Savvy Ethics Month Edition 2:
Avoiding Moral Rabbit Holes
10 Ethical Expectations of Leadership

By James E. Lukaszewski
ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; BEPS Emeritus
America’s Crisis Guru®

Rabbit Holes

  1. From A strange, disorienting, or frustrating situation or experience, typically one that is difficult to navigate.

  2. From Jim Lukaszewski: Self-inflicted, time-consuming distractions of one’s attention when sorting through stories, euphemisms, metaphors, allegories, analogies, lies, and other creations from The Liar’s List, everything but the truth.

Ethics and ethical behavior problems have always been the toughest game in town and for the last decade front and center across our country.

The Public Relations profession seems largely absent from this generation of willful silence, where lying, distortion, unacceptable behavior, and the confusion they cause are ignored and prevail. Perhaps a walk through what I’ve learned in four decades as a teacher, advocate, direct manager of ethical recoveries, decision-making, and practices could be helpful.

The largest lesson I’ve learned is that all questionable, inappropriate, unethical, unconscionable, immoral, predatory, improper, victim-producing, and criminal behaviors are intentional. Yes, intentional.  

You may want to go back and re-read the previous paragraph just to get it in your mind. We can debate this if you’d like, but you know it’s true.

There is no such thing as being accidentally unethical, or accidental fraud, or accidental harassment, or accidental misbehaviors in countless varieties. These are decisions adults make intentionally. In the course of my career, I’ve worked in many cultures, not every culture, but there is a startling consistency between what is right in most cultures and what is wrong in most cultures.

By the same token, I have also learned that civil, compassionate, decent, ethical, honorable, integrity-driven decisions, lawful behavior and leadership decisions, and moral behaviors are also intentional. The choice is always clear, and the choice is always yours, it’s rabbit holes or sensible useful, ethical decisions. You know the difference.

In the ethics business, you read a lot of philosophy from many different places and eras. The definition of ethics, the one I’ve always gravitated toward, is the one by American Philosopher Will Durant and his wife Ariel. In 1926, in the introduction to his book, “The Story of Philosophy,” he defined ethics. His definition was clear and simple, “Ethics is the search for ideal behavior.” Whoa! Yes.

I know that some who read this will once again write me rather lengthy explanations of why ethics is more complicated than this simple thought. Yet, in my reality at least, one of the key rules of finding truth is that it is often a lot simpler than you think or may have been led to believe. Rabbit holes hold everything but the truth.

In my work, I often speak of candor which I define as, “Truth, with an attitude, delivered right now!!”. Truth is always more powerful when delivered briefly and promptly.

Why are unethical behaviors so prevalent in our culture and in other cultures? My experience is that silence dominates our culture as it does in so many others. Silence is the great enabler of all bad behavior and decisions. As many of you know, my career has been about other people’s very serious troubles. And when trouble happens, some people head for the exits, those in charge tend to behave as though nothing has happened for as long as possible, putting silence in charge.  

Our own profession has a reputation for avoiding conflict and candor. This lack of directness is noticed. This reluctance to engage on crucial issues is toxic to PR’s effectiveness. The clients I help who are in trouble often exhibit the same basic trouble-brewing behaviors, failing to name what is happening or worse finding ways to euphemize and therefore avoid getting the benefits of candor and clarity. People and employees notice this lack of directness, sometimes intentional mis-directness.

15 years ago, I had an extraordinary client in the pharmaceutical business who had gotten into trouble through negligent scientific activity. They were caught, publicly humiliated for a brief period, and ultimately prosecuted. There were deaths, many injuries, and six went to prison. The Chairman was acquitted mid-trial and retired. This frightening journey began with an FBI raid, agents carrying shotguns and other weapons invading a company factory.

The leaders of the company took powerful, even courageous steps. Among other things, they hired an ethics organization to talk to employees about what leadership was expected to do during this particular crisis. The results of that research guided the company after it plead guilty to numerous felonies to rehabilitate itself following the guidelines revealed in these ethics studies, and the provisions of their plea agreement.

