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Penn State Live
|Oral History with Emmanuel Tchividjian|
1. Interviewer: We’re sitting with Emmanuel Tchividjian, Senior Vice-President and Chief Ethics Officer at Ruder Finn. He’s held positions with the government of Switzerland and with New England Israel Chamber of Commerce. He’s past president and current Ethics Officer for the New York Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, as well as a member of the National Board of Ethics in Professional Standards. We are pleased to have you share some of your experiences and thoughts with us today. Welcome and thank you.
Tchividjian: I’m happy to be here.
Interviewer: Let’s start by talking about how you got started in public relations.
Tchividjian: I think my history in public relations is unusual, so it can’t really be a model for students. There may be some values in maybe being open to something unexpected. I came to PR by accident. I’ve been involved in communication and did give interviews in the past, to media, I wrote a press release once, but that was about it. I came to PR because of a crisis that I was involved in, not personally; I was personally involved, but it was not my crisis. It was an issue of a Swiss government, Swiss banks, and the Holocaust. That was back in 1997. Because I was involved and I cared about the issue, I had to attend an event or a hearing in Congress in 1997, which was about the Swiss bank and the Holocaust. I met there, Mr. David Finn, who was the co-founder and chairman of the firm, and Ruder-Finn at the time was representing the Swiss Government.
I had grown up in Switzerland, had many contacts there, and I was involved. So he gave me his card and said come and see me; and I did. We sat, and he asked me why I was there. I said I didn’t know. He asked me what we would be talking about; I said I didn’t have a clue, and then we talked. At one point he asked me if the Swiss Government had paid me for what I had done; I said no. He looked at me a little strange, like why would this guy do this for no pay. Then he realized that this was a matter that I really cared about. So we talked and one thing lead to another and I joined the firm and that was almost thirty years ago. So the process of once I joined was quite intense because I had the general concept, but no experience. So it was a steep learning curve, but one I would recommend.
2. Interviewer: You’re now the Chief Ethics Officer at Ruder Finn. Can you explain for us what a Chief Ethics Officer does? What are your day-to-day responsibilities?
Tchividjian: The word Chief is—both words, chief and officer can be questioned, number one. I’m the chief with no Indian and I’m the only person in charge of ethics. The word officer is used because I need the word—the title—to be a member of an organization called the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association. For me, my role is double. First it’s making sure that we, as an agency, do the right thing, when we deal with our job, our clients, and the media; and also to make sure that as a company we do the right thing with the employees. So there are internal issues and there are external issues.
3. Interviewer: So what’s the biggest challenge that you faced during your career?
Tchividjian: I think a career is faced with challenges and when one challenge is met, the next one appears. I can’t really pinpoint on one. I would say that I wish that more people would come and speak to me freely before things happen. I think it’s true for most people that work in that position.
4. Interviewer: Let’s talk a little bit more about your career. Who has had the most significant influence on your career, and why?
Tchividjian: Undoubtedly, Mr. David Finn. He is eighty-nine years old. He started a company with his friend Bill Ruder in 1948; sixty-two years ago. In the early fifties, he started an ethics committee at the firm. So he has been at the center and the soul of the company’s concern about doing the right thing. So he’s been a mentor; he’s been an example; and still today is able to surprise me the way he reacts to events and incidents that happen at the firm.
Interviewer: Can you give us an example of that?
Tchividjian: I will give you a great story. We had hired a journalist who used to work for PR Week magazine and then had gone to another PR firm and then was laid off, so he was looking for a job. He was a good writer and we had a good connection, so we hired him. His role was to be a writer for the agency. Journalists are usually good writers, and he was a good writer. But things were not going very well. Either he was not looking hard enough for a job, or people didn’t trust him; we weren’t sure. But, we felt responsible; we hired him; it was not really his fault so we kept him on. Then one day he came to see my boss about something; I wasn’t in that day. At the end he said oh by the way you’ll see something in the media tomorrow, but don’t worry; it’s nothing. The next morning, front page of O’Dwyer’s, which is another PR publication, Ruder-Finn’s Dobrow—his name was Larry Dobrow—settle with the SEC for insider’s trading. So it was alleged that while he was at the other agency, he was working on a small bank that was going to be acquired by Wells Fargo. He called his father; hey dad. The father Thank you son, opened a separate account, bought the stock of that small bank and when the merger was announced the stock price went up and then he sold them. He aligned all the red flags for the SEC to find him.
