Carpe diem, cobbler's children, and ethical dilemmas

A tough week for Edelman contains lessons for all PR agencies and the clients they choose to work with.

It’s been open season on Edelman this week, as it deals with the kind of media storms it is more used to helping its clients address.

The world’s largest PR firm, as it has been gleefully characterized in recent stories, is on the back foot – and it’s not a position it is used to.

It’s partly a function of the fact that the agency has grown up. It’s no longer a scrappy underdog growing exponentially as it helps define and revolutionize an industry. It’s the 800 pound gorilla in the room. It’s in the top two or three agencies of any type in the US. It is increasingly subject to the scrutiny that comes with that territory. And, as we know, there’s nothing the mainstream media likes more than having a swipe at the PR profession.

The scrutiny this week encompassed stories relating to its reaction to the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams and the fallout from its response to a survey about PR firms’ attitude to climate change.

The former was prompted by a blog written by Edelman EVP and media strategist Lisa Kovitz following the apparent suicide of Williams, suggesting the tragedy represented an opportunity to stimulate discussion about serious issues such as depression and mental health.

Kovitz was accused of shamelessly cashing in on a tragedy and her agency was branded a "soulless PR conglomerate" by Gawker.

Personally, I don’t believe Kovitz was trying to exploit the situation, even though the agency was so spooked by reaction to the piece it felt compelled to apologize to "anyone we offended with our post". If she was guilty of anything, I guess on re-reading it she would have chosen some of her words and phrases a little more carefully, such as the carpe diem metaphor.

Is Robin Willliams’ death an appropriate opportunity to try and sell services to protect against identity theft, as a company called Wilks Communications did? No, of course not.

Is it an opportunity to raise awareness of and stimulate discussion around important issues such as depression and mental health? Yes, I think so, as long as it is done in a sensitive and appropriate fashion.

Williams’ wife Susan Schneider acknowledged this herself in a statement released on Thursday: "It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid."

The second media storm around the agency this week stemmed from CEO Richard Edelman’s ultimately fruitless attempt to convince a reporter he had the firm’s stance on climate change all wrong. It’s probably fair to say that if Edelman could have the interview he gave to Vice Media’s Motherboard blog senior editor Brian Merchant again he would do so.

In the resulting piece, Edelman appeared to throw his former US president and CEO Mark Hass under a bus in a bid to deflect blame for the agency’s poor response to the survey. It not only came over as evasive, it also contradicted the reason originally given for Hass’ exit in April.

It smacked of someone who thought they were talking off the record, or who had been caught unawares, though there’s no suggestion it was off the record and the story states it was Edelman who contacted the writer, not vice versa.

It’s probably not the way Edelman would advise one of its clients to respond to a crisis. The phrase cobbler's children certainly comes to mind.

But the real crux of the piece concerned whether Edelman would work with clients that Motherboard characterized as "major organs of climate change denial": E.On, the American Petroleum Institute, and the American Legislative Council. It also questioned Edelman’s tactics in its work with these clients, accusing the agency of using astroturfing (the practice of creating an organization or entity and making it appear to represent something popular for the purpose of promoting a particular client or cause.)

Edelman responded with his own blog post, suggesting Merchant had misrepresented the firm’s stance on climate change by focusing on just three clients and rebutting the allegations of astroturfing and other such dubious tactics.

This raises another pertinent issue, one that is faced by all agencies: which clients should you work with? If you took the Motherboard argument to its logical conclusion you could end up with reasons not to work with a vast array of clients in different industries.

It’s a topic we’ve covered many times before and is fundamental to the agency business.

Should you work with Big Oil? For example, energy companies probably represent 10-15% of the total revenues of the PR industry and all the major firms represent businesses within it.

What about Big Pharma? Then there’s Big Finance. And nation states with dubious records on human rights. Should Burson-Marsteller be working with the Washington Redskins? Where do you draw the line?

Most firms, though definitely not all, now shy away from representing tobacco companies. Part of this is generational and as times change business must change to reflect that. The days of doctors advertising cigarettes are over. Science has seen to that.

Many agencies also shy away from working with firearms companies. Others won’t work with defense manufacturers or companies that experiment on animals as part of their drug-testing procedures.

Mostly, these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis decided by senior management in line with its ethical standards and legal policies. Different organizations will adopt different strategies and feel strongly about different issues.

However, there has to be some leeway in these matters. Rarely is it purely a black and white issue; there are lots of gray areas. And, as one agency boss told me this week, you have to remember that firms are advocates for their clients – they are not surrogates.

But if this week’s events and Edelman’s travails have taught us anything, it is that PR agencies must apply the same standards to themselves as they do to the clients they choose to represent and act accordingly. Not just because there are plenty of people out there looking to shoot them down if they make as much as one false step - but mainly because it's the right thing to do.

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