Editorial: Living with your PR conscience

Hill and Knowlton - which used to represent the tobacco industry - has won a partial victory in the Medicaid suit against tobacco companies in Florida. The judge ruled that the PR consultancy could not be held responsible for the injuries suffered by Medicaid patients because it did not manufacture or sell cigarettes.

Hill and Knowlton - which used to represent the tobacco industry -

has won a partial victory in the Medicaid suit against tobacco companies

in Florida. The judge ruled that the PR consultancy could not be held

responsible for the injuries suffered by Medicaid patients because it

did not manufacture or sell cigarettes.



But the consultancy is not out of the woods yet. Other suits against the

firm are still outstanding. And despite the fact that its tobacco work

ended in 1963, Florida state attorneys still want H&K to return the

money it made in order to fund an anti-smoking campaign. So far no such

case has been heard in this country. But with the pressure mounting for

legal action against tobacco firms in the UK, the day may not be far

off.



Meanwhile H&K’s experience raises an issue which goes to the very heart

of what public relations stands for. Many consultancies take an ethical

stance on the kind of companies they will take on as clients. Others

allow their staff to opt out of working for clients whose activities

clash with their own views. But plenty willingly take on ’difficult’

briefs.



The classic argument they use to justify their defence of the seeming

indefensible is the same as that put by lawyers - that everyone is

entitled to the best defence. A PR practitioner is therefore acting as

’an advocate in the court of public opinion’.



It is an effective argument. However it utterly devalues public

relations.



By adopting that position they become no more than a mouthpiece, however

skilful their advocacy. And they abdicate responsibility for PR’s most

important role.



PR people are not defence barristers. Their role is not to explain and

justify after the fact. Their role is - or should be - at the heart of

the business, influencing decisions from the inside. If a company is

polluting a lake, the PR adviser’s role is not to drown the media with a

sludge of statistics supporting its client’s actions, and then hope the

problem will go away. It will not, and it does the client a disservice

to pretend otherwise. The PR adviser’s duty is to tell the client to

stop polluting the lake because otherwise its reputation and its

business will suffer.



We have often argued the case for placing PR - or reputation management

- at the heart of business decision making. But if PR people cannot

accept the responsibility of forcing companies to look in the mirror and

mend their ways when necessary, they are not worthy of taking their seat

at the boardroom table.



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