Professional ethics: Should you promote these products?

PR professionals are paid to represent clients, but where does ethical behaviour fit into the equation? Cathy Wallace hears from some thoughtful practitioners.

Spin doctors. Masters of the dark arts. The public view of the PR professional is sceptical at best. One only has to look at caricatures such as Malcolm Tucker, the ruthless and ferocious government comms man in the BBC series The Thick Of It, to realise the industry and individuals within it do not have a reputation for always operating ethically.

But ethics are fundamentally tied to the profession. As reputation managers, PR professionals work to promote positive coverage of their clients and manage negative views. Given that we do not live in a perfect world and there is no such thing as a perfect client, it is inevitable that both individuals and firms will face ethical dilemmas. From the question of which clients they choose to represent, to how they present that client to the outside world, ethics cannot be separated from the practice of PR. 'PR does not operate in an ethical vacuum. It is a business like any other and will be judged like any other,' says Jilly Forster, CEO of Forster. PRWeek invited some key players in the UK PR industry to share their views and policies.

Jilly Forster CEO and founder, Forster

- What does it say about a PR agency if its clients sell tobacco or arms?

It says this is a PR agency whose directors do not care that the effectiveness of their business may lead to more lung cancer, violence or war.

- How far is too far - where does an agency draw the line?

If you think for one minute you are helping to promote activities that harm people or the planet in any way, that is too far.

- What can an agency do if it transpires a client has acted unethically?

Bring it to their attention and create an honest and transparent PR programme to manage rectification. Otherwise, stop working with the client and be prepared to tell the world why.

- Do agencies have any moral responsibilities for the clients they represent?

That rests with the client organisation.

If you know the client wants to undertake something illegal or irresponsible, it is the agency's moral responsibility to point that out and have nothing to do with it.

Solitaire Townsend, Co-founder, Futerra Sustainability

- Does having controversial clients make an agency as bad as its clients?

Being ethical does not mean people should not work for the tobacco, pornography or defence industry. But you should not do anything unethical for any client. You should not astroturf, lie or suppress data. That works the same for The Body Shop as it does for BAE Systems.

- Do you judge agencies by their clients?

I judge agencies on their work for the client. Working for a controversial industry should not tar you, it's what you do for the client that matters.

- How would you react if a client asked you to do something unethical?

We'd leave immediately. In nine years, we have only deliberately been asked to do something wrong twice. Both times I broke our contract and walked away.

- How ethical is the PR industry?

PR professionals face some of the worst ethical decisions and as an industry, we don't discuss it enough. Think and talk about it all the time. Don't wait until you are on the horns of an ethical dilemma.

Robert Phillips, UK CEO, Edelman

- What place do ethics have in PR?

Front and centre. It is a crying shame that we work within an industry that has lost its ethical compass or even worse, is seen to have lost its ethical compass. We have one, but if people don't believe it, we are not PR-ing ourselves very well. Truly ethical PR helps companies and organisations understand how they can be agents for change.

- Are there any clients for whom you would refuse to work?

I would never work on tobacco. As it happens, we have a policy against tobacco clients. That said, I work on Shell and some people would have issues with that. At Edelman, everyone has the right not to work on a piece of business if they find it ethically or morally challenging.

- You would not work on tobacco, but do work on oil - what about alcohol or fast food? Where do you draw the line?

Tobacco kills people. There are no social benefits to tobacco. With energy firms such as Shell, someone has to keep engines running and the lights on. With alcohol and fast food, there's a moderation argument - drinking in moderation is fine.

Phil Reed, Board director, Brahm

- What place do ethics have in PR?

As a PR professional, you have a responsibility to act in an ethical manner. The reality is that we have all pushed those boundaries on occasion.

I will admit I have lied to a journalist on behalf of a client in the past, because it was overwhelmingly in the client's best interests. If I needed to do so again, I would. How many journalists would not lie to get a story or a better angle?

- How much should a PR professional take ethics into account when working for a client, and how much should they just do the job they are paid to do?

I am not saying unethical behaviour is acceptable, but I do feel if you work in PR long enough it is almost inevitable. There may come an occasion when you have to be economical with the truth, or you have a good reason for giving misleading or false information. You will do it because your client's interests come first. Any experienced PRO who says they have not been in that position is in denial.

- What can an agency do if it transpires a client has acted unethically?

If you are not happy with a client's behaviour, lose the client. However, we do need to get away from the notion that some clients may behave unethically but all agencies and PROs are whiter than white. If there's an agency that can say, hand on heart, it has never been less than 100 per cent fair and honest with every client, colleague, competitor or supplier, I would love to meet them.

Adrian Brady, CEO, Eulogy

- Are there any clients you would refuse to represent?

We do not work on tobacco clients. We were approached by a third party in relation to tobacco work, so we have been tested on that policy, as it would have been a big budget. But it wasn't right for us. I would have the same view on arms personally, and I believe that would be backed up by the people in the agency.

- Do you judge agencies by their clients?

It is up to another agency if it wants to work on tobacco, for example. It is a legal product and that is an element to think about before anyone goes and makes judgements about it.

- Do you think PR professionals lie or have a reputation for lying?

I do not believe the industry is based on lies. If someone did lie, they would get found out, I have no doubt about that.

Gordon Tempest-Hay, MD, Blue Rubicon

- What does it say about a PR agency if its clients sell alcohol, tobacco or arms?

Every organisation should have the right to tell its side of the story. It's too simplistic to talk about 'good' and 'bad' clients. Our ethical policy prohibits the representation of tobacco firms or arms manufacturers.

- Is representing a controversial client a worthy challenge, or the 'dark arts'?

Provided it is within the ethical boundaries of your agency, then it can be some of the most challenging work.

- How far is too far? Where would you draw the line?

Something that is illegal, that seeks to undermine the fabric of society, or that expects an agency to lie on behalf of its client, is too far.

- Did you have any internal discussions about the ethics of taking on McDonald's as a client?

Absolutely not. It has a legitimate right to tell its story - it sells burgers and chips. We were always comfortable with that.

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