The ethics of PR are various and multifaceted and probably the topic that has cropped up most often on this blog over the years.
It’s also something that seems to reoccur in clusters, with silence on the issue for a few weeks then multiple stories relating to the subject breaking in the space of a few days – and this week was one of those occasions.
Following are three very different examples where client and agency ethics are called into question across various phases of the communications process.
Last week, Le Monde in France reported that prosecutors in Paris were investigating lists developed for agrochemical company Monsanto to help it respond to a crisis over the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup.
Glyphosate, which has been named in lawsuits as a carcinogen, was developed by Monsanto before Bayer acquired that company.
The lists included the names of more than 200 journalists, politicians and agricultural and nonprofit leaders categorized by their position on Monsanto. French law tightly regulates the creation of lists and databases of people based on their political views.
The lists appear to have been created with the help of at least one of Bayer’s PR firms, as Le Monde’s investigation was triggered after it saw one of its journalists’ names on a leaked FleishmanHillard list obtained by reporters covering the glyphosate PR campaign.
Bayer has apologized for the creation of the list and suspended its cooperation with the "involved external service providers." It said it will ask an external law firm to investigate the project and will also evaluate the issue internally.
The German multinational pharma company appeared to be adopting a deflection strategy when it said the glyphosate activation occurred prior to it acquiring Monsanto and the manager in charge of the program left the company shortly after the acquisition closed.
FleishmanHillard and fellow Bayer PR firm Publicis Consultants declined to talk specifically about the controversy, although the latter appeared to be trying to cover its tracks when it said it "delivered public affairs work using public data for another PR agency" between October 2016 and April 2017. It added that it operates according to the highest legal and ethical standards.
We often talk about the ethics of agencies choosing which clients to work with, or which parts of the world to operate in, but this is more a case of the type of work agencies are asked to do by clients or suggest doing on behalf of clients, and also the vagaries of the laws governing different parts of the world.
Every journalist has probably been made aware at some point in their career that they are the subject of a dossier produced by agencies to brief their clients or leadership prior to media interviews, and that these profiles are kept in a database format. One of my colleagues was once accidentally sent his profile by a careless PR pro, which caused much mirth in the newsroom at the time.
But in the Monsanto case, elements of the list part of the activation, whether you define it as unethical or not, were more serious as they were potentially illegal in at least one particular territory - because the list categorized people by their political beliefs.
The second recent incident concerned an anti-union campaign by Delta Air Lines, to which the PR firm FTI Consulting has been tied by blogs and media reports.
Delta launched an initiative earlier this month around an online hub called DontSignItDontRiskIt.com, encouraging its employees to reject an effort to unionize them. One poster produced for the campaign said employees should use the money they would’ve spent on union dues on something "fun" like a "new video game system."
The investigative journalism blog Sludge.com performed a reverse IP search and found that the server hosting the anti-union site contained other URLs associated with FTI, its clients and its affiliates. HuffPost subsequently corroborated Sludge’s story and a person who is extremely au fait with Delta’s communications operations said the airline engaged FTI for the effort.
However, FTI told PRWeek it did not work on the anti-union push and did not contribute to or strategically direct the anti-union campaign or the material in the poster. It declined to comment further on the URLs and how they appeared to be hosted on a web server containing content relating to FTI, its clients and affiliates.
In this case, the nature of the work carried out by and on behalf of Delta Air Lines is not illegal, although some may find it unethical or, at least, in poor taste.
The third, and again totally separate, incident in the past week was a spat played out on Twitter between Scottish multinational craft brewer BrewDog and its former PR agency Manifest.
The feud erupted when Manifest founder Alex Myers called out BrewDog on Twitter for launching an alcohol-free version of its IPA beer called ‘Punk AF’ that used Manifest's creative concept without credit and after the agency and client had split up.
BrewDog founder James Watt replied by claiming the execution was different to what Manifest originally pitched while under retainer to the brewer. Myers said if BrewDog had given Manifest creative credit he "would be cool with that".
He added that his callout on Twitter was driven by frustration that multiple clients are using creative ideas from agencies without any credit.
Both parties have a history of guerrilla tactics and courting controversy, so perhaps it wasn’t completely surprising that the episode played out so publicly on social media and apparently ended amicably after the two parties resolved their IP dispute soon afterwards – though they were coy about revealing the exact details of the resolution.
I well remember from my days on the agency side sending a copy of pitch proposals to ourselves by registered mail and filing the package in the office unopened to protect ourselves against any future stealing of ideas by clients. Whether that offered any genuine protection from a legal point of view is doubtful, but it could at least embarrass the client into compensating the agency whose ideas had mysteriously appeared in a future campaign even though it didn’t win the pitch.
As such, I’m sure most agency folks can sympathize with Myers when he commented:
"Everyone has got a war story about this kind of thing. It’s not an everyday occurrence and we’ve gotten much better at being explicit about protecting out IP. But I believe it happens more in PR [than advertising] because people do the creative within the pitch process without payment.
"A lot of the time, [in other disciplines’ pitch process] you don’t do the full creative until you are commissioned. It’s often with big brands – there’s this phrase in our industry called ideas mining where you run a pitch process just to get ideas."
A related ethical conundrum concerns the conditions clients impose on agencies they work with. Adweek reported this week that a creative services RFP from cereals giant General Mills stipulates a 120-day payment period, total ownership of all creative ideas and a lack of compensation for pitches. Furthermore, the briefs don't indicate which brands are involved, what assignments entail or the time period for contracts.
I wonder if agencies reading this RFP will follow the example of some of their peers with the recent Audi U.K. creative pitch in refusing to take part.
Like I say, all of these incidents are very different. But all serve to illustrate the tricky ethical lines brands, companies and their agency partners have to navigate in modern PR and marketing practice.
No doubt it was ever thus. But these activities are no longer playing out under the hood of the automobile – the engine is exposed and on display for all to see in the harsh world of social media and 24-hour mainstream media coverage.