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CWC 32: Leading an ethical agency (Mark McClennan)

Mark McClennan, host of the Ethical Voices podcast, talks about the current state of ethics in the PR industry and how agency leaders can instill ethical practices in their teams.

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Mark McClennan hosts a weekly podcast where he explores ethical questions with public relations industry experts and agency leaders. He brings a wealth of his own experience to the mix, as a longtime senior agency executive and former National Chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA).

Mark joined Chip on this episode to talk about some of the lessons he has learned and the advice he has for agencies as they work to navigate challenging ethical situations.


  • Mark McClennan: “There was a really interesting study that came out about probably eight to 10 years ago now, that deals with people making inherently selfish and unethical decisions, when they’re not given time to think. Your first impulse is to go selfish, and just think about yourself.”
  • Mark McClennan: “There needs to be more than just a senior leader leading by example. That’s great. But guess what I can watch a great baseball player hit a home run all the time, but it doesn’t mean I can do it just by watching them. You need to have practice, you need to have experience, you need to really look at what’s going on.”
  • Chip Griffin: “There’s there’s a lot of pressure on employees in PR agencies to get results and to do things quickly … my perception is that that tends to press some of these ethical issues to the forefront because there’s a tendency to want to cut corners, or frankly, a lot of times a client may ask you to cut corners.”
  • Mark McClennan: “It is our job and our responsibility to tell them you know what, what you’re asking me to do, will hurt my brand and could hurt your brand if it comes out. And so … it’s penny wise and pound foolish. You need to resist the temptation for those quick wins, because in the end, it’s going to hurt you and your client a lot more.”
  • Chip Griffin: “I think that a culture of openness certainly helps in ethics, and it helps in other ways within the agency as well. But having the willingness to have those difficult conversations, whether they’re initiated from above or below, will really make a difference to most agencies.”

About the Guest

Mark McClennan

Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, has 20+ years of tech and fintech agency experience. Most recently he was a senior vice president and led the financial technology group for MSL Boston. He is now the principal of EV Strategic Communications and runs the industry’s most popular weekly blog and podcast on communications ethics – EthicalVoices.com. McClennan served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA and drove the creation of the PRSA ethics app. He is a frequent speaker on social media, ethics and the future of PR.



The following is a lightly edited version of a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the original audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Chats with Chip podcast. I’m your host Chip Griffin and my guest today is Mark McClennan. We’re going to be talking about something that is vitally important to PR and marketing agencies. And that is ethics. And Mark is the perfect person to discuss this with us because he is the host of the Ethical Voices Podcast. If you’re not a subscriber, you certainly should be because he covers all sorts of topics relevant to those of you in the agency community. But he also has a very strong background in PR, is the National – former national Chair of the Public Relations Society of America, and the former senior vice president of MSL in Boston, where he led the financial technology group. Welcome to the show, Mark.

MARK: Thanks for having me, Chip. Glad to be here.

CHIP: So did Did I miss anything in that intro, that would be useful background for listeners, before we dive into the topic of ethics?

MARK: I think you covered the key points nicely.

CHIP: Perfect. So ethics. This is obviously – you started a podcast on this subject, because it’s an area that important but under discussed, under covered in the community, what do you think agencies should be thinking about in broad terms, when it comes to ethics? Is this something that should be part of their day to day thought processes, something that they should think about only when crises come up? You know, how should they be thinking about ethics?

MARK: I think that’s a good question and asking the question is the first step. And what I really believe is, unfortunately, too much in this industry, we default to PRSA and others have ethics month in September, or we kind of have the Cody do the annual training, just like you do the annual sexual harassment training, and other elements in that regard. And that’s not enough. There was a really interesting study that came out about probably eight to 10 years ago now, that deals with people making inherently selfish and unethical decisions, when they’re not given time to think. Your first impulse is to go selfish, and just think about yourself. And there’s only when you have time to think about it, that you really look at the greater good or you think through the implications. When I think about public relations, and the accelerating pace of PR, you know, we’re in Israel, where you never have that kind of time to really think and debate and talk through all the different sides. So it’s important to have it as a regular discussion point, you know, I don’t think it needs to be daily, unless you’re an ethics geek like me, you probably don’t want to talk about ethics every single day. But if you’re doing it on a weekly or a monthly basis, if you’re having discussions as part of your teams, about the issues that you’re seeing in the industry, that the trade magazines are reporting, if you’re sharing quandaries that some of your staff has had, you know, by doing that on a more regular basis, when the time comes, and you’re caught in that ethical quandary, you’ve got the preparation and you’ve thought about it more recently than in the last training nine months ago.