So the question was what do we do? Ethics often starts with [the question] what should we do; what should I do? So we had a meeting of the executive committee and went around the table and the reactions were: he has to go. Ruder-Finn is dedicated and takes ethics seriously. We can’t have someone among our staff that did this. Others said I don’t trust him; if he did that, maybe we should close our door when he’s around. Then came David’s turn. He said no; number one it’s not right to let someone go because it makes you look better. Number two, he said Larry’s under a lot of stress because of what happened; the media; the legal fees; it wouldn’t be right to take his job away from him now and add an extra burden. Number three, and this is what surprised me the most, he said what about the concept of forgiveness. Now you’re chairman of a large company that has over five hundred employees and millions in billing, and you talk about the concept of forgiveness.
5. Interviewer: So what were the most important issues or the enduring truths that you have learned in the career that you had in public relations?
Tchividjian: Most important issues?
Tchividjian: You mean in public relations or in ethics?
Interviewer: Ethics would be appropriate; absolutely; in your career. What do you think are the most important issues and the enduring truths that you’ve learned through your career?
Tchividjian: I think that the debate is what’s the difference between ethics and morality? Different people have different definitions. For me morality is more personal and ethics is more at the work place. Even if you put morality on the side and you look at the consequence of unethical behavior, the damaging consequence; the sheer stupidity sometimes surprises me more than the morality because in today’s world more, I think because of media and because of the way we run our lives, we can’t get away with anything, and people think they can; people still think that you can fool someone for a long time. It’s no longer true. I think that more and more people realize that ethics is a very important component of what you do. Someone said can you make a business case for ethics, and the answer was if you don’t have ethics, you won’t have business, maybe not right now, but soon enough. I think there is a more general understanding that especially because of the more recent scandals that ethics is essential.
6. Interviewer: Let’s talk a little bit about ethics then. I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about ethical public relations since that’s your area of expertise. In your professional opinion what constitutes ethical public relations? What is that?
Tchividjian: I think ethics is essentially an issue of values. As I mentioned yesterday, there are different types of situations: you have the right versus wrong, and that situation very often is a more legal one than an ethical one. Everybody knows that stealing is unethical; it’s also illegal. Then you have situations of right versus right when you have conflicting values, conflicts of legitimate values. That’s where it gets very, very interesting. Then you have wrong versus wrong. That’s in the medical field where you have a problem and there’s no perfect solution and you try to take the best solution or the least harmful solution.
In public relations and in communication—communication involves everything we do—unless there is trust, the value of the exchange is very, very low. Trust is essential in any exchange and any communication. So in PR, whether it’s with journalists; whether it’s with clients; whether it’s with government; whether it’s with the media, having that trust is the most important thing. Once you lose it, it’s almost lost forever. It’s very rare to regain trust once you’ve lost it. So that is really a guideline for everything we do. It may sound like expedient at the time, at the moment, but the consequences can be devastating. You have clients come and go, but the relationship with the media will stay. Once you mislead a journalist, you will never have his trust again.
7. Interviewer: You talk about trust being the key. How can an organization or agency build trust? How can it maintain trust in an ethical way with the media and with the public? What are some of the ways they can do that?
Tchividjian: Well, being truthful, being open, being transparent, being able to say when you don’t have the answer or when you can’t deliver the answer, being able to say it. This is confidential; I’m not allowed to tell you. Of course, never lying, and then reputation is—you build reputation—it can take a lifetime to build and a few minutes to lose. I think the reaction, also—because things happen; we make mistakes; we all know that. The reaction to the mistakes you make also is essential in keeping that trust. People accept that you make mistakes; we all make mistakes. People will forgive you for mistakes, but they would be much harder to forgive if you try to cover it up, lie, or blame someone else. That’s harder to forgive. I have this great illustration of a woman doing her nails with nail polish and by accident a drop of polish went into her daughter’s eye. That was the accident, and the reaction to the accident was to take some solvent and try to remove it. It destroyed the girl’s eye. So sometimes in panic we do some very, very stupid things. The real damage is done in our reaction to the mistake. I think Richard Nixon is a good example. He didn’t know about Watergate when it happened, but once he knew it, he did everything wrong, trying to cover up.
