Public Relations Is Not A Right

Does everyone deserve public relations representation?

Every so often a story comes along – the recent saga around the mother of octuplets, for example – that raises the question of whether PR firms should exercise discretion in the clients with whom they choose to work. The same question gets raised for tobacco companies, oil companies, nuclear power companies and for all sorts of other organizations.

This post isn’t about any specific example, rather it’s about one general theme.

Public relations representation is not a right.

Some people see public relations alongside law. They think that everyone has a right to be represented in “the court of public opinion.”

I don’t think that coming up with a phrase that includes the word “courts” puts public relations alongside law as a right. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives every resident the right to retain legal counsel, but we’re not lawyers. I don’t see a mention of public relations in there.

There is no inalienable right to PR representation.

I’m very pro-public relations (obviously – I work in the field) but let’s be realistic here. Public relations is a business function. I think it’s an important one, but it’s still a service – just as marketing, advertising and other areas are. 

Companies or individuals who act illegally or unethically aren’t “entitled” to representation, and I personally don’t want to be the one providing it to them. I want to put my head down at night feeling good about the work I do, not worrying whether I’ve helped an unethical organization go about its business.

We’re into another grey area here – where do you draw the line? How do you decide what’s just a simple mistake and what crosses over to make a company unworthy of representation? That’s a tough question – I think different people will have different answers – and I’m not sure I even have an answer to it.

Still, while I haven’t had to deal with this situation yet, I know there are organizations out there that I wouldn’t want to represent. It’s not that it would be difficult; but that I would feel wrong representing a person or organization whose activities I fundamentally disagree with. What’s more, I don’t think I could do a good job for them – my heart wouldn’t be in it.

What do you think? Am I naive? Am I just wrong? Where do you stand on this?

  • I think it would be great if each and every agency could draw its ethical line in the sand and choose clients based on that.

    But as you said, it’s a business function. And for agencies or individuals who are hurting for business, there might be a lot of pressure to compromise ethics in order to keep the money coming in.

    Personally, I would like to think that I will only ever work for clients (or employers, for that matter) that fit my ethical framework. But I know what it’s like to be at a firm that’s trying to find its footing. Turning down a potential client can be tough.

  • You’re stating the obvious here, Dave. Did you really need to check and link to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

  • Sarah

    In our education as PR professionals we are all given the same lecture that I am sure lawyers recieve: your ethical and moral line, may be further away then mine.

    When looking at Octo-mom, if we didn’t have tabloid media, people who become infamous wouldn’t feel the need for representation. So who is in the wrong there? Octo-mom? Tabloids? PR Representative?

    While I also wouldn’t feel comfortable representing any of the same companies you listed, does our moral highground become a “money garden” for another PR rep who doesn’t feel the same? Yep. But then hopefully, that leaves opportunities to do more good in the world through PR to the rest of us.

  • Chris – you’re criticising based on too much research? I’ll happily take that.

  • PR may not be a right, per say, but I think everybody has a chance to he heard. PR isn’t just about image or the “court of public opinion”. It’s the two-way communications that we provide that matters the most.

    Maybe it is up to the PR practitioner to inform the client of the wrong doings and establish ways to improve this. Yes, we do use persuasive techniques to motivate people, but we never cover up or deny the bad side.

    There can be a point when one loses the privilege of PR. I can’t think of any PR that could help the likes of the KKK, but companies also could lose it when PR presents them the problems to fix, and still chooses to deny, cover up or ignore such behavior.

    You have many valid points. It was a good read. Great post!

  • I have to agree with Sarah, we are sometimes the bearers of tough decisions, like whether or not to represent a controversial client. I’m still a student but I do know that if I feel uncomfortable in the work world with doing something, there is someone else who doesn’t. Sometimes, taking on tough clients and helping them weather the media storm can be as good for you as a professional as it can for the client. So yeah you can draw your line in the sand, but if you’re going to do it, be prepared to draw it over and over cause the tide’s coming in.

