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Can Ethical PRs Represent Unethical Clients?

ethics in PR

The public relations business is plagued with bad cultural stereotypes (see: Flacks) as well as real-life examples of specialists who lie or deceive. Sure, every occupation has its bad apples. Ironically, however, image control for PR is particularly challenging. For one thing, we answer to many parties, from clients and media to shareholders and stakeholders. And lately the stakes, as well as the potential penalties for unethical behavior, are rising.  That’s a good thing.

The consequences can be steep

In the wake of the Pandora papers tax fraud scandal, legislators are now proposing to penalize law firms, accounting firms and even PR agencies who fail to vet criminal clients. The so-called “enablers,” including PR firms, had previously been excluded from due diligence rules. Should the bipartisan proposal become law, it should give large multinational agencies pause.

At the same time, there’s a bigger incentive for communicators to do the right thing. Negative baggage has a cost, too. Just look at the pressure on the comms team at Facebook, which has come to epitomize the struggle to do ethical work at a company that is acting in bad faith. Whistleblower Frances Haugen has managed to break through where previous Facebook critics have not. Her success is in part due to her use of Facebook’s own data about the damage its incentives have done. Haugen has also benefited from good timing. Facebook has been able to explain away past misdeeds with PR apologies, but the new allegations will likely stick. Although knowledgeable people disagree about what the consequences should be, the need to rein in Facebook is one of the very few areas of bipartisan agreement in Congress.

When good PR happens to bad people

What does this mean for the PR community? It all raises the question: how can a PR professional ethically represent an unethical, or merely controversial, company or individual? Should strategic PR advice be used to explain or defend a reprehensible action? What about repeated actions? The answers aren’t as obvious as they seem.

In a new textbook Public Relations Ethics: The Real-World Guide, Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy take a refreshingly real-world approach to ethics in our business. A central case study is the story of Bell Pottinger, in which the firm’s expulsion from the Public Relations and Communications Association for ethical breaches was taken by some as proof that the industry code had real impact.

But the authors acknowledge that even the clear-cut case of Bell Pottinger’s collapse was complicated. After all, it was known as “the PR firm for despots and rogues” for years. Its late founder openly flouted industry conventions and most of Bell Pottinger’s allies only rejected the firm after scandal hit. That speaks to the hypocrisy in our industry as well as others — success can breed a kind of immunity to the rules. Change tends to happen slowly, then all at once, as we saw in the #metoo movement.

The good news is that PRSA’s ethical guidelines are widely published, taught, and understood by those working in PR and communications. Yet even when the rules are clear – don’t lie, don’t engage in dubious tactics like astro-turfing, and don’t represent dictators, etc. — real-world situations are rarely as black-and-white.

Principled PR is a matter of good faith

Ethics training for future PR professionals is critical, and textbooks like the Morris Goldsworthy help. But ethical behavior starts with the individual. In our business, the ethical choice may not always be simple or clear, but intentions should matter.

The right choice isn’t just about about which clients we represent, but about what we do in representing them. As PRSA tells us in a useful post titled “Whitewashing Despots,” if the client tells the truth and “supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information,” it can actually be an ethical decision to represent them. The key is to represent the public interest, and to do so in good faith. Until you can’t.

We’ve all known practitioners who choose to work for organizations with ethical challenges, from Philip Morris to Facebook. Those comms executives often say they’re trying to work for change from within. Sometimes they are. And sometimes, like Frances Haugen, after trying in good faith, they recognize when change from within is impossible.

What Frances Haugen did will make it easier for future whistleblowers. But her example is also a good one for professional communicators. Influence is powerful. Sometimes it can work from within. But if that fails, different action is needed, and that’s where a true ethical compass kicks in.

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