CHIP: Do you think it’s important for agencies to have training programs around ethics? Or is it is it enough that your senior leadership is just exhibiting ethics and teaching it on a, you know, on an as needed basis? So you know, how do you think of it that way? And how structured does that need to be?

MARK: No, I think it’s a good question. I think that needs to be very structured. And there needs to be more than just a senior leader leadership leading by example. That’s great. But guess what I can watch a great baseball player hit a home run all the time, but it doesn’t mean I can do it just by watching them. You need to have practice, you need to have experience, you need to really look at what’s going on. So I think the the agency leaders need to model good behavior, they need to understand they can’t just say folks, we don’t, we want you to act ethically. And then if they act unethically, or they look at some of those gray areas, people are going to watch them and learn from them. You know, they need to understand they need to be transparent. They need to be vigilant because it’s not just the senior agency leaders that could cause the ethical issues. It could be somebody who makes a mistake at a junior level at an entry level at a mid level. So that’s why it’s really important for everybody on a regular basis to get involved. One of the pieces of advice I give the senior leaders though, is when you’re having ethics discussions, you should not be the first one to talk. Because, frankly, when the MD of an office comes and says here’s an issue, and here’s what I think it tends to stifle discussion among a lot of the assistant account executives and junior staff when you really you want to hear that think and hear the rationales. So I always say, pose the question, and then listen, and see what other people are discussing or what their perspectives are, before you chime in with your perspective.

CHIP: You know, I think today that there’s there’s a lot of pressure on employees, in PR agencies to get results to do things quickly. And I think that my perception is that that tends to press some of these ethical issues to the forefront because there’s a tendency to want to cut corners, or frankly, a lot of times a client may ask you to cut corners. How do you deal with that, particularly if it’s if it’s being driven by the client, because you know, now you’ve got a not just an ethical issue, but a client relationship challenge in the mix as well.

MARK: So I think there’s two things to keep in mind there. One, if you cut corners and you do some shoddy workmanship, what you build is not going to last, you know, you may have a short term, oh the client’s happy. But guess what, it’s going to go down and ask you to do more and more. And it’s not going to work out in the end. So you really need to hold up again, what are the values of your organization? Or what do you stand for. And you want to make sure that if you get a perception of doing some things, unethically that’s going to hurt you look what happened with Bell pot injures an extreme example. But there’s others that are out there. So I think that’s kind of one key issue when it comes to the client. There’s a whole lot of discussion around that. And it’s a great chance to have discussions with your team around how do you communicate to clients when they ask you to do the wrong thing, or they asked you to spread incorrect information, I have some great examples on that on the Ethical Voices Podcast. But in the end, doing something unethical, you know, we are working to be if you want to go for the group definition and others you want to look at, we are the advocates for those we represent. And it is our job and our responsibility to tell them you know what, what you’re asking me to do, will hurt my brand and could hurt your brand if it comes out. And so it’s really not something it’s penny wise and pound foolish. You need to resist the temptation for those quick wins, because in the end, it’s going to hurt you and your client a lot more.

CHIP: You know, one of the things that I think is particularly useful about the Ethical Voices Podcast is you ask most of your guests that the biggest ethical challenge that they’ve confronted in their careers and how they dealt with it. In listening to those stories, have you, have you spotted some particular trends or themes? Or are there things that you’ve seen as a senior agency leader, that would tell you these are particular buckets that you need to be concerned about as an agency.