  • Evan – I agree about the developmental benefits of taking on a tough assignment. What I’m trying to get at, though, is whether all parties are *entitled* to representation.

    I’ll use some examples to clarify (but I don’t want to get focused on specific industries) – how would you feel about working for a tobacco company, helping them to build their cigarette business? How about an anti-abortion group? Or, as you say, the KKK? The list could go on. Without putting judgements on any of them in this case, are they all *entitled* to representation?

  • Sarah

    Although, again, not a fan of any of the above, what if the world of PR had evolved sooner, lets say 40 or 50 years ago, where representation was the norm like today. Would the same conversation be taking place for the rights of Women? African-Canadians? Those would have been groups that certainly many would have said “no,no, I draw the line when it comes to that.” Maybe PR isin’t an organizations right, but it sometimes helps bridge the controversial to the mainstream for the better.

  • The term “entitlement” is what makes this conversation so interesting. Obviously there is no law or statute saying “thou must represent regardless of thy moral standing,” but I firmly believe that the owners of a PR firm must have a clear and obvious line. I respect any firm willing to turn down clients for moral reasons, or any justifiable reason for that matter. It shows character, strength and an unwillingness to fold under the dollar sign, and I would like to think if I were on the client side I would respect these characteristics.

    So long as your reasons are justifiable where you draw your moral line should be up to you.

  • Dave- Oh. Well in that case I would go with No, not all parties are entitled to representation. The thing is, there is usually someone out there who will represent those clients I ethically couldn’t. Take for example the KKK. I would not represent them. I am a Black-American college educated male. No deals. But someone who’s father was in the KKK, who might understand it to be an organization of noble ideals, integrity and the commitment to standing for what you believe in, that person might be comfortable with it. What’s worse, they might be successful in influencing public opinion towards the positive for their client.

    To make it even more real and to answer your question, yes I would feel perfectly comfortable representing an anti-abortion group.

  • Great post, as I (along with most other PR professioanls) seldom have the time to examine our professional and industry ethics.

    I agree with Scott. Ultimately, the moral choices made in a business are decided by real people. This can be true for the agency or the company/individual represented.

    Also, at the end of the day, the public – our audiences – will have to make an opinion, based on their own morals.

    Set aside from the issue of representing an ethical or unethical company, if we as professionals are acting ethically (i.e. telling the truth, disclosing vital info, sharing the story, etc.), then the public will make that judgment call.

  • I think you’re exactly right for sticking with supporting companies you do believe in and feel good about, that’s part of how you can leave work at work. When you start supporting just the clients that pay you a lot it affects your credibility to me as a supporter and I think you’re worse at your job because of it. I think it’s pretty easy to tell when someone in PR doesn’t believe in the product they are promoting and it’s a big red flag for me to continue believing in the products you promote.

  • You are judged by association as well. You might be ethical but if your client is not, you stand to lose your reputation.
    Not worth it in the end.

  • AM – Agreed. That decision to associate would be after a careful analysis of what public opinion/majority sentiment and morals would be.

    To me, the moral issue is on a sliding scale, along with risk of representing certain clients.

    In certain industries, geographies or demographics, certain companies/indiv are at risk for being unethical or immoral and others are not (i.e. octo-mom, AIG, PETA).

    I def agree that representation isn’t an entitlement or decision should be left to the public, but I think there can be such a thing as playing it too safe and losing opportunity.

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  • It is perhaps somewhat ironic that in countries where there is little freedom of expression, such as Zimbabwe, the only voices being publicly heard are those who would be deemed as unworthy of PR representation by most of the commentators here.

    You claim that PR is a business function and (although I believe it is not exclusively the preserve of businesses to use or employ PR), writers such as Zeigler (cited in Sriramesh and Vercic, The Global PR Handbook, 2009) state that “corporatism hinges on a characteristic of the consensus-oriented democracy”.

    So the simple fact that organisations and individuals are able to express different viewpoints (some of which might be considered by some people as unethical) is what enables PR to exist.

    One person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist and the same can be considered true in PR. Your persuasive message might be considered as propaganda by others.

