COMMENT: EDITORIAL; A matter of PR opinion

The case of Mary Rice, sacked from her job as head of public communication for the Medical Research Council after voicing her opposition to a grant from a tobacco company, raises the issue of just how far PR people should be expected to go in defending something with which they disagree?

The case of Mary Rice, sacked from her job as head of public

communication for the Medical Research Council after voicing her

opposition to a grant from a tobacco company, raises the issue of just

how far PR people should be expected to go in defending something with

which they disagree?



First, let us look at exactly what Rice is said to have done wrong.



Two years ago Rice was asked to advise the MRC on the PR implications of

accepting a grant from British American Tobacco to fund research into

the medical effects of nicotine. Rice advised against it on the grounds

that it would be ‘seriously damaging to its reputation as an impartial

source of scientific knowledge’ and said she would be unable to defend

it.



In the end her advice was ignored.



Then the Sunday Times got hold of the story. Rice went on the record to

make clear her opposition to the MRC’s decision. For this she was

suspended and subsequently sacked for gross misconduct.



In the words of the MRC ‘she stated her own personal opinion and made no

attempt to explain the MRC perspective’. Whether in fact the original

decision was in line with official MRC policy is the subject of some

dispute.



But surely the MRC’s administrators have a point? PR people are the

public face of the organisation. They, more than anyone, have a

responsibility to show a united front. As the MRC points out the

‘central issue is one of confidence and trust between employer and

employee’.



But is it not equally important that those on the other side also have

confidence in the people representing an organisation? Most journalists

appreciate an honest response rather than corporate flannel. As has been

shown in countless ‘crisis’ situations, so does the public. For PR

people, credibility is an essential tool of the trade. What recourse did

Rice have, other than to lie or resign?



Rice’s mistake, apparently, was to state her position on the record

rather than off, and to fail to make the MRC’s official line clear as

well as her own.



But perhaps the real issue here is not whether Rice should have said

what she said but whether her advice was listened to in the first place.



Too often people in public relations are expected to churn out the

company line, with little or no influence on the process that created

it. Too often they have responsibility for their organisation’s image

without the power to actually influence it.



As long as that is true, cases like that of Mary Rice will continue to

arise.



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