Ethics Blog

September 15, 2014

Engaging our Critics

Last week the New York Chapter of PRSA held a Mock Tribunal of the PR profession that I was privileged to initiate and organize. The intent was to provoke a conversation on Public Relations and its critics.

Each participant in the discussion was given a court role. Randy Cohen, original “Ethicist” of the New York Times Magazine and current CEO of the radio talk show Person, Place, Thing was the judge.

Paul Holmes of the Holmes Group played the role of the Prosecutor. In his opening remarks he said: “I believe that when we practice spin rather than public relations, when we try to persuade somebody to vote a particular way, to buy a particular product rather than focusing on the necessity of building a relationship, we cheat not only the consumers, the employees, the communities with which we communicate but also our clients in whose long term interest is a genuine relationship.”

Michael Schubert, our Chief Innovation Officer and the Defense Counsel for the occasion replied by saying that the public relations industry is about giving our clients a voice and that we have a “moral obligation to do our job, which is to bring a company or a brand’s point of view to the public in an honest and transparent way.”

The Prosecutor and the Defense each had two witnesses: Fran Hawthorne and Delbert Spurlock for the Prosecution and Steve Cody from Peppercomm and Jacqueline Brevard formerly from Merck for the defense.  The discussion was lively and both profound and entertaining.

You can view the recording by clicking on the link below.

It was my hope that this exercise would help us understand that ethical conduct in the practice of the profession was the best way to eliminate much of the criticism directed against public relations.

David Finn, the co-Founder and Chairman of Ruder Finn has always said that we should engage our critics. Back in 60s, he wrote an article for Saturday Review entitled Business and its Critics.  In an article published in MOVE! David refers to his Saturday Review article and writes that he believes that:

“corporations should give more thoughtful, sensitive and responsible responses when there were criticisms of their policies or practices in the media. This should apply to food companies that faced overweight problems, to automobile companies that faced accident problems, to smokestack companies that faced pollution problems, to chemical companies that faced agricultural problems, to nuclear power plants that faced potential disaster problems, and to cigarette companies that faced lung cancer problems. My argument was that corporations should not just dismiss these criticisms as unfounded or unproven. Means should be found to convince the public that business cared as much about health and safety as anyone else. In the course of the article I mentioned that the standard tobacco industry response to new health reports was unconvincing, and I suggested that a more thoughtful statement would be more appropriate. I believed that the industry should show respect for the new evidence and state that it would search for a responsible policy that recognized the seriousness of the problem revealed by the different studies.”

Why are we so reluctant to engage our critics?

I am sure that the reasons differ depending on the situation but could one of the reasons be that we are not so sure, after all, of the validity of our positions and actions? If that is the case, then our reluctance should be an indication that what we believe (or do) may somehow not be the right thing and that we should rethink our approach.

As Winston Churchill once said:

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

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August 11, 2014

Who Lives and Who Dies-The Ebola Emergency

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) we are facing an “international health emergency on Ebola.” The two countries most affected are Liberia and Nigeria. More than 1000 people have recently died from the disease.

Ebola is an extremely contagious, deadly disease that has no known cure.  There are two experimental drugs that some believe might be helpful. However, these drugs have not been properly tested and therefore are not on the market. One of these drugs (ZMapp) was administered to two healthcare workers, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, from Samaritan Purse, who contracted the disease in Liberia, in the humanitarian exercise of their medical profession. They are now being treated at Emory Hospital in Atlanta.

The World Health Organization is convening a meeting of ethicists to discuss the ethical dilemmas of the use in an emergency of untested drugs and also to address the issue of distribution in a limited resources situation.

Some of the questions they will most likely discuss are:

1.      Is it acceptable to administer a drug that has not been tested on humans and whose benefits or harm are unknown?

2.      How informed can or should the consent be? Should one administer such a drug to a population   that can neither read nor write?

3.      Who should be held liable if something goes horribly wrong? The WHO? The ministers of health of different countries that authorized the use of such drugs? The pharmaceutical companies that manufacture them?

4.      However, in my mind, the most heart-wrenching question is who gets the drug when it is in a very limited supply? Should it be children, or healthcare providers, or the individuals who are most likely to benefit from the drug?

Bioethics is dealing with the most challenging ethical dilemmas because the choices that are made have life threatening consequences. In corporate ethics, the consequences are often about money (fines and lawsuits). In bioethics the consequences can be life or death.

In this case, we can summarily define the dilemma with the following question:

Who lives, who dies and who decides?

