Restoring public trust: Today’s headlines have me wondering if it’s possible

I was part of this conversation on Facebook yesterday, triggered by a status update from my old friend and mentor:

John J. Bailey is wondering how we elect bad politicians? Why don’t more good people run for office?

Roy Richardson responds: Good people won’t take the abuse, personal attacks and other stuff that go with the election process in this day and age. Which is sad.

snakeI respond: Most of us are unwilling to swim with the snakes. So the snakes just take over. Scary.

John Bailey laments: Great comments guys. Then we get what we deserve, I guess.

Yep. I guess we do.

As I sat down with my local newspaper this morning, the snakes were crawling from every headline. One story proclaims that Illinois Gov. Blagojevich is defying calls for his resignation despite overwhelming evidence of his corruption and deceit. You know that story by now.

On the same page we learn that a prominent attorney and U of Akron trustee has been indicted for violations of Ohio ethics law. Jump to page one of the local section and read about the sentencing of the former Tallmadge recreation director who stole over $100,000 in cash and goodies from his little town of 16,000.

From my seat in the breakfast nook, I see a complete breakdown of ethics among those we have elected and/or appointed to serve the greater good. But none of us is shocked any more. Oh, we shake our heads and wonder how people can be so stupid. But then we go back to our coffee and crossword puzzle.

BTW, I need a 4-letter word for “skinny-dipped.” Can you help me out?

So I can only conclude that John Bailey is right. We get what we deserve.

In the most recent presidential election, many of us voted for “change.” But let’s also remember that our candidate for “change” raised nearly $750 million to fund his campaign. There’s a good chance at least some of those donors are snakes who’ll be seeking quid pro quo. Barack Obama has me feeling optimistic that change can come. Today’s headlines do not.

As public relations professionals, we’re in a bind. We can choose not to “swim with the snakes,” but as their spokespersons and advocates, we must stand up and speak for them — at least if we want to remain employed.

In the face of overwhelming evidence that her boss is a crook, Governor Blago’s spokeswoman, Kelley Quinn, told the press it’s “business as usual” in the governor’s office this week. “At the end of the day, the top priority for our office is to serve the people, and we have not lost sight of that…”

Maybe not, Kelley. And in your defense, you probably have a mortgage to pay and kids to feed. It’s not a fun position to be in – having to defend conduct that’s clearly beyond the pale. But you had to know this when you took the job. Chicago politics is legendary for its corruption.

When Blago’s career ends, so will yours – at least for a time. But for now you’ve chosen to swim with the snakes. I don’t envy you, but I am sympathetic.

At the U of Akron, the indictment of attorney Jack Morrison isn’t as clear-cut, and so far the board of trustees is standing by their man. Morrison is accused of playing a role in the university’s acquisition of a home at a price 40% above market value — a home owned by Morrison’s son. The property was one of many houses in a student slum being bulldozed to make way for a new $61-million stadium. (Don’t get me started on that brilliant use of taxpayer funds!)

Morrison came to his own defense when questioned by the press. The PR professional simply confirmed that Morrison would continue to be a member of the board of trustees and, according to the ABJ story, Uof A “would not comment further.”

Smart move. Snakes will bite you.

In Summit County Common Pleas Court, there was no PR professional to speak for Thomas Headrick, the one time director of the Tallmadge Rec Center. He pleaded guilty to a third-degree felony, and with a little luck he’ll be out on probation in 6 months. It was a sad mea culpa, complete with tears.

There’s no defense for theft in office. But at least Headrick owned up to his misdeeds and has already repaid about 75% of the court-ordered restitution. Amid the “snakes” in today’s headlines, he’s the most accountable.

Its OK to shake your head again.

Unethical conduct by appointed and elected officials is a discussion for a much larger forum than this blog. But we all must be part of that conversation. This post, for example, will become a lesson in my “Ethics & Issues” class next semester. Maybe you can use it to spark conversations in your offices, your PRSA chapters, and even your families. I write about ethics a lot, most recently here and here.

