Morality and public relations: Is everyone entitled to PR support?

Reputation matters. How your organisation is viewed is not just a pat on the back for a job well done – it has serious financial implications. Earlier this year, research claimed that corporate reputation accounted for 38% of market capitalization across the FTSE 100 & 250.

Good news for the public relations industry, but can protecting the reputation of others cost you your own good name?

When scandal engulfed Bell Pottinger in 2017 a key factor in the company’s downfall was that important clients ditched BP, fearing the damage to their own reputations through association.

One of the founders of Bell Pottinger, Lord Bell, who passed away in August this year, famously adhered to the ‘cab rank’ principle employed by barristers – that everyone is entitled to a defence and you queue for the next one to come along.

With ethical practice continuing to be a hot topic with the public relations industry, I spoke via email with four experts on their views on how the public relations should handle difficult briefs.*

Are ‘morally questionable’ organisations ‘entitled’ to PR support?

Jared Meade, MPS, APR, Northwest Ohio PRSA Chapter President, Principal Rayne Strategy GroupDepends on what you mean by morally questionable because there are personal morals that can differ between people and then there are morals held by society-at-large. I think we can all agree that murder is morally repugnant but alcohol or cannabis consumption, for instance, is less straight forward. With that said, I think that most groups or organizations deserve to have their side of a story told whether society agrees with them or not, just as everyone is entitled to legal counsel. However, I don’t think this extends to people or groups that are promoting violence or hatred. It’s a fine line but one that I think is very important.

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA Adjunct Professor, Communication, University of Tampa: These organizations have a right to ask for PR support as any entity in a democratic society would be. But they are absolutely are NOT ‘entitled’ to assistance from ethically minded public relations professionals.

Bob Frause, APR, Fellow PRSA,CEO Frause: If the consultancy subscribed to a Code of Ethics they would also have to consider the principles of conduct outlined in their Code before consideration representation. Even if they decide to represent a morally questionable client, a majority of the public may have negative feelings regarding the consultancy which will most likely be voiced as ‘unethical’, which itself is inaccurate because the public is unfamiliar with the difference immoral and unethical. 

Should PR pros have red lines that they won’t cross? For example, not to work for arms industry, tobacco industry etc?

Ella Minty, Founding Chartered Public Relations Practitioner: We should – I’m a smoker (have been for over 20 years). I would never do PR for a tobacco company unless they fully prove that the cigarettes are no longer toxic and harmful and so on. As for weapon manufacturers, I often say that the causes of any war should be researched beyond ‘what’s known’.

KH: Absolutely. That is a core principle of ethical public relations practice… setting boundaries that clearly identify territory into which one will NOT venture… regardless of the temptation of an often-lucrative financial arrangement.

Would you consider a pr professional advocating for an organisation they found morally questionable to be breaking their ethical commitment to dealing honestly with the public?

BF: If they could convince the ‘morally questionable’ organization to be totally transparent and honest in all communications with the public, to and including the reasons that have led to their ‘morally questionable’ character, then no, I don’t believe that they would be breaking their ethical commitment to deal honestly with the public. If they couldn’t do this then, yes, they would be breaking their ethical commitment.

JM: If the professional in question finds the organization morally questionable then yes, they are breaking their ethical commitment to dealing honestly with the public. They are breaking their ethical commitment to their client as well. How can a professional effectively advocate for an organization they don’t believe in? In my opinion, they can’t.

Has there been a change in public opinion that has increased the risk to PR practitioners of working with questionable clients? For example, their reputation taking a hit and upsetting current clients who do not wish to be associated with unpopular brands.

EM: At surface, it has. Deep down, I doubt it. The game of ‘smoke and mirrors’ some PR agencies and practitioners display, corroborated with a grandstanding underpinned by nothing other than ‘if we take this client on, we’ll lose that client’, appears to be purely financially motivated. When our peers will base their choice of clients on ‘this is wrong’, then we shall have truly ethically evolved as a practice.

JM: Absolutely, now that doesn’t mean that a PR practitioner can’t make the personal decision to take on a “questionable client,” it just means that they need to understand that there may be consequences to that decision.

A PR practitioner can even cause harm to their reputation if they become too vocal about personal views such as their political beliefs. They run the risk of alienating a large segment of the public. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to voice their opinions, but they do have to think about the consequences of being too vocal.

BF: No, I think the public still thinks all PR, for the most part, is just pay-for-play advertising.  In most cases, I think the public is not surprised PR firms take on questionable clients.  Generally, the client or client’s product takes the public heat for being questionable.  The result is that the PR firm representing them is generally fired for not deceptively convincing the target audiences enough.

KH: I think we are seeing increased attention being paid to who is ‘behind the curtain’ in situations where an organization is perceived by the public to not be ‘acceptable’ or ‘morally right’. And in today’s mega-wired social media environment, it’s not just traditional media representatives who will ‘out’ the offending organization.

The everyday citizen now has that capability as well.

There we have it, some very interesting perspectives from our contributors and my thanks to them for taking the time to share their views.

The question of controversial clients remains one that has become more nuanced as the repercussions on personal reputation are more pronounced. Ethical behavior is a fundamental part of the professionalization of public relations, yet so much is dependent on a personal code as much as an industry wide one. It is therefore vital that the subject continues to be discussed, please feel free to do so in the comments section or on Twitter at @InfluencePRmag.

Photo by Hunters Race on Unsplash

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