In facing such a question, we may have to recognize that there is no “right answer.” Any decision will be, at best, a choice of the lesser of two evils, a “wrong versus wrong” situation. There are some circumstances that require a heavy dose of humility and the admission that sometimes, we simply do not know.

I hope that the ethicists convening in Geneva this week will come up with guidelines that will help the international community make the right decisions. I sincerely hope that those guidelines will include the values of respect for human life, justice and fairness, as well as dignity.

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July 28, 2014

The Risks of Euphemism

The lead article, Silence and Punishment” in the July 20th issue of the magazine section of the New York Times by Michael Sokolove, tells the story of the fall from grace of Graham Spanier, an exceptional man who had a very successful career in higher education until he was forced to resign because of the Sandusky scandal. Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant coach of Penn State University was convicted on 45-counts of sexual abuse of young boys during a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009. He is serving a 60 year prison sentence.

Mr. Spanier now awaits trial. He is charged with “Conspiracy of Silence.” He is being accused of “conspiring with other top university officials to conceal information about suspected child abuse involving Jerry Sandusky.”

Jeremy Fyke of Marquette University and Kristen Lucas of the University of Louisville published a very interesting article: “Euphemisms and Ethics: A Language-Centered Analysis of Penn State’s Sexual Abuse Scandal” that was published in the Journal of Business Ethics.

The study showed that members of the University staff “used coded language to report the assault up the chain of command”… and that “top leaders relied on an innocuous, but patently false, interpretation of earlier euphemisms as a decision-making framework to chart their course of (in)action.”

For example, some of the words used to report the incident were “doing something with a youngster in the shower,” or “in very close proximity behind a young boy with his arms wrapped around him.” While the correct words that should have been used were that he had “raped a child.”

Sometimes euphemisms leave too much room for interpretation when there should be none!

Mr. Spanier says that he would have taken the appropriate actions had he been told of the true nature of the repeated incidents that were reported to him about Mr. Sandusky. He says: “I am an intervener, I see something going on the street, in the community, I intervene.” He adds that if he had been told “anything about child abuse, sexual abuse, had anything criminal had even been hinted about that possibility” he would have acted differently.

Having been himself the victim of violent child abuse by his father, who for many years, brutally beat him, one can easily believe that he would have indeed reacted appropriately had he been told the truth.

The authors of the study believe that: “Through euphemism, distasteful activities can lose their repugnancy, harmful conduct can be made respectable, and that which is socially unacceptable can be transformed into something socially approved.”

The use of euphemism serves an important role in society. It allows a “kinder, gentler” exchange between people and helps avoids unnecessary embarrassments and unpleasantness. It is indeed more appropriate to say of someone that he is “academically challenged” rather than “stupid.” It is kinder to say that someone is “disabled” rather than “crippled.”

Yet the use of euphemisms can represent a risk of downplaying an action that is unethical or even criminal. The term “enhanced interrogation” does not convey the horror of the word “torture.” The word “cheating” (on a spouse) does not have the stigma that the word “adultery” carries.

The question then: When is it acceptable, from an ethical point of view, to use euphemism and when is it not?

I believe it all depends on the intention. If the use of euphemism is for the sake of civility and an attempt not to offend, then most likely it is “OK.”

If, however the motivation is to diminish the severity of a reprehensible action, then we should abstain and have the courage to call out the unacceptable behavior by using the word of words that best clarify the action.  There is value in calling “a spade a spade.”

As the historian Paul Johnson once said:

“Euphemism is a human device to conceal the horrors of reality.”

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July 14, 2014


In the article, The Secret of Effective Motivation published by The New York Times on July 6, 2014, Amy Wrzesniewski, associate professor of organizational behavior at the Yale School of Management, and Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College classify motivation in two categories: internal and instrumental.  They give the example of a scientist that conducts research just to find facts as internal motivation, while a scientist that conducts research to achieve fame and financial success as instrumental motivation. They also recognize that often people have both internal and instrumental motivations for doing what they do.  They ask the question: “What mixed motives-internal or instrumental, or both – is most conductive to success?”

To answer the question, the authors analyzed data from 11,320 cadets at the West Point Military Academy who had been rated on their motives for joining the Academy, such as to be a good leader (internal) or to have a better job later in life (instrumental.) They found that: “the stronger their internal reasons were to attend West Point, the more likely cadets were to graduate and become commissioned officers.”

The authors believe that: “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to  improve not only the quality of their work but also –counterintuitive though it may seem-the financial success.”

