Taking A Stand for Ethics | Ethics In Practice: Ethics Month 2021 with Paula Pedene, APR, Fellow PRSA

Paula Pedene, U.S. Navy veteran and owner of Paula Pedene & Associates, a Service Disabled Veteran and Women Owned Small Business, was one of the first whistleblowers at the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System, where veterans were dying while waiting for care. In retaliation for her disclosures, she was stripped of her role as a public affairs officer, one she held for 20 years. Over the next few years, Paula fought the system – and won. She earned her title back, was promoted to handle national public affairs for the Veterans Administration, and retired with 40 years of service, including her 10-year service in the Navy.

Paula discusses the importance of honesty and ethics in public relations with host Kathie Taylor, APR.

Read the transcript:

Kathie 0:01

Welcome to season two of better PR a podcast for public relations practitioners who are looking to advance their careers. Whether you’re a new practitioner mid-career or a senior practitioner will have wonderful discussions that will reignite your love of PR. We’ll also learn about accreditation and PR through the public relations Society of America. Better PR is brought to you by in plain sight marketing, a full-service public relations and marketing agency in Carson City, Nevada, and the Sierra Nevada chapter of the public relations Society of America. I’m Kathie Taylor, your host. And Today my guest is Paula Padene. She is a fellow with the public relations Society of America. And she is talking with our chapter this month about ethics in public relations for ethics month. Welcome, Paula.


Thank you, Kathie, I’m pleased to be here.


Well, I’m super excited to have you number one, because I get a sneak preview of what you’re going to talk to our chapter about. But also, because you have an amazing story to tell, about holding on to your ethics, the PRSA code of ethics, and all of the things you hold dear in life, to make sure that you managed a terrible situation with integrity, honesty and ethics. So, I welcome you. And I’m so excited for you to share your story.

Paula: 1:18

Thank you. Yeah, so it’s kind of a unique story. I don’t think anybody goes out there and says, Hey, I’m going to be a whistleblower. I mean, that’s not what you want to put on your resume. You just don’t want to do that. So, it kind of finds you. And I often say, and I will tell the group when we’re in person, that this whole journey, I learned that God had me where he needed me to be. So, two things really grew. As I went through the trauma, and the tribulations that I faced and, and one was my stand for ethics. I just people around me were lying. They weren’t telling the truth. They were fudging the numbers.


We would anonymously report things and Id teams would come into the facility and investigate and they would not tell them the truth. So, the team would leave. And they couldn’t talk to us because we were anonymous. And the reason we were anonymous, was because we were afraid there was a couple of us. And, you know, they unfortunately in the federal government, it is different than the private sector in in one way that in the private sector, they could have just fired me, and I would have been gone, you know, there would have been no recourse for me at all, really. But in the government, they cannot once you’ve earned a position you’ve applied for it. If you know, been in it, you’ve, you’ve made it through a three-year 10-year mark.

And then you’re there for years, and I was in my position for 18 years, when they tried to remove me from it.

It’s difficult for the government to just detail you out of a position. And that’s what they did to me. So, it was unethical. They wanted to silence me. And when we found out what they were doing it that’s when the struggles really began. So, it’s kind of a unique timeline in December of 2012. They took me out of my job right after we had the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade. big, beautiful event downtown, the streets of Phoenix, 45,000 people on the streets to come out and say thank you to our nation’s veterans on their special day, which is Veterans Day, November 11. And everything went well. And

you know, but I could tell from about August. The new leadership arrived in February in about August; I could tell they didn’t want a truth Sayer in their midst.

Kathie: 4:16

I’m sorry – at this point you were with the Veterans Administration.