Using employee’s own words we produced a document, “The Ethical Expectations of Leadership”. Turns out, not surprisingly, that employees have extraordinary expectations of leadership, especially in situations of emergency and crisis. There were 10 ethical expectations: words to succeed by and prevent bad behavior.

The Ethical Expectations of Leadership

  1. Find the truth as soon as possible: Tell that truth, and act on it immediately.

  2. Promptly ask the tough questions and answer them thoughtfully: This also meant asking and answering yet-to-be-asked questions by those who will be affected by whatever the circumstance is or will be.

  3. Teach by parable: Emphasizing right way, wrong way behaviors, rather than metaphors or warm-hearted emotional stories.

  4. Vocalize core business/organizational values and ideals constantly: Employees search for these most when there is trouble in the room or on the horizon. This search occurs every day.

  5. Walk the talk: Be accessible; help people understand the organization within the context of values and ideals, at every opportunity meetings large and small, gatherings large and small. This is a prime responsibility of all management, managers, and especially first-line supervisors.

  6. Help, expect, and enforce ethical leadership: People are watching, people are counting, and people know when there are lapses in ethics causing trust to be broken. When bad things happen in good organizations, it’s these occasional lapses that deepen the troubles.

  7. Preserve, protect, defend, and foster ethical pathways to the top of the organization: Constantly identify, explain, explore, and warn about situations where ethical processes can be compromised on the way, especially among executives on their way up the career ladder. Also, management becomes strangely silent as trouble mounts.

  8. Be a cheerleader, model, and teacher of ethical behavior: Ethical behavior builds and maintains trust. In fact, to have trust in an organization requires that its leaders act with integrity, ethically, and constantly.

  9. Make values at least as important as profits or personal gain: Studies of employee satisfaction show most people seem to enjoy working more and staying longer when they are with organizations they respect and who respect them. Wherever you find an organization or company that puts values on the same level as profits or personal advantages, there is a higher level of loyalty and support. Companies who do this specifically on principle are noted by everyone. People want to be a part of it.

  10. Respect employees: Respect is something all employees seek more than anything else. It’s that reciprocal respect that builds an ethical foundation for working and living, believing, and loyalty. Respect is ultimately what immunizes organizations against bad decisions and unethical behavior.

The fastest way to resolve ethical issues, problems, and questions is to begin with the truth, stick with the truth, and factually support the truth. Use other techniques and strategies turns out to be distracting and often reputationally damaging. Those rabbit holes will require that you dig yourself out. Your troubles will persist until you get to the truth.  

James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA; PRSA BEPS Emeritus; is the longest-serving member of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS), for more than 30 years.        

Savvy Ethics Month Edition 1: What is Your Truth Strategy? Liar’s List or Truth Manifesto

Cayce Myers, Ph.D., L.L.M., J.D., APR, PRSA BEPS Member, Member PRSA National Board

By James E. Lukaszewski, ABC, Fellow IABC; APR, Fellow PRSA, PRSA BEPS Emeritus Longest serving member and former co-chair of the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professionals Standards (BEPS)

It seems that liars and bullies dominate the world’s information these days. Both use all too familiar tools and drastic language to keep their oppression intact and the truth hidden or missing. Liars have a toolkit that you’ll find surprising, even familiar. We call it The Liar’s List. These techniques are their verbal and written tools for truth avoidance.

  • Allegories
  • Analogies
  • Balancing
  • Euphemisms
  • Leveling
  • Lies
  • Metaphors
  • “Nuanced Descriptions”
  • Obfuscation
  • Similes
  • Stores
  • Translations, “in other words…”

The Liar’s List

Are you surprised? This is, of course, a list of techniques communicators in practically every culture on the planet use daily. Whether used for good or something else, the one common feature of all these tools is that truth is missing, intentionally. It’s truth avoidance, whatever the purpose, however well-intentioned. People notice, especially the victims of these techniques.

Items on the Liar’s List are never fully truthful and more often are used to avoid being direct, plain-spoken, emotionless, and clearly responsive.

Most of those seeking truth only find truth dodgers and truth avoiders. Truth seekers feel victimized.

The first casualty if you use these techniques is trust loss. Remember, trust lost is replaced with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, doubt, and anger. That’s a big price to pay for the pleasure of telling a cute story rather than the plain truth.