8. Interviewer: So what’s the rule of economic bottom line for an agency for an organization in ethical decisionmaking? What rule do you think the bottom line should play in making decisions ethically?
Tchividjian: I’m not naïve. You can’t be an ethics officer and be naïve. The bottom line is very important, but the bottom line is not the only factor in your decision. Again, the bottom line is a short-term goal. You have to think of the long-term goal. So I’ll give you an example of a situation where you have a conflict of interest between a client you have and a potential client you might get. You can’t just look at the bottom line and think this guy’s going to pay us twice as much; let’s drop this client. You have to look at so many other factors before you make that decision. But it is an important factor; obviously you’re in business.
9. Interviewer: So getting back to your own experiences, what education or previous experience, professional experience do you think best prepared you for your role now and for the rigors of ethical decision making and in your case, guiding people to make ethical decisions? What experience do you think helped you and prepared you the most for the role that you play now?
Tchividjian: When I think of the students now, I think being very current in what’s going on in the world. I’m always very interested in not just politics, but social issues. It’s helpful because once you join a firm you have to deal with so many aspects of life that if you have some base knowledge or experience, that’s going to be helpful. Being able to listen; listening really closely; sometimes asking to yourself, what did the person really tell me? We wear different levels of masks and what is the person not telling me? I think in terms of ethics, you want to help. That’s a basic element. You want to be helpful. You’re not a judge; you’re not a prosecutor. You’re trying to help people avoid making mistakes and then deal with mistakes when they happen. I think I had those attributes.
10. Interviewer: So we got to this a little bit before, but how have recent ethical lapses in business, for example ENRON, affected the practice of public relations? How did those scandals affect the way you see public relations being practiced?
Tchividjian: I think the fact that ENRON comes up in this conversation and many others, brought an awareness of the potential devastating effect of unethical behavior. In terms of PR, you can’t communicate to the world something that you’re not. Sooner or later it will show. In terms of ethics, culture is essential. ENRON had an ethics code that was about three or four inches thick, but it was not part of the culture. Employees at ENRON were encouraged to take shortcuts, almost expected to take shortcuts. They knew they wouldn’t get in trouble for doing things they knew were wrong because it was not the culture of the company. So building culture is not something you can do over night. It takes training; it takes experience; it takes a track record; it takes a feeling of belonging of employees. Someone said that you know that you have an ethics culture when you hear someone say this is the way we do it here or we don’t do this here. The “we” is very important; it’s not they; it’s we; so people feel that they’re part of a group that has values that they can adhere to.
11. Interviewer: So what do you see as the influences of media on contemporary ethical decision making in public relations? What role does the media play in the way that public relations is making decisions?
Tchividjian: Are you talking about new media or media in general?
Interviewer: Actually that’s the question I was going to ask you, it was about new media, so you could tell me about traditional media and then maybe go to new media or if you want to answer that together, you’re welcome to.
Tchividjian: The new media brings a new element, but of course in public relations you deal with the media, not always; people sometimes confuse public relations with publicity, then you go in a wider range than public relations is. For me, public relations is; a public relations executive is someone who is an advisor/counselor in communications. So it can be for a CEO, writing a speech, or going to talk to the shareholders. It doesn’t always involve the press. It can be internal communication, but it involves the press very often, especially for a commercial client. So ethics and the media is the same thing. You have to build trust with journalists. You have the interest of your client to defend but you have your own reputation at stake. So you have to make sure there’s a correct balance—you have to make sure you’re comfortable doing what you do. Someone said never do anything that don’t want [to be] published on the front page of the next morning’s newspaper or don’t write an email that you would be embarrassed to read in court. You have to know that these things last.
