Interview Segments on Topic: Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior
Gary Weitman, Senior Vice President, Corporate Relations, The Tribune Company
INTERVIEWER: You now work for the Tribune Company, a journalistic enterprise and I guess my question for you is, are there special challenges in working in public relations for a journalistic enterprise as employees can be suspicious of public relations?
WEITMAN: Yes. There are special challenges and I remember one of the first phone calls I got when I came to work at Tribune Company was from a reporter at the New York Times. She wanted to know about things that she had heard about that the company was doing and (said) that she intended to report on it. I thought, ‘well now this is a little odd.’ I’m here talking to a competitor of my company, who’s asking me to divulge what otherwise might be looked at as company secrets, initiatives that we might not necessarily want to share. At the same time, you have the challenge of—you’re representing a company that is doing the same thing every day to other companies. You represent a company where others are asking everyday—hard questions, expecting to get answers. So there’s certainly a bit of a conflict and conundrum here. You have to remember that our business is journalism here so even as we’re saying to a reporter from the outside who’s trying to do their job—no, we can’t talk about that or we’ll decline comment or we simply won’t answer the question. You’ve got thousands of other reporters working for your company, trying to get similar information from other companies on a daily basis. I recognize that. The flip thing to do would be to say, well that’s somebody else’s problem, I’m in corporate, so I don’t have to worry about that. But it is a bit of a challenge. It’s also a challenge in dealing with our own reporters who will call me, as a spokesman for the company, and want information that I am from time to time not going to be able to give them. Or there may just be times when the company feels that it’s not in their interest to comment about a particular issue, topic, whatever it may be. So there are some interesting challenges. When we were a public company for instance, one of the challenges was always to deal with the reporter—the poor soul who got picked to write the story about executive compensation when Tribune filed its proxy report with the SEC. Because you wanted to make sure that that reporter got—however they were going to interpret the information as I would say to them, I don’t care—I care that you get the facts right. If you get the facts right, you can interpret it however you want. And I think it’s also hard for a reporter to report on their own company. The easy example is sports reporters who at the time when we owned the Cubs, would report about the Cubs. They felt obligated I’m sure, to bend over backwards to not appear as though they were a homer reporter. And I think at times that made them even more critical of the management, of the team than they might otherwise have been. But it’s a tightrope that you have to walk on, I think, both sides of the equation.
INTERVIEWER: How is as a public relations professional do you deal with that?
WEITMAN: I try to focus people on the facts. I try to focus people on what they know and what they can determine through good reporting. Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful news outlets and reporters. There are people doing great work in journalism. But I’ve also found over the course of now the last 12 years that people are far more willing to report rumor, to report through the use of anonymous sources, to accept something as fact that they’ve only learned by reading some other publication which is in turn sourced back to some other publication which by the time it gets around to me is fourth or fifth hand. And I think it’s made reporters far more competitive and in some respects, far lazier than I would have ever expected them to become. Because the news cycle is so telescoped and the pressure is so great to be first. Not necessarily to be right. But if there’s a rumor out there that you didn’t get that somebody else did get, how am I going to advance the rumor, even though it’s still just a rumor? And I’ll give you a couple—if you’ve got the time and inclination—a couple of examples. We have been in Chapter 11 for roughly the last three-and-a-half years. During the course of that time, various rumors have popped up about new management at our company. At various points during my career, I should have been working either for Michael Eisner or for Jeff Zucker or for a host of hedge funds. And I will get calls from reporters who say, I want to talk to you about Michael Eisner. The biggest one was about 15-16 months ago where (a reporter said) I want to talk to you about Michael Eisner because my understanding is he’s going to be the new CEO of your company within the next four weeks. So in a situation like that, I don’t expect the reporter to tell me where on earth he’s heard this but I would like some basis for why he believes that to even be true and why it’s worth a phone call to me to follow up. And inevitably I would find out that that was a rumor they heard from somebody who heard it from somebody. And I would try to remind people that number one, we have a CEO. Number two, we’re still in Chapter 11. And we have a board of directors that will remain in place until we come out of Chapter 11. Only a new board of directors will be able to choose a new CEO. And if you look at some of this stuff logically, it doesn’t hold up. So those types of things—the willingness of what I would say, oftentimes, good journalists to report these things or to repeat these things, never ceases to amaze me. I from time to time deal with the New York Post. It’s like dealing with the wizard of Oz. It’s always a flight of fancy and seldom sourced to anything that’s credible. They’ve run stories where it’s just, ‘and the word on the street is…’ And you want to say, how is that credible reporting? I can go run down to the street and scream out, ‘this is going to happen’ and that’s apparently in some cases ok to report. I think all of those factors have created a situation where the bar for the willingness of people to report unsubstantiated rumor, conjecture, has just gotten much lower than it ever was.