Paula: 4:21

So, I’m sorry. Yeah, I was with the Veterans Health Administration or the Phoenix VA health care system as it is now called, at the time it was called the Carl t haven VA Medical Center. We were named after senator Hayden, who brought the hospital here to serve our veterans right after World War Two. So yeah, so I you know, I started the I got here in 1994. And it was in 2012. So, 18 years later. Now, mind you, while I’m doing my job as a PR person, we have numerous awards and accolades, three of those Silver Anvil Awards came from my work at VA. So, it’s not like we were running a crummy program where we’re running a great program. And I will tell you, the thing that really led me to strive for the silver ample was my accreditation and public relations. Without the APR, I would not have known, the models, the theories, the practices, I wouldn’t have known about the importance and the value of the code of ethics. And, you know, it’s really kind of just a, I was in the right spot at the wrong time for management, but at the right time for God. And that’s what I like to tell people because they were lying, somebody needed to stop them, and myself and several other colleagues worked feverishly to do that. It took us two years.

Kathie 5:55

Wow, wow. So, in your experience with the VA, you uncovered some activities that were not ethical or conducive to honest communications and so on. And so, what made you decide to step forward? And then in that process, you said it took two years, I was reading over your history. And it looked like this started for you in 2010. And then you had an outcome, I think, in 2014. All together 4 years?

Paula 6:14

Yeah. I don’t go into in my story that I’ll present because it is a bit of a long story. But in 2010, we got so my boss that I loved and where we were a top performing hospital, he retired in I think it was 2007. And then in 2008 2009, we had new leadership, and that one of the leaders that came in, he was really more about himself than our nation’s veterans. And unfortunately for him, that did not sit well with our staff, our staff was a servant, leadership, model staff. Everybody there cared about each other, we really got to, you know, along well, they cared about the patients and our boss, john fears would let us be innovative and do the most right thing. He said, I will tell you this, if you ever have a question about what to do, you always rule on the side of the veteran. That’s what he said. He said, and leave it to me, and I’ll take the heat. And that’s the kind of leadership that we had. So, the new guy comes in, he’s not like that at all. He’s all about himself. He’s all about how can I be front and center. And he wanted to get we had one MRI at our facility, we had phenomenal growth. And he wanted to get a second MRI. And in order to get the second MRI, what he did, instead of working with the staff to legitimately get the numbers corrected and up, he, he would tell the staff to delay the care in the radiology department. So that we had, again, the stacking of the numbers, but it was different this time it was making it seem like we had more demand than what we truly had. And his intent to in doing that was to get the funding for the second MRI. But, you know, the doctors kept figuring out that he was there, consults to radiology were being denied. And that’s when that kind of broke that loose. So, Dr. Foote, at the time was the director at large for the medical board that we had. And he’s the one that said, we’ve got to stop this. And then he called on me, because he knew that I knew other things that the director was doing. Like, it’s kind of crazy. He had, he was a fencer, so we had two foils in his office, and they go like this, you know, on display, and those are actually weapons were federal property, you can’t have weapons.

Paula 9:53

So it was, you know, it’s those kinds of things he so one time he grabs one that he’s having disagreement with the interior designer, and instead of, you know, really being professional about it, he goes over, well, he takes the swords off the wall, he puts one on the desk for her and he takes one, he goes, you want to duel? You just you can’t do that in that environment. And he wasn’t kidding. I mean, if, you know, it was a little fake sword, maybe, you know, it would be kind of, you know, it breaks the ice or whatever the stress. But he that’s kind of how he was if somebody held the door for him and let him through first he’d give him $5, he was just kind of it was all about him. And he really wanted the red-carpet treatment and, and he really didn’t put our veterans first. And so that’s what kind of happened there. But then after that situation, is when I got into the second situation, because we successfully removed him. And the number two guy who was supporting him for two things, hostile work environment and mismanagement of funds, okay, because they were they were hiding, they were denying the patient’s care, so they could get more money to put the funds where they needed them, they were moving money around. So really an unethical environment. And when she got removed, we were all like, you know, just like thumbs up with everything, it was funny. And we thought, okay, glad that’s over. Now, let’s just get back to doing the good work for our nation’s veterans. And we were able to do that we had an interim director for a year. But then I’m Sharon Holman came, and that’s when the second whistleblowing activity occurred. So, the first whistleblowing activity took place from 2010 to about 2011, we were able to remove the leadership quietly, it didn’t hit the press, members of Congress knew, and it was internally held. And if an organization is sound, and smart, and the leadership is ethical, that’s really how you want it to happen. And unfortunately, nowadays, we have people who want to fudge the numbers want to make appearances seem better than what they are. And they’re not being honest. And when you look to the code of ethics, that’s, that’s our second code is honesty, I think it should be first. But, you know, being accurate and telling the truth is, is critically important. And I will tell you, it saved me. in both situations, it saved me.

