me--it was like, gee, we need to communicate about something very important with you because you're on our email distribution lists. The sum total has been inane and  worthless communication. In other words, there's a bigger, broader, more important purpose here that transcends the narrow "we need to do something because we need to do something" view that many organizations seem to have adopted during this crisis. 
  2. They fail to prioritize stakeholders. Not all stakeholders are created equal. Therefore, not all stakeholders need to hear from you (if at all), much less at the same time (and with the same frequency). 
  3. They Fail to Consider the Frequency of Communications. I feel like I'm bombarded by emails from one organization (a school) where I teach one class a year. I'm talking multiple emails a day.  Sure, news is breaking rapidly--but not that rapidly.
To help address these and related challenges associated with communicating about the coronavirus, I recommend Doug Levy's book Communications Handbook for Coronavirus. Since I reviewed the first edition of the book, Doug has spent time updating it. He's incorporated the insight he's gleaned from working on the front lines to plan and execute communication strategies related to the coronavirus. His sage counsel can help you to cut through the fluff to provide accurate, timely, and relevant information to key stakeholders. 

You can get your copy of the Communications Handbook for Coronavirus here

Saturday, March 21, 2020

It's a Great Time to Pick Up the Phone to Talk to People

I've met a lot of people during my career. I've always made it a point to stay in touch with them as much as possible. Social media has made the task a whole lot easier.

Then again, the quantity and quality of live connections have decreased dramatically. It seems like these conversations now only happen by appointment. Granted, if you really want to speak with someone, you want to make sure they're available.  Yet I've always found a spontaneous conversation with someone I know a "small pleasure." That's equally true for whether I make or receive the call. In both instances, they offer a valuable tonic that breaks my pattern of solo work (and even isolation).

And then there's the separate but related issue of having "friends" on social media we have never met. Often, we have never even spoken with them by phone. 

Now, we're largely restricted to our homes while keeping our distance from those out in public. The joy of these substantive conversations feels even more elusive. But we still have our phones. They still work. We still know how to use them to make calls. And we have time for these conversations. That's true even with the added pressures foisted upon us by the pandemic. In fact, I'd go so far to say we need these conversations now more than ever. 

To this end, I'm committing to picking up the phone to call people I know. And, more importantly, I'll be reaching out to people I "know" only on social media but have never spoken with. I'm overdue for these conversations. It's time. I want them to happen. And I need them to happen.  

So, let's talk. By phone. Soon. It doesn't matter who calls who. You can find my phone number on Facebook and/or LinkedIn if we've connected there. That's where I'll look for yours (if I don't otherwise have it). If we're not directly connected, I encourage you to reach out. Let's simply connect. Live. Real time. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

A Rant About Coronavirus-Related Emails

You’ve no doubt received the emails. You know, like those from organizations with which you have an ongoing relationship. Or others, from organizations with which you might have had a single transaction. Or still others, from organizations whose names you might recognize. But you may not immediately understand why they’re emailing you (see image to the right). And, finally, there are emails from those mysterious organizations. They leave you scratching your head. You wonder: how did you even get on this email list in the first place?

These organizations have chosen to communicate with us about their management of the coronavirus. I have little doubt others will soon follow. 

I’ve found no value in any of this email. None of it has been relevant to my specific needs or interests. Absolutely none of it. 

As I think about this communication more granularly, I'm perplexed. For example, it’s baffling why organizations in the travel and hospitality industries would reach out at all. Aren’t we not supposed to travel very far, if at all, for some undetermined period of time? So the fact that they need to let us know about their proactive measures is at best ill-timed. At worst, it's inappropriate.

Yes, it’s admirable for organizations to feel a need communicate about a public health matter. That’s true even if the issue may or may not have ramifications for stakeholders other than their employees. But the fact remains that the current circumstances seem to dictate greater caution. Perhaps more care is needed than ever before in our lifetimes. Communication must always be timely, appropriate, and relevant—not to mention accurate. The current tsunami of information, innuendo, rumor, and fear mongering demands nothing less. 

So, my request to these organizations: be quiet. Leave us alone. Take care of your employees and their families. We don’t care what you’re doing now. It doesn’t matter to us. It’s not relevant to the challenges we face during a public health emergency. If and when it becomes so, we welcome your communication. 