Victims, when confronted with these techniques, get upset because they know that what they need is being purposely avoided. The quickest way to drive victims to a lawyer’s office or seek powerful advocacy assistance is failing to recognize that victims need 5 things:

  • Validation: Recognition, acknowledgment, and validation of their suffering.
  • Visibility: A platform for telling their story in their own words.
  • Vindication: Credit for the impact of their suffering on improving the detection, prevention, deterring, and reduction of future occurrences.
  • Allocution: An admission and apology from the perpetrator or predator.
  • Restoration: Sometimes recovery of damages.

Truth dodging is an insidious problem in the field of communication. For example, storytelling has become a cottage industry in the field, it has become a catchphrase in the communications profession. Stories present major problems:

  • Stories are fabrications. The news story or news release has a snappy headline, a thought-provoking or catchy lead, followed by a beginning, middle, and end usually containing a conclusion, lesson, self-evident truth, or punchline. Not exactly how life actually happens.
  • Stories usually contain bits of truth mixed into their fabrication batter.
  • Stories feel like the truth because we are entertained, and sometimes inspired. However, stories are only partially true, therefore, also partially untrue . . . a lie.

Good communication is truthful, direct, and clear. Ethical public relations practitioners using stories and other techniques from The Liar’s List need to focus on truthful information, narratives, and conclusions. Mindful that partial truth also indicates partial falseness that needs to be revealed and explained. Your trust-ability and credibility is conferred on you by the perception of others reflecting your behaviors and deeds.

Drastic Language – The Bully’s Tools

The vocabulary of bullies is the language of desperation, greed, powerful, corrosive, malicious, and intentionally harmful. Recognize these behaviors and call them out.  

Your Truth Manifesto

“To know the truth and speak of it is helpful, important, and sometimes courageous. To know the truth but equivocate or speak about anything but that truth is willfully harmful, intentionally misleading, and often unethical.” – Unattributed proverb

The Truth Manifesto is designed to help you avoid using the liar’s techniques regardless of how benevolent or helpful your motives. Or, at the very least, help you use them sparingly. The manifesto is a public declaration of your intentions, opinions, objectives, and motives. Truth always relies on simple sensible understandable words and deeds. That’s how you find the truth, often buried in all the rest.

The Truth Manifesto, is something you can easily absorb, use, and teach others.

  1. “When problems or opportunities occur, we’ll be prepared to talk openly about them and act quickly to respond operationally.”
  2. “If the public should know about an issue or problem which could affect them, we will voluntarily talk about it as quickly and as completely as we can.”
  3. “When problems or changes occur, we will keep the community and those affected posted regularly until the problem or changes have been thoroughly explained or resolved.”
  • “We will answer any questions the community or victims may have and suggest and volunteer additional information on matters the community has yet to ask questions about.”
  • “We will be cooperative with all interested news media, but our primary responsibility is to communicate directly with those most affected by our actions as soon and continuously as possible.”
  • “We will respect and seek to work with our critics and those who oppose us.”
  • “We will tell the truth with facts and proof, refraining from truth dodging and avoidance techniques.”

“What Is Your Truth Strategy?”

This is a significant question about your tomorrow. Successful tomorrows have truth and simplicity at their center.

Failing to have a truth strategy or using other items from The Liar’s List simply prolongs, expands, and further blocks getting to the truth. In crisis, especially, bad things get worse before they get better. Failure to seek, identify, and communicate with aggressive truthfulness is the main cause of poor outcomes and failure.

The Truth About Truth Dodging.

Words matter.  Style matters.  Context matters. Looking at The Liar’s List and the conventions of truth avoidance there are some simple ways to communicate truthfully, honestly, and ethically.  The profile of truth, in our experience, is statements and information that are simple, sensible, positive, clearly helpful, constructive, useful, and obviously true. Write less and make it more important and truthful. Say less and make your words memorably truthful. Resist the use of techniques on The Liar’s List.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Fewer words often lead to more rapid understanding. Avoiding aggressive, drastic language can reduce contention, foster agreement, and even peace.