MARK: That’s one of the things I’m starting to really see I’ve been doing this now, podcast for about nine months. So I’ve done about 30 to 40 interviews right now. And it’s really fascinating when you you hear a lot of the same stories, and it comes down to concerns about time, pressure, and accuracy of information. And really, you know, one person I spoke to recently talked about, we all need to be skeptics. And we have to be careful as an agency person, not to just take the information that our clients give us, or that we hear, or that we’ve seen on the internet somewhere and delve down and understand where did this information really come from? I think that’s, that’s an area where you can get into trouble a lot. Because then you’re either misrepresenting information. Or you’re knowingly spreading, you know, false data, fake news, whatever you want to say in that regard. There’s a lot of concern around the rise in technology. And what’s going to be going on with AI, machine learning, deep fakes, you name it. You know, we already somebody mentioned recently that he assumes any image he’s seen is already one that’s been doctored. And I think we’re just at the cusp, when you look at the power of technology, what’s going to be happening in there? How are we going to be ethically, sharing that information, how we’re going to be aware of the potential issues when it comes to fake news. And right now, we’re hearing a lot of discussion of fake news around politics. But I used to work for one of the 10 most shorted companies in America, people were praying to gosh, that we could have negative news because the stock price will go down and make a lot of money. This was really before the rise of social media. And that element there. And I can see a case now or imagine you as a PR professional and somebody is trying to intentionally tank your client stock, you know, it’s more easier for them to spread negative news, and how do we react to that. So there’s a lot of key issues around that. But it kind of comes down to the core elements of pressure to be untruthful or fudge the news or pressure to go for the the quick and easy wins rather than doing things the right way.

CHIP: And a lot of ethics is not a black and white question, right? There’s, there’s, there’s areas of gray, there’s degrees, like you know, I think back to my early days, I got my start in politics and public affairs. And it’s always been fairly common that if you’re going to put out an ad or something like that, and you’re mentioning your opponent, you will you will put a very unflattering photo of them. And and so but now today, it is evolved to slowing down the playback rate of videos to make it appear as if someone may be drunk or otherwise impaired. So you know, and so there’s lines of gray in there and where does the unflattering photo become the the completely fake video and and those are things that I think as communicators, a lot of thought needs to be given to how to navigate those, right?

MARK: Absolutely. I mean, frankly, the black and white, the big, here I am I am Lee united standing and guarding the pass are, you know, Martin Luther making his declaration of principles? Those issues are a relatively rare, it’s more of those small insidious things that you’re talking about that – Yeah, I could do this. But is it the right thing to do? Or how is this going to hurt my company, those are the ones you struggle with it, you can have a lot of great discussions and debate with people and understand it, you know, but it’s important to really when you’re thinking about that, to have a key ethical framework. And you know, I don’t care where the ethical framework comes from – the PRSA code of ethics, the author page, declaration of principles, you know, there’s a lot of them. But if you’re looking at it, having something there to refer back to you, and having regular discussions on it, is going to help you as you’re put in those uncomfortable situations, as you do that, you know, little thing, is it right to talk about about our competitors? How can we do it effectively? How can we position them without saying things that we can’t prove? You know, it’s interesting discussions around that, or what do you have the, you know, as an agency owner, I think the one an agency executive, probably one of the most common discussions I have is, what do you do with, how do you deal with abusive clients? You know, what, I’ve had a lot of discussions with other agency executives about that. Where, you know, what’s abusive? Or is it more just difficult client, we say, ethically, the right thing to do would be if they’re doing some things to say, no, we’re not going to put up with us anymore. But if that’s one of your largest clients, you know, what you’re saying is going to be letting some people go. And, you know, those are the type of both management and ethical decisions you need to struggle with on a regular basis.

CHIP: You know, obviously, technology has changed the tools and the outlets and the speed to some degree, or not some degree, to a large degree, since you and I first got involved in communications a couple decades ago. But have you seen the overall ethical landscape shift beyond the tools and techniques? Or is it are we facing the same challenges just in different media?

