Edelman staffers play get out of jail card

In light of another employee-activated controversy over a PR agency taking on a controversial client, every firm will be calling an urgent meeting of its ethics committee - or setting one up if it doesn't already have one.

Many PR agency staffers want their firms to take a stance on social issues. (Pic: Getty Images).
Many PR agency staffers want their firms to take a stance on social issues. (Pic: Getty Images).

PR agencies are increasingly advising their clients on employee activism and social purpose – it’s one of the biggest issues in business and it’s only going to get bigger.

In recent weeks, PR firms themselves have come under scrutiny from their own employees for engaging in behaviors some staffers don’t believe are in line with their personal beliefs or the mission of the agency they work for.

At Ogilvy, employees were unhappy about the WPP firm’s contract with Customs and Border Protection out of its Washington DC office to help border patrol diversify its workforce. A group of them grilled CEO John Seifert on July 9 at a town hall meeting, the audio of which was leaked to Buzzfeed.

The law enforcement organization has been under fire for its inhumane treatment of immigrants at detention centers on the U.S. southern border. One Ogilvy staffer noted that while having federal agencies for clients for decades is great, "at what point do you decide this might not be the best decision for the world to see us taking them on as a client?"

In a related incident this week, Edelman was caught in the spotlight of a New York Times article about its short-lived work with Geo Group, the nation’s largest for-profit prison operator that acts as a vendor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and also manages detention centers and mental health facilities.

According to The Times, Edelman pitched the account in May and was slated to start work in June. CEO Richard Edelman told PRWeek the firm worked on the business for five days and never had a contract.

But apparently there was an agreement in effect Monday, July 1 and senior level Edelman executives toured Geo’s prison facilities, met employees and people housed in the facilities on July 8.

Then on July 12, Edelman notified Geo it was ending the engagement. The Times intimated some Edelman employees were "disturbed" by the assignment and asked not to work on it, which ultimately led to the world’s largest PR firm dropping the account.

Geo was unimpressed with this turn of events and issued a statement saying: "Edelman’s decision sends a chilling message to their other private sector clients who may in the future come under politically motivated attacks."

Before any other agency executive takes too much pleasure in the travails of Seifert and Edelman, it’s worth considering the old mantra "there but for the grace of God go I," because schadenfreude can be a very uncomfortable thing.

In fact, any smart PR agency or professional services firm will at this very moment be checking its procedures and protocols for such situations and ensuring the process of acquiring new accounts is watertight and filters up to senior management before decisions are taken that could come back to bite them.

These situations are rarely pure black and white issues. Rather, they exist in shades of gray, which is why the very same agencies in the spotlight in recent weeks also make a living by counseling clients on activism, social purpose and advice on just such scenarios.

Ironically, neither firm covered themselves in glory in the way they responded to these incidents.

Seifert managed to conflate other Ogilvy clients into the discussion by alluding to previous situations with energy giant BP, tobacco companies and Coca-Cola. He also seemed to have no clue that what he said in the town hall gathering could potentially make it into the public domain.

One of the golden rules of modern employee engagement is that internal communications is the first line of external, which can often be a positive outcome used to an organization’s advantage, but in this case was extremely negative.

To be fair to Seifert, separating from a government contract like this one carries with it more implications than a corporate contract such as Edelman’s Geo assignment. Turning down or terminating a contract in one part of the ecosphere, or annoying federal procurement departments, could damage potentially lucrative contracts elsewhere in the Government.

Ask Amazon, which is suddenly receiving major scrutiny of its bid for the $10 billion cloud-computing Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract with the Pentagon, one of the largest-ever IT infrastructure investments.

As a WPP CEO, Seifert is also subject to the constraints and constant pressures of being in charge of a big marketing services holding company agency. Edelman is a privately owned family firm that has more freedom to make unilateral decisions.

In the Geo case, CEO Richard Edelman told PRWeek there was no formal contract with the prison operator and that the assignment only lasted five days, comments that in retrospect he may have wished he’d kept to himself – it’s almost like saying you’re only a little bit pregnant…

The reality is Edelman senior staffers visited Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, which is operated by Geo on behalf of ICE under a $20 million-plus annual contract.

A Geo statement said Edelman staff "acknowledged the story being told about our company in the media is based on false narratives and deliberate mischaracterizations."

They also talked to prison employees and heard from individuals entrusted to the facility’s care, so it’s not surprising Geo’s representatives weren’t thrilled when the agency ended the assignment just days later.

In general, however, Edelman’s track record is fairly clear in the area of controversial clients.

Richard Edelman stopped working with tobacco companies within a year of taking over from his father as CEO. The agency doesn’t take on gun-related clients and pulled out of coal and climate-change deniers in 2015 when it ended assignments with the American Petroleum Institute and TransCanada Corporation.

But whether you agree or not with the firm’s decision to disentangle itself from private prison operator Geo, and the negative optics that would have resulted in continuing the work, somewhere along the line Edelman’s procedures for evaluating whether to take on potentially controversial new business broke down in this case.

It’s an issue all PR and professional services firms are grappling with.

In 2017, Interpublic Group’s largest PR firm Weber Shandwick discontinued its work with Egypt and said it would no longer take on assignments from foreign governments looking to influence U.S. Government policy. It has also disavowed itself from working on tobacco or gun-related clients.

Over at WPP, however, BCW CEO Donna Imperato’s firm works with tobacco giant Philip Morris International and her philosophy is that: "Every legal entity has a right to representation. If people don’t want to work on it, that I totally understand. Philip Morris is an ethical business. If people smoke, they can choose whichever brand they want. Philip Morris isn’t telling them to start smoking."

In light of recent events at Ogilvy and Edelman, it will be interesting to see how BCW staffers react to Imperato’s philosophy moving forward.

It has long been the policy of agencies to leave it up to individual employees to decide whether or not they feel comfortable working on a particular client assignment, whether for ethical, religious, or philosophical reasons.

But it seems the issue has moved beyond that, with some PR agency staffers now insisting the whole organization they work for, and all the clients the firm advocates on behalf of, exhibit a consistent set of values they can buy into and feel proud of representing.

That philosophy may fly on the traditionally liberal east and west coasts of the U.S., but modern agencies and their clients represent a broad church and are increasingly global. What follows as accepted wisdom in one part of an organization may not fly at all elsewhere.

Remember the day after the election in 2016 when several high-profile CEOs sent out solemn all-company notes about President Trump’s victory, assuming everyone would be feeling the same, only to be met with blowback from staffers in parts of the country who had voted for Trump and were feeling very happy about the new regime.

Everybody has been moved by pictures of children in migrant shelters on the border sleeping on the floor and in horrific conditions. But when employees of online furniture retailer Wayfair found out their employer was selling furniture to nonprofit government contractor BCFS Health and Human Services to use in the shelters they walked out in protest.

They said it was unethical to profit in any way from the mistreatment of vulnerable young people seeking asylum. I totally get it - but the kids also need something to sleep on...

Young people are increasingly driving the dialogue on social issues and demanding higher standards from the companies they work for or brands they engage with and whose products they purchase. But these discussions are not one-size-fits-all and have to be treated on a case-by-case basis.

That’s why it’s such a complicated topic and why corporations and brands are seeking counsel from PR agencies about how to genuinely display purpose and instill social responsibility as a fundamental part of their mission.

And that’s why every PR agency must take the Ogilvy and Edelman client case studies as salutary teaching moments that cause them to focus on ethics and make sure they have cast iron procedures and protocols in place to properly assess the type of work they are taking on – and they must involve all stakeholders in the process, including young staffers.

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