INTERNATIONAL: Letter From America - 'How should firms evaluate new client opportunities?' Every client is entitled to advice but not every view is entitled to representation, says US PR commentator Paul Holmes

The question of whether every client is entitled to representation in the court of public opinion came up again recently after Dan Klores Communications resigned the Mike Tyson PR job. Klores came on board shortly after Tyson took off a chunk of Evander Holyfield's ear during a 1998 fight.

It 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 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 seems to take the position that any publicity is good publicity - a position supported by the fact that he remains the biggest draw in professional boxing. The pay-per-view screening of his fight with Lennox Lewis on 8 June is expected to draw a record audience.

At the same time, Tyson has 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?

The short answer is no.

The right to counsel applies to criminal cases, in which the plaintiff is the Government. It doesn't apply to civil cases, so there's no reason it should 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 entitlement of Tyson and other controversial clients to counsel is not the issue. The real issue is how firms evaluate new client opportunities, and whether it is ethical to represent clients whose views or actions may be abhorrent to others.

First, firms need to consider the impact of each new client on existing stakeholders, employees and other clients. If existing clients are likely to flee when they learn a firm is representing a controversial client, there are pragmatic reasons for declining the business.

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.

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