Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior

Bill Nielsen Biography

Consultant to management of for-profit and non-profit organizations; retired corporate vice president of Johnson & Johnson.


INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about learning the counselor role, and I’m curious to find out, how do you learn the ethics that you need to practice?

NIELSEN: Well, it’s a favorite topic of mine but it doesn’t start with ethics, it starts with values. I think the problem with ethics is that they don’t make dishonest people honest. They don’t make uninformed people suddenly very wise to the world. Ethics codes are very important. Where they’re most important would be in helping people decide on how to approach or handle an issue in our field where there might be more than one right answer. I think that’s admittedly a very short summary of ethics but that’s kind of where I view that. I think what’s more important in our field is a statement of values, of what we believe is important based on our understanding of who we are and what we do. And I have, through the Arthur Page Society and other organizations, been working to try to develop some kind of a basic values statement for practitioners—public relations, public affairs—we haven’t decided on what we’re going call ourselves yet. Maybe we can talk about that a little bit later. But I think that our value proposition is essentially rooted in the acknowledgment of the importance of four main constituents.   The first would be the publics with whom we communicate. I think that the truth, and the commitment to the truth and communicating it well—not just part of the truth but the whole truth or at least enough truth to help an audience fully understand a situation, ought to be a very important value to us. Transparency might be included in that one tenet—and many others. I almost think we need to consider a vow related to the truth. Not just the truth that someone else tells us but truth that we have validated based on our own research. I think that’s an important part of who we are and what we value. A second tenet would be to the clients or the organizations or individuals we serve. We value honest advocacy for their points of view--their decisions about who they are, what’s important to them. And we need to be honest advocates. But we need to do that in a way that we maintain our own independence so that we can validate claims being made by our clients and speak to those truths. There’s a lot more to be said about that but I view that as a very important constituent and value tenet of public relations. The third tenet would be the media—I’m talking about new media, old media. But it essentially arises from the constitutional right that we have to inquire about matters that are in the public interest. That’s traditionally the role of the journalist. Today it’s a much broader definition when you bring in bloggers and I think that the challenge for communications people is to discern—and here’s where you get to the ethics question—what are legitimate ethics inquiries. That doesn’t mean just The New York Times or just The Wall Street Journal but discovering that a particular blogger had an important audience and had a sense of his or her own values. That to me represents a legitimate inquiry into what we might be doing. So I would include that in the media. And I think we have an obligation to be responsive to inquiries from the media and to do so promptly and certainly truthfully and accurately. I think that we place a value on upholding the highest journalistic standards. That, after all, is the third leg of the old definition of public relations—the third party that is working with information that we are dispensing. And then I think the fourth value tenet is to our own profession. The standards that we adopt, the principles that we uphold that make up the character of who we are. There needs to be some kind of uniformity in that commitment so that we can expect of each other, the same kind of treatment of information—delivered information—and all of that being essentially rooted in the truth. Not essentially, absolutely. Absolutely rooted in the truth. I think that this is a longer answer than you were probably prepared for but, unless we come together on some agreement of what we value on a personal level in our profession—if we just focus on the ethics of it, anyone could sign on to an ethics code but it seems to me it has a whole lot more meaning if that commitment is based on what we agree to be the fundamental values of who we are and what we do.

INTERVIEWER: How far away are we as an industry, public relations practice, from coming together on a common set of shared values? This uniformity in commitment?

