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Can A PR Agency Ethically Defend An Unethical Client?

Cecil.lion.PRThe 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.

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