I had one experience where we had a problem with a client. It was going to be news and I knew the story. We had done nothing wrong, but there had to be some explanations, so I talked to David Finn and the executive committee and they allowed me to speak freely to one journalist that trusted me. So I told her the story first and she wrote a wonderful front-page article for the press with the exact truth of what had happened. This would not have happened unless she had trusted me and I trusted her. I had to trust her too because she could take my words and turn them around and say different things. I’ve been on FOX [News]—they called—I gave an interview in the letter and I saw how the media can mislead you, can take the quote, put it in another context to give a totally different story. So there’s also some unethical behavior among the media as well, especially when they already have a point of view and they’re just trying to get something that’s said to reinforce that view.
12. Interviewer: So let’s talk about new media a little bit. Has new media, including the Internet and social media made the public relations industry more or less ethical? Has there been an influence? Are journalists still the watchdogs of business and how will technology influence the public relations industry in years to come? Three questions in one; yes. We can start with has new media, including the Internet and social media made public relations more or less ethical?
Tchividjian: I don’t think you can be more or less ethical. I think you have to have a basic concern. Ethics is trying to do the best you can with information you have and with your values. I think most people think they’re ethical and I think most people want to be ethical, but yet things happen because of lack of reflection, lack of sharing with others and looking at other people’s experience and because of speed. You have to do something about right away, somehow you have a feeling it’s just not right, but you ignore it and go ahead; oh my god.
Interviewer: Do you think that the Internet and social media made public relations more or less ethical? Is there an influence?
Tchividjian: I think people realize that the speed at which things are done with the new media and also the scope of the coverage of what you are going to do has made people slowly, but surely, more aware of the dangers of ethical lapses.
Interviewer: Some people say that there’s more transparency in social media; that organizations are required to be more transparent because there are a lot of people that can participate in the conversation.
Tchividjian: Absolutely, because the public has multiplied in numbers and the exposure is so much increased that the visibility is greater, so of course there is more scrutiny.
Interviewer: So do you think that journalists are still the watchdogs of business or have people become the watchdogs through social media?
Tchividjian: I guess it depends on journalists; some are not really watchdogs, they’re just interested in business or have personal agendas. It’s a great role to have. I hope many stay that way. But the fact that the public can become journalists in themselves with blogs probably diminishes some of that role.
Interviewer: How do you think technology will influence the public relations industry in years to come? Do you think social media is here to stay or is this another fad?
Tchividjian: I think it’s here to stay and it will grow. What’s next new I’m not sure, but I’m sure it’s in the same direction. Things will never be the same again.
13. Interviewer: So do you think that younger workers today, if we can transition a little bit, do you think younger workers today are prepared for informed ethical decision making? Do you think that younger workers today are prepared to make the kind of decisions in public relations that they need to make?
Tchividjian: It all depends on their education. It depends on the college they’ve been to. I’ve talked to many young college graduates and when we talk about ethics and they say yes, I’ve had an ethics course that really counted, that was interesting, so I think it depends. [Also] younger employees are more current, I think than twenty, thirty, forty years ago because of new media, because of exposure to our world, and are more aware of the recent scandals to be careful not to become cynical. I think ethics can help because there is another way. There is a right way. You can be proud of the work you do and you can be proud of the company you work for. With the economic situation [the way it is now], you may not be as ready to leave a company than before because you might not be able to find another job. So maybe that’s not [having] a good effect on ethics.
14. Interviewer: So what about mentoring? How important do you think mentoring is to fostering ethical decision making in the workplace?
Tchividjian: Very, very important because ethics touches so many different parts of what we do and you may not be able to see it, but someone who has experience can see through it. Mentoring is key, I think.
Interviewer: Are you involved in mentoring?
Tchividjian: Yes I am involved in mentoring and have been involved in mentoring with PRSA. I actually got an award. Everybody at the ceremony told me you’ve helped me so much, I just couldn’t remember where and when.
15. Interviewer: Tell us a little bit about, about counseling, as a counseling role, transitioning a little bit from mentoring. The aim of the Arthur W. Page Center and the Arthur Page Society is to help individuals become counselors to leadership. So how can individuals best prepare themselves for this role; best prepare themselves to be counselors to leaders in public relations?
