Ron Culp speaks about PR ethics at Ben Bronstein Lecture series

March 28, 2018

Ron Culp

By Ron Culp, faculty member at DePaul University and long-time veteran in public relations

When I mentioned to corporate PR legend Bill Nielsen that I was coming here tonight, he gave me an assignment. Bill is the former head of communications at Johnson & Johnson and board chair of the Page Center here at Penn State. So I listened when he said the number one thing I needed to do is devote some time and energy to firing you up about the field of public relations.

I must admit that hadn’t crossed my mind since the topic of my address is confined to the more specific subject of ethics. However, Bill makes a good point. The two are inextricably tied together. There is no public relations profession without ethics.

We are in the midst of enormous changes in society.

We know that change for the better involves effectively communicating to build awareness, understanding, possibly acceptance and ultimately action or support. There may not be any other discipline within management that has the potential to effect change in organizations or institutions, or society, for that matter, than what effective public relations can achieve.

So Bill Nielsen is right. That’s something you should be excited about as you pursue your careers.

At a time of non-stop disruption and divisiveness, PR practitioners invariably find themselves in the centers of action—hopefully—with the skills, expertise and values to help build consensus and find the way forward for their organizations. Your advantage, as opposed to Bill and me, is that you were born into this age of socialization.

There is no question that right now is the best time to practice public relations.

That proclamation isn’t just coming from this former PR veteran turned academic, but from the CEOs of the two largest public relations firms in the world—Richard Edelman and Andy Polansky of Weber Shandwick.

Now, as you know, all good news usually is followed by a "but." And in this case, the but questions whether the next generation of communication leaders is ready for the myriad of growing challenges facing our profession.

So in preparation for my visit with you, I spoke with more than a dozen agency heads, including Richard and Andy, as well as several executive recruiters and a couple of chief communications officers. Each and every one of them concurs that our profession is poised to play a growing and truly significant role in shaping the future of organizations both big and small. But they at the same time express concern about whether the next generation of communication leaders will be able and prepared to step up to the intense challenges that await them.

What do they say is required of the next generation of leaders? Each of their lists included higher ethical standards along with greater business acumen than currently exists within the profession. In fact, Richard Edelman recommends a far deeper curriculum than most PR programs currently offer.

To become counterparts for top executives, Richard says you’ll need to understand computer science, economics and multiple language skills in order to be ready to become advisors on sustainability, automation and other issues that will become even more important in the next decade and beyond. That, my friends, is the new world of PR. And underpinning this new knowledge demand is the automatic sense of knowing right from wrong—fundamental childhood skills that need to be honed for the grown-up world.

As everyone here knows, we are bombarded with a 24-7 fire hose of news and misinformation. And I don’t have to tell this audience about the proliferation of social media channels targeting the world’s 3.5 billion internet users, and how this complicates our consumption of information. Google alone receives more than 40,000 searches every second, with people seeking out their own information, be it accurate or not.

Sadly, more communication channels have not improved public trust in our institutions. In fact, the U.S. is enduring an unprecedented crisis of trust. Edelman’s latest Trust Barometer that annually measures global trust in all institutions shows a staggering collapse of confidence in government by the general public, down 14 points to 33 percent compared to last year. The media does even worse. Globally, media is the least trusted institution.

The only glimmer of positive news is that John Q. Public now views business as the agent of change. Business executives have higher levels of respect than ever—largely, I contend, due to better communication. An impressive 72 percent of survey respondents say they trust their own company and two thirds of them believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions.

In fact, a recent Weber Shandwick survey underscores that growing numbers of customers and employees want corporate executives to focus on issues beyond the company’s bottom line. And some 50 percent of millennials say they expect CEOs to speak up about social issues.

Social purpose communications guru Carol Cone describes this moment as the “tipping point of capitalism.” Driven by political scandals, nuclear threats and a topsy-turvy Wall Street, the once-reviled business community, Carol believes, may very well become society’s unlikeliest hero. I agree.

The enormous impact of world events as well as a sea-change in attitude shifts among millennials and Gen Z will reward enlightened companies that embrace greater social purpose—companies creating something deeper than simply making a profit.

And Carol Cone isn’t alone in the belief that social purpose is no longer a nice-to-have thing, but a must have business component. Even the greatest capitalist of our current time, Larry Fink—CEO of Blackrock, the world’s largest asset management firm, told the Economic Club of Chicago recently that: “The companies that perform the best financially are companies that are more connected with the societies within which they  operate [...] companies that serve a purpose.” And he emphasized that Blackrock intends to factor in social purpose as it makes decisions on where to invest its enormous $6.3 trillion in assets.

While we might like to think that business leaders are embracing social purpose because it’s the right thing to do, the real reason is that, if done right, this social-driven sense of purpose rewards those enlightened companies. According to Ernst & Young’s Business Case for Purpose report, corporations that prioritize purpose saw more than 10 percent growth in revenues over three years. However, before proclaiming “Mission Accomplished,” we must be aware that shifting to a purpose-driven philosophy very often gets push back from shareholder demands for short term results.