Kathie 12:46

So, I know that you had quite an experience in being relegated to a basement office and those kinds of things that I’ve read about, would you do it again?

Paula 12:59

Oh, yes. Um, you know, Kathie, it’s like I said it. When I was in it, I was miserable. I was, so I became depressed, I had no idea why they were doing this. I couldn’t understand it, you know, all I had done was just do a really good job for the VA. I mean, I it was like, one of the nurses told me, she goes, Paula, the only thing you don’t do for VA is sleep here. You know, I was dedicated. So, um, so you know, when I look back on it, and people often ask me what I do it again, the answer is yes. Because it was God’s calling. And that’s what I needed to do. Um, what I would do differently. And what I tell people is, I would handle it differently. You can’t change them and what they’re doing and how they’re treating you. But the only thing when you’re stuck in a situation, the only thing you can do is change how you view it and how you handle it. And that’s the one thing I would change if I could, because it hurt my family, it hurt me. And, and being more cognizant of, maybe me being strong at home instead of being weak at home because I’d had to be strong all day at work. I’d have to, you know, go to work. Everybody knew me as a public affairs officer on the top floor. And I would have to push the button to go to be the basement and hold my head up pi. And really do trivial work. I mean, checking in books, checking out books, making copies, signing the patients onto computers, you know, those kinds of things. It was it was it was a struggle of it.

Kathie: 15:01

You know that that’s a really great topic and one we spoke about with Scott Oxarart. He’s with Washoe County and the communications that he was doing during the huge COVID surge last year and his story of how it impacted him and his family. I think these are important messages for public relations practitioners, because oftentimes, we are the face of the of the organization, and we do take those hits, and it is hard to care for ourselves during that time.

Paula: 15:33

It is because you know, you’re all into it, and it, it demands. You know, a crisis demands your full response. And they often tell you in crisis communications, that you’re not going to be as good if you don’t take care of yourself, you have to eat, you have to drink, you have to sleep, you have to get the resources and backup that you need. And I think the ones who really handle it, well do that. But I will also tell you, the ones who do it, well tell the truth. Because when you tell the truth, and when you are honest, you never have to worry about what story you told when the truth is a truth. And it’s always the same, and you don’t have to fudge it. And I think that’s the importance for us of when we look at our code of ethics, and we look at being advocates and we look at having independence, you know, to be able to say no, I can’t lie to them, I have to tell the truth, when we look to being honest. It’s the refining of our skills through the AP our through our studies through going to conferences, to going to luncheons to the professional development, that gets us to that point where we can be strong enough to take a stand for ethics.

Kathie 17:08

I love that. I love to that you are also a fellow with PRSA. And you were the 2015 PR practitioner of the year. Right?

Paula 17:18

Yeah. So, it was so funny, because, you know, when I was in the basement in the library, I was like, Well, I’m really busy. So, I’m going to work on my fellow’s application.

Paula 17:34

Okay, they’re not giving me valuable work, I’m gonna go work on myself, you know, so I put my application together. When this is in like February, I think it because it’s June, March or April. And it’s a wonderful review process. Because you really have to go back the 20 years, you have to have 20 years to end the APR to get to fellow and you have to go back and kind of validated all your past work, and how you serve the community how use you serve the profession, and how you, you know, gave to PRSA as well. So, it was it was this wonderful look down memory lane in my head time to do it in between all the menial work that I was doing. But um, I submit it and I think it was March or April thinking, Oh, this, this, they’re gonna put me back in my job. This nothing can happen with them. They’ve done I’ve done nothing wrong, although I was nervous because I knew they were looking. Um,

