When it comes to ethics, stand your ground

There’s been quite a debate on the Inside PR podcast about why public relations practitioners rank near the bottom of any list of trusted professions (usually right alongside lawyers and politicians.)

The discussion started with a question in episode 101 asked by Rayanne Langdon . It’s carried on over several episodes. And yes, I’ve contributed my 2 cents to it along the way .

Bottom line for me: PR should not reference the legal maxim that every person has the right to a defence in court and argue that "every client deserves public relations representation." No they don’t. Some people just do bad things. And the best public relations advice to them is to own up and make good.

There are industries that refuse to do this. They play for time, using the profits from their morally dubious activities to pave the way for them to transition their companies into other industries. Yes, I’m thinking tobacco. And I abhor the fact that we allow these companies to continue to produce something that incontestably kills people every single day. My view is that they do not deserve public relations counsel and Terry Fallis (who shares this view) and I have refused assignments from tobacco companies when they have come calling.

So, am I claiming that I have the key to good ethics. Heck no. But I like the argument that Julie Rusciolelli has advanced . Every person should be prepared to state their reasons for accepting (or not accepting) a client assignment. Not everyone may agree with the reasons. But over time we will respect people who clearly and honestly argue their positions. And we will also be able to identify and isolate the bad apples, ensuring that they don’t contaminate the entire PR industry.

OK. So that’s easy for me to say. I own my own PR company. The only person I have to answer to is myself. (Well, not quite. I actually have to answer to every employee as she/he decides every morning whether they want to work for my company. But that’s a digression.)

Rayanne Langdon, who you may recall started the Inside PR discussion, has posted a comment on Michael Allison’s post on this issue. Rayanne’s comment:

I’ve already heard stories from some of my classmates that make me cringe. But, I guess I’m the stickler for ethics–being the one who started the IPR discussion. Everyone hates me for it! Hah.

Thankfully, I don’t feel I’ve been put in any compromising situations yet, but I don’t know what I would have done if I was. As bad as it sounds, it seems almost rude to stand your ethical ground and refuse work at this point. Do you know what I mean?

I know how Rayanne feels. It’s tough to be in a situation in which you feel you are at odds with people who have some authority over you. So, here’s my advice to Rayanne and other young PR practitioners:

  • If someone asks you to do something that strikes you as ethically dubious, state your view clearly. Ask the other person to respond. Consider their response. Ask for time to think about it.
  • If you come to see the other person’s point of view, then you may find that you have learned something and you can do what they’ve requested.
  • If, on the other hand, you still feel that you cannot do what has been asked of you, stand your ground! The good people in life don’t compromise their fundamental principles. Once you start to slide, it’s hard to regain solid ground. So, don’t start.

That’s the advice I’d offer. If young PR practitioners (or anyone for that matter) follow it, I’ll respect them for it. And if the people in my firm ever find me offside with the views I’ve stated here, I hope they’ll call me out on it.

  • Hi Joe, thanks for giving your advice! This is an issue that’s always on my mind, but I think my belief that ethics are extremely important in PR is pretty clear to most people.

    I’m so glad this discussion has gone on for so long, and I don’t think we’re going in circles. Just the fact that there’s been so much to say and no one has been afraid to say it answers my initial question, “How do you cope with being seen as an untrustworthy professional?” Now I have something to show those naysayers who frown upon what I’ve chosen to dedicate my work life to.

    Don’t worry about me; I won’t back down! ; )

  • Well put Joe. When all is said and done, we have only our personal reputation and that of our firms. Little else is as important to our future as our reputation. Even when the situation is complex and a clear ethical response is not so clear, being guided by what is right and explaining the thinking behind our decisions will serve us and our profession well.

  • Nicely put Joe. I couldn’t agree more.

  • Rayanne and I talked about this at a Third Tuesday several months ago and I commented on an earlier podcast episode of IPR, so I’m glad this subject continues to generate heat.

    The truth is that many of us are and will continue to be skeptical when it comes to corporations. We’ve read the books and seen the documentaries and we know that bad things happen all the time in the name of profit.

    The hard part is when employees (or potential employees) are afraid to speak up for fear of “not being team players” or other such nonsense. Your position is laudable, Joe, and I hope that it leads the best and brightest to your door, both in terms of employees and clients.

