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Is it OK for PR professionals to work for tobacco companies? 

By Richard Evans

Tobacco and public relations have a long shared history.

In fact, the two figures most popularly thought of as the founders of the profession – Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays – both did work on behalf of the tobacco industry.

Lee advised American Tobacco that Lucky Strike adverts should not be placed next to adverts for other cigarettes (to separate them in the public mind), while Bernays’s famous torches of freedom stunt was funded by the tobacco industry.

On this side of the Atlantic, too, PR has a long history of representing tobacco companies.

But given how much we talk about ethics in public relations, can we justify working for an industry whose products killed more people in the 20th Century than the first and second world wars combined? Is it ethical to promote something that gives many of the people who use it cancer and heart disease?

Many people argue that, just as with legal advocates, it is not our job to make moral judgments. Robert Leaf, an important figure in the history of British PR, articulates this well in his autobiography:

“It was basically Burson-Marsteller’s philosophy that everyone has the right to tell his story just as anyone on trial has a right to legal representation, even if there might be a great deal of public hostility towards that person.”

But personally, this isn’t an analogy I buy into. A paper on ethics by Kay Weaver, Judy Motion and Juliet Roper puts it this way:

“An important distinguishing feature of lawyers compared with public relations practitioners is… that the role of lawyers is to defend their clients’ claim to innocence and their right to life, liberty, and property until the state proves them guilty in the court of public opinion.

“This compares with public relations practitioners, who advocate for their clients, but not in situations of protecting that client against accusation and punishment by the state and, moreover, not in a situation where clients’ claims are thoroughly examined by an advocate appointed to work for the public interest.”

I think we are better served by looking back to Basil Clarke, who developed the first ever public relations code of ethics in the 1920s. He wrote that public relations practitioners should not “secure public support or help for anything which is anti-social; which has not within it some aspect of definite public interest or worthwhile public service, greater or less”.

The CIPR’s position today is that while professionals should act with what is calls “ethical competency” – i.e. integrity in all things they do –  as part of adhering to its code of conduct, it does not think this is incompatible with working in the tobacco industry or other controversial industries.

And from a practical perspective, there’s a strong argument that taking a moral stance on one thing could be the thin end of a very thick wedge. Once you decide that promoting tobacco is unacceptable, what’s next on the list? It is easy to imagine arguments for taking the same approach to a wide variety of things: fracking; the arms industry; the alcohol and food industries; homeopathy; gambling; virtually every government in the world. The list of things people could potentially have an issue with is very long.

Certainly, it’s right that taking a strong position on tobacco could lead to further questions for which there would be no easier answer. But the potential headaches would, I believe, be worth it.

Personally, I am inspired by how Clarke – and his contemporary, Stephen Tallents – saw public relations as a social movement; a force for public good. That’s the kind of profession I want to be a part of. And if we are going to be that kind of profession, I personally think we should be taking a strong stand against promoting the tobacco industry.

While I understand the argument about it being the thin end of the wedge, tobacco stands virtually alone as a special case in that almost everyone agrees it is a bad thing.

With almost everything else, it is less cut and dry:

  • With fracking, there are passionate views onboth sides of the debate;
  • With high-calorie foods and alcohol, most people think the harm they do needs to be balanced against the enjoyment they bring;
  • With the arms industry,there is debate about who should be sold weapons but few would disagree that there is a need for weaponry;
  • While most governments do some bad things, few are uniformly bad.

But even if a decision that promoting tobacco was unethical led to calls for a debate on these kinds of issues, I think this would be no bad thing. There may also be a small number of governments that would be considered beyond the pale to promote (and Robert Leaf himself rejected a request to represent Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan government).

There are also other arguments against taking a stance on tobacco: that practitioners can act in the public interest by influencing tobacco companies from the inside and that their work might, for example, focus on helping tobacco companies diversify their product mix (and so sell less tobacco).

I would imagine, though, that most practitioners working for the tobacco industry would find it difficult to argue that their role is leading to lower tobacco consumption. If they could make this case convincingly, then that’s great and we should celebrate their contribution.

But apart from these rare cases, I would imagine that most public relations for the tobacco industry would, even if indirectly, have the end result of encouraging cigarette smoking. For me, that is a bad thing.

That is why it would be great for us to take a view on this. I think it would send a really positive message about how we are acting in the public interest if we were to take a strong stance on promoting an industry whose products kill 6 million people a year globally.


