Please welcome Emmanuel Tchividjian, ethics officer for New York City firm Ruder Finn (ranked 5th by O’Dwyer’s US ranking). He has been at the firm for more than 18 years. Ethics has been part of Ruder Finn’s corporate culture for more than 50 years.
I have known Emmanuel for the better part of two-decades. We originally met when he was invited to consult with the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS) on a couple of questions as a practicing ethics officer. Over the years we have written things together, done various programs together, staged ethics events together. I think you’ll find him one of the most settled and pragmatic people you will ever meet. I’ve learned so much from him over the years.
JEL: Welcome. Do you have a favorite pro bono activity? Why do you do it?
ET: I am involved at the board level of two organizations. I am a member of G.R.A.C.E., Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. Its mission is to prevent sexual abuse of children in church settings and also educate church staff about the right way to respond when abuse is suspected or detected.
Knowing that you are involved in the prevention of harm of children is very rewarding.
I’m also involved with PRSA locally and nationally. I am on the Board of the New York chapter and its ethics officer. I am also on the PRSA’s BEPS, as an ex-officio member. For many years I was a judge for the Big Apple, the Silver Anvils, and the Bateman Professional Achievement Awards. It’s by giving that you receive. I find it gratifying to be able to give back and be helpful to the PR profession.
JEL: Who have you learned the most from in your career?
ET: That is a very easy answer for me: David Finn, our firm’s founder and chairman. He’s been my immediate report, a.k.a. my boss, but also my mentor. I’ve learned very much from him: the way to run a business, how to treat people with utmost respect and care about them. The essence, of course, is the role of ethics in the practice of the profession.
I’ve been impressed by David’s modesty. Some people claim that PR does everything. Others say that PR does nothing. David believes that the truth is somewhere in between. We never really know the impact of what we do for clients, but we try and very often succeed in being helpful to them.
JEL: You’ve told me in the past that you are not a PR person, you’re really an ethics officer. How many PR firms have an ethics officer as a full-time position?
ET: I’m afraid, or should I say, “gratified” that Ruder Finn is the only PR firm, as far as I know, that has a full-time ethics officer. I wish more PR firms would see the importance of ethics in PR and assign a full-time ethics person.
JEL: What would you say are the most important things you have learned—either from David or others?
ET: Well, let me put it this way, the best lessons we learn are from our own mistakes. I learned to never assume anything. You can trust, but you have to verify.
I was a coordinator for a very important event, our firm’s 50th anniversary. We had formed an anniversary committee and had weekly meetings to prepare for this event. Someone was designated to write a press release. When the time came for the press release to be sent, there was no press release. It was too late and I had wrongly assumed that it had been done. The only thing David said to me was, “It’s very sad.” I knew that I had failed him and the firm in that regard. Never assume.
Another thing I learned is that nothing that matters is easy. It’s always hard work. It may look like it’s easy, but it takes continuous hard work.
JEL: Ethics is continuous hard work.
ET: Ethics and public relations.
JEL: What else have you learned?
From my experience, I see the repetitive nature of ethical problems that arise. It’s like nobody reads the paper. The same dumb things happen time and again.
ET: What surprises me most when an ethical lapse occurs is not the error itself, but the foolishness of thinking that no one will find out, thinking that one can get away with it. It comes out and the results are disastrous. The stupidity sometimes shocks me more than the unethical practice. We are all humans and humans have flaws and make mistakes.
JEL: What’s the most intellectually stimulating part of your work?
ET: The most challenging aspect is finding the right solution in resolving an ethical dilemma, especially when you have a conflict between two legitimate values. It’s intellectually stimulating. You can almost never be 100% sure it’s the right solution, but at least you have the comfort of having thought through the problem, explored different alternatives and consequences, and come up with the best solution recommendation. I think that it’s rewarding because you’re helping people.
The most rewarding part of ethics work is being able to provide real help in specific situations.
JEL: What do you do when your boss or a client is having problems with what you’re recommending?
ET: Well, I happen to be in a firm that takes ethics very seriously. It is very rare that a decision is made that I would not have recommended. However you have to accept your limited role as an advisor and not necessarily a decision maker. As long as you made your case clearly, with substance, the responsibility shifts to the decision-maker.
JEL: What happens if your boss disagrees with what you’re recommending?
ET: Then it’s his problem, rather than mine.
JEL: There is the possibility that you are asked to do something that’s contrary to your core beliefs. What do you do then?