NIELSEN: How far away are we from adopting a common set of values? I think we’re at the beginning stages, truthfully. I really do. We need to get this into the academic environment, this whole idea. It may be that we haven’t identified the right values—I think we’ve identified the right values, maybe not articulated them as well as they should be. But I also think that values that we ultimately come together to agree on are ideas that we have to develop together. We need consensus. And a value statement is not something that you just force on (someone) unless we’re all inmates in a prison. We are a free society and I think that the strength of one’s commitment to these values is certainly going to be based on the extent of your belief that they’re true, that these things are important to us. I think that the articulation of values in our practice or our profession is terribly important in part because there is no licensure; there is no set academic course of study that we have to go through. There’s no particular degree, there’s no certification. The FTC hasn’t approved what we’re doing, nor has anyone else. The legitimacy of what we do has been based largely on cases and the standards set by people who went before us, such as Arthur Page. Even Arthur Page, though, he didn’t write the book about public relations. The book was written about Arthur Page. That became the book about the principles that applied to what we do. And that happened not because Arthur Page forced his view out to the profession, it happened because the number of his colleagues and others who studied what he did, concluded that he was essentially basing his worth on a number of very important principles that needed to be codified and shared. Those principles emerged today as very strong pillars in the practice of the corporate communications function.

The other thing I want out of this, I want a new Page principle that speaks to values. And I want you to help me make that happen, through the Page Center. I’ve talked to Jack Koten (a founder of the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State) and first president of the Arthur W. Page Society) and he said he believes there’s enough written in the Page documents and speeches, that we could get together a principle, just like Jack and the rest of them created the current Page Principles. You know they wrote them, right?


NIELSEN: Jack Koten wrote most of them (and) the other people who work closely with him. They added one not too long ago.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about values and of course Arthur Page comes to mind when we think about the Page principles and the way those can be really read and understood as values. And I’m wondering if you’ll talk about the Page principles and their value to the profession.

NIELSEN: Well, I think the Page principles have come to represent a real definition of how we intend to practice. They’re not really a definition of the technical aspects of communications, there’s nothing in there about how to write a press release or the quality of the annual report. But what they reflect is Arthur Page’s true understanding of his role in the Bell System and the influence that he wanted to have over decision making. Jack Koten and others reviewed the work of Arthur Page. They knew that these principles were important and that it would be very important for future generations to try to codify this, and that’s what they’ve done. Telling the truth. Too often, in my book, we get down to these one liners; tell the truth, prove it with action, recognize blah blah blah. Once in a while you need to go back and read the whole statement about what do we mean about telling the truth and what do we mean about proving it with action. Proving it with action is probably one of the most important principles for me and it was an issue that I focused on in my career. And that had to do with the behavior of an organization and making sure that that behavior was consistent, always, with the values that it publically said were important to it. The worst thing you can do and lose your integrity totally, is to say that you believe in one thing and create a perception that you’re acting in some other way or in self-interest and away from that. Telling the truth, proving it with action—that is, behaviors, decision-making on tough issues in any business that is consistent with what you’ve said is important to your organization. That’s the crux of it. From there it’s about how do you articulate that, how do you write that, how do you place it, how do you get it? Those are all things that good education programs will teach people to do in our field. But understanding the importance of that function as a part of what we do is very important in the first place. And then secondly, how you execute that within your organization is another dimension of that. The whole issue, I believe, comes down to our experience and our good judgment born on years of experience. But it’s also self-confidence in what we know to be true and what we know to be right about a situation. And to be able to stand our ground, not to back down when you get into an argument with somebody who may see a little differently; but to have the self-confidence to be there and, if necessary, to put your career on the line to prevail on your point of view. So that second principle holds a ton of stuff for me in terms of defining who we are, the importance of what we do; the philosophical underpinnings of what we do. We don’t show up in a management meeting with the decisions of old judges or court cases which general counsel can support. We don’t have the accounting practices and standards board which the chief financial officer is going to bring. We don’t have all the employment laws and practices that the HR person is going to show up with. We don’t have the FDA’s requirement. Sometimes we do but there are people in management who represent those points of view. We don’t have any studied hierarchical academic positioning. So how do you make that dog hunt? Some would say, well, it’s the strength of your convictions about who you are and the relationships you’ve already established with those people who are going to say, ‘you know, I don’t entirely agree with him but there’s a ring of truth in what he’s saying.’ It takes intestinal fortitude and a lot of self-confidence to stand in those positions and to prevail in those arguments. It helps a lot to be able to turn to contemporaries through the Page Society and to know that they’re operating by a statement of principles that are consistent with what you’re advocating. So, there’s huge value in that.

