No Good Deed: Experts Weigh In on Ethical Challenges

No Good Deed

Welcome to No Good Deed, a new column devoted to the discussion of ethical challenges we may face in our profession.   Each issue we’ll feature a member’s dilemma and ask three PR experts to comment on it.  We’d love to hear from you, too, so please weigh in on the various “what would you do if…” problems your colleagues are confronted with.

Today’s dilemma:

Our agency has just taken on a new account and for political, philosophical and environmental reasons I am very uncomfortable with it.  If I’m asked to work on it, I know I just can’t.  Do I have to quit?

Here’s what our panel of experts had to say:

Working for an agency is not a pick and choose situation. For that reason it’s important to ask about corporate guidelines when choosing an agency to work with and reveal any potential conflicts or philosophical issues that may keep you from doing your best for the client. So at this point your only choice is to let the principal know where you stand and what your philosophical position is. If I were you I’d prepare myself for a parting of the ways. On the other hand, if you are open to mentoring and your boss is prepared to offer this (in which case she/he is a saint), you could learn a lot about how to work with clients regardless of philosophical differences. Your situation is not unusual and is why some practitioners choose to become independent consultants so there is an opportunity to work with clients who are likeminded or at least not polar opposites.

~ Francine L Gaudet, APR, FCPRS, LM, Vancouver senior communications advisor and consultant


With a bit of luck and an agency with progressive management, no, you won’t have to quit.  The last list I saw about the ‘top 10 things employees want’ stressed such things as: “Purpose” . . . “the chance to make a difference"  . . . “freedom to work in a way that works for them” . . . “a synergy between their personal lives and their professional lives" and “a chance to bring about something new and exciting.”

So does your agency offer those? Or is it still in the old top-down management model of command-and-control? Management guru Thomas W. Malone of MIT proposes that technology and our modern communication tools mean we are developing bottom-up management, with human values driving much more flexible management. So, at least address the “political, philosophical and environmental reasons” with your boss. You might just be able to turn down the assignment, without having to pack your bags.  However, broadly speaking, the flat-out refusal of a legitimate assignment does create grounds for potential dismissal. If the top-down manager’s answer is a firm take-it-or-quit, then the decision is up to you.

~ Don MacLachlan, Clarity Communications Inc., Vancouver


My recommendation is to discuss the situation with your boss using a rational, non-emotional approach.  You may want to offer possible alternatives that could help to solve the problem and demonstrate that you are taking the initiative.  Ideally your boss will want to find a workable solution as well.  Keeping good employees adds value to a company and its culture.  I have been fortunate to work for agencies that allow their employees an “ethical out” where the client company or sector faces strong public polarity or there are significant moral issues associated with their business. However, the reality of agency life is that we may, from time to time, have to work on accounts we are not completely comfortable with.  Only you can make the decision that ultimately aligns with your own professional and personal compass.

~ Margot White, Senior Communications Consultant & Crisis Planner

For help with your ethical dilemmas, send your query to No Good Deed column editor Deborah Folka, APR at [email protected].

About the Author

Deborah Folka is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.