Finding meaning in the work we do is an excellent motivator for success. Stephen Mills, blogger of the Rat Race Trap says that:One of the best ways to find some personal meaning and happiness in your job is to use it as an opportunity to improve yourself.  Personal growth is one of the best ways to do this, for at least one person – you.  You can make your work the education and practice ground for creating a better you.”

One can also apply the reasoning and findings of the study to the practice of ethics. Why do people do “the right thing?” What is the true motivation?  Could it be because of potential enhanced reputation and other benefits and does it matter?

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than not doing anything at all. For instance, if a wealthy person decides to donate one million dollars to the local hospital so that he (or she) will be honored at a dinner party, that is sad. However, what really matters is that people are going to benefit from the donation.

Ideally, we would hope to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do.

As author Keven Heath once said:

“A true hero is not someone who thinks about doing what is right, but one that simply does what is right without thinking!”

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July 1, 2014

Lost and Found

Last week a friend (and colleague) told me a story about her parents. The story is beautiful and has an ethical component-lesson for all of us.

Here is the story:

My friend’s parents are from the Middle East. Many years ago, they were forced to leave their home country because of a Revolution. They had to leave behind everything they owned except what they could physically carry with them. Among these items was a small briefcase with the family jewelry.

My colleague’s mother kept the briefcase in a bank safe deposit box but would occasionally bring it home so that she could wear the jewelry during a reception or party at her home.

On a fateful day, as she was leaving the bank, heading for home, she left the briefcase on the roof of her car. When she arrived at home she realized what had happened. She was devastated. For three days she did not eat nor sleep. She could not stop crying. Every piece of jewelry she lost had a sentimental value, a particular memory of her past such as a gift for the birth of child, a wedding anniversary or another joyful event.

Across town, another woman was crying. A single mom trying very hard to make ends meet.

She had found the briefcase. In the briefcase was a card indicating the name and phone number of the owner. Her friends and family were telling her that she should not even consider returning it. Yet, her conscience and values would not allow her to keep the newly found treasure.

On the third day, with great moral courage, she called my friend’s mother and asked whether she could ever be forgiven for having hesitated and for having kept the briefcase for that long.   She was warmly forgiven.

They arranged to meet so the young woman could return the briefcase. My friend’s mother did not expect that much would be left but to her surprise, none of the jewelry was missing. She offered the young woman any piece of jewelry she wished. The young woman categorically refused to take anything. It was then that my friend’s father wrote her a check for $10,000 which today would represent approximately $50,000.

The woman accepted the check and for a great number of years, stayed in touch with them, expressing her gratitude and explaining how that money had actually changed her life.

The ethical lesson to be learned is that it is never too late to do the right thing.

The young woman might have reasoned within herself that by not returning the briefcase immediately, she had already committed a felony and that she might as well enjoy the fruit of her crime. She did not.

As Og Mandino once said:

“There is an immeasurable distance between late and too late.”

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June 24, 2014

Ethics and Emotions

I read an interesting article in the June 20th 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Our Moral Tongue by Boaz Keysar, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and Albert Costa, research professor at the Center of Brain & Cognition at the University of Barcelona.

They conducted a study that revealed that the moral choices people made in facing an hypothetical ethical dilemma are influenced by whether the dilemma is presented to them in their native tongue or not. The study seems to indicate that we react more with our emotions that with our intellect when a dilemma is presented to us in our own language rather than if it is presented in a foreign or second language.

To illustrate the point, the authors quote Nelson’s Mandela who said:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands that goes to his head.

If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart.”

We often think of ethics as an academic discipline in the field of philosophy with its theories, principles and codes. Yet we should not ignore the critical role that emotions play in the ethical decisions we make, whether they be negative emotions such as fear, guilt and anger or positive emotion such as empathy, love and joy.

Ilana Simons, Ph. D literature prof. at the New School believes that emotions serve not only to protect us individually but also to bind communities. In her Psychology Today article The Four Moral Emotions-Guilt, Shame, Embarrassment, and Pride Make Societies Work” she writes:  ”After all, we all have a better chance at survival if the species works as a team, rather than battling it out to mutual extinction. In turn, emotions are useful because they seal a Social Contract, a system of ethics  that protects the species–not just individuals–into the future.”

Philosophy and Psychology are not mutually exclusive!   Paul Thagard, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life writes in his article also published by Psychology Today, Ethical Thinking Should be Rational AND Emotional, that does not believe that reason and emotions are opposite. He says that: “being good requires both thinking and feeling.”

