No Good Deed: Culturally Conflicted

No Good Deed 300X300

No Good Deed is a 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.

Dilemma du jour:

I’ve been hired by a local housewares and soft furnishings company to provide a communications plan and promotional strategy around the sale of blankets with First Nations designs on them. It turns out the client has no connection to anything or anyone in the First Nations community and in fact, the blankets aren’t being sourced from indigenous artisans or manufacturers. I think this could backfire for the client, but when I gently raised it, the client didn’t see my concerns and still wants to go ahead. I am very uncomfortable with this cultural co-opting, but not sure what I can do…other than resign the account! Is that my only option?

Signed, Culturally Conflicted

It isn’t surprising your client didn’t want to hear your “gently raised” concerns. If this local business has already purchased or entered into a contract to buy the blankets, abandoning their promotion and being stuck with tainted inventory will cost them money. They may also be unaware of the evolving landscape of what is considered acceptable in drawing on other cultures’ art and traditions for personal profit. Before you walk away, do everyone a favour and put on your issues management hat. Effective PR professionals don’t hint at possible challenges. They state them flat-out and recommend solutions.

Educate your client about cultural appropriation and the very real possibility of backlash against not only their campaign, but also their entire business should they push ahead. Five minutes on the Internet will arm you with a wealth of pertinent examples. Even if they don’t share your views on cultural sensitivity, they may well recognize how the possible controversy could hurt their business. If the company decides not to move forward, you can work with them to come up with a campaign that highlights something else. As well, if they are interested in providing a forum for First Nations artisans to sell their work, you can develop a promotional campaign once they appropriately source their products.

Should the company remain obdurate, resign the account. Otherwise, you’ll not only compromise your own integrity, you risk damaging your reputation for creating the campaign when you should have (and did) know better.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Strategic Communications

Cultural appropriation has been an issue for several decades, but Canadian and international law don’t yet protect against it, though many are pushing for change.  

Copyright law is ill suited to dealing with intellectual property rights that are collective and passed down through oral tradition, as in the case of most indigenous art.  Attempts to deal with this include the “Genuine Cowichan” mark registered by BC’s Cowichan Band in the 90s.

So your client may be safe legally, but they could still be on thin ice in the court of public opinion, which seem to be leaning in support of the findings and recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. 

You could try to help educate them with examples of other companies getting in trouble.  In 2015, UK fashion label KTZ had to apologize and pull a line of jackets that copied Inuit clothing designs. You might also suggest they consider paying for a genuine design from a First Nations artist to replace the fake.

If your client chooses not to change course, you may have to ask yourself how strongly you feel about this issue and whether you want to be associated with cultural appropriation. Any professional whose values are not aligned with a client or employer needs to ask him/herself that question.

~ Scott Jackson, APR Program Manager, National Communications, Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada

Interesting dilemma, let me reflect for a moment…NO, NO, NO, NO and NO.  Trust what you are feeling.

Clearly you cannot proceed with this deliverable. For starters, see the third point in the CPRS Code of Professional Standards: "Members shall not engage in professional or personal conduct that will bring discredit to themselves, the Society or the practice of public relations". But giving up the account should not be your first option.

I'd say you have both a responsibility and an opportunity here. Responsibility on a couple of fronts: the cultural conflict as you've described in your signature, and your client. Let’s take a few minutes and pretend you said ‘yes.’  What would you include in the situational analysis component of the communications plan and what potential risks would you identify? Your client needs to know these risks, and should appreciate your counsel on this. Doing so is an opportunity for you to demonstrate the value you can bring.

There is no strategic approach that can make this palatable, and there shouldn't be. Our nation is just starting on the path of Truth and Reconciliation, and we have a responsibility and an opportunity to demonstrate respect and to learn in order to contribute to a new way forward.

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, Senior Program Manager, Donation and Transplant, Canadian Blood Services


About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, 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.