#PRethics Month: What is Your Whistleblower Threshold?

Since affiliating with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) through its student organization, PRSSA, when I was 19 years old, I’ve taken the organization’s ethical standards to heart . . . not only about how public relations professionals should communicate, but also in relation to how management teams should operate, make decisions and treat its stakeholders.

Among some core ethical realities that PRSA has emphasized over the years:

  1. Nothing bolsters trust-building like openness, transparency and meaningful responsiveness, particularly to an organization’s most involved stakeholders.
  2. Conversely, nothing destroys trust like the opposite behaviors.
  3. Stakeholder engagement is the brass ring – because it means people feel vested in your brand and their personal relationship with it. They care.
  4. If an organization turns against its own engaged stakeholders who seek accurate information from organizational leadership, it nearly always means there’s reason for everyone to worry.
  5. The more difficult that doing the right thing becomes, the more important are both the work at hand and the ultimate outcome, no matter the obstacles.

I’ve had an interesting experience this year.

For the first time in my career, I’ve been a whistleblower.  And not in an on-the-periphery kind of way or in the context of advising a client, where I was getting paid while seeking to right a wrong or to correct the record on their behalf.

No, this experience has resembled more of a hybrid between investigative journalist / volunteer activist, including:

  • encountering an alarming issue with an organization I’ve been affiliated with for many years, posing significant, precedent-setting implications;
  • voicing my concerns in detail to leadership;
  • receiving a dismissive response in reply;
  • then later, stumbling upon more (and more) troubling facts as well as major discrepancies between leadership statements and clear evidence to the contrary;
  • voicing these additional concerns in detail to leadership;
  • followed by another brush-off and, ultimately, the withdrawal of communication from leadership altogether;
  • followed by leadership’s deletion from public view critical documents that disclose leadership decision-making;
  • and in the process of my seeking further resolution and clarity, ultimately becoming the target of an “ignore and isolate the ‘complainer’” strategy;
  • which finally devolved into unfounded criticisms by leadership about me at a personal level, which, to Point #5 above, only motivated me further to fight the fire causing all the smoke.

My goodness. What drama.

And why? Because, I’m one of those “engaged stakeholders.” That “brass ring” person . . . but now, because of just how engaged I’ve chosen (and have the capacity) to be, I’m strangely demonized by leadership who otherwise constantly urges stakeholders to be more engaged – irony of ironies. Engagement appears to be welcomed only as long as it doesn’t question authority.

I’m also a business owner in the public relations profession, and as in all business dealings, reputation is everything. Smear campaigns pose genuine risks.

So it begs the questions:

  • At what point does one cut her losses?
  • What is my whistleblower threshold that I’m not willing to hyperextend?
  • Do core principles allow us to draw such a line in the sand?

 

Survival mentality dictates that you cut your losses when you finally decide you’ve stopped caring – or the thing you cared so much about which prompted your whistleblowing is no longer worth caring about to the extent of the pain being inflicted by those who feel threatened by your challenges to their actions, over an organization that they – after all – largely control.

You know . . . “lost cause” territory, á la, “You can’t fight City Hall.”

September is #PRethics month, sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America’s (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.

As PRSA celebrates its 70th year – and as Assembly delegates prepare to convene on October 7, 2017, in Boston, to help set the course for PRSA’s future – I am inspired by our community of colleagues who not only voice verbal support of ethical, transparent and accountable conduct, but also stick their necks out during the course of their careers (and risk personal criticisms) to ensure the same.

They are the reason I love PRSA so much and feel inspired by the principles of the Society, in service to the highest ideals of our larger profession. Since I was a 19-year-old student, these colleagues are the ones who taught me that lost causes most often result when enough of us permit them to be.

What is your whistleblower threshold?

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Mary Beth West
Principal
Mary Beth West, APR, has more than 20 years’ experience in strategic communications. Mary Beth’s award-winning work has included creation and implementation of national media relations campaigns, employee communications programs, consumer and business-to-business marketing initiatives and crisis preparedness systems.

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