MARK: I think overall, the fundamental ethical truths and ethical issues have stayed the same for millennia. I mean, since there’s been humanity, you know, and I kind of the example I give a lot wouldn’t rise a social media is I say, social media was like the introduction of the forward pass in football, the rules of the game, the goal of the game to get the most points in score stay the same, but it’s just a fundamental transformation. And so I think with the rise of technology and social media, what’s really happened is the news cycle, and our decision cycle times have compressed significantly. You know, as Michael Dougal, used to say, instead of the 24 hour news cycle, we’re now at the 24 second news cycle, and therefore we’re having to make those mistakes you make can get amplified more quickly, and could spread, you know, the curtain on the safety net is gone, we used to have time to if we made a mistake, potentially fix it. Now, once it’s there, everybody’s going to see it. But there is one other real issue that I’m seeing. And I’ve been talking to a bunch of other people that have commented on it on Ethical Voices, as well. And that is the polarization of our country, and the polarization of just professionals and society, where it tends to be if you know, we’re seeing more often now that if you don’t agree with me, you’re the enemy, or you’re wrong. Instead of recognizing there can be different viewpoints in multiple ways of, you know, getting to the same conclusion. And if you’re the enemy, you must be, you know, cast down and destroyed. And we’re seeing that I think on all sides. And that gets to be a really troubling development, when we’re looking at civil discourse, and the advancement of both our organizations, as well as our society.

CHIP: And that’s really something that is, you know, you see it most in politics, but we’re starting to see it, I think, increasingly, on the side of a lot of the clients that we may have in our agencies on the corporate side, or even nonprofit side, on things that are wholly unrelated to politics, but people still have strong views about them. So this is – that polarization, I think, is going to continue to be an increasingly important issue for everyone to confront, not just those in the political space.

MARK: It is and and talking to folks at the sphere and other areas, they’ve got a lot of interesting research, which is showing that, you know, beyond the politics with the millennials and others, they’re starting to want their businesses to take positions on societal issues. And that’s one of the challenges we’re going to face as, you know, counselors and communications professionals, as we’re advising our clients on, you know, do we take positions on these issues? Do we not take positions on these issues? And if so, which ones do we take positions on? And realizing that what we do there, because of that polarization, there’s going to be an impact on our organization’s brand. And on our agency’s brand.

CHIP: When I think that’s, you know, the surveys certainly do show that but at the same time, I think what is what they’re really showing is that the people want corporations to take on their views. So not just take a stand on an issue, but take their stand on the issue. And so, you know, I think it’s important for organizations to be mindful of that, and not just say, hey, I need to stake out some ground because that’s, that’s what I’m being asked to do, really, you’re being asked to agree with, you know, whatever stakeholder group that is. So it is a delicate balancing act that a lot of organizations are having to confront now.

MARK: You’re right. But it’s also interesting, one of the one of my favorite interviews I’ve done for Ethical Voices with Peter Shankman, of HARO, and everything else is going on there. And you know, we were talking about that very issue. And he basically said, I was full of, you know, what, and he says, people are talking about it. But if you look at the buying behaviors, in many industries, that’s not the case. And his point was with regards to airlines, he’s like, people aren’t going to choose airlines, and people have not shown that that choosing airlines based on any search and views is still going to be the cheapest fare. You know, in some industries, like CPG and areas, I think it’s going to be more important than others. But it is something to keep in mind that, you know, we’re talking about it but you also need to make sure you’re evaluating it for your industry itself.

CHIP: Well, I think the other thing is people tend to view these things from, you know, wherever they’re sitting. And so, you know, to take the airline example, a lot of the folks who are speaking about, you know, being able to make choices about which airline based on, you know, their policies or procedures, or any of that kind of stuff. Those may be folks who live in areas where they have a lot of choice, but the vast majority of the country doesn’t have that choice. You know, if you if you live in a lot of parts of the country, you have one or two airlines that gets you where you want to go. And that’s it. And you’re going to have to go with that no matter what. So it’s even beyond price, it’s just you don’t have those choices. Correct. So I think one of the interesting things you touched on a few minutes ago, was abusive clients. And the reason why I find that interesting is because when we think about ethics, in the agency world, we’re typically thinking about the work we’re doing on behalf of clients and the decisions that we’re making, or the decisions we’re being pushed to make by clients. But there’s a there’s a significant portion of the ethical component that’s about the internal operations of the business. And that is, you know, how you treat your own employees, how you allow clients to treat your employees, how you share information, these are all part of that whole ethical landscape as well, aren’t they?