INTERVIEWER: You’ve talked about ethics, you’ve talked about social media and journalism—I guess my question to you is how is social media perhaps, and maybe not, made the public relations industry more or less ethical?
WEITMAN: I don’t know. I’m not familiar with too many examples. I’d be hard pressed to cite too many examples of the public relations industry using social media in an unethical way. I don’t think it’s ethical, for instance, for a communications person to be writing a blog for the CEO. First of all I just think it’s bad practice. But I also think there’s a certain unethical aspect to it. Although I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with a communications person sitting down with the CEO, going over what they want to say or would want to put into a blog and coming up with something the CEO signs off on. But engaging in tweets back and forth where you’re potentially posing as the CEO or you’re maintaining the CEO’s Facebook page or you’re engaged in social media on behalf of someone else without really acknowledging that, I think is just fraught with peril. And I think it’s bad practice and I think it’s potentially unethical in terms of—depending on how you approach it or what you’re saying in it. And I think it’s much easier to do those kinds of things now. It’s much easier to insert yourself into a dialogue and to steer people—or to try and steer people one way or the other where you’re potentially posing as a housewife, an iron worker or whatever when you’re a communications professional trying to steer a debate. I think it’s too easy these days to hide behind a false identity and the internet has made that possible and I think that’s always like I said, bad practice and unethical.
INTERVIEWER: You mentioned that you operate by a corporate ethics code right? Talk to me a little bit about that ethics code.
WEITMAN: Tribune has had an ethics code going back decades. It is a code of conduct that all of our employees are required to read, know and understand. The company itself has a set of values that guide our decision-making and those values get periodically reviewed to see if they need to be updated, to see if they need to be changed. The code of conduct, at a certain level, is something that the officers of the company and everybody I believe from a manager on up has to be trained in; has to do some online training and has to physically acknowledge that they’ve done the training and have signed off on becoming familiar with the code. So we take it very seriously. And then on top of that, each of our individual business units—especially in our newsrooms—they have a separate code of ethics that governs the specifics of how they go about reporting, how they go about putting things in the newspaper, putting things online, etc. And all of those employees have to be familiar with the code, have to abide by the code, have to sign the code. So we approach it from several different standpoints. Like I said, there’s a code of conduct for your behavior and there’s a code of conduct that guides the actions of our reporters and editors and producers.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think codes are effective?
WEITMAN: The short answer is yes, I do. I think, though, that anybody who wants to act in an unethical fashion is not going to be deterred by the fact that there’s a code that exists. But I do think that they have—above and beyond their effectiveness with an individual employee—I think they have a way of binding together the group itself, in pursuit of a common goal or cause. And that’s important and I think that’s what brings a sense of purpose, however loose it may be, to the group as a whole and helps guide them. For instance in our code, you are as responsible for seeing someone else doing something unethical and reporting it as you are for monitoring your own conduct. So this is not just a matter of, ‘I have to act in an ethical fashion, I (also) have to report violations of a code that I observe.’ So I think it’s effective in those ways.
INTERVIEWER: Is there much difference in your mind or should there be much difference between the code of ethics that a public relations practitioner might sign and that of a journalist?
WEITMAN: Well, we have two different codes. The journalist is going to sign a code of ethics that is promulgated by the newsroom and he’ll sign the company’s code of ethics. I’m going to sign the company’s code of ethics and I’m going to be familiar with the company’s code of ethics. I think the journalist has to be concerned about and thinking about when he’s going to grant somebody anonymity, how you’re going to source a story, how many sources there need to be in a story for it to be credible to be put online or in the newspaper. I think there are different things that govern each profession. There are certain commonalities. Again, I would not want to be writing the CEO’s blog and posing as the CEO or responding to questions that we might get from employees as the CEO. So I think there are certain commonalities and the same type of thing that would go on with a reporter.
INTERVIEWER: What education and/or professional experience do you think best prepares a practitioner for the rigors of ethical decision making?