Tchividjian: Well, I think you have to put yourselves into the person you are going to counsel’s shoes and think what keeps him or her awake at night; what are the issues; what’s the past or the history; and what are the challenges on one hand. On the other hand, you have to encourage. You can’t be someone if you’re going to speak to the CEO that’s going to tell him what he wants to hear. We’ve seen this in the political world, people surrounding themselves with advisors that praise that person and tell him he’s right and then you have people with courage and with integrity that will say things as they see them.
Interviewer: So how can individuals prepare themselves to be counselors? What are some of the things that they can do to prepare them to be a good counselor to leadership?
Tchividjian: In reading or what kind of preparation?
Interviewer: Preparation as far as that, education, maybe even going back to some mentoring.
Tchividjian: I think some psychology can help because it helps with your interaction and the understanding of the other. That could be helpful. I think you need a dose of humility because you can be wrong. You can be both forceful, and humble at the same time; forceful when you really know for sure, but we rarely know for sure. You have to make sure that you always consider the person you’re counseling’s best interests at all times and not yours.
16. Interviewer: You talked a little bit about this earlier; is it important for a corporation to have an ethical mission statement or credo and why?
Tchividjian: I think it’s important, but it’s not enough. Missions statements—most of the time—are bland and too general and not taken seriously. What is important is if you walk the talk. What’s important is if the message comes from the tone and the message comes from the top and what is important is if it’s real and if you can show that it’s real by the actions of the company that the person has taken, not just the general principle of good will. I usually don’t take mission statements too seriously. It’s necessary because you need a reference; you need to go back at one point and say hey, this is our mission statement and it’s contrary to this. That’s important too, but it’s not enough.
17. Interviewer: What about professional accreditation? Is professional accreditation necessary to guarantee ethical standards in the field of public relations? And if so, what should the standards be for accreditation that would lead to more ethical decision-making?
Tchividjian: I think accreditation is very important. I am unfortunately not a member of APR, but maybe I should be and maybe I will. I think highly of it because it’s more than just recognition of what you know, there’s also an element of education about ethics in most of those programs, and I’m sure it’s the same in the Arthur Page Society. So I highly recommend it; I think it’s very important. It won’t guarantee anything, but it’s very important. Nothing is guaranteed.
Interviewer: Right. What about continued education for senior public relations professionals. Do you think that’s something that can lead to more ethical understanding and do you also think that it’s necessary? Is this something that you think seasoned professionals should be back in the classroom and learning about this something they can learn on the job?
Tchividjian: I have mixed feelings about that; theoretically I would think it’s a good idea, but when you look at executives that are involved hours and hours a day with issues unless it’s something totally new, I don’t see them taking the time or thinking it’s necessary to go and get some more credit points like lawyers do. I think if it would be interesting if it was something totally unknown to them or their field or their expertise was presented, then it might be worth it. But it’s hard with their busy schedules and their amount of clients to put aside some time for those credits. I know that the legal profession requires it, but it is more complex because new things come up all the time in the legal world; that’s not quite true for PR.
18. Interviewer: I just have one last question for you then. Briefly put, the Arthur W. Page Center at Penn State is committed to fostering integrity in public relations. Could you suggest a few ways that a program like this can be even more effective at educating—at the Page Center; yes. What could the Center do to foster integrity beyond our own center and prepare students, but also reach out to the practice to encourage ethics?
Tchividjian: Maybe PR? Some more PR for Arthur Page Society that it’s an organization of resource, credibility, that agencies and individuals, and agencies and sole-practitioners can go back to it as a reference or for help or counseling.
Interviewer: So you’re saying offer counseling to the professionals?
19. Interviewer: What would be your greatest accomplishment? What can you tell us about? What’s the story that you’re most proud of?