Monday, March 16, 2020

Let's Keep Speculation, Conjecture, and Future Tripping to a Minimum

I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday. It was September 12, 2001. I was glued to my television set and the Internet. I craved any piece of news related to the calamity that had just taken place. I watched, listened, and read with rapt attention, devouring every morsel with alacrity. 

Not surprisingly, my anxiety increased. It peaked when I viewed the following item on CNN's news ticker: "Experts predict that the chances of another terrorist attack on the US are 100%." 

I panicked. I awakened my wife from a deep sleep. He looked at me, perplexed, told me not to worry about it, and went back to sleep. 

That second terrorist attack didn't happen. Nor did countless other developments that pundits had discussed, often in painstaking detail. 

The fact is that much of what so-called "experts" speculated about didn't happen. Everyone's educated guesses, conjectures, and pontification didn't amount to much. The fact is that no one can predict the future, no matter how much education, training, and/or wisdom they have. Sure, I understand that people attempt to deal with their anxieties by engaging in such chatter. But, if my experience is at all generalizable, it only makes things worse. So why bother? 

So I'll pass on the banter about the coronavirus. I'll say no to panic-induced water cooler and social media conversation. It doesn't do me any good. I'll do my very best to live in the moment, and focus on what I actually can control (a whole lot) and what I need to do (a whole lot). When relevant details come down the pike, I'll be there, ready to receive them. But I'm keeping speculation, conjecture, and future tripping to a minimum.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Before You Lead Others, Learn to Lead Yourself by Embracing Eight Core Principles

What passes for leadership guidance often comes in the form of lists of what you should and shouldn’t do. Add to them a modest sprinkling of desirable leadership skills, attitudes, and aptitudes. Then, relentlessly strive to be “authentic” and “empathetic” Voila! You’re a leader. 

I can’t argue with this collective wisdom. You can’t go wrong heeding any of it. But it misses the point.  

Aspiring leaders need to embrace core principles essential for a healthy sense of self. You learn to lead yourself in specific, tangible ways first. Then, you can lead others. 

I urge you to embrace these eight core principles to achieve self-leadership. 

1. Get clear about what you can control and change. I've lost track of the hours I've spent trying to change other people. For example, consider my first boss. He micromanaged me. Clearly, I argued, he was blind to my obvious talent and ability. He needed to change! I deserved better! I told him how I felt, again and again. I expected him to change. He didn’t. Likewise, I’ve expressed confusion and frustration when applying for a mortgage loan. Still, my lender won’t change its paperwork based on my feedback.

2. If you cannot control or change something, give up trying to do so. Time and energy attempting to change something that cannot be changed is pointless. I’ve found it more productive to direct my energies where I can at least influence what’s going on. More importantly, if I'm so busy trying to change people, I'm not working on changing myself. My attitude and behavior are the only things in this world I can control.

3. Know what angers or negatively triggers you. Every day we encounter people, places, circumstances, and processes. If we’re fortunate, we feel positive about most of them. But some will trigger darker thoughts. On our worst days, we respond to them negatively, perhaps inappropriately. I know I have done so, and it hurts me. That’s why I strive to be sensitive to the ongoing flow of developments in all aspects of my life. I know I’m susceptible to “stinking thinking,” and behaviors that go with it.


4. Accept responsibility for what negatively triggers you. You choose what triggers you. No one makes you feel a certain way. Likewise, you can choose how you respond. No one else can.

5. Identify your part in the trigger, and do what you can to address it. You recognize your part in emotions and feelings when you accept responsibility for them. That is, somehow, in some way, you made possible the circumstances that led to your upset. They might stem from a childhood experience. Perhaps they reflect an unmet expectation or need. That’s not to say all anger is unjustified. Yet only by embracing your responsibility for your anger can you address its underlying causes. Only then can you change your response.

6. Admit you’re wrong as often and quickly as possible. As much as I’d like to think I’m right most of the time, I’m often wrong. I’ve mixed up dates. I’ve gotten the facts wrong on a particular situation. Sometimes I stay stuck in why I was wrong. Other times, I question whether or not I was responsible for being wrong. These responses only prolong the agony. I need to see the error of my ways quickly, and move on.