    Today in London, we have 20 global leaders seeking to discuss key issues and build relationships with each other – and by virtue of their public statements, to influence the wider society. We will undoubtedly hear their voices thanks to their professional public relations expertise and might.

    Would it not be unethical to allow only the voices of those with power to be heard?

    Because the UK is a democratic, pluralistic society, there will also be dozens of activist groups and thousands of individuals, demonstrating to protest around various issues over which these 20 individuals have more say than anyone of us.

    They will use the techniques of PR to give a voice to their views – they don’t need professional PR representation to do this, fortunately.

    Our modern society is based on the idea that multiple competing opinions are able to affect public policy and public behaviour through discussion, bargaining and compromise.

    So surely it is important that public relations is able to stimulate discussion around issues; which means allowing the opinions of others to be heard, even if we don’t like what they are saying.

    As an individual PR practitioner, I can decide whether or not I wish to convey a message as I have the freedom of choice. I appreciate it isn’t always that easy if you need a job to pay the bills – but again it is your decision over whether to compromise your personal ethics if needs must.

    I believe that as professional PR practitioners we should support what Voltaire is attributed as saying: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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  • Dave, I think you’re missing the point with the octuplets mom. Does she have the right to PR counsel as an accused criminal does with legal counsel? No, of course not. But if she can afford PR counsel and an agency is willing to represent her, she should not be denied access to that counsel because miscreant members of the public flood the agency with death threats. If she has the wherewithal to get help telling her story, she (or anybody else) should be permitted to take advantage of that resource.

  • Shel – I’m not trying to make a point about her – she’s just an example of someone who will raise a strong emotional reaction in a lot of people. Pick anyone you like – the question is should agencies take on those clients because they have a *right* to PR counsel, as opposed to taking them on because they believe in their offering and have a genuine enthusiasm for them?

    I’m quite willing to have my mind changed on this one; I just want to make sure you disagree with the points I’m actually arguing 🙂

  • We could be debating different issues, Dave. I know the agency that took the octuplet mom on (and I recognize she’s just an example) did so for the opportunity, not out of a sense of obligation. Should an agency be forced to take the American Nazi Party on as a client just because nobody else will? Not at all. On that point, you’re correct — that’s why there’s no equivalent of a public defender’s office in PR!

  • maureen Argon

    Not too long ago I was hired by a non-profit as the Director of Communications. My job included public relations among other things. Soon after I was hired, and going through the files to get up to speed, I discovered some very unethical connections and ensuing bad press (which I felt was quite justified). Part of my job would have been to do some damage control. None of this was fully disclosed to me before I took the job. I resigned before the end of my probationary period.
    What I learned from that was to make clear my own personal ethics –drawing my own line in the sand. But more importantly, I learned about due diligence. It’s important to find things out for yourself and act accordingly. In this case, I simply could not be promoting that organization to people who were donated their hard earned money knowing what I knew about how it was being spent.

  • Just getting to this post, and I think it’s an important one. At the firm I used to work for, we spent a lot of time examining and vetting clients before we’d do the work–it was just understood that as a PR firm, one of the most important (if not *the* most important) things we brought to the table was our own reputation. I saw this in action too–separating from a client when it became clear the values differed.

    That said, I think people allow their own personal biases to creep in and say “oh, I wouldn’t ever work for X.” I’d caution people on drawing conclusions before learning more about the company first. I can remember being very wary about one client our group represented. After learning more about the company and its plans, efforts in certain areas, etc., I was very impressed. Of course, this wasn’t an ethical issue, more policy, but it was an important learning experience for me not to judge a company based on what general perceptions are. It was a great and fulfilling project to work on.

    Is PR representation a right? No. But it is important to remember that companies exist because there is a need for the product or service, that they do employ people, and that many times there are multiple stories to tell.

  • I wonder who the moral referee would be…

    An Objectivist argues a man is an end to himself, not a means with an end to others. If it is within his rational self-interest to represent an oil company (as do some smart social media agencies we know of), then it is moral.

    Good topic of discussion.