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.
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