Oral Histories

Bill Nielsen

Interview Segments on Topic: Code of Ethics/Mission Statement/Credo

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: 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.