Paula 18:39

and you know, the poor guy. I think it was Tony DeAngelo. He calls me up and he says, Paula, he goes, one of the things I do is like Google every applicant’s name. And he said, I noticed that you have been removed from your position, and that you have pending litigation. He goes, I’m sorry, but you’re not able to apply for fellows at this point in time. He said, If the litigation changes, and if you get settlement before I think it was August or something, then we can reconsider it. And unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So

Paula 19:18

I had to wait a whole nother year. You know, to apply. But again, when we talk about there, to me, there’s a higher source. God knew that if I would have gotten my fellow in 2014, that I wouldn’t have been able to get, or it wouldn’t have been as sweet as getting fellow and PR pro of the Year for my government whistleblowing activities at the same time. And that’s what happened. That made it special. So, it was it worth the wait and a little bit of embarrassment and humiliation because they didn’t make it to fellow and I think it’s good that it’s tough. Um, you know, it’s just like the APR, it’s not easy, I had to take it twice, I, you know, pass the oral The first time I failed the written the first time, I had to go back and take the, the, written the second time, and then I passed it but, and that was when it was like you had to wait six months, took me six more months to study. And now it’s much more ingrained, you know, public opinion theory, I can still name them: the Weaver Strand models and some of those things and, and how the, you know, the feedback comes through the models is really wonderful. It really is.

Kathie 20:54

So, I think that’s a really neat thing to talk about. Because the things that you study, in the accreditation process are things that you use every day.

Paula 21:05

Oh, yeah, yeah. And what I really love about the APR is the RPIE model. To me, that was foreign to me, I had no idea about, you know, the research, the planning, the implementation and the evaluation, until I went through the APR. And when, when that light clicked, and I, I became kind of a research cheerleader, because I could say to my management team, that, Oh, no, the community wants this. And they would look at me and say, Well, how do you know the community wants this? And I said, Oh, in our community survey, where we asked a, b, c, d, this is what they said. And this was their response.

And I was able to create campaigns based on the research because I listened, I really did listen to the research, and then develop the plans, and the implementation. And then we’ve looked back when we were done after the year, and the evaluation was solid. I mean, we had moved the needle, from the baseline study to the follow up study, and what we were doing. And then when I looked to applying for the Silver Anvil, I saw that it was all based on that model, the campaign. So, I, I didn’t know that because I wasn’t like, you know, into, I’m gonna get this award at the time. But once I learned the model, it became my life, it became my life. So that APR really did change my life for the positive as a practitioner.

Kathie 22:56

I can totally relate with that. And we’ve changed our entire business model to reflect that RPIE practice because we find that it is so important.

Paula 23:07:

It is and I saw it on your website, and I thought, Oh, she’s so I was like, I need to do stuff that normal person, they don’t understand it. And you know, public relations is one of those kinds of ethereal things. It’s not like HR, where you have this many employees, this many performance records this many things. It’s not like fiscal where you have this many widgets, this much money. You know, it’s kind of a theory, really, the Veterans Day event can get us a 30% positive improvement in our image. Yeah, here’s how, you know, people hear about us or watching us on the news as we build up to this event. And then the day of we pretty much you know, it’s like a takeover, like a Twitter chat.

Paula 23:57

You know, except to fill the streets. And, you know, so having that research and, and just listening to people. That’s why I never hope we change our name. I think communication is a tool. I think public relations is the sociology of people and getting us connected. And I want to have those relationships with our publics. That’s what I love about our profession.

Kathie 24:33

That is beautiful. I love that too. And I’m going to leave it there because I really want to entice people to come here you speak on September 16, at Rancharrah, and it’s through the public relations Society of America, Sierra Nevada chapter. And Paula, thank you so much for being with us. And thank you for your service.

Paula 25:00

My honor my honor. Kathie, thank you for having me. And I look forward to getting with you guys together in person.


Thank you, Paula, where can people find you online?


It’s paulapedene.com. My phone number 480-772-2934. And then the email is paula@paulapedene.com.


Beautiful. Thank you. You’ve been listening to better PR a podcast by and for public relations practitioners. To learn more about the public relations Society of America visit prsa.org and be for Be sure to check me out at IPS m llc.com. Paula, thanks again. It’s been an honor.


Thank you, Kathie. It’s been my honor too.