All this makes for an exciting time to enter the business world that awaits you and an especially important inflection point for those who plan to practice public relations. 

Agency leaders, chief communication officers and recruiters are looking for talent that can deal with stakeholder activism and the blurring of all traditional communication channels.

Eileen Sheil from the Cleveland Clinic echoes what Richard Edelman said earlier when she says, “There is a stronger expectation of the role of communications than a decade ago.” Ellen says we must do more than create, write or produce communications materials. We must become advisers and strategic partners.

This cannot be achieved unless PR professionals gain the business skills that are demanded by today’s C-suite. Borrowing a line from my favorite musical “Hamilton,” as communicators you should be saying “I wanna be in the room where it happens.” But how do you make that happen?

Let’s briefly discuss my seven suggestions for creating your own map to a successful career:

  1. Improve your business IQ
  2. Study companies that are doing it “right”
  3. Find an ethics mentor
  4. Learn from case studies
  5. Discuss ethical issues
  6. Sign the PRSA Ethics Pledge
  7. Live the Page Principles

Now, let’s start with the first one. PR consultant Jim Simon says financial literacy remains the Achilles’ Heel of our profession. Hence, the need to know business basics and obtaining a deeper grasp of data and analytics. Jim also feels “data literacy” may be the next most valued non-communications skill for communicators after business literacy. Both are critical to our future success. No more hunches. Prove it works, is the clear, unvarnished mantra from the C-suite.

At the same time, corporations are intensifying their demands that employees adhere to the highest ethical standards. 

So, how do we make this happen? How do we find and effectively build our own moral compass into our operational mindset?

Some say we’re born with it, while others say your moral compass takes shape through life experiences beginning in early childhood. Over time and those life experiences, you hopefully develop what author David Brooks discusses in “The Road to Character.” Brooks like my grandmother believes that “your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.”

But for those of you who saw Oscar-nominated movie “I, Tonya,” you realize personal upbringing varies dramatically. So a bit more adjustment might occasionally be needed to make sure our compasses are pointing true north.  Despite being a movie buff, I won’t have time tonight to go into a deeper review about Tonya Harding and the motley cast of tragic characters that shaped her life and ended her career. Instead, let’s take the next few minutes to focus on how you can achieve success in your own careers.

Based on research studies by executive recruiting firm KornFerry, Arthur Page Society and the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations there is across-the-board agreement that management today is looking to communications leaders to help develop organizational strategies involving wide varieties of constituents and stakeholders. To do so, KornFerry and the others suggest PR professionals must become trusted business partners, able to collaborate with all functions within the organization. They become the central function devoted to reputation management, while defining and activating corporate character.

Not wanting to sound like a broken record, but the best way for PR leaders to prepare for this broader leadership responsibility comes through developing deeper financial and business acumen. I learned this the hard way.
Very early in my corporate career—two weeks, in fact, I was called into the CFO’s office at Eli Lilly, and told that I needed to write the earnings release. Having arrived at Lilly from a brief newspaper career and seven years in state government, I was that proverbial deer-in-the-headlights. Although totally confused, I managed to take some Greek-like notes and quickly fled to my boss’ office where I sheepishly asked the question: “What are earnings?”

Thanks to a crash course from my boss and the patient head of investor relations, Bob Graper, I survived that first business assignment and several other similar tasks followed before I eventually was given responsibility for financial communications. That was a defining moment in my corporate career. Until then, I can’t even begin to estimate the hundreds of extra hours I had to devote to getting up to speed on business issues because of my lack of basic business 101 knowledge. Hence, my admonition now to all young PR pros: Do as I say, not as I did.

Gain as much financial and business knowledge as possible in college—even at the risk of getting a less than honors-level grade in the courses. With deference to this fine institution where we are gathered today, after you graduate nobody cares about your GPA. What they care about is, can you do the job?

My favorite way to improve business IQ is to follow companies that you admire. Just pick a brand you’re passionate about. Read what they’re saying on social media, study the CEO’s letter to shareholders and listen to the earnings call with analysts and media, which you easily can link to via the company’s website. Like osmosis, you’ll absorb loads of information in a real-time setting. Being addicted to coffee, I followed Starbucks for a few years before following Kellogg until I switched my breakfast preference last year from cold cereal to oatmeal, so it’s now Quaker, which is a division of PepsiCo. 

Another easy way to get smart about business in less than three minutes a day is to read the daily “What’s News” column of The Wall Street Journal. I learned this trick the hard way—after a CEO yelled at me one day for not seeing mention of the company that appeared on page one of the Journal.

Upon becoming more comfortable with all things business, you must make sure your ethical compass is pointed towards your true north. Over the years, I have faced many ethical dilemmas, some handled well and others where I desperately would like to take a Mulligan—and I’m not a golfer.

One of those I’d like to do over is the time my media relations manager at Sara Lee came to me saying she could not in good consciousness provide a New York Times reporter the response she was ordered to give by the then-head of our bakery division. Back then, food companies were scrambling to come up with low-cal and better-for-you products.