WEITMAN: I think that the best training that people can get is to get a good education and to know how to write and to be what I would call, a citizen of the world; and to be an active citizen of the world so that you know about current events. You know about what’s going on around you, what’s going on in your community. You know what’s going on in your state, in the larger community in which you’re a player and that you’re able to speak conversationally about the important issues of the day. I think getting a good liberal arts education is important to help people frame their decision-making. And then in terms of the decision making itself, I think it helps to be surrounded by people who are living ethical, professional lives and to see the code of conduct that they are living by; that they are conducting their professional lives by and to be associated with a firm or a company that has a code of conduct. I think it says something to walk into a firm and say okay, what are the firm’s values? What is this company’s (set of) values? What’s the mission statement? How do people relate to each other? I think all of those things help make the process of making ethical decisions easier and better for an individual, if you can see around you others making similar decisions and how they go about doing it.
INTERVIEWER: I just want to ask you to talk a little bit about the ethical challenges that you might have faced in your career that are part of your work.
WEITMAN: I’ve never been asked to lie. I’ve never represented a client that I didn’t want to represent. I’ve never represented a client that I felt was doing bad things. I have from time to time, on the private side, on the corporate side…you have to be a strong advocate for a communications strategy but you also have to be willing to, I think, put yourself in the mindset of those running the business of which you’re a part; and that you’re willing to say, I’ve made the strongest argument I can make for why we ought to, for instance, tell our employees about something. Why we ought to publicly say something about this as a company. And if others running the company at that stage are saying to you—I hear you, but we’re not going to go down that path right now, for business reasons—you have to be willing to understand that and understand why. I’ll give you an example. Back when Tribune Company was going through its strategic review of alternatives for a new business model, there was a lot of in fighting on the company’s board of directors. We knew that there were board members who were talking with the press in an effort to undermine the CEO and the chairman of the board at that time. We discussed whether we should publically respond to those things that we knew had been leaked; whether we should publically respond to those things that had been said. And I’m very fortunate to work at a company where one person’s unethical behavior doesn’t mean you answer it with similar unethical behavior. It wasn’t so much a dilemma for us because we had a code of doing things and board dealings, board negotiations, board discussions stayed within the boardroom. So we didn’t comment on and we didn’t respond to those things that were being said. And we probably, as a result, from an image standpoint took a few hits. But I think everybody also felt better for at least having followed the company’s code and made the ethically right decision on how to act during the situation. Because I think also when you start, it’s very easy to peel back ethical behavior bit by bit, by bit, by bit and a little bit here and a little bit there leads you to making easier decisions when you’re faced with something that’s clearly unethical. And you’ve said to yourself—we didn’t do that and we didn’t do that, well now I’ve compromised here and I’ve compromised a little bit there so the next step is a fairly easy one to make and, I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve felt like that’s been an issue for me at Tribune Company.
INTERVIEWER: You talked about working with folks in terms of improving their writing and you’ve talked a little bit about mentoring and I guess my question is, can you mentor ethical decision-making?
WEITMAN: Oh I think you can. That’s what I meant earlier when I said I think you have to be around people who are modeling ethical behavior. I think it begins with the youngest person on your staff. They have to see how decisions get made. It has to be somewhat transparent and they have to believe in the ethics behind the decision that you’re making. It has to be within a consistent framework of ethical behavior. If you’re constantly making decisions on a case by case by case basis—some of which kind of tread into the gray area, some of which aren’t so gray and some of which are just wrong—there’s no consistency to it and there’s no consistency both of the decision making or of the ethical nature or the ethical underpinnings of that decision. And so I think you can help mentor younger people into making ethical decisions. You do it with an ethics code, a code of conduct, with values. It’s not any one thing, it’s a combination of things. Its values, codes, behavior, reinforcing those things. It’s seeing how people who break the code are disciplined—all those things I think go into helping people make ethical decisions.
INTERVIEWER: We’ve covered a lot of ground, is there anything that I perhaps, didn’t ask you about that you were expecting to talk about? Or anything that you want to add when we think about public relations and values and ethics.
WEITMAN: I think the vast majority of public relations professionals act in an ethical fashion. Have the best interest of their clients or their company foremost in their minds and I think that as a field, I’m proud to be a public relations professional. And I’m confident that the people that I’m working with are good, ethical people making good, ethical decisions. And that’s true for the most part across the industry.
INTERVIEWER: All right, thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Very helpful, very informative.