Barbara’s 7 Ingredients of Happiness

August 30, 2023

So, why are we talking about happiness? Three reasons; Number 1, my wife of 56 years Barbara (met in High School) and I had an extraordinary life together. I called her The Sunshine Girl because she was always happy and she taught me how to be happy, too. To our surprise, our unintended example seemed to have a powerful effect on those around us. Barbara died in 2019. This is her legacy.

Number 2, In 2021 A friend and I, after three years of work, in the middle of Covid 19 published a book about Decency and Civility, The Decency Code © 2021, McGraw Hill. It failed. In the process, we discovered that many successful people are happy. Decency is the critical ingredient in achieving happiness. And yet for so many more the accolades, gratitude, and recognition they expected would come with their success never happened. But it can. If you help it happen.

Number 3, Happiness comes to those who help others create it for themselves. It’s The Platinum Rule, “Help others achieve those things they feel are meaningful, helpful, and important to others, but who need help completing what they hope to accomplish.” Do good things for others, doing good things for others, and all will do good things for you.

Throughout much of our life together we deferred talking about how our happiness occurred. Frankly, we figured that if we talked about it, we’d probably mess it up. But toward the end of her life, and people knew about her illness, they pressed us to talk more about this topic. The result of our conversations is the list below. We share them here because they might help you, as they helped us.

  • Intentionally say nice things about and to each other in private and publicly every day, everywhere.
  • Avoid saying the two or three divisive, corrosive, “Get-even” things you might really want to mention every day. Let them go.
  • Always better to be positive or blah than negative or inflammatory.
  • Rid your lives of negative, irritating, and intentionally abrasive people. Walk away. Skip the goodbyes. Immediate happiness happens.
  • Make every day simple, sensible, and satisfying for yourself and for others.
  • Maintain a genuine respect for those you care about 24/7.
  • Place the responsibility for your success on those closest to you or who really care about you.

Do this every day and the payoff is immediate and pleasant. What are your happiness ingredients? Please send them to me and we’ll build a powerful running list of more happiness ingredients. Email me at

Jim Lukaszewski – Snap Wisdom #2

During the First 120 MinutesActivate Your Crisis Response Checklist

  1. Stop the production of victims.
  2. Tend to the victim’s needs.
  3. Communicate frequently internally.
  4. Alert those outside your organization who are directly affected.
  5. Call your insurance company.
  6. Have an experienced crisis communication consultant nearby or on board.
  7. Hire an attorney competent to the situation.
  8. Call your Mom, do what she says, and things will get better by tomorrow afternoon.
  9. Deal with new media, old media, critics, bloviators, bellyachers, backbench complainers, and survivors.

Savvy #1 August 2023

Table of Contents

Concise Advice #17: Your Manifesto for Communications Success


Every letter, talk, and communication we send to employees or to other places has to flow through a self-imposed emotional and vocabulary filter system that keeps us on an even keel that preempts, deters, and reduces the attacks, provocative, and negative comments that are likely to occur. Here are your preemption, and peace-driving filter elements:

1. Eliminate, remove, and eradicate all negative words, language, and phrases. Each of these is a flash and attack point, viewed as intimidation, pushback, and pressure. These responses are what stir up bad headlines and angry people. They energize and enrage.

2. Avoid the use of the word “I” as much as possible, especially at the beginning of paragraphs. Any piece of copy that begins with the word “I” is about the sender rather than the recipient. When messages are about the sender, they will be misunderstood, negatively reinterpreted, and tossed back at you in a headline.

3. Reflect on the impact of every sentence and thought expressed. Whether we are talking to our friends or those who are attempting to irritate or organize us, plain, declarative, positive language will reduce contention and make it harder to credibly attack or challenge our words and deeds.

4. Bosses and leaders set a positive, peaceful example. Protect the outcome we seek. Employees at all levels, including managers and supervisors, will reflect and behave the way the bosses walk, talk, and behave. Say less but be important and positive.

5. All of our communications and actions must be targeted toward reducing the production of victims, critics, and combatants. These individual circumstances, once created, last essentially forever. In every communications setting, you need to ask this question, “How many critics, victims, or combatants does this approach create?” If even one is possible, fix it.

