Is everyone entitled to representation in the court of public opinion?The question came up again recently after Dan Klores Communications resigned as Mike Tyson's PR firm. Klores came on board shortly after boxing's bad boy did his Hannibal Lecter impersonation and took off a slice of Evander Holyfield's ear during a 1998 title bout. It finally decided it could not go on after he told a female reporter that he did not normally do interviews with women "unless I fornicate with them," and went on to inform the assembled reporters he wished they had children so he could kick them in the head or "stomp on their testicles so you could feel my pain."
Tyson apparently took the position that any publicity was good publicity - a position supported by the fact that he remains the biggest draw in pro boxing, despite (or perhaps because of) his evident instability. The pay-per-view screening of his fight with Lewis is expected to draw a record audience.
At the same time, Tyson has clearly been tried and found guilty in the court of public opinion. So is he entitled to PR representation, the same way he would be entitled to legal representation if he was facing the same charges in a court of law rather than the court of PR?
The short answer is no. The right to counsel applies only to criminal cases, in which the plaintiff is the government. It does not apply to civil cases, so it shouldn't apply to a court that isn't really a court at all. In any case, without some equivalent of legal aid it's hard to imagine a system that could force PR firms to take on unpopular (or worse, impecunious) clients.
But the rights of Tyson and other controversial clients to counsel isn't the real issue. The real issue is how PR firms should evaluate new client prospects, and whether it is ethical to represent those whose views or actions may be abhorrent to others.
There are, first of all, practical factors. Firms must consider the likely impact of each new client on existing stakeholders, particularly employees and other clients. If existing clients are likely to flee when they learn a firm has signed a controversial client, there are pragmatic reasons for declining the business. Similarly, no firm should take on a client that alienates a large number of staffers. (When Hill & Knowlton took on the Catholic bishops a decade ago, I received countless leaks - including confidential strategy documents - from outraged employees looking to sabotage their firm's work.)
Beyond that, however, the big ethical question concerns not the identity of the client, but the nature of the work. I'd take the position that everyone is entitled to counsel, but not every viewpoint is entitled to representation. The key word is counsel. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, could a PR firm ethically have provided counsel? Sure, if the counsel was to pull back the invading force and change his domestic policies.
Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management.
He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.