So, Sara Lee launched a new “lite” cheesecake. But a savvy consumer realized that ounce-for-ounce, the cheesecake had the same number of calories as our regular cheesecake. Under competitive pressure to deliver a product that tasted good and had fewer calories, the bakery boss told my media manager to explain that the product directions clearly tell you to cut the cake into seven slices rather than six. If you do so, that slice has fewer calories. Therefore the word “lite” referred to texture rather than calorie content. After considerable back and forth, the media person refused to provide that unbelievable response to the reporter.

Busy and simply wanting to get one more thing off my plate, I responded to the reporter’s call with the suggested response—light in texture and fewer calories if cut into smaller slices recommended on the package. There was a long pause before the reporter said: “Seriously? That’s your response?” And the ensuing story made everyone but my wise media manager look ridiculous.

At that very moment I drew a mental line in the sand. Never again would I put the company or my personal credibility on the line. Over the ensuing years, I’ve only been faced with a few serious ethical decision points—some with more at stake than cheesecake calories—and fortunately my push back rationale was supported by management. I firmly believe that quality companies today fully understand and, indeed, do adhere to the highest ethical standards.

If you aren’t certain about a tough ethical decision, seek out what my colleague Maria deMoya describes as an “ethics mentor”—someone who is only interested in what’s best for you. That person could be a current mentor, a favorite professor or even your grandmother. Simply talking through questions that concern you invariably results in better decision making. Along these lines, I also feel the need for ongoing discussions of ethics in all business settings. Perhaps start staff meetings or PR classes with a discussion pulled from an important business issue of the day.

Set up the situation and ask, “what would we do if faced with this issue?” If you do so, you’ll probably not want to defend the flight attendant who killed the puppy.

Unfortunately, pressing business demands often leave little time for such discussions—discussions that can perhaps fend off future major problems. Try to find the time.

Corporate executives and their PR teams should check out the just-published report from an organization called Ethisphere. This report lists the World’s Most Ethical Companies, and like the Enst & Young study confirms the 135 companies on its list outperformed the U.S. Large Cap Index over five years by 10.72 percent—sort of an Ethics Premium.

Are good intentions good enough when it comes to business ethics? I might have once thought so, but I now believe we have to put people’s jobs on the line if they intentionally exercise bad judgment that puts their organizations at risk.

And communicators need be sufficiently confident in themselves that they are willing to quit rather than compromise their values.

Personally, you can put your own stake in the ground by reading and signing the PRSA Pledge. You don’t have to be a PRSA member to make the promise to adhere to the highest ethical standards. It’s a simple, one-page personal promise. I guarantee you that taking time to read and sign this pledge will provide the reminder you might sometime need to make the right call on an ethical dilemma.

Finally, take three minutes to read the seven Page Principles from the Arthur W. Page Society. I do so several times a year since they provide the foundation for my professional moral compass.  Appropriately, the first principle is:

1. Tell the truth.
Let the public know what's happening with honest and good intention; provide an ethically accurate picture of the enterprise's character, values, ideals and actions.

2. Prove it with action.
Public perception of an enterprise is determined 90 percent by what it does and 10 percent by what it says.

3. Listen to stakeholders.
To serve the enterprise well, understand what the public wants and needs and advocate for engagement with all stakeholders. Keep top decision makers and other employees informed about stakeholder reaction to the enterprise's products, policies and practices. To listen effectively, engage a diverse range of stakeholders through inclusive dialogue.

4. Manage for tomorrow.
Anticipate public reaction and eliminate practices that create difficulties. Generate goodwill.

5. Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it.
No strategy should be implemented without considering its impact on stakeholders. As a management and policymaking function, public relations should encourage the enterprise's decision making, policies and actions to consider its stakeholders' diverse range of views, values, experience, expectations and aspirations.

6. Realize an enterprise's true character is expressed by its people.
The strongest opinions — good or bad — about an enterprise are shaped by the words and deeds of an increasingly diverse workforce. As a result, every employee — active or retired — is involved with public relations. It is the responsibility of corporate communications to advocate for respect, diversity and inclusion in the workforce and to support each employee's capability and desire to be an honest, knowledgeable ambassador to customers, friends, shareowners and public officials.

7. Remain calm, patient and good-humored.
Lay the groundwork for public relations successes with consistent and reasoned attention to information and stakeholders. When a crisis arises, remember, cool heads communicate best.

Needless to say, there is a lot riding on the modern day public relations practitioner. We’re no longer just order takers for a publicity program or a lucky media placement; we are becoming key strategic partners to senior management. That rarefied air requires actions that are beyond reproach, actions that require a solid business acumen and adherence to the highest ethical standards.  After my time on campus with you and your professors today, I know you’re up for the challenge.

Good luck as your pursue your careers in this incredible profession.


Ron Culp spoke to Penn State students on March 27, 2018 on Penn State's University Park campus. His lecture was a part of the annual Ben Bronstein Lecture in Public Relations Ethics. You can read more from Culp on his blog, Culpwrit