  • Kaitlyn

    As being that young PR practitioner, the emphasis of ethics and morals in the workplace I feel has been slightly forgotten. As I am studying public relations as a junior in college, the thought of ethics and morals has but briefly come up in criteria or curriculum. I have barely heard a teacher say, “You make the decision of whether or not to admit a client into your company”. Instead, the first thought on our mind is, in what ways can we try and fix the image of this client? While the job of a PR practitioner is to enhance the image and reputation of the client, it is also in our best nature to keep our image and reputation first in mind. If the company you work for is representing people that is looked down upon in society, then your company is going to be look down on also. It’s all about association and who you know these days isn’t it. I’ve heard so many people say, “It’s who you know, not what you know anymore”. Throughout our lives, we’ve heard adults talk about associating yourselves with the right people, to be the most successful. That should be a lesson that is upheld throughout life. Just because we have graduated from child-like peer pressure, doesn’t mean there isn’t a societal pressure. From the outside you may see a certain client as one that is going to be a huge asset to your company, then you hear what they voice their opinion on a new campaign and it’s vulgar and your companies style. This is one of those times, its okay to say….No Thank You. This article reminded me that ethics and moral should be the most important, it’s not the quantity of employees you have but the quality.

  • Kaitlyn,
    I wish that ethics featured more prominently in the education of the young people I meet. Every day, we are confronted with situations in which we must ask, “Is this right?” And knowing that the people you work with have given due thought to this is important. And I know that I am judged by the answers I provide in these situations. As is everybody.

  • Some people may do bad things, but not all the time. In fact all people do bad things sometimes. So you don’t represent anybody, based on your view of what is right and wrong, and the fact that all of your potential clientele may have erred (in your mind) at some point? How do you get work?

    As for your example of tobacco, forget the fact that a large agricultural population is still to this day dependent on that income. Forget that it is a choice to smoke, and note, it is not your decision (thankfully) whether others smoke. And forget the fact that your lifestyle choices may (or may not) be worse than puffing a ciggy.

    Perhaps some of these boogeyman-clients don’t see their activities as wrong, but they deserve no PR representation because you think they’re wrong? Your answer to this seems to be not to work for them. Ok, that’s your choice, and good on you.

    But then you become draconian: “And we will also be able to identify and isolate the bad apples, ensuring that they don’t contaminate the entire PR industry.”

    You’ve sent the message – dear fellow PR workers, if we don’t like your client base, we will identify and isolate you. And then…what? Because it never stops with isolation, does it?

    I think this posting is clearly an overt threat, and the me-too comments scarily don’t point this out.

  • Jeff,
    Thank you for your comment. A good discussion has more than one point of view and I appreciate that you took the time to express yours.

    I believe that we should be prepared to take ethical stands and defend them. That is my point. We will all be better off if all practitioners are prepared to be transparent about their choices.

  • Actually, you were saying more than just that.

    Now back to your “identify and isolate” idea. Wouldn’t that bite you in the ass, Joe? Your client list leaves you extremely vulnerable to being isolated: http://www.thornleyfallis.com/index.php/clients

    Here we find –
    war-toy producers and users (Lockheed Martin, National Defence),
    drugs (Pfizer, Shoppers, as well as gov agencies),
    banking (Visa),
    gambling (Palms Hotel and Casino),
    landlords (Colliers),
    and Dell of the flaming laptops.

    And this is only a quick glance, and only what your company has chosen to disclose.

    If PR professionals should “be prepared to take ethical stands and defend them”, then perhaps you should step up to the plate.

  • Jeff,
    I encourage my team to take on clients they feel comfortable with and support with their money, donations, time and sympathies. If anyone feels any concern about any potential client, I always want to have a thorough discussion of their concerns. In the past, this has led us to take a pass on potential clients with whom our team felt uncomfortable. The clients we now have are the clients we believe in.

  • @Jeff – I think what you also need to account for in the “tobacco deserves no PR” argument is the history of Big Tobacco in general. The tobacco industry used every black-hat PR trick in the book to evade the inevitable message that “smoking kills” from getting out into the public sphere. Because of tactics like those Big Tobacco employed, the reputation of PR suffers and it suffers every time someone gets a little crazy with the power and influence PR gives. It’s why Rayanne would have to even ask the question she asked to begin with.

    Also, there is no responsible use of tobacco because of its effects on the user and those around him or her unlike your other examples.

    Given that double whammy, it’s virtually impossible to touch the tobacco industry in PR and maintain a professional reputation of high ethical value in your work.

    I’m just not sure your laissez-faire attitude towards ethics in PR is helpful. As a PR practitioner, I’m prepared to speak my mind and be offsides with my colleagues when necessary. Perhaps that will risk clients or employment. If that ends up being the case then it’s usually because of a larger compatibility issue. It’s part of the job and we all know and accept that. But, I know that if I am able to back my actions up when necessary and because of personal reputation in the PR community it’s unlikely to have a huge damaging effect.