7. Apologize when you’re wrong, without explanation or qualifications. To paraphrase the Elton John song, “I’m sorry” seems to be the hardest words to say. Why? Because you admit a lapse in judgement or a mistake. You acknowledge something you’ve done or said has hurt someone. You proclaim your imperfection. What happens as a result? First, in our zeal, we apologize for foibles real and imagined, minor and major. In addition, we qualify or explain to our apologies. In both instances, we undermine the intent of the original apology. The recipient wonders—rightfully so—whether the apology is sincere.When you apologize, simply say, “I’m sorry.” You could add a brief explanation, “I’m sorry I yelled at you.” But that’s it. Don’t add anything else. Apologize when you’ve clearly hurt someone. Only then. If you’re not sure about whether your words or actions hurt someone, ask.

8. Cultivate a dynamic sense of gratitude. Maintaining a list of what we’re grateful for challenges us to pause to take stock of good things in our lives. That's especially critical when we feel overwhelmed by negativity. Yet we can fall into dreadful routines as we compile our lists. It becomes another thing to get done. Let’s say this morning I write down five things for which I’m grateful. The next day I come up with five more things. The process repeats until I’ve run out of things to note. I end up repeating myself. My ardor for the exercise diminishes.


Consider instead the concept of dynamic gratitude. It’s an in the moment, 24 hours a day, /7 day a week commitment. It means we remain present and aware from moment to moment about what’s happening in our lives.

Dynamic gratitude means we note what’s good. We isolate the beauty, joy, and wonder. We relish the bounty that makes our lives worth living.

That said, pain, fear, and loss are unavoidable. Yet I know these negative life experiences will pass. The next moment, and the moment after that, will be different. I don’t have to stay stuck in ingratitude—or gratitude—for long. Everything will change, including my perspective. 

Indeed, embracing these principles takes effort. It’s difficult to change longstanding patterns of thinking and behavior. I know that all too well. Yet if we’re truly meant to lead, we must first transform ourselves.  

(Originally published in the January 2020 edition of Public Relations Strategies and Tactics. See it here.) 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Sometimes You Just Have to Get Out of the Way and Let it Happen


In the Fall 2009 I didn’t have a clue about the focus of my doctoral dissertation. I had lots of ideas, but not one that stood out. I felt anxious and concerned about whether I would finish by my deadline.

A year and a half later, I had finished my dissertation and graduated.

In retrospect it seems like my dissertation happened effortlessly. I read.  Opportunities to contribute to scholarship on a topic appeared. I quickly identified other resources I needed to consult. Just as effortlessly, I lined up a site where I could conduct my research.

I didn’t question it. I didn’t doubt what I felt. I didn’t wonder if there was “something better.” I simply proceeded to do the work, day after day, one step at a time.

I felt at the time that the process was a miracle. I knew how long I had been blocked from identifying a dissertation topic. Somehow the path unfolded before me. I didn’t have to apply the full force of my brain power. The dissertation seemed to just happen.

But it wasn’t a miracle. Everything I had done up to that point in my life led me to my topic. I only needed to step back, relax, and let the idea step forward in my subconscious. And it did. And then, BOOM—I saw what I needed to do. And I did it with all due enthusiasm and speed.

In other words, my idea took hold of me in a deep, visceral way. I could feel it, not just think it. And I only needed to get out of its way to allow it to happen. And I did.

That feeling was special. I hadn’t experienced it a lot up to that point in my life. I knew how rare it was. And how vital it could be for helping me to create what I truly want (which is not what I necessarily believe or even say I want).

I have that feeling now about a piece I am writing. I know I only need spend the time to do what’s required. Then, I can open the doors to my energy and commitment. I need to let it flow. I only need to start by getting out of its way. Just like I did with my doctoral dissertation.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Writing, Fast and Slow


I’ve learned to love to write, after many years of struggle. I especially relish opportunities to work on a piece over time. Being organized and starting long before deadlines makes that possible. More importantly, many of my current writing projects enable me to write in this fashion.

Yet during countless instances throughout my career, I’ve had to write quickly. Consider some of my public relations work. A client needed a press release in 20 minutes to share at a meeting. A crisis demanded an immediate response. In these instances, little time existed for word smithing. Nor could I extensively analyze the context. I needed to draw on my experience and insight in an instance. Then, I wrote.

In short, I’ve learned that you need to learn to write fast and slow. Because sometimes you’ll have the time or can make the time; sometimes you won’t. Regardless, you’ll need to draw on experience melded with a passion and, optimally, a flair for writing. Both take ongoing effort and commitment.