What happens to the principles of PR practitioners when they come
up against the pragmatism of the real world? asks Lord Chadlington.
Aristotle built an entire school of thought, so to speak, on the premise
that it is more important to understand what questions to ask rather
than to know how to answer them.
Continuing in that vein, this article is all about questions, not about
answers. It’s about problems, not about solutions.
The big question is something like this: ’Should a PR firm ever deny the
right of a client to have access to its services?’ There are lots of
subsidiary and supplementaries such as: ’Should a PR firm or individual
ever use his clients to promote and support his own point of view -
using clients to promote a particular political, religious or moral
For most of us it all seems so easy when we start our careers. We have a
high moral position - we decide not to work in-house for tobacco or
represent a cigarette brand in our fledgling consultancy.
But our views and jobs change. The financial imperative becomes more
strident and the market for PR changes too.
Should we refuse to accept a job with a tobacco firm which is
diversifying, making itself less dependent on the products to which we
object? Even for a firm which plans to dispose of its tobacco
And is it any different on the consultancy side?
Should we plan to act for only a limited number of blue-chips, no
tobacco or even alcohol clients, no governments with human rights
When there are ten, 20, even 50 like-minded people in the same
consultancy and in one geography - that seems quite manageable.
But what happens when a consultancy has 30 or 50 offices? What right has
the centre to impose its moral stance - however fervently held - on
those in other geographies, with different cultures, with different (not
necessarily better or worse) moral positions.
Should we still demand that these colleagues should adhere to our
And it’s not just about the obvious things - tobacco, dictatorships,
alcohol and the like. It’s about other client categories too. What about
products which are dangerous or fail to live up to promises?
In many cases we excuse and explain. ’They must have the right to put
their case clearly and forcefully’ - through to ’The client has
undertaken to review the situation and adapt the product.’
Consciences salved, we can go about our business again. And accept our
But do we, six months later, insist on seeing the new safety criteria,
or study the lab tests, putting our relationship with our client at
When did any of us resign a piece of business, genuinely, on moral
And are we to be praised if we have? Have we any right to impose our
moral position on anyone but ourselves and those for whom we are
The global economy makes it more difficult still.
Should we act for one subsidiary of a conglomerate when we know it loses
money and is financed by the success of a product or service in another
geography for which we would not act?
Should we act for a company which pays bribes? Reprehensible in the UK
and other major markets - acceptable in certain other markets.
And there are plenty of companies who may pay scant attention to
environmental issues where the spotlight doesn’t shine and PR suppliers
are, like others, in the dark. Is ignorance bliss?
Of course, there are easy answers to these questions. Life is compromise
If the client doesn’t tell us these things how can we be expected to
Somebody would act for them anyway - even if we didn’t. And so on.
But if we believe that PR is a powerful weapon - I believe the most
effective communications tool - we are on the horns of a dilemma.
Should we use it to promote the interests of people, companies and
organisations whose success will bring about a world which is less safe,
less environmentally friendly, less healthy and so on. Or should we say
that this skill is available to all - irrespective of their intent as
long as their activities are legal in the geography in which they
The nightmare is at the extremes. Over-dramatic of course - but unless
we understand these issues someone could end up acting for Hitler’s
Germany and defending them-selves on the grounds that the client didn’t
tell them he was murdering six million Jews.
That is the real paradox. We have struggled for years to make PR
acceptable, to attract high quality people, to encourage business to use
our services fully. And yet on issues that really matter - both of
principle and of practicality - we have often put pragmatism before all