Can A PR Agency Ethically Defend An Unethical Client?

The hasty retreat of not one, but two, PR agencies from the crisis swirling around Minneapolis dentist Walter Palmer — better known as #CecilTheLionKiller — has revived a thorny ethical issue.

Can a PR professional in good conscience represent a deeply unpopular person, or even a criminal? Should PR be employed to explain a reprehensible action?

After hunting and killing a beloved Zimbabwean lion, Palmer is himself being hunted, and the whole mess reminds us how far the social mob will go to punish repugnant behavior. But it wasn’t just Palmer who was targeted. First one, then another PR agency distanced itself from the dentist after withering criticism. A digital marketing company who had registered his web domain in 2013 was attacked so aggressively on its Facebook page that it had to drop everything and learn some fast crisis management.

I don’t approve of what Palmer did, but it’s interesting that within days Cecil’s killing drew far more anger than, say, Ketchum’s work for Vladimir Putin’s government (which ended earlier this year), or the Harrisburg, Pa. agency who repped Jerry Sandusky. It also raises questions about the PR industry ethics that govern our choice of client.

Principled PR Representation Turns On How We Counsel Clients

Would anyone in PR have the courage to represent the dentist who killed Cecil? Probably not. But if you think it through in the light of the Public Relations Society of America’s definition of ethical communications, it shouldn’t be that way.

The right choice isn’t as much about about which clients we represent, but about what we do in representing them. As PRSA tells us in a terrific post called “Whitewashing Despots,” if the client tells the truth and “supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information,” it can be an ethical decision to represent him. The key is to represent the public interest.

Hypothetically, Palmer could be persuaded to throw himself on the mercy of public opinion. He could apologize, make reparations, and over time, become an international poster child for protecting wildlife. Maybe it’s quixotic, but that would be the goal of any PR professional who worked with him. By killing Cecil, Palmer has unintentionally galvanized public opinion against illegal lion hunting beyond anything even the most well-funded public service campaign could possibly do. So, in theory, he’s in a unique position to take advantage of his notoriety and turn it around, for his own good and the good of those who care about protecting animals like Cecil.

I’m not counting on anything like this to happen, and I probably wouldn’t take on Walter Palmer as a client. But the story of Cecil and the dentist is a reminder that even a questionable client can find redemption, and that in our business, maybe the ethical choice isn’t always the easy one.

A Journalist’s POV: 3 Questions From A PR Firm

Working at a top New York PR agency affords us the opportunity to meet and work with some stellar writers. Meg Fry is one of them. After a few years screenwriting and working as a production assistant, Meg chose to pursue her passions for writing and women’s issues by taking a plum job as the “Women in Business” blogger for a local business pub, NJBiz. She writes about women in all different industries, telling their stories and celebrating their success while providing news, tips, and helpful hints for “the next generation.” We posed some questions to Meg to gain insight on working with her.

As a writer who profiles local “movers & shakers,” what has to be part of a pitch to get you interested? Pitches, much like resumes and cover letters, should be tailored to each publication. We frequently receive pitches for lifestyle and arts stories that I’d love to write, but most likely can’t because we primarily are a business-to-business publication. I’ve most successfully worked with PR agencies when a pitch is: presented in a clear, “just-the-facts” fashion; suggesting specific business angles, but not forcing them; and including supplementary research material, such as press releases, backgrounds, bios, statistics and photographs. When I do write a story, I also appreciate PR agencies that carefully consider what more I might be looking for based on previous angles I’ve taken. Having go-to PR people makes my job a lot easier when I’m searching for a story or source!

What was the craziest/worst pitch you ever received? There have been a few PR specialists that have practically written the story for me in their pitch—what more is there left for me to do? I was even reprimanded once for writing about a company that had such a pitch and not “following the text that previously had been written.” Word to the wise, journalists do indeed have a “blocked” folder in their Outlook for people in PR, marketing and communications that are difficult to work with—sometimes the story doesn’t warrant the grief!

If you had one piece of advice for a PR pro it would be… Trust me, we’ve received your press release. I do appreciate one follow-up email or phone call, just in case I did happen to mistakenly delete it—but we have limited space in our publication and more than likely, the press release you sent just doesn’t fit our focus right now. Sending multiple emails a week and leaving increasingly irritated voicemails on my answering machine are excellent ways not to receive any sort of response now or in the future.

Okay, PRs, if you didn’t know before, you do now.