ET: Ultimately these decisions belong to the boss or the client to allow me not to do what I do not want to do. If that is not possible, then it would be time to resign. At one point you need to draw a line as to what you will not do.
JEL: If you could change anything about public relations, what might it be?
ET: To create a greater awareness of the importance of ethics in the practice.
JEL: As an outsider, how would you rate the profession on a scale of 1-10, 1 being low-ethical awareness, 10 being high-ethical awareness and practice?
ET: I think that the majority of PR practitioners believe they’re ethical and want to be ethical. In most cases it’s true. The problem is that the pressure of work and the time constraints make it difficult sometimes to reason before taking action. That is how most ethical lapses can be explained. PRSA was created in 1948 and by the early 50s we had an ethics code. The industry has been aware of the importance of ethics since its beginning. Is ethics on the forefront of every PR decision? No. I would give the profession an arbitrary 7.5.
JEL: Could you share some of the rubrics, some of the personal rules you have? Or maybe personal phrases? Do you have any kind of thoughts like that that are memorable for people to carry with them?
ET: I would say when in doubt, hesitate. If you have a slight uncomfortableness about an action you’re about to take, or question the ethics of it, you probably have a good reason. You should definitely withhold the action and analyze why you have that feeling. Most likely you will see that you were right, that your instincts were correct.
JEL: What about the issue of listening to your belly? I’ve used the phrase, but I’m not the originator of it. I think it actually came from you in something that we talked about a long time ago.
ET: I do not think it was me, I don’t think I would use the word “belly,” but I would say if you have a doubt, if you hear that little voice that tells you something is not right, stop. Most likely you are correct and the action you were planning to take is not the right one. Trust your instinct.
Look at the values involved when you’re confronted with a question or a dilemma. My first instinct is to analyze what the values involved are before trying to find the solution. If it’s not about values, it’s probably not about ethics.
JEL: You mentioned before about drawing a line. How do you do that? How do you come up with the line, presuming it’s the things on the borders of what you would do? How does that come about?
ET: It can only come case by case. Each circumstance is going to be different. If you are asked to lie, flatly lie or misinform, or deceive a third-party that would be crossing the line. Obviously if you’re asked to do something that you know is illegal, even if you believe you will never be caught, that would be crossing the line. It’s hard to determine a line in the abstract. You need to look at every case and decide. It’s your decision. In making the determination as to the line that you will not cross, you do have to remember that keeping your job, making a living, and providing for your family is a legitimate value.
Some people have a tendency to push the line very far and others do not. It’s really a personal ethical reaction.
JEL: You write a lot, you blog a lot, and I want to make sure you mention the blog that you have in your own company publication. Your experience has been on ethics for a long time. Do you have any list such as “Emmanuel’s Ten Commandments of Ethics,” or something like that?
ET: No, I would not have the audacity. In writing the blog, I always remember that it’s not my personal blog but the company’s. On certain issues, I try not to take a position, but if you read between the lines when there’s a controversy, you could probably determine where I stand. I try to give a voice to both parties in a dispute and then look at practical, ethical responses to certain situations that could reappear in the future, leaving behind the specific of the case or story.
JEL: It seems as though, in our profession, practitioners tend to confuse business issues with ethics issues. The most frequent issues raised involve running a business every day or doing business activities, rather than ethics questions.
ET: The best way to determine whether you have an ethics issue or just a business issue is to look at values involved, yours and those spelled out in the PRSA Code of Ethics, to see if they are compromised. If they are, then you know that you do have an ethical issue on your hands. That can bring a whole topic back to ethics. If there’s no real conflict of values in a situation, it’s probably not an ethics situation, it’s a business one.
JEL: Are there any ethics sites on the web that you recommend practitioners monitor and consult when they have ethics issues and questions?
ET: Yes. Mine of course. http://www.ruderfinn.com/blogs/ethics
I recommend the following:
The Josephson Institute (www.josephsoninstitute.org)
Ethics and Compliance Imitative (www.ethics.org)
The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (www.scu.edu/ethics)
Emmanuel Tchividjian is a senior vice president and chief ethics officer at Ruder Finn.
Mr. Tchividjian was certified Compliance & Ethics Professional from the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) in 2006 and is a member of the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, (E.C.I.) He is also a member, ex-officio, of PRSA’s Board of Ethics and Professional Standards.
Emmanuel has engaged in public speaking and writing on ethics and public relations. He is a frequent guest speaker at major universities such as Columbia University, NYU, and Penn State.
Mr. Tchividjian writes a weekly blog on ethics. www.ruderfinn.com/ethics-blog.