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Can PR Firms Have Principles?

PR.hot-buttonOne maddening trope about PR professionals is that we’re fast and loose when it comes to truth, transparency and ethics. There’s an image of a morally dubious flack who slavishly serves client goals, even when questionable. Then there’s the cliche of the ethically agnostic mega-agency that rakes in millions by catering to corporate interests that may not serve the public.

But, hey, maybe we do have principles. Ten major international public relations agencies have told The Guardian they will not accept clients who deny man-made climate change. These Green Ten include many of the world’s largest PR firms. (Notably absent from the list were Edelman, the leading independent agency, which represents The Petroleum Institute, and Hill & Knowlton Strategies.)

The report set off a minor furor in PR-land, with many applauding the move (and questioning those who failed to join the pledge), while others blasted it as myopic or cowardly. Some even compared it to censorship or McCarthy-era blacklisting.

The blacklisting comparison seems wrongheaded, because, at least in theory, any service business has the right to choose its clients. It’s a decision we make every day, although it’s typically driven by more practical matters like budget, scope of the opportunity, and appropriate staff experience.

But the climate science stance by the large agencies is different because it rests on a blanket principle. (It also hits a nerve by wading into the perilous waters of a deeply and bitterly politicized issue in the U.S., but we’ll get to that.) In the PR biz, there’s an ongoing discussion about ethics, but it has largely to do with how we go about our work for clients, emphasizing transparency and condemning deceptive “astroturf”-style practices. Ethical standards governing how we actually choose client partnerships, and the implication that we have a moral obligation to represent a certain kind of client, have generally not been part of that debate, assuming that client companies operate legally.

But should we wear our principles on our sleeves? That requires some unpacking. The stance is good for PR in some ways. First, it acknowledges the influence of the global PR establishment in the policy debate about climate change, and by implication, other significant public affairs and issues. It also casts PR agencies as potential advocates for change who are actually driven by principles rather than passive drones in the service of client goals, or –  more damningly –  hired guns ready to switch sides for a fatter paycheck. Yes, some of us see a “green” other than the almighty dollar!

And it’s heartening to hear that the largest agencies are willing to go on record about their stance, given the complexity of global client relationships among multinational firms and the risks of alienating somebody, somewhere.

But even as I applaud the move, I see the slippery slope. An ethical stance about the positions of client companies, even on an issue where the science is overwhelming, sets a precedent. What about the many clients who acknowledge human impact on climate but still oppose environmental regulation? What about clients who embrace genetically modified organisms? Companies who sell legal yet dangerous products like tobacco or firearms? Retailers who profit from cheap labor?

And we often counsel client companies to steer away from hot-button political or social issues, particularly where they have no real relevance to the core business. That’s why most PR experts frown on a restaurant chain CEO coming out against marriage equality, or even a small-agency CEO like me tweeting in favor of gun regulation.

Many will say that the climate issue stands alone, because the scientific verdict is already in, and the peril we face ensures its relevance. I accept that, but I also know that even among those who accept made-made climate change, the implications are complex. Climate science and related policy are fraught with gray areas, and a corporate position will inevitably run into other, possibly conflicting business interests like the cost of regulation and the impact on jobs and profits. The agency “pledge” skirts all these questions.

Finally, a blanket policy bucks the longtime trend of PR reps as behind-the-curtain advocates for their clients’ positions, pushing companies to do the right thing, but remaining wisely silent should the client choose not to follow our counsel. It might even raise questions about the support of an agency partner when things get hot.

But it’s these very reasons that make me proud of the announcement. The climate science position is a line in the (eroding) sand, and like many such lines, it may move or be displaced.  At the core, it’s a symbol – a sign that concern about the climate is deep and that drastic action is needed. And yet another sign that public relations, as an industry, can have real influence and impact.

The storm evokes former PR executive Robert Phillips’ explanation for resigning his position at Edelman to forge a new path for public relations. As he puts it, “public relations is dead and public leadership is the way of the future.” There may be a fine line between sticking your neck out and having principles. But on this one, I choose to swallow my cynicism and count it as a display of something in short supply these days, both in our business and in our country. That is leadership.

Update August 8: Obviously feeling the pressure, Edelman, the largest independent PR agency, posted a statement on its website that it will not accept “client assignments that aim to deny climate change.” It had earlier told the Guardian that it accepts clients on a case-by-case basis. The Guardian reports that the agency “is unclear on its commitment to existing clients that have been involved in spreading doubt about climate change and fighting regulations to cut carbon pollution.” This seems to be a reference to its ongoing work for The Petroleum Institute, which is reportedly a $52 million client for the agency.

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