MARK: Absolutely. And you get down to the most fundamental of most agencies, and that’s time sheets. And you know, the the smart senior managers know, your time sheets need to be 100% accurate, and we tell it to people, but you’ll still see from examples, time and again, where people are pressuring people to lie on time sheets to either inflate the billings or not report the billings accurately. Because they’re afraid that they’re going to over service and is going to make them look bad to their managers or whatever else the case may be. It’s, it’s those fundamental issues of the ground, and that you need to make sure that just from the basis of how we record the time that we’re working, we are honest and accurate.

CHIP: And I think that’s a great example, I remember when I was a junior account executive, many moons ago, when I still had a full head of hair, you know, we would sit down and do our timesheets each week. And, you know, we would often fudge those numbers, typically, because we had one really large client that put a lot of pressure on us to do work. And as the the juniors, who were doing the day to day work for that client, we just had to get it done. So we didn’t get yelled at. But we also had caps from our senior managers as far as how much time we were supposed to report. And so you know, if you don’t have the right culture, and you don’t have that culture of honesty, where you say, look, you know, I don’t care if you over service, tell me so that we can at least make some conscious decisions about it going forward, you know, you’re going to be in trouble.

MARK: And it’s also with, I think you’re right on that point. But it’s also in terms of your utilization forecast, go completely out the window, because you don’t really know what what time and how involved and how many hours people are spending, you know, it needs to be there. And that’s a case where you get as a Senior Manager, you really need to make sure you’re looking at it. And is it accurate in reviewing the time sheets. And, you know, I always tell the junior staff when I was managing them that you know what, I need you to see him. So if I’m seeing that you’re spending four hours in a press release, and it really shouldn’t have taken you that long. You know, that’s okay. It means do we need to give you more training? Was there an issue that you were really struggling with, you know, what else is there and you can use them for much more than just managing budgets and managing profitability. It’s another management tool to help you understand are your people need additional training, or they, you know, not getting things.

CHIP: But I think this particularly comes in because I’ve seen more agencies recently who are doing incentive plans based on profitability of projects and clients and things like that. And so, you know, that then increases the pressure even more to cut corners and, and fudge the numbers so that, you know, you’re able to get the incentives that you feel as if you’re owed as a manager. So, you know, it really creates a lot of different challenges if you’re not being accurate there. Absolutely. So, you know, as you think about the the way that agencies are running their business today, should they have a point person on ethics? Should they…you know, I remember back in the old days, in the larger agencies, there was sort of always a chief ethics officer or something of that nature, not full time job, obviously. But should you have someone who is the driving force on this, or is it really more just something that needs to be done across the board.

MARK: I think a few agencies actually do have a full time chief ethics officer and if anyone wants one they can talk to me too. But beyond that, seriously, my recommendation is, if there’s a business need to have one, you should have it. But there’s a couple of things to think about. One, it’s better to identify what our resources are, who are sources outside the agency, because sometimes it’s more difficult if you have an ethical issue, for you to go to your boss you to go to the chief ethics officer and say, Here’s these issues. And people may want to do it, you know, most PRSA chapters have an ethics officer that will have confidential discussions with you. But even if you want to keep it within the organization, because it may be sensitive, there may be other key issues there. People really want to make sure they know go go to all their managers, or whoever that person is, instead of just going to, you know, Mark McClennan, you know, and he has the issue, you should have these discussions with your managers, and the managers should be having the discussions with the staff, because that’s what really, you know, trains your agency’s ethical mind, and gets everybody instilling those values and that ethical behavior. So it’s not enough, I think just having that one person is kind of just like having, you know, ethics month where we do it the one time, and that’s it. So I definitely say everybody should be involved in it. And if you can actually get some revenue, and do some business benefits about having a chief ethics officer, then go for that too as well. But really, people should be able to go to any of their managers to have that discussion.

