Categories: Crisis management / Political spin / Trust and reputations

6 September 2011


In defence of the right to PR representation

Who should PRs work for? Well, according to Rosanna M. Fiske, Chair and Chief Executive, Public Relations Society of America, everybody has the right to have their voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. I agree. But Ms Fiske doesn’t, not really.

In a letter to the FT last week, she criticises PRs who worked for Col Gaddafi and any who wouldn’t mind working for Iran. Setting out her own ideas, Fiske gets into a muddle and contradicts herself without shame or perhaps without realising it:

We [Public Relations Society of America] believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.

Well, she can’t have it both ways. Either everybody has a right to a PR advocate, or they don’t. Her position, if we take what she says seriously, is that only people who run their countries according to the same democratic principles as the United States deserve PR counsel from the Western world. Moreover, Fiske writes in her letter:

Ethical public relations places an emphasis on counselling reputable organisations and individuals in developing and maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders.

Nice work if you can get it.

Leave aside for the moment that Fiske is positioning the PR industry as the arbiter – which we are not qualified to be – of which person and organisation or country is “reputable” or what stakeholders are “concerned”.

Surely, the point of some very important PR is that it helps people who are considered (or may self-evidently be) unreputable. If they were of good reputation, they’d have scant need of our work. Oil companies need a lot of PR when their pipes and ships leak. Tobacco companies presumably need good PR all the time. (See Thank You For Smoking.) Ditto, professional downsizers. (See Up in the Air.) You get the picture.

The point isn’t that so-called sinners should be denied PR. Surely it is: what class of rogue is so utterly roguish that PRs shouldn’t take their money? Of course, we all have our limits, but they’ll likely be different.

A moment’s thought suggests that famous, outed, seemingly obvious rogues have a strong claim to PR’s efforts. They are the targets of huge, prejudiced, tediously liberal, right-on attacks, which are often unjustified. Why shouldn’t they have a defence? Besides, such media “victims” come with a huge risk for PRs, and that makes defending them an act of some courage, and therefore of some merit on those grounds alone.

I can easily imagine why for selfish reasons most PR agencies might reject Col Gaddafi’s reputed two million pounds sterling to launch a belated lobbying campaign against NATO. They would be right, I suspect, to assume the contract would do their reputations more harm than it would do his any good. Though if anybody does take the job, they should not be condemned by fellow PRs living in glass houses. (See PR Week).

There are far murkier waters than these, though. What about the covert-rogue? That’s the one who has a good and undeserved reputation and employs PRs to keep it that way. Is that acceptable work for a PR? The answer depends in part on how nasty the rascal is and how much the PR knows. (See “Deadly Spin” is mere spin.)

It is no good for PRs to argue that they don’t have to be any more picky than a defence lawyer. While courts of law might be symmetrical, the court of public opinion seldom is. In reality, the balance of opinion and media coverage is often tipped unfairly against clients. Hence we rightly assume the prosecution is competent and well-resourced: its best shot is likely to be pretty good and merits as good a response as is available. (See A new moral agenda for PR.)

It seems pretty obvious that Ms Fiske’s position is obviously way too saintly. She suggests that even if the US government was working in the past to repair relations with Libya and Syria, American public relations firms should have cold-shouldered them. Her qualification for our endorsement appears to be “people like us”. But that would exclude Saudi Arabia, China and Russia and many other countries in which PR is booming.

Of course, one could argue that in China PR firms mostly represent Chinese companies, rather than the state. Except that would be dishonest. In China the state owns most major companies and still commands the economy. It also gets its claws, admittedly indirectly, into the Western firms which operate there. (See Google comes of age in China.)

Ms Fiske works for the Public Relations Society of America. I imagine that it would like PR to be a respectable profession. Presumably its members believe that obeying a rather strict code is good in itself or good for business or both. I am interested in the merits of that sort of scheme. (See: When “friends” fallout over “dirty tricks”.) But I also admire the PR firms that say they don’t want to be part of the public relations industry’s hypocrisy.

2 responses to “In defence of the right to PR representation”

  1. This nicely illustrates some of the difficulties that PR students often encounter when trying to consider ethical practice. They generally seem to consider communications for organizations that are doing things that may be thought of as unethical, or at least, of questionable benefit to society as having unethical PR. Whereas, of course, the likes of Bodyshop and others with socially responsible reputations as practising ethical PR.

    The practice of PR is much less clearcut than that and often involves making decisions around the greyness of ethics, or doing the best you can until you can perhaps afford to act on ethical principles.

    Although I agree with you that avoiding hypocrisy in terms of how PR presents itself (ie we only work with the good guys) is important, there’s a lot to be said also for having an ethical and moral perspective. There are also strong arguments for working within organizations which may have poor reputations if you believe you can help in a positive sense. Organizations (or individuals) may not deserve their bad name or may be willing to change. Time can also make things that were once unacceptable, become acceptable and vice versa.

    There are also strong arguments for PR being party to challenging what may be acceptable, but not necessarily ethical. Discrimination, lack of understanding, ignorance and other barriers may need to be overcome and PR can help do that.

    As ever with ethical matters, life doesn’t always make things easy and compromises and the hard facts of reality needs to be considered.

  2. tim says:

    Nice post Paul,
    Ethics and morals are indeed a question of personal judgement. How far you are willing to go in PR is to my mind at least similar to how far you are willing to go in life. There are often things clients may ask you to do or actions you could recommend they take that stray over the boundaries of your own morals, much like the question as to whether you should have that last extra drink or call it a night. Sometimes you do sometimes you don’t but more often than not your own moral compass points you in the correct direction. If you don’t listen you are likely to suffer a nasty hangover in the morning. Some will live with it and carry on, some will avoid it altogether. What is certain is that no-one is whiter than white, it is perhaps often what business dictates that leads the way, so long as you avoid the last drink and the next. At least that is, in the real world. In Ms Fiskes’ I couldn’t possibly say.