Ethics lies at the core of leadership and is the foundation of trust. Without trust, this business we call public relations becomes irrelevant. We can’t work for snakes.

So talk amongst yourselves, folks. We all have to play a part in fixing this mess. While you chat, I’m going off the grid for a long weekend in the woods. I’ll ask my wife to approve comments.

I’ll be OK, really.  It’s too cold for the snakes out there.

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9 Responses to Restoring public trust: Today’s headlines have me wondering if it’s possible

  1. Thought-provoking post Bill, as usual. My two cents–I worked in state government in Missouri for a while. The bad apples get all of the press–there are (or at least were when I was working in government) plenty of decent elected officials who work hard on behalf of those who elect them. So the question is, why aren’t these the ones rising to the top, running for the more prominent positions? My observation is that *because* they are decent, hardworking elected officials who are there to serve, there isn’t that hunger/ambition that takes over and allows common sense and decency to go out the window. This is why I am inherently suspicious of anyone who seems to have things “too planned,” as far as his/her political career. If they are that hungry for higher office, it’s my suspicion (not grounded in fact, just gut) that they are likely willing to either look the other way or actively engage in unethical activity.

    Ethics is so important, as you state. I don’t buy the argument that it’s the money in the system or anything else–it starts with the person. People can be personally very destructive, and I think that higher office (especially with repeated re-elections) can give a public official a sense of invulnerability. We need to remain watchful, and although it’s difficult sometimes, remain positive.

    If men were angels, no government would be necessary. (James Madison)

    Jen

  2. Bob Conrad says:

    May I recommend Lanny Davis’ book, “Scandal”? He outlines this sorry state of affairs from the birth of America through today.

    It takes tough skin, bones of steel and the assumption that a potential attack is around every corner to be a public official. The Internet has merely amplified the ugliness.

    And make no mistake: It matters not which political party you are affiliated with. The other side is equally as nasty.

    What we haven’t seen enough of is good, solid push-back when allegations are trumped up, false or blown out of proportion. And for that matter, the wisdom to know when to preempt breaking allegations.

    It’s most often not necessary, or appropriate, but sometimes it is. I think this is a skill for which most PR folks are unprepared — what to do when the shit hits the fan.

  3. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Bob. I’ll check out that book, to be sure. Your point about “pushing back” is one that Eric Dezenhall makes in his book, “Damage Control.” I didn’t care for the book as a whole, as it advocates too strongly a combative strategy in crisis. Useful at times, but destructive in others. Market must have felt the same. I see it’s down to $6 on Amazon!

    Sadly, the environment you describe is one that sounds more conducive to warriors vs. negotiators. I’m thinking thoughtful politics and bipartisanship died when Andrew Jackson was elected nearly 200 years ago.

  4. Bob Conrad says:

    I enjoy Dezenhall’s books and agree with him that most PR folks are unprepared for playing hardball.

    In general, though, you are correct. I tend to think J. Lukaszewki’s approaches serve better when needing to be strategic about crises or controversial situations, such as maintaining positive language, taking the high road and so on.

    Here’s one example, taken loosely from the Lukaszewski playbook, that worked well for us: http://tr.im/25n8.

    -b.

  5. Bob Conrad says:

    By the way, the picture associated with my comments is not me. Not sure why that is happening.

  6. Bill Sledzik says:

    I can’t explain the avatar problem, Bob. Could it be that a guy with same name is signed on at gravatar.com? I’ll look into it.

  7. It’s not just in politics. I’ve had a record seven plagiarism cases in my history survey courses this semester. That’s 7 out of 97 students, which is a darned high ratio.

  8. Jan Leach says:

    Bill, this is great fodder for our spring Media Ethics classes. Also check out the book “The Cheating Culture” by David Callahan. Fits right into this discussion. Maybe we should ask “Why is everyone behaving badly” instead of what happened to ethics?

  9. [...] on the Blagojevich scandal and others, Bill Sledzik brings up an important point in his post Restoring public trust: Today’s headlines have me wondering if it’s possible. As public relations professionals, we’re in a bind. We can choose not to “swim with the [...]

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