Ethical red line is blurry for PR pros too

I know someone who started their communications career in Big Finance, moved over to Big Pharma, and is now working in Big Oil.

I know someone who started their communications career in Big Finance, moved over to Big Pharma, and is now working in Big Oil. I joke that the only place left for them to go after this are the defense or tobacco industries…

But in an age where doing good is increasingly equated to being good business, where are the lines drawn when it comes to deciding which companies you should work for or which clients you should represent if you are an agency?

If a company manufactures chemical weapons; that may be straightforward, although not necessarily if it's a small subsidiary of a major defense conglomerate. But what if a coffee company uses perfectly legal measures to restrict its payment of taxes in a particular country to virtually zero? Is that grounds to consider not working with or for them?

The issue is particularly top of mind at the moment with the debate around hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. This is the process of extracting natural gas from shale formations that, depending on your point of view, is either a/ going to transform the energy industry and make America self-sufficient, or b/ destroy communities with pollution and water contamination now fracking is moving towards heavily populated areas.

The issue is so divisive in the UK that PR firm Bell Pottinger's London head office was recently subjected to a demonstration by anti-fracking protesters that involved six people gluing themselves to the agency's doors because of its representation of energy company, and fracking operator, Cuadrilla.

In a recent blog on the topic, Richard Edelman noted that PR pros are in the business of educating, not selling, relying on dialogue, not one-way messaging. “We are not advertising agents simply selling a proposition with an alluring 30-second spot,” he added. “We are PR people who must explain complexity by acknowledging concerns, going beyond messaging to offer real depth of content and a chance for stakeholders to discuss the proposition.”

Edelman is a good case study, because it is the largest PR agency in the world, and because its growth and history is a good barometer for the way the industry has evolved over the past 60 years.

Like many firms it built its business partly on the back of work for the tobacco industry, but when Richard took over from his father Dan he quickly moved Edelman out of it. Dan's traditional argument that tobacco was a regulated industry, overseen by the FDA, was countered by Richard's belief that Edelman shouldn't be doing this from a reputational and recruitment point of view.

Edelman explains this is the same reason why his firm doesn't do lobbying, doesn't take on political campaigns, and refuses work from countries with ideologies that are anti-democratic. But he has no problem taking on fracking clients. Edelman is convinced shale gas is a huge national benefit and his eponymous agency reflects this view through its work for energy clients such as Chevron and Chesapeake.

What all of the above teaches us is that times change and what is considered acceptable to one generation may be completely off limits to the next. Who knows, down the line fracking could become Richard's equivalent of Dan's willingness to work on tobacco clients. Or, alternatively, it could turn out to be a perfectly acceptable technology that solves many of the US's energy concerns.

PRWeek's Salary Survey this year suggested young people especially are increasingly prepared to accept lower compensation if they can work for a company with beliefs that align with their own. Each individual PR pro and communications agency must make up their own mind as to their business philosophy and operating ethics, and then stick by those beliefs.

Let's not be naïve, communications - as with the rest of business and politics - can be a ruthless and conflicting discipline. But it is no longer a process that can be conducted in secret. As Edelman says, concerns must be recognized and addressed, and content and two-way dialogue must be an intrinsic part of the process.

That's the only way energy companies are going to convince the communities in which they operate that fracking is a safe form of energy - and it's the only way they're going to convince the best young PR pros to come work for them.

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