Any PR consultant tempted to bid for the task of promoting anti-abortion
candidates on behalf of the Family Life Campaign at the next election
will need to think very carefully indeed before picking up the phone.
Regardless of the rights and wrongs - and there are PR people on both
sides of the abortion question - it is a tremendously emotive and
politically-charged issue, as the uneasy squirming by party leaders
during the recent ‘morality’ debate has demonstrated.
Given the media’s obsession with its own workings, there is an
increasing tendency to focus on the campaigners as much as the campaign.
Any consultancy which takes on the task must therefore expect to come
under considerable media pressure. But there are also sound business
reasons for erring on the side of caution.
Many consultancy chiefs have a policy of not working for certain types
of client - tobacco companies, for example. There are usually three
reasons for this: their own personal beliefs; their staff’s qualms about
working on the account; and a hard commercial consideration for the
views of other clients, existing and prospective. In the abortion
debate, the ethical positions are more evenly balanced. But the same
caution is needed.
You do not have to have a particularly long memory to remember the
difficulties that Hill and Knowlton got into at the end of the 1980s
when, under Bob Dilenschneider, the agency took on a succession of
controversial clients in the US including the Church of Scientology, and
the Catholic bishops anti-abortion campaign.
While there were other factors contributing to the agency’s woes, it was
clear that its other clients took a dim view of their consultancy
continually being associated with controversy in the headlines.
PR theorists argue that everyone is entitled to the best advice they can
afford in putting their case in the court of public opinion - just as
everyone is entitled to the best defence in law. And it is true to say
that lawyers’ own reputations are rarely harmed by defending seemingly
But the bear pit of the media and public opinion is not a court of law,
where arguments can be decided clinically, unemotionally and decisively.
Back in the muddy moral waters of the real world, PR campaigners have to
fight their way through debates peppered with inexactitudes, high
emotion and mischief.
The company a consultancy chooses to keep does reflect - for good or ill
- on its own reputation. By all means stand up for what you believe in,
but don’t force your other clients to go along for the ride.