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
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
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
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