No Good Deed: Hired Gun or Conscience?

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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.

The Dilemma du Jour:

According to a recent New Yorker article titled The Reputation-Laundering Firm That Ruined Its Own Reputation, Lord Timothy Bell, formerly chairman of now-defunct Bell Pottinger Public Relations, argued that “…a publicist merely allows clients to have a voice in public discussions that affect them…access to an expensive London PR firm (was) a right as fundamental as access to a defense lawyer.”

As a public relations professional with 10 years experience, it seems to me that Bell is espousing a very out dated view of PR. We are not defense attorneys and nowhere in any democratic country’s constitution is there a right to ‘good communications counsel’ in addition to a citizen’s right to legal representation. On the other hand, I am more than a little uncomfortable at the guerrilla tactics employed by many activist groups who seem to be self-appointed martyrs and single-voice proponents for their causes.

So what are we: hired guns to help clients take (or make) reputational hits or the conscience of an organization?

Signed, Do I Make or Take the Hit?

Dear Make or Take:

I have to wonder if one of the reasons Bell Pottinger went out of business is the chairman thought publicity and public relations are the same. Publicity is all about promotion and doesn’t require full disclosure or even real accuracy to achieve its goals. PR is the practice of facilitating communication between a client and its publics. To be effective, that communication must be honest and conducted with integrity. To make a social media analogy: Facebook is publicity and LinkedIn is PR.

No one is entitled to PR and most certainly not to publicity. As PR practitioners, our integrity is central to our value as professionals; so if you find a client or the way they operate reprehensible, don’t work for them. Our role is to be a conduit, not our clients’ conscience, but you’ll feel a lot better when your work helps make even some small aspect of life better. You do have a choice. Choose well.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, is the owner of KM Strategic Communications.

We are ALL the conscience of an organization.

Repeat that every time you feel uncomfortable with what you are asked to do, whether working for a client or within an organization. Reject the ‘hired gun’ label; pick up the CPRS Code of Professional Standards and let that be your guide. 

On the first day of my public relations studies, our program head made a statement that has stuck with me throughout my career. He said, “Everyone is entitled to an opinion. You don’t have to like it, agree with it or adopt it, but you can’t deny them that right.” 

So, like Bell, I would argue that everyone -- oligarch or martyr -- also has a right to communications counsel. But as public relations professionals providing that advice, we have a responsibility to operate within a professional code of standards. Bell clearly did not follow the code of conduct of the UK PR association to which his firm belonged, and thus is not a true professional (in my opinion). 

We are not reputation launderers, spin doctors or corporate hacks. We are professionals guided by a code of standards that clearly outlines our responsibility to operate within the highest standards of honesty, accuracy, integrity and truth. You might argue that PR practitioners are not licensed or required to join a regulatory organization in order to practice, so how do we weed out or distinguish ourselves from those who don’t? That’s why a professional association like CPRS is so important in setting standards, educating practitioners and serving as the collective voice for the profession. Regardless of licensing, the unfortunate reality is that PR is like every other profession: there will always be those who operate unethically and in doing so, tarnish the reputation of the entire profession. 

Stand your professional ground; let our code of professional standards be your guide as you serve as the conscience of your organization.

~ Peggy John, APR, LM, is the Associate Director, Operations & Integration for Organ Donation and Transplant at Canadian Blood Services. 

As a professional, you’re judged by the company you keep, which includes the organizations you’re aligned with. The Bell-Pottinger saga was a sad tale of management abdicating its moral responsibility to clients, the public and the ethical standards of the PR profession. It really gave the profession a black eye, underlining the need for more rigorous corporate governance to nip these types of moral lapses in judgement in the bud.

The moral compass of an organization really starts at the top with the CEO. He or she is responsible for developing the corporate culture; instilling values and promoting behaviours that guide an organization. However, the "conscience" of an organization shouldn't reside with just one person. Every employee has a responsibility to act as the eyes and ears or an organization to protect its reputation. Just look at the recent global Google walkout in response to revelations of systemic sexism in the company as an example of ethical empowerment in action.

So, what’s PR’s role as the conscience of an organization? Public relations should serve as an ethical barometer for management, advising them of public sentiment and the appropriate course of action that will enhance their standing in the community. As such, PR professionals should be fairly objective in evaluating the stance and actions of the companies they represent and be prepared to diplomatically challenge senior management when decisions or actions threaten to erode the integrity or reputation of the company. Blindly following the wishes of senior management either as an employee or consultant does little to elevate the PR profession’s stature as a strategic management function.

I think the best compliment any PR professional could receive from an employer or client is: “You don’t always tell me what I want to hear, but you do tell me what I need to know.”

Bell-Pottinger’s demise was truly troubling, but it serves as a timely reminder that we should employ the same high standards in managing our own professional reputations as we do when providing strategic counsel to our employer or clients.   

~ Martin Livingston is principal of Living Communications Inc. in Vancouver.

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.