The sexual abuse scandal surrounding CBC radio personality Jian Ghomeshi raises questions for PR agency professionals. The storm may be smaller than some recent mega-agency controversies like Ketchum’s work on behalf of Putin’s Russia, or Edelman’s involvement with ALEC. And Ghomeshi is less known here than in his native Canada, although his show, Q, is a cultural touchstone among millions of public radio fans. Still, his fall from grace brings up old questions about ethical guidelines and choices in our industry.
The reputation meltdown actually started with what seemed like a brilliant communications offensive after Ghomeshi was fired by CBC. As rumors of his violent behavior toward women threatened to become public, Ghomeshi moved to head off disaster with a bold stroke. In an emotional and painfully honest (so it seemed) Facebook post, he explained his predilection for “rough sex” as a choice of consenting adults, and the ugly charges as the actions of a spurned ex-lover. He pledged to sue CBC, which was cast as a reactionary for trying to legislate the private behavior of a star employee.
The offensive strategy could have worked – if, as Ghomeshi claimed, the behavior was consensual. Problem was, it quickly became clear that the incident wasn’t isolated…and it likely didn’t involve consent. More women came forward with strikingly similar narratives of sudden, unprovoked and disturbing acts of choking, slapping, and other violence. In short order, Ghomeshi was dropped by both his ongoing PR firm and the newer crisis agency retained to represent him, presumably for not telling the truth about the many women he’d allegedly abused.
After being fired by two PR firms and excoriated in the press, does Ghomeshi have a right to representation? How does working for a suspected sexual abuser square with the public relations industry’s code of ethics? What self-respecting reputation expert would take him on? Given rising concern about violence against women – from professional athletes to campus rape – and the tendency for much of it to go unreported or be covered up, it’s a third-rail issue for any PR agency who takes on his case. And unlike the law, where even murderers have a right to representation, our business is not as simple as serving as a media mouthpiece for a boldfaced name. At least it shouldn’t be. This is a situation that should scare off Olivia Pope.
In a post titled “Whitewashing Despots” Thomas Eppes, PRSA’s Ethics Chair, offers guidance. It reminds us that ethical communications in our industry isn’t about which clients we represent; it’s about the way we go about it. In other words, if the client tells the truth, places the public interest first, and “supports and ensures the free flow of accurate and unprejudiced information,” it may well be an ethical choice to represent him.
That’s probably a tall order, but Eppes’ post made me think of a politically progressive colleague who went to work for a company with conservative views and policies. His lefty friends were horrified; some speculated he did it for money, while others thought it was ego. He said he wanted to effect change, and wouldn’t you know, the company’s policies really did undergo a slow transformation. Whether that was due to his influence or outside pressure, I was never sure.
But PR is about persuasion in the end. For any PR professional who fears being dismissed as a spinmeister, actual influence over a client’s ethical choices is the ultimate prize. It may be quixotic, but if a communications professional can persuade a client to embrace truth and transparency, the move to represent him is not only an ethical decision, but a wise one. I can’t know the truth about the accusations against Jian Ghomeshi, but he’s in a terrible corner, and it seems largely of his own making. For his sake, I hope he finds a PR professional who can represent him and do it both well and ethically.
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