Ethics: Where’s Your Line in the Sand?

Professionally… where’s the line you cannot cross?

I was either really lucky or really unfortunate — depending on how you look at it — to discover that line early in my PR career.

At the time I didn’t even think I was doing PR as a career. I was helping out a friend while she was off backpacking in Tibet.

I had been starting to do freelance writing, and I had also worked in marketing and PR. I figured I could help my friend and also make some money to supplement my freelance work.

So I skipped into her agency and dug in. I was 27. She had some great accounts. I was enjoying myself.

But then, there was a crisis. I can’t tell you what it was without revealing all the companies involved, and honestly, I have no idea of the ramifications of calling them out on a blog. So for the moment, let me just say that it would be filed under the insurance clause, “Acts of God:” many people had lost their lives, and crisis communications were called for. For the most part, it felt as though everyone came together — well, and thoughtfully — in a time of great need.

The worst of it passed. I felt good about my work and that of my colleagues. While that one account was serious, intense, and sometimes draining, the others were fun and usually pretty interesting. I was making friends with the beat reporters — men and women who worked at the same papers like the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News, where my father had written for 40 years. I took some pride in assessing what a journalist would want to know, and trying to deliver that creatively.

Until the day my boss asked me to spy.

Now, at first, it sounded just like research — pose as a college student, ask some questions. I didn’t mind that.

But later, he asked me to do it again — this time, for a union connected with the crisis I mentioned.  As in, pretend to be a member of the union.

And I realized, he wanted me to spy. SPY-spy. Not research. As in: get admitted to a place under false pretenses and get people to trust you — and get information from them that they otherwise would never give you.

Mind you, my boss gave me this assignment with a warm, confident smile; sure that I’d accept this latest exciting little bone they’d tossed me. They weren’t trying to do anything bad, he assured me. He just wanted to keep his finger on that union’s pulse.

I thought about it. I’m a pretty good actress. Really good, or I was once. And suddenly, I felt like Peter frickin’ Parker — “use your powers for good? or evil?”

And y’know? I couldn’t do it.

I literally found myself staring in the mirror, in my then-studio apartment, with only my cat to keep me company. And for me — trained at Northwestern, daughter of a newspaper editor, pretty much a center-left person, and just a person-person amidst this whole mess… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lie — not to those people in the union, not to my parents; and certainly not to reporters whom, whatever they thought, I still considered my brethren. If it ever came out that I had impersonated someone in this union… I just couldn’t do it.

So I went in the next day and resigned.

I walked away.

This meant walking away from what was, for me, a fortune at the time. I hadn’t been doing my freelance work for a couple of months, so there was nothing else coming in.

I upset the Agency that had been taking very nice care of me. My boss was incredulous. Then angry.

I surprised the (big) company to whom my boss had apparently promised my spying abilities.

And it wasn’t like I had a bunch of savings in the bank.

But it was still with a huge shrug of relief that I walked away from that office.

I had found my line that I could not cross; and it was like opening a door in myself: this is who I am; it was what they tell you about boundaries: that, paradoxically, they can be very freeing.

And I figured that somehow karma would take care of me.

(It did. One of the accounts followed me: the local business for Anheuser-Busch — which I had for several years, and had a total blast. And other work. And marriage, and kids, and a couple of series on TLC and Discovery.)

Nothing that anyone’s going to give me a standing ovation for — but it was priceless to learn, so early on, that there were some things I wouldn’t do, lines I wouldn’t cross — places where no amount of money, no threats, were worth my integrity.

And knowing that — knowing that I absolutely can and will walk away if my integrity is threatened — is probably the most powerful weapon I have in my arsenal. People ask me what my “secret” to media relations is; it’s not really a secret. But knowing that I’m not for sale — even if it’s just me knowing that — allows me, I think, a degree of clarity that not everyone in my business shares.

Where’s your line in the sand?

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2 Comments

Filed under Media Relations

2 responses to “Ethics: Where’s Your Line in the Sand?

  1. Thanks for sharing. I think the challenge is that the ‘line’ often doesn’t appear as a line on the beach. It’s more like a sloping sand into the sead. In the case of your story, you got thrown from the grass into the sea. At that point you knew you were going to get wet if you didn’t run!

    In PR and Business and life, it far to easy to end up walking along the beach, and find the sand a little wet under your feet. You don’t worry about it, and you get used to having wet feet. The next thing the waves are lapping around your ankles and you don’t really notice. Before you knows it, the feet are off the ground and the body is swimming.

    In unpicking a number of Enron-era “errors of integrity”, I saw that a few bad eggs had thrown themselves over the line, but that many more had been gently nudged without noticing. Just as the frog gets cooked in the slowly warmed boiling water, they got used to what was around. Only in stepping outside of the situation did they see their error.

    I try and work out where the line might be, and keep well away from it. And just to be sure, I occasionally ask someone outside of the situation “are my feet going to get wet?”

  2. alittleclarity

    Benjamin,
    Thanks for the comment. I like your images of the eggs and the frogs in the slowly warmed boiling water — the idea that the temperature rises so gradually that you don’t even realize you’re being cooked. And it’s true, there was a factor of “everyone is doing it,” about the Enronesque scandals. But at some point, don’t you think people had to know where they were headed, and could choose accordingly, like Sharon Watkins did? I’m not saying everyone can make the choice I made (I was 27 and unmarried at that point), and as you say, the choice was pretty stark.

    You’re smart to say, where’s the line? I guess maybe the point isn’t so much about feet getting wet as about deciding what to get the heck away from the water.

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