I’m going to speak to one other principle that I think is terribly important. That’s the last one, which is to remain calm, patient and good humored. It sounds silly to mention in the face of telling the truth and prove it with action and all those other dimensions. But it’s really important. What it says is that it’s important for us not to take ourselves too seriously all the time. To recognize that in our free society and the organizations that we represent, there has to be a balance of views. We need to keep the team together, we need to keep everybody advancing on the same track and inspired and committed to supporting one another. We can’t get there if you’re just hammering everyone else saying, ‘we’re not going to do that because it’s not true or it’s not the whole truth. You can take this kind of policing stance in your organization and some people do and policing is a good thing. But I think where you really win acceptance and endorsement is not taking yourself so seriously and that the world is not going to end tomorrow. You’re willing to compromise when it’s appropriate to compromise. I think that that last principle also speaks to maintaining a commitment to a principle for a long term. It’s hard to do in the short term. (Former British Prime Minister) Tony Blair has suggested that you almost need a short-term public policy and then a long-term commitment to your values. You need to be able to live in both dimensions and be okay with that. I know a lot of people who have found the peace of that idea, the commitment to prevail in the long-term and to survive in the short-term. That’s where the art of our practice comes into play, it truly does. And I think it’s a very important understanding that we need to get into for young people who are coming along in this profession.

INTERVIEWER: Can ethics be taught? How should ethics be integrated into a public relations curriculum in your mind? Should it be a stand-alone course? Should it be woven throughout many courses? What’s the best way to teach students about ethics?

NIELSEN: I think ethics absolutely can be taught from the standpoint of, how does ethical decision-making come into play in an organization? Can you teach basic values? That I’m not so sure about. But there’s a whole lot on the board of Josephson Institute of Ethics. We have programs for businesses where Michael Josephson and his people will go into a troubled company and do an assessment to determine where the disconnects are between the values the company espouses and the behavior that has occurred in that company; design programs to teach teachers to carry this into the workplace. All aimed at making good decisions and the right decisions for these business organizations. And everyone wants that today because everyone is under that microscope in a very precise and detailed way. So nothing can be overlooked today because all is going to come under scrutiny at some point. And a lot of that has to do with ethical behavior, ethical decisions. Yes, it can be done. Right along with that though, needs to be the reinstruction or indoctrination into the values that an organization holds. That’s really where it starts. If you think about an organization making a declaration; whether it’s developed by employees or management, you’re going to come out at the same place. Through the values statement you’re saying, ‘this is important about who we are and what we do. These are the dimensions.’ It could be putting the customer first; it could be any number of things—quality of products, depending on industry. But management and employees or associates need to agree on what is really important about who we are and what we do. What are we going to protect for the long term? And, now that we’ve done that, how are we going to behave against these beliefs? Once that declaration is made, this is what we know about who we are. This is what’s important. This is how it’s going to influence how we conduct our business and this is the way we’re going to behave. That’s your ethical imperative; because now you’ve said it publically. You’ve invited, in effect, people to observe you, to challenge you, to question you based on those beliefs. That’s your ethical imperative. So that says, ‘now we’ve got to make sure our decision making is consistent with that.’ Because the only way ultimately to build trust—which is what everybody is after in the marketplace—is observe behavior that is consistent with what you’ve said and you believe is important about who you are and what you’re going to protect and how it’s going to affect your decision making. That’s trust. When you’ve done that and then something happens and your public sees or they’ve gotten to know about your organization then they make a judgment that, ‘Wow, that isn’t what they said they were going to do. That’s not consistent with what I believe that company stands for.’ That’s where this whole issue of long-term trust, long-term sustainable trust, finds its genesis and its sustainability over a long term.