6. A single victim carries unimaginable explosive power. You are the target.

7. A single public victim tear can destroy millions of data and provable facts.

8. Wage peace everywhere, every day at every opportunity. Victims and casualties live, suffer, and remember forever. Most want to get even. Can you go home and talk about your plans and strategies over the dinner table with your children or grandchildren present or your mother? And they won’t roll their eyes?

9. Be prepared to promptly correct, clarify, and constructively, and productively comment as needed. This approach can have an enormously calming effect on employees and employee concerns, the community and community concerns, and even the victims, survivors, their families, and their concerns.

Jim’s Wisdom #43 Seeking Forgiveness – Nine Steps to Rebuilding and Rehabilitating Trust

“Only the truth deserves forgiveness.”

Seeking Forgiveness is society’s requirement for relationships, trust, and credibility restoration. Adverse situations using this template are remediated faster, cost a lot less, are controversial for much shorter periods of time, suffer less litigation, and help the victims come to closure more quickly. Obtaining forgiveness involves completing the nine steps below. To achieve success in the shortest possible time, these steps should be completed as quickly as possible: like start them all today. Skip a step or be insincere and the process will be incomplete and fundamentally fail.

Step #1 Candor: Outward recognition, through promptly verbalized public
acknowledgment, that a problem exists; that people or groups of people, the environment, or the public trust are affected; and that something will be promptly done to remediate the situation.

Step #2 Extreme empathy/Apology: Verbalized or written statement of personal regret, remorse, and sorrow, acknowledging personal responsibility for having injured, insulted, failed, or wronged another, humbly asking for forgiveness in exchange for more appropriate future behavior and making amends in return.

Step #3 Explanation: (no matter how silly, stupid, or embarrassing the problem-causing error was): Promptly and briefly explain why the problem occurred and the known underlying reasons or behaviors that led to the situation (even if we have only partial early information).

Step #4 Affirmation: Talk about what you’ve learned from the situation and how it will influence your future behavior. Unconditionally commit to regularly report additional information until it is all out or until no public interest remains.

Step #5 Declaration: A public commitment and discussion of specific, positive steps to be taken to conclusively address the issues and resolve the situation.

Step #6 Contrition: The continuing verbalization of regret, empathy, sympathy, and even embarrassment. Take appropriate responsibility for having allowed the situation to occur in the first place, whether by omission, commission, accident, or negligence.

Step #7 Consultation: Promptly ask for help and counsel from “victims,” the government, the community of origin, independent observers, and even from your opponents. Directly involve and request the participation of those most directly affected to help develop more permanent solutions and more acceptable behaviors, and to design principles and approaches that will preclude similar problems from re-occurring.

Step #8 Commitment: Publicly set your goals at zero. Zero errors, zero defects, zero dumb decisions, and zero problems. Publicly promise that, to the best of your ability, situations like this will be permanently prevented.

Step #9 Restitution: Find a way to quickly pay the price. Make or require restitution. Go beyond community and victim expectations, and what would be required under normal circumstances to remediate the problem.

Liars may be forgiven but they always know and fear that they will be found out.

Concise Advice #16: The Tools and Playbooks of Decency’s Enemies

Unconscionable actions, decisions, and behaviors

that are intentional, premeditated, injurious, degrading…

unethical…and some tend to be evil.

Decency’s enemies are obvious, expansive, and culturally corrosive. as are the playbooks of bullies, misbehaved buggers, and bad people. These tools and plays are intended to hurt, harm, and harass. Evil targets the innocent.  

Your first response:

Start Naming and blaming the predators and perpetrators.