Richard is a member of the CIPR Council and has written a biography of PR pioneer Basil Clarke.

Image courtesy of pexels

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  1. What a load of rubbish. Some people don’t like smoking and the tobacco industry. Fine.
    I enjoy smoking, do so outside and rarely in the presence of non-smokers. If a tobacco company wants to use a communications person to promote a new brand to me, or another smoker, why shouldn’t they?
    This article seems to argue tobacco companies are universally despised. It just isn’t the case – there are plenty of smokers who enjoy what they do….in much the same way as there are plenty of drinkers, who enjoy what they do.
    Until Government chooses to make it illegal to smoke, there is no justifiable reason to mandate communications professionals can’t represent tobacco companies – the end.

  2. The question of drawing a line is an interesting one. For example, you can argue that the car industry does profound damage to public health and quality of life in major cities all over the world. Not just diesel emissions in Paris and London, but look at cities like Bombay where cars have become affordable in the past 10 years, with only patchwork improvements in infrastructure to accommodate the increased traffic. So should you work for Tata Motors? is their business sustainable and responsible and without damaging externalities? No way, if you apply the same standards that you judge the tobacco industry by. As for Diageo etc, don’t get me started, and i like a drink.

  3. Let me start by saying I am a communication manager with Imperial Tobacco and I’ve been a proud member of the CIPR for over a decade. The products we sell are legal and heavily regulated. At Imperial we have International Marketing Standards that we apply in every country we operate in even if local regulation is less stringent.

    I respect everyone’s right to have an opinion on smoking and its impact. However, I can’t stand by and see calls for colleagues who work in this legitimate sector to be banned from their professional body, based on a point of view.

    Transparency is a vital element of any debate on ethics. And as the CIPR celebrates its Ethics Festival this month, I find it odd that the author of this article fails to disclose his day job. Head of Press and Public Affairs for the Kings Fund. An independent health charity that campaigns against smoking and therefore the tobacco industry.

    1. Thanks for the comment Tony, I spoke to Richard after reading this and he said the following: “Just to be clear, these are my personal views as a member of the CIPR Council and not those of my employer. In fact, when the post was written a few weeks ago, I was working in different role.”

    2. Tony absolutely and wholeheartedly agree.
      I had several fantastic years working within this sector (also Imperial) within a media relations and regulatory communications capacity.
      From a personal development perspective I enjoyed the challenge of communicating on and around what we all acknowledge is a challenging sector.
      A lot of my campaign work involved highlighting and educating groups on the risks of illegal tobacco. From retailers, who are the corner stone of our society, and lose tens of thousands of pounds a year in lost sales, to local communities on not being silent – in essence ‘suspect it, report it!’.
      I positively collaborated with law enforcement groups, teams within HMRC and trade press who all saw the urgent need to tackle this nefarious activity. This partner approach resulted in a fully integrated 18 month communications campaign which generated some great results!
      My approach was no different, factoring in my CIPR learning’s over the years, to that I adopted in PR roles previously in manufacturing and currently within financial services.
      This isn’t meant to be a vent, more of a ‘feel, felt, found’ perspective on my own personal experience working within the tobacco industry in a ‘PR capacity’. Is it for the faint hearted… probably not. But PR/comms roles based within highly regulated sectors often aren’t. And that for me is why I love these types of roles and the challenges they bring.

  4. For three years at Burson-Marsteller (B-M) in the early 1990s I worked on the tobacco giant Philip Morris account.

    This is the firm that owns Kraft General Foods, Jacobs Suchard and which acquired Cadbury’s in 2010.

    (Strange that during the hostile takeover of Cadbury’s by Kraft no mention was made of the tobacco link! Perhaps if it had the course of events might have been different.)

    As the board director at B-M in charge of leisure, travel and tourism across Europe, I was brought in to advise the tobacco firm on whether it could defend the continuation of smoking in designated areas on aircraft, in hotel lobbies and in restaurants. This was when there was no causal link between smoking and cancer.

    Before I accepted working on the account I insisted on meeting some of Philip Morris’ senior management. I told them that I was an asthmatic, didn’t smoke, that I hated the smell of tobacco and that I didn’t like being in smoky rooms.

