This post is adapted from the Ethical Voices podcast interview with Padilla president Matt Kucharski.

What type of training do you give your employees to help them develop their ethical frameworks?

Padilla carries out ethics training through our parent company AVENIR GLOBAL, and we’re about ready to tee off another round of it. But it goes beyond ethics. It’s training on our values. If you take your values and you take the ethics training, you’re probably 90% of the way there. We talk a lot about values and how they contribute to a great work culture. Believe me, that’s incredibly important. But it’s also a great risk-mitigation strategy. You make sure people are acting the way you want them to act, and if they aren’t, you have a reference point to show them that their behavior does not follow the stated values.

Learning about the ethical dilemmas, I believe, makes you a stronger practitioner because it allows you to see around corners. It allows you to be more strategic. I’m headquartered in Minneapolis and I’m responsible for the whole firm. There’s a local university that, every year, holds an ethics bowl. If I had time, I would be a judge of that ethics bowl every single time because, man, you learn a lot.

Are there any other kinds of key PR ethics challenges you’re seeing face the communications profession right now?

I think there are certainly some ethical challenges around particular industry categories. For instance, we are going to see more and more discussion on cannabis. We have the benefit of having a really large cannabis practice in our sister agency NATIONAL in Canada, where cannabis is now legal both for medicinal and recreational usage, so we get to learn from their experiences. There will be people out there who might say that cannabis is evil and we should prevent it from ever going mainstream, and at the same time, I can tell you, based on feedback from many of our health clients, that it’s a pretty important tool in the pain-therapy toolbox.

Cannabis shares some of the same concerns that gambling and alcohol have. For example, there’s certainly the promotion of wine consumption (and we represent some fantastic clients in that arena), but there’s also a different kind of spirits marketing that seems to be more based on promoting a different type of lifestyle. An agency needs to decide what clients it chooses to represent in this regard.  

It’s happening in food now as well. There are different kinds of protein and discussion about where you get your food from. It’s particularly frustrating to us, as a firm that’s got such great experience in food, to see an either-or kind of mentality. We very rarely support the kind of thinking that says you should only get protein from this source or you should only eat vegetables from that source. Those kinds of things are certainly a challenge.

Then I think you have to look at channel challenges. Some of this is not so much our industry itself creating it, but it’s our industry having to deal with it.

One of our industry mantras used to be the separation of public relations and advertising. When you pitched a story, you never even thought about whether or not your client was an advertiser, but now it’s all merging together. We’ve now got “sponsored content” and “branded journalism.”  But it goes further than that – now we have reporters and their organizations developing that content. That would’ve been absolutely verboten 20 years ago. We as an industry need to ask ourselves how an impartial, fair and balanced media can also develop sponsored content? There have to be guidelines in place for that, and we have to make sure we’re following those guidelines.

So how do you develop those guidelines and share them with your employees?

Like PRSA and the Arthur Page Society, there are industry standards in social media, journalism and advertising. We have teams who are responsible for making sure we’re following them, propagating best practices and sharing ethical practices across our firm. The same holds true, by the way, for our practice groups because there are definitely rules of the road for food, consumer, health care and marketing to children. It’s more important than ever for both functional experts and industry experts to not just understand industry trends, but also understand the ethical issues in those industries.

How do you work to encourage that diversity of thought and discussion at your firm?

Well, I would never say that we’ve got it all figured out. We have some challenges with diversity, not just at our firm, but in the industry as well.

Understanding the importance of diversity is easier when you think about what that diversity brings to the table. Not only is it the right thing to do but we produce better work as a result.  Two of Padilla’s values are “Walk in Their World” and “Think as Many.” Thinking about other perspectives and how our behavior impacts other perspectives is important. That’s the strategic part of strategic communication. You don’t necessarily have to change what you’re doing, but you’d better be cognizant of what the impact will be. I will not say that we have it figured out. We are very interested in trying to move it forward, and we all know it’s an extremely challenging environment in which to do that, because the availability of those diverse employees is thin – but we have to keep trying. We need to open our eyes and open our minds.

Did you miss last week’s post? Catch up with “How To Deal With Unethical Client Behavior” here.