Is it ever ethical for a PR agency to represent the family of a murder suspect?

Getting professional legal advice is seen as an essential part of ensuring that people get a fair trial in court.

Tributes to killed teenager Yousef Makki in Manchester (┬ęChristopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Tributes to killed teenager Yousef Makki in Manchester (┬ęChristopher Furlong/Getty Images)

But using professional PR advice to try to ensure fair representation in the court of public opinion is treated with suspicion.

Earlier this month the parents of a teenager cleared of murdering a classmate were labelled "shameless" for hiring PR firm MC2 to handle media relations around the controversial case. Molnar, 18, who fatally stabbed Manchester Grammar student Yousef Makki with an illegal flick-knife, was cleared of murder and manslaughter, but handed a 16-month detention order for possessing an offensive weapon and perverting the course of justice by lying to police.

In part, this is about money. There is no PR equivalent to legal aid.

You need money to pay for PR advice, so it is generally only available to the well-off or well-supported. This need for money played to the media’s portrayal of this as a case where the client’s son was from a ‘rich’ family, whilst the ‘victim’ was dependant on a bursary.

The reality is that Molnar was found innocent of murder – albeit guilty of lesser crimes. What must have been a very frightening media onslaught then ensued and MC2 were brought in by the Molnar family to help manage it.

You may believe, as clearly much of the press did, that the family were unlikeable, had a son who was a convicted criminal, and seemed incapable of making an apology, but these things aren’t crimes and it is hard to see how PR representation for the family is, in itself, unethical.

Lawyers are not criticised for representing unlikeable, guilty, let alone innocent, clients. Justice is justice, whether you are likeable or not.

What is perhaps surprising is that MC2 were prepared to work for a family that had a less-than-enviable reputation. Certainly, few PR firms would have taken on the reputation management of Leon Brittan, Harvey Proctor and Lord Bramall when they were wrongly accused of paedophilia and child murder.

Why? Would it have been for ethical reasons or because they would have been worried about the damage to their own reputations caused by representing people who were accused of appalling crimes?

An ethical justification would have meant assuming the accused’s guilt, which is in itself unethical and against one of the key principles of justice. Refusing to work for them because it would have been bad for business would at least have been honest.

Whether or not MC2 were wise in business terms to take on the Molnar family as a client is open to question.

They are now a little better known, and readily used the revelation of their involvement as a way to promote themselves, boasting in their statement of their size and expertise. That might look to some, given the sensitivity of the case, in questionable taste.

But is that unethical? As with so many ethical questions, there tends not to be a simple answer.

Trevor Morris is the co-author of PR Today and Richmond University's professor of PR. He is co-authoring a book on PR ethics

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