  1. Arrogance
  2. Beyond the Boundaries of Decency, Civility, and Integrity
  3. Bullying
  4. Defaming
  5. Demeaning
  6. Dismissiveness
  7. Disparaging
  8. Disrespectfulness
  9. Evil
  10. False Suspiciousness
  11. Humiliation
  12. Intentional Embarrassment
  13. Intentionally Injurious
  14. Intentionally Irritating
  15. Intentionally Painful
  16. Intentionally Victimizing
  17. Meanness
  18. Negative Surprise
  19. Overbearing
  20. Overzealousness
  21. Punishing
  22. Ridicule
  23. Sarcasm
  24. Tone Deafness
  25. Unfounded Accusations
  26. Vengeance
  27. Victimization
  28. Vilification

Your second response:

  • If the perpetrator is someone you know, find someone else to know.
  • If the source is from someone you buy something from, find another source.
  • If it’s from someone in public life, disavow and shout them out.
  • If it comes from your local pulpit, find another pulpit.
  • Spend your energy on building a better life, expectations, and circumstances for yourself and those you care about.
  • Stop trying to change or reform the perpetrators and predators. They are always toxic and worthless.
  • Perpetrators, predators, evil public figures, and leaders will never really change.
  • Your efforts are far better spent on new endeavors and new approaches where you can clearly make a difference and others will benefit more than you.
  • Predators and perpetrators are superb slimy liars and con artists.

Wednesday’s Smart Shibboleth #15: Insidious Unethical Behaviors

WARNING, The DOJ calls these “predicate behaviors.” Less apparent, more insidious kinds of unethical behaviors that lead to crime. These behaviors are patterns prosecutors look for. Find even one of these behaviors in your vicinity, trouble is ahead. Two, get an attorney. Act promptly to eradicate (and report?) these situations.

  • Lax control: Careless enforcement, education about, and monitoring of ethical standards.
  • Lack of tough, appropriate, centralized compliance.
  • No one assigned responsibility for teaching, enforcing, and disciplining breaches of ethics.
  • Leadership that allows supervisors to overlook bad behavior.
  • Leadership that allows employees to explore methods and tactics outside established guidelines.
  • Emphasis on “doing whatever it takes” to achieve appropriate business and financial goals.
  • Managers and supervisors who minimize the importance of oversight and compliance.
  • Structuring incentives that compromise ethical behavior, the quality of products and services delivered, and shortcuts for questionable reasons.
  • Failure to confront managers who chronically misbehave or chronically overlook misbehavior.
  • Operating “on the edge,” always pushing for more than is appropriate.
  • Ignoring the signs of or failing to question rogue behavior.
  • Management tolerateing inappropriate behavior by individuals who are “critical to the organization’s mission.” Folks like super salespeople, the high achievers who are allowed to break the rules to maintain the altitude of their performance.
  • Belittling or humiliating those who suggest or seek ethical standards.
  • Dismissing or destroying the careers of employees who report bad or outright wrong behavior.
  • Demeaning the internal or external credibility of whistleblowers, those who report lapses in ethics.

*Source The Federal Sentencing Guidelines of 1991

Jim Wisdom #42: The Boss’ Most Crucial Roles in Crisis

The Boss’ Most Crucial Roles in Crisis

Few problems are crises. But all crises are serious management problems. Preplanning executive actions can avoid career-defining moments. Include specific executive expectation instructions in all plans and response scenarios.

One of the more powerful weaknesses in crisis response is the lack of specific roles and assignments for top management. The result of this crucial gap in crisis management planning is the mismanagement, lack of management, or paralysis that afflicts crisis response efforts. This defect occurs all too frequently in plans I review, responses I analyze, and scenarios I explore
with client companies.

In the course of directing a client’s crisis response, analyzing past responses to crisis, or developing powerful response strategies, it’s clear to me that crisis response promptness and effectiveness depends on having five essential responsibilities spelled out carefully in your crisis plans for the CEO (or surviving leaders):

  1. Assert the moral authority expected of ethical leadership. No matter how devastating or catastrophic the crisis is, in most cultures’ forgiveness is possible provided the organization, through its early behaviors and leadership, takes appropriate and expected steps to learn from and deal with the issues. The behaviors, briefly and in order, are:
  • Candor and disclosure (acknowledgement that something adverse has happened or is happening) Share response strategy.
  • Explanation and revelation about the nature of the problem (some early analysis)
  • Commitment to communicate throughout the process (even if there are lots of
  • Empathy (intentional acts of helpfulness, kindness, and compassion)
  • Oversight (inviting outsiders, even victims, to look over your shoulders)
  • Commitment to zero (finding ways to prevent similar events from occurring
  • Restitution or penance (paying the price – generally doing more than would be
    expected, asked for, or required)