Platform: Questioning PR’s claim on the moral high ground

What happens to the principles of PR practitioners when they come up against the pragmatism of the real world? asks Lord Chadlington.

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

directly responsible?

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


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