In May of 2011, I posted an entry on this blog critical of Burson-Marsteller’s ill-advised anti-Google campaign for its client Facebook. In that post I mentioned other PR firms that had experienced similar transparency issues in the past decade, including FleishmanHillard. F-H was criticized by a reporter when some of its employees led him to believe they were employed by F-H’s largest client rather than the agency itself. Shortly after the post was published, I received a call from Dave Senay, F-H’s long-time CEO. Senay was cordial, but he wanted to further discuss my reasons for including his firm in the article. Thus began a dialogue that has continued to this day.

We agreed to meet at an industry gathering a few weeks after that phone call. When we met over lunch, Senay expressed his deep commitment to ethical principles and his desire to promote ethical conduct both at his firm and in the industry as a whole. I mentioned that I served on the board of the Josephson Institute of Ethics (JIE) and this intrigued him. He asked if the Institute had ever provided an ethics program certification for a communications firm. I told him we hadn’t but it was an interesting idea. I offered to introduce him to Michael Josephson, the founder and CEO of the Josephson Institute, and the meeting took place in November of 2011.

JIE agreed to work with Senay and his team to analyze the firm’s current ethical policies and practices, including meeting with team members in several U.S. offices, speaking by phone with personnel at several overseas offices and reviewing F-H’s training and orientation materials, websites and ongoing communication practices. This resulted in a series of 22 recommendations authored by Michael Josephson that covered a wide range of practices, policies and ongoing behavior. It was a far more comprehensive process than I had first anticipated and the review process took far longer than any of us expected it would. It was the rigor of the review that to my mind provided its credibility.

It would not have surprised me if Senay and his team had looked at the exhaustive list, thanked us and moved on. Instead they took the challenge to address each one of the 22 recommendations. Not only did the agency gather the low-hanging fruit of items like website re-design and procedural changes, the staff had also tackled thornier issues, such as the inherent conflict created by competing priorities.

For example, FleishmanHillard emphasized to employees the critical importance of capturing new business, an ever-present issue in the industry. At the same time the firm stated the equally important priority of delivering great service to existing clients. How could employees know which of the two was most important?

The agency made a conscientious effort to explain to employees the reasons that both are important to the future of the business. Senior management took the time to address this issue and explain the critical importance of taking care of existing clients, since their business still accounts for the majority of the company’s success. When conflicts arose, they would take additional time to discuss the issues with employees and seek acceptable outcomes in how employees divided their time.

Another tough issue was work-life balance. The industry was demanding, and clients expected around-the-clock service. How could employees maintain their personal lives in the face of what sometimes seemed like unrealistic expectations? To address these work-life balance issues, F-H employees established taskforces to work on new ideas for balance that will work for F-H and the industry. Based on employee survey results, F-H identified key markets in its global network with negative scores in the work-life balance area and is following up on specific action steps with each office.

F-H has implemented a thorough employee relationship dimension to its ethics program that includes recruitment and hiring, orientation, training, professional development, discipline and termination policies, compensation, performance management and exit interviews. The company has also developed and implemented a comprehensive internal and external communications program built on the theme of “Ethics as Culture.”

After JI completed its review, and after the two organizations worked through further refinements to F-H’s program, the Institute declared:

"FleishmanHillard has designed and implemented a comprehensive ethics program that addresses all aspects of training, communications, reporting, monitoring and review. The Institute is continuing to work with FleishmanHillard to ensure that its ethics program continues to exceed legal compliance and achieves exemplary status for programs of its kind."

It was an unprecedented endorsement. But FleishmanHillard didn’t stop there. Under Senay’s leadership and at its own expense the firm developed a white-label version of the “Ethics as Culture” program that it has made available to the industry through the Council of Public Relations Firms. Dozens of firms have now downloaded the materials that can be used to train employees in ethical issues, conduct and behavior.

Senay recently shared the journey we had embarked on two and a half years ago in a speech to a Page Society Future Leaders Experience meeting in Charleston. He shared with the group one of his favorite quotes, from General Omar Bradley, made on Armistice Day in 1948: “We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

Senay admits that his firm has made mistakes in the past and like all organizations is subject to the individual decisions that its thousands of employees make every day. FleishmanHillard is not immune from ethical lapses simply because the Josephson Institute has called its program “exemplary.” But we have to start somewhere. Leadership begins with acknowledging an issue and then committing the time and resources to addressing it. I hope other leaders in our profession will heed the call.