When trying to convey ethics and inspire ethical conduct we should address both the heart and the mind of our audience.

Albert Einstein once wrote:

“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

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June 11, 2014

Sgt. Bergdahl

The release of Sgt. Bergdahl after 5 years of detention by the Taliban in exchange for the release of five high ranking members of the Taliban from Guantanamo created a major nationwide controversy.

Critics of the exchange argued that more kidnappings would follow because we, the United States had given into the enemy and that we therefore had set a price on the heads of future American captives.

The argument has some merit.

Many also questioned the exchange because of the fact that Sgt. Bergdahl had deserted before being captured by the Taliban. (One should note that desertion does not mean joining the enemy, which he did not.) Does the fact that he deserted somehow negate our obligation to do our best to rescue him? Do we know what really happened in his mind and soul? Judith Lewis Herman, M.D. in her book Trauma and Recovery, writes: “In WWII, it was recognized that any man could break down under fire and that psychiatric casualties could be predicted in direct proportion to the severity of combat exposure. There is no such thing as “getting used to combat.” And she adds:  ”Thus, psychiatric casualties are inevitable as gunshot and shrapnel wounds in warfare.”

Those that support the exchange believe that saving the life of one U.S. soldier is more important than the potential risk of future kidnappings. Furthermore, it is essential for the morale of soldiers to know that the army will do whatever it takes to rescue them should they be kidnapped.  David Brooks in his June 5th New York Time’s editorial writes: “the loss of national fraternity that would result if we start abandoning Americans in the field would be a great and more lasting harm” than the five Guantanamo prisoners could ever cause.

The very difficult moral question is whether we should negotiate with or pay ransom to kidnappers? We probably all agree that in principle that we should not pay ransom, in order not to encourage future kidnappings. However when we come to a specific individual who has a name, a face and a family, principles and policies carry little weight in the balance between a life to be saved and the risk  of future kidnappings.

I think that we all, as individuals or as a community have a moral obligation to rescue or deliver our fellow/men/women. The means used for the rescue will depend on the circumstances and the available options, such as using force, paying a ransom or proceeding to a prisoner exchange.

Maimonides, the great Medieval Jewish thinker once said that there was no religious duty greater than the redeeming of captives and he quotes, to support his statement, Leviticus 19:18 which says:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

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June 2, 2014

Somaly Mam

It was reported last week that Somaly Mam, the anti-sex trafficking activist, had resigned from the foundation that she created and that bears her name because of allegations that she had exaggerated her own story and the stories of others, working with her. Apparently she had not been sold into slavery at age 9, nor forced to marry a soldier at age 14.  An investigation is proceeding on this matter.

Somaly Mam had become a hero in the eyes of many because of her (now questionable) story and because of her work against sex-trafficking in Cambodia and Laos. Secretary of State John Kerry called her “a hero every single day.” She was a CNN hero in 2006 and one of the Time Magazine 2009 “Heroes and Icons.” Nicholas Kristof, of the New York Times featured her more than once.

People’s reactions to the story was one of betrayal and rightly so. We still expect to be told the truth!

However, no one to my knowledge expressed relief that Somaly had not been forced into slavery at 9 years of age, nor forced to marry a soldier at age 14.  Because it does happen all the time!

According to Equality Now, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are more than 20 million adults and children that are bought and sold worldwide each year into commercial sexual servitude and forced labor.

A question we might ask is whether it is OK to lie to save a life? Most people will agree that it is.

A second question we might ask ourselves is whether it is OK to lie to reveal the truth? I think this is what happened here. Creating a composite character of a victim is a lie but very often does communicate a greater reality.

Many believe that exaggerating stories is common among activists and NGOs. It is done in order to increase donations. It is regrettable and should not be necessary because the truth is bleak enough without exaggeration. Yet, we the public at large, seem to need heroes and very dramatic stories to be moved and to donate. We, the public, are the reason for those exaggerations.

What remains is that much good is done worldwide by NGOs and not-for-profit organizations and that is true for the Somaly Mam Foundation as well.

Gina Reiss-Wilchins its Executive Director, posted a message on the foundation’s website on May 28, 2014 in which she said:

“Despite our heartfelt disappointment, the work of the Foundation and our grant partners must and will carry on. We have touched the lives of over 100,000 women and girls. We have treated nearly 6,000 individuals at a free medical clinic in Phnom Penh’s red light district and engaged nearly 6,400 students in anti-trafficking activism.”