    My get out clause was an agreement to say that if I was asked whether smoking kills I could emphatically say ‘yes’. The Philip Morris executives smiled and agreed to this request. They said that my negatives about the tobacco industry were a positive reason for them wanting me to work on their account. They said I came across as being sincere. “I had integrity,” they said.

    Our principal communications task was to demonstrate that if you banned smoking on aircraft the air quality on board would not demonstrably improve.

    This somewhat screwed argument was backed up by peer reviewed scientific papers written by eminent medical doctors and scientists, but in the pay of Philip Morris. (That in itself poses the question as to how they could allow their personal ethics to be so skewed. Yet history is littered with doctors reneging on their Hippocratic oath.)

    The research papers showed that the new generation of aircraft recycled air within their cabins rather than taking fresh air from outside at -20 degrees centigrade and reheating it. This saved the airlines fuel and thus helped them cut their operating costs.

    The problem is that, no matter how good the air filters are on modern day aircraft they do not filter out viruses or bacteria. The research showed that on a transatlantic or Trans Asia flight if a person boarded a plane with flu the virus would spread to everyone on the aircraft by the time the plane landed.

    We ran high profile media tours across Europe to expose the so-called “false science” on aircraft cabin quality which achieved great media coverage. Yet no-one asked that bombshell question “does smoking kill”. So I didn’t get the satisfaction, much to my chagrin, of saying, “yes, it does.”

    On 23 April 2015 The Times newspaper in London reported that food experts had claimed that “The food industry is behaving like tobacco companies in trying to deny that sugar and carbohydrates, rather than physical inactivity, are behind the surge in obesity.”

    Doctors writing in the British Journal of Sports Medicine maintained that the “false perception that obesity is entirely due to lack of exercise was rooted in the food industry’s public relations machinery, which uses tactics chillingly similar to those of the tobacco industry.

    An industry successfully stalled government intervention for 50 years, starting from when the first links between smoking and lung cancer were published.”

    The doctors – Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist at Frimley Park Hospital, Tim Noakes of the University of Cape Town, and Stephen Phinney, of the University of California, Davis – said that obesity had rocketed over the past 30 years, despite little change in population-wide physical activity levels. They concluded: “It’s time to wind back the harm caused by the junk food industry’s public relations machinery.”

    It’s a damning indictment on the tobacco industry but also of the food industry.

    As Dr Malhotra so neatly predicts, “there would eventually be lawsuits against the food industry for its role in obesity.” The same was happening during my time working for Philip Morris. It really does call into question the use of public relations in stemming the banning of or preventing legislation against the common good.

    The gross misuse of PR can be seen in the current campaign waged by Philip Morris against the Uruguay government for increasing the size of the health warnings on cigarette packs. It’s a cynical PR tactic which lacks integrity.

  5. Perhaps this conversation that I once had with the leader of an international PR company sheds some light.

    Me: With the rapid expansion of the business across the world, how can you be sure that the company is acting ethically in each territory? For example, how do you know that there is no “rogue” office working with the tobacco industry? Or working with a despotic regime?

    Leader: It is not as easy as you make it sound with obvious Good Guys and Bad Guys. Many believe that everyone has a right to PR representation, including the tobacco industry. Some people might feel uncomfortable knowing that we represent a pharmaceutical business that manufactures anti-depressants or that we have links to the defence industry. Where would we draw the line?

    Me: Just because it is difficult to draw a line does not mean you shouldn’t. Why don’t you draw the line with any products or services that harm or kill the users – and innocent bystanders? You cannot “smoke responsibly.” Draw the line around the tobacco industry. And then see what else you can push over that line. Which other potential clients would be toxic? Build compelling cases for walking away. That is corporate social responsibility. That is strategy. That is moral.

    Leader: Tobacco is very big, lucrative business. There is also responsibility to shareholders and to make profit. One contract could change the course of our business. And if we don’t take it, you know another agency will.

    Me: I’m sure that is true. But companies that dance with the devil will have a price to pay. Clients will be lost. Good staff will leave. Reputation will be damaged.

    In fairness to this senior figure, I do know that they turned down the next approach from the tobacco industry. I know because the man that ran the procurement process told me. He gloated that the contract was worth millions and that Agency X had missed out. He wanted that message to reach the leader I had spoken to.

    Every business should be out and proud if they believe representing a client is the right thing to do. If you are not proud to represent a client: don’t do it.

    Let’s stop this cancer within the lobbying and PR industry. Let’s draw a line.

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