October 10, 2023 will mark World Mental Health Day, and if there is any industry more ripe for taking notice and – more importantly – taking action toward better outcomes, it’s the public relations (PR) sector.
Two years ago, executive leaderships of the two largest PR member associations in the U.K. – which historically have viewed one another as competitors – joined forces in something of a tour de force effort, called the “Heard Mentality” Campaign.
The focus: to generate long-overdue attention to mental health awareness in the PR industry, post-pandemic.
Perhaps most memorable, the campaign kick-off included a bold degree of candor offered by one of the organizations’ then-Directors General (DG).
He took a very personal and unprecedented (in the history of his 50-year organization) approach, by writing his own testimonial for the public record in his foreword for the campaign’s “Workplace Mental Health Audit 2021,” which included, in part:
“I have suffered from appalling mental health my whole life. Frequent bouts of depression; destructive and pointless anxiety; an underlying lack of confidence. All of which I’ve hidden from almost everybody. Why do I say this now having kept quiet about it for decades? Because it would be disingenuous to do otherwise given the content of this report, and given the recommendations it makes, particularly about the need for candour.”
Industry praise for this leader’s personal disclosures proved effusive – and rightly so.
Among the public response from notable industry figures were these words:
- “Powerful leadership…”
- “Well done”
- “…remarkable candor.”
- “Honest and brave…”
- “Very impressed and moved…”
- “Personal leadership at its best.”
- “Huge bravery in sharing personal #MentalHealth stories…”
Across multiple other posts in social media, the kudos went on and on.
Some eighteen months later, however, this man was dead.
He had suffered to a point of mental / emotional crisis from a publicly leaked “investigation” launched against him one year after his words were lauded, compounding pre-existing medical issues also directly tied to his long-time challenges coping with early-life trauma.
The PR trade media was alerted to an “investigation” of this DG before even he was alerted to it in any official or written capacity by those to whom he reported.
In fact, the leader of that group opted not to place him “on notice” in writing until some three weeks after the story of the investigation broke for the entire world to see.
By then, a great deal of the damage – but certainly not all of it – already had been done.
Rampant “breaking news” reports and social media chatter had immediately inflicted reputationally fatal damage, against which he was forbidden from commenting to defend himself by the same individuals who waited three weeks after the story broke to alert their DG that he was under “investigation.”
Two days after his London funeral in mid-July, I learned from one of the investigative team members – with two other people sat in a room listening to the same words I heard – that a PR industry journalist stepped forward as a “witness” in this investigation while still actively reporting on this very matter in their publication, in real-time, across multiple headlines, to thousands of readers.
No public disclosure whatsoever took place as to this outrageous journalistic conflict-of-interest – of a reporter interjecting themselves into the very story about which they were reporting, in order to influence a certain outcome, which they clearly also had plans to report to thousands of readers, without disclosure, as they had been doing so already, for months.
What’s more, highly vocal social media detractors of the DG who directly stoked the “investigation” routinely amplified this reporter’s negative news stories, with one even making a comment on social media about how this particular reporter was a “beacon” of “professional” and “balanced journalism” on stories about this very investigation.
I’m not sure what media ethics code such an action by a U.K. news reporter complies with, but I’ve yet to locate it.
Even if this DG had sought to leave the organization to pursue employment elsewhere (as I and other friends ultimately urged he do so, for the sake of his own health), the question remains:
What other company on earth ever would have hired him, in the wake of such a high degree of rumor and innuendo awash in the online-searchable public domain, not to mention word-of-mouth, by such cloak-and-dagger publicity tactics?
While there are (at least) two sides to every story and certainly no one is perfect (including yours truly), there are times in the “mental wellness” conversation and analyses of workplace damage inflicted upon our colleagues, when we must engage in a full-stop.
That time is now.
We must consider facts, ask for more information, acknowledge basic matters of fairness (or excessive lack thereof), and discuss how we all can do better… if, for no other reason (such as addressing any verifiable injustices of process) than at least to prevent a future tragedy.
Stifling or censoring the conversation because it’s inconvenient isn’t the answer.
Destroying written evidence of clear procedural mistakes or wrongdoing isn’t the answer.
Metaphorically “killing the messenger” (or that person’s own mental health) also isn’t the answer.
In short, advocating for mental wellness in the PR industry is one thing. But actually caring about people as human beings is quite another.
Yet again, the PR industry finds itself in a place where we’re heavy on lip service but arguably light on credible follow-through.
Subcontracting out cookie-cutter campaigns for purposes of well-timed news releases – when there obviously are much larger elephants lurking around the room… knocking over the furniture and giving folks no place to sit for more thoughtful, candid discussion – also feels somewhat diversionary and not quite up to the genuine task at hand.
“Authenticity” has been a big buzzword in our industry for years now, so I hope that in this particular case, we consider ways that we can help our fellow practitioners in the realm of mental health.
For starters: I challenge the industry to confront hideous tactics which seem fairly rife in the association and agency worlds, like gaslighting.
I’ve experienced it myself more times than I can shake a stick at, in my odysseys of confronting serious industry-association issues on the U.S. side of the pond.
Whenever it occurs, such workplace bullying – particularly when sustained over time – holds the potential to inflict personal crises that lead literally to catastrophic harm (including self-harm). Ultimate outcomes very much can include emergency medical trips to hospital and, later, a funeral service. It did for my friend.
It’s my hope that – at a minimum – the PR industry will consider naming a mental-wellness action program (enough with mere “awareness”), of robust and genuine merit for the PR industry workforce, in memory of this leader who died.
For whatever else he was that certain people either did or didn’t like, he loved the PR industry and championing everyone in it, for purposes of doing good in our societies and world.
His genuine hope to help others in the aftermath of a pandemic that so deeply impacted his own wellbeing led him to reveal a very private struggle and deep set of vulnerabilities.
Sadly, his forthright disclosure of his vulnerabilities was, in my personal view and in light of significant and indisputable written evidence, ultimately leveraged purposely against him.
As his closing words written in that earlier 2021 campaign testimonial stated (now rather hauntingly, in retrospect):
“For many of us, this has been the most stressful, challenging period of our lives. Many people have been broken by it. Even more have come close to breaking point. But every crisis is a catalyst for change, whether for the better or for the worse. If we embrace the recommendations made here, then that change can definitely be for the better.”
Only time will tell.
For more information about World Mental Health Day coming up on 10 October, please visit the U.K.’s Mental Health Foundation.