HOLMES REPORT: The choice between conscience and company values can be the toughest of a PR pro's career

What do you do when your personal values clash with the values of the institution you are being paid to represent?

What do you do when your personal values clash with the values of the institution you are being paid to represent?

The choice between conscience and company values can be the toughest of a PR pro's career. What do you do when your personal values clash with the values of the institution you are being paid to represent? That's a decision PR pros are almost certain to confront at least once in their careers. Perhaps they will be asked to keep news of an impending downsizing secret from their coworkers. Maybe they will be asked to defend company practices that despoil the environment. In such cases, their personal perspective on the issue might take a backseat to their responsibility to their employer. On occasion, however, institutions may leave PR people who can't jettison their conscience no room for compromise. That's what happened to Jerry terHorst just 30 days into his job as White House press secretary to President Gerald Ford, when Ford decided to pardon his predecessor, Richard Nixon. In his resignation letter, terHorst told the President, "I do not know how I could credibly defend that action." He later admitted, "It was the most difficult decision I ever had to make." I don't know whether Josh Rushing's decision to leave the US Marine Corps after 14 years of service was equally hard because Captain Rushing has yet to speak publicly about that decision. I suspect it was, however. Rushing was the US press officer who figured prominently in Jehane Noujaim's documentary Control Room, which looks at the media coverage of the US invasion of Iraq, and in particular at the perspective provided by al-Jazeera. Rushing is a sympathetic character in the movie, a fierce defender of the war - "I'm not going to back down from my point that we're here to help the Iraqi people," he stresses - who is nonetheless troubled by its consequences. Rushing's ability to empathize with those who see the war from others' perspective probably makes him a good PR man, but it won him few friends in the military. "One guy told me I better check the name on my uniform, meaning the Marine Corps," Rushing told The Village Voice, before the Pentagon and the Corps silenced him. "Everything that my husband represents in the military - the defense of freedom and hopefully the expansion of freedom throughout the world - that's what a soldier is supposed to be," his wife told online magazine Salon.com. Says filmmaker Nouhaim, "The smartest thing the Marine Corps could do right now is to have him as their spokesperson. He's someone who blasted apart all of my stereotypes ... and he's somebody with a great deal of useful insight into what was going on." It seems that what the Marines want is not a PR man, but a propagandist. Under the circumstances, someone like Josh Rushing probably has no choice but to ply his craft elsewhere.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 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.

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