We all hope the work continues.

As Khalil Gibran once said:

“Exaggeration is truth that has lost its temper.”

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May 13, 2014

Brings Back Our Girls

A week ago the world was made aware of the brutal kidnapping of 276 Nigerian girls from their school in the middle of the night by an armed extremist Muslim group named Boko Haram who threatened to sell the girls to slavery. The name of this organization means, “Western education is a sin.”

I suspect that not many people know how this global support for the victims came about.

Ramaa Mosley, a TV producer, was driving home one late afternoon on April 19, when she heard on the radio of the kidnapping that had occurred 5 days earlier. She started weeping. As soon as she got home she went on major U.S. news internet sites to find out more. To her surprise, she found nothing. She then went on African websites, and sure enough there was the story. Ranaa then decided to start her own media campaign using social media. She first communicated with her friends, then, with celebrities and politicians. She finally reached out to Secretary of State John Kerry and also President Barack Obama.

The hashtag @BringBackOurGirls went viral in a few hours and has to this day created more than a million messages. Ramaa also created a Facebook page that now has 157,000 “likes.” Traditional media finally pick-up the story. Nicholas Kristof made it the topic of his May 4, 2014 New York Times Op-Ed.

The public outcry has created strong pressure on both the U.S. and the Nigerian governments to respond adequately to the kidnapping.

The President promised to supply intelligence reconnaissance and other help to the Nigerian Government for the rescue the girls.

Michelle Obama said in a Mother’s Day message to the nation:

“Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night.” “In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters.”

Senators Barbara Boxer and Jim Inhofe introduced a resolution condemning the abduction.

Secretary of State John Kerry said that the kidnapping was an unconscionable crime and that the government will do “everything possible” to support the Nigerian government in returning the young girls to their homes.

France, the UK, Israel and China have offered their assistance in trying to liberate the girls.

Will all this help in the effort to rescue the Nigerian school girls? I do not see how it possibly would not. According to some news report today, the leader of Boko Haram is offering to liberate the girls, now that he “converted them to Islam,” in exchange for the release from prison of fellow Boko Haram extremists.

This would seem to confirm that the global awareness of the situation has made of the victims high-valued hostages.

The amazing exemplary character here is Ramaa Mosley. If it was not for her reaction and action, would we ever know of the kidnapping? She saw something and then she did something about it.

Creating awareness has very little value unless it leads to action.

As Thomas Jefferson once said:

Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.

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April 28, 2014

Cliven Bundy - How Not To Choose Your Champion

Cliven Bundy, the rancher from Nevada, shocked most (if not all) of America with his comments on slavery. Prior to his comments, he had built up a strong following among conservative pundits such as Sean Hannity of Fox News who called him a “folk hero.” Mr. Bundy, in his dispute with the Federal Government over the issue of grazing fees appealed to conservatives that believe there is too much government interference in our private lives. It is a defensible point of view but Mr. Bundy was not the right person to champion this idea.

All Mr. Bundy’s support immediately evaporated once he aired his sick views of the very dark past of our history.

Below are his abhorrent comments:

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I have often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking up cotton and having a family life and doing things or are they better off under government subsidy? They did not get more freedom, they got less.”

Charles M. Blow, in his op-ed “A Ranchers Romantic Revisionism,” published on Saturday asks the following questions:

“How could slaves have been “happier,” when more than 12 million were put in shackles, loaded like logs into the bowels of ships and sailed towards shores un-known, away from their world and into their hell? How could they have been happier to be greased up and sold off, mother from child, with no one registering their anguish.”

According to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (mentioned in the same article) nearly one third of slave laborers were children and only 10 % of slaves reached the age of 50!

To be fair, Mr. Bundy made an apology for his comments:

He said: “I hope I didn’t offend anybody. If I did, I ask for your forgiveness,”

That is, in my opinion, not a true apology. One should not apologize for having offended but for having said what was offensive. In fact we should really apologize not so much for what we say but more for what we think. That requires soul searching.

What are the moral lessons of this story? There are many. Let me just mention one that has a direct application to our industry.

We should be extremely careful who we pick as a champion of a cause we believe in. This is particularly true for the PR industry with the practice of using third party advocates and spokespersons. We should do the best we can to make sure that we share a minimum of fundamental values with anyone who will be representing us or our clients.

What people think matters! One of the wisest men of all times, King Solomon once said:

As a man thinks, (secretly) so is he.

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