CHIP: I think that culture of openness, it certainly helps in ethics, it helps in other ways within the agency as well. But having the willingness to have those difficult conversations, whether they’re initiated from above or below will really make a difference to most agencies. Absolutely. So one final topic I’d like to cover before we run out of time here is, you know, we see ethics in some ways as being codified into law or regulation, in a lot of places. And this particularly is the case around issues of privacy, which are on the minds of the media, on the minds of agency professionals, on the minds of clients. But you know, we’re now seeing it in, particularly in Europe with GDPR, and California, other places where the laws are starting to say, okay, we’re no longer trusting you to make a good ethical decision on how to use information. But instead, we’re going to put it with the bite of law with penalties behind it, how does that change the discussion when it’s no longer making it an ethical judgment, but instead, it does become effectively a black and white thing governed by a regulator.

MARK: I think that’s, that’s really one of the things we’re going to have to grapple with as a profession. Moving forward of the past next couple of years, you know, when I was recently the Ethosphere conference, which was the global ethics summit, and it was about 240, of lawyers and me, so I was the only communications professional there. So it was definitely an educational experience. But when you look at GDPR, when you look at what’s going on over right now, with Monsanto and Bayer, when you look at what’s been going on California, there are laws are going to spread, you know, what it means is we need to be aware of these regulations. And we need to understand what’s coming down the pike, because we don’t want to have them have a negative impact on our agencies brand or agencies business. And so in a way, it kind of turns back to what you think about as a PR professional. You need to make sure you’re educating yourself and improving yourself every single day. And it’s not just enough to think about whether it’s the tactics or strategies or business reading. Ethical reading and ethical learning needs to be a part of that. So you can be aware of what are these issues? What is the impact? You know just like, when a new technology comes out. We spend hours debating it, trying with it. Seeing how we’re going to use this, how can we get the most use out of it, you need to be aware of what are the changes? What does GDPR really mean to us? What is the rise of privacy, and what some of the concerns we’re going to have around this or really, frankly, is the lack of privacy. And now it’s going to be the the rebound coming down the pike. How is that going to impact how we deal with influencer programs, and it comes back back to educate yourself, be aware of what’s going on, make sure you’re reading you know the PR trades, but also key blogs, and, you know, talking and seeing what’s going on in different government having the Google searches setup. So you can really you aren’t blindsided to when suddenly you get the notification that you violated, you know, law A, B, and C. You know, we have that a couple of years ago when I was chair of PRSA in 2016 and New York State, Jacob enacted a ruling which basically was going to make every single PR professional that did business in New York State, or did any work that could be seen by a New York state legislator, register as a lobbyist. Do all the filings disclose all their fees. And we thought that would have a chilling effect on the industry. So I worked to help form a coalition. You know, with PAGE with the PR Council and others, we successfully change that. But it was only because we had people that let us know about here’s this issue and it’s coming up and we knew it wasn’t going to be restricted to New York State. We knew it would go to Massachusetts, California, Colorado and others pretty quickly. That that had it had to be fought. But it came down to listening and being ready to react and educate.

CHIP: And I think awareness and education are vitally important and it’s a it’s a great note to wrap this up on. If someone is interested in increasing their own awareness and education. Obviously, your podcast would be a great place to start. Where can they find that podcast? And where can they find more about you?

MARK: Absolutely you can go to Ethicalvoices.com and they can follow me on Twitter @McClennan.

CHIP: Perfect. Well, this has been really helpful, lots of good food for thought for agency leaders to think about when it comes to how to improve the ethics of their own organization of their campaigns, etc. I encourage everybody to subscribe to the Ethical Voices Podcast. It is a great listen. And again, my guest today has been Mark McClennan. Thanks for joining me, Mark.

MARK: Thanks so much Chip. Have a great day.

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