Tchividjian: I can tell you a story about a mistake. We learn from our mistakes. The mistake lead me to offer my resignation to Ruder-Finn. I was turned down. This is the story. It was during the Swiss bank and the Holocaust period. The government of Switzerland was a client. There was a conference in London on Nazi gold and during the war, as you know the Germans looted all the central banks and took gold from those banks and when the war was lost, to them some gold was found and redistributed to two different countries proportionately to what had been taken. There was a commission called the Tripartite Commission that was dealing with the gold issue but fifty years later there was still two or three million worth of gold left undistributed. The question was what should we do about it? So the Prime Minister of Foreign Affairs in London and invited governments—everyone—for this conference. The Swiss didn’t want to go and we said you have to go. If you’re not there and you’re absent it’s not good for you. It means that you’re guilty and guilty by your absence. You have to be there. So they said OK; what do you suggest? So we said OK, we would suggest an event at the Swiss Embassy and we’re going to invite the media and we’re going to invite a historian-rabbi to speak about what happened and about some of the good things the Swiss had done and were doing. They said, well if you can get twenty journalists, we’d consider it a success.
So we got ready and I recommended a very good friend of mine who was a professor at Boston University and was also a Rabbi, he’s a historian, to be the speaker, and he was a great speaker. His name is Hillel Levine. So the firm was discussing him or maybe another and they finally said OK, let’s go with Hillel. So we had the event; the place is packed. We had over sixty journalists, I think: the BBC, the Herald Tribune, the London Times; the event went very well. But just before the professor started to speak, he was supposed to speak for forty-five minutes and he was told, “no you can speak for twenty.” So they cut his time in half. So he makes his speech; very good. Then when he comes to the end, he says one of the lessons in all of this is it really matters who our money comes from. Switzerland should stop to allow dictators their countries and then put their assets in the Swiss bank and the Swiss bank should stop funding the drug world because we have young people dying in our streets. So we are doing this at the ambassador’s residence—him in the room with the world media. So the client was not happy. He called me when I was still at the Embassy and he said where is he? I said he’s downstairs in the lobby. He said what is he doing? I said he’s talking to journalists. He said get him out of there. So I called, there was a time [difference], I wanted to be the first to tell Mr. Finn what had happened. He said why did he say that? He said if the press doesn’t pick it up, the Ambassador will be fine; we’ll come down and everything will be fine.
The next day, front page of the newspaper: Our hats to Switzerland and the Swiss government be able to organize such a big event with a Rabbi and there was also Israel Singer, who was from the World Jewish Congress and just not a word about his last couple sentences. The client was still not happy. My friend wrote an apology, a letter of apology and I brought it to the Ambassador and I never heard a man bark, but I think I did that time. Then when I went back to New York a couple of weeks later, I saw a letter from the Ambassador talking about the disaster of London and I thought, you know, I just joined the firm; I didn’t bring any big clients, and now I’m about to cause them to lose an important client, so maybe I should resign. So I went to Mr. Finn and said Sir, if my resignation helps in the relationship with the client, you have it. He said no. He said number one, you’re never responsible for what another one says. Number two, you’re a good man; we don’t want to let you go. And he said number three Hillel is a good man. It’s just that the Swiss are difficult. So that was my resignation turned down.
Interviewer: What did you learn from that?
Tchividjian: What did I learn from that? It was an accident. In fact, he was right and the government has changed now. The Swiss banks have changed their laws and they are much more careful to who comes in and where the money comes from. It’s quasi-impossible to open a bank account in Switzerland now unless you can prove the origin of the money, how you got it, documents to prove it, just to make sure that the money is not dirty money. So he was right, but it was not the right time or the right place. I think my friend felt pretty bad; I don’t think he did it intentionally.
[end of interview]
Topics of Discussion
- Arthur Page/Principles/Society/Center
- Characteristics/Qualities of PR Professionals
- Code of Ethics/Mission Statement/Credo
- Corporate Character
- Counselor/Counseling Advisor
- Crisis Management
- Ethical Decisionmaking/Behavior
- Ethical Leadership/Corporate CEO Responsibility
- International/Global PR
- PR Accreditation
- PR Agency or Corporate PR/Outsourcing
- PR Education/Training
- PR and Technology/Change
- Public Opinion
- Selecting a PR Career
- Strategy/Strategic Thinking
- Transition to Corporate World
- Women and Diversity in PR
- Public Opinion