True Believers: Should A PR Person Stand for Something?

A respected academic posts a blog titled, “Spotlight on Ethics: Not Every Business Decision Can Be an Ethical One — So Where Do You Draw the Line?” Right off the bat he writes, “no one can go around living like Socrates, doing only what is ethical, moral and just.” I don’t know about Socrates, but if Diogenes saw or heard that line he’d grab his lantern and run.

Relax. This is not another holier-than-thou sermon on ethics. Rather, it’s a plea to stand for something more than just earning a buck, and to believe in what you do. 

Some years ago a colleague of mine represented a prominent Baby Bell in a national telecom debate – actually the communications industry battle of the day: the legislative fight leading up to passage of the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act. Midway through he switched sides to rep a large long distance company on the opposite side of the policy battle. Justifying his about face, he explained that he was an “arms merchants” whose services went to the highest bidder. I don’t buy romanticized rationalizations about “communications mercenaries.” In another walk of life they call such individuals exactly what they are: hookers.

One of the reasons that PR has a sinister reputation in some quarters is the tendency of some practitioners to use media to influence others – whether or not they believe their own spiel. I was reminded of this after my last post at PR Breakfast Club when one reader commented on PR’s importance as a tool for “changing behaviors.”  Another excellent rebuttal to my post, by Derek DeVries, made a point about the chameleon-like nature of many in the business: “Like a defense attorney, being a public relations pro sometimes means working for the best interests of a client you may not agree with.”  I suppose it’s true that crooks, like everybody else, deserve their day in court. But defending, via PR, what or who we know to be indefensible? I’m not convinced that’s the same.

Around here we’re known for certain things: launching startups, defending competition and turning the table on giants, in market and policy campaigns. We are squarely in the camp of David, and the odds of our ever crossing over to support Goliath are nil. Even if we’re not directly engaged in the debate, we routinely offer our view, as we did in a recent thumbs down on the proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Speaking out for the little guy – that’s key to our identity – who we are and what we do.

Operating a PR agency on a firm set of beliefs doesn’t make you better than anyone else, and may not be the best way to run a business, either. At least you’re credible.

As for my colleague who thought otherwise. . .In one of life’s ironic twists, his next job was repping a Las Vegas casino. Somehow the image of him surrounded by mobsters, gambling addicts and pole-dancers fits.

Jim Crawford is the president of Crawford PR and author of Black Box Blog, an expert perspective on tech PR success.

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  • Jim, in my career I’ve been chastised by government officials for agressively presenting the views of physicians’ associations during battles over tort reform and health care regulation. As a spokesman for the criminal justice system, I’ve endured threats against my family and been spat upon in public.

    Every client I’ve represented or organization for which I’ve worked, particularly where there is controversy or a contentious issue in debate, asks first and foremost for help in delivering their message believeably and persuasively. In the process of doing so, it’s difficult to avoid adopting the client’s position as your own, especially if your role is to act as spokesperson. In essence, you become the embodiment of that organization or system or viewpoint. While I’m inclined to agree with you on the ethical considerations, I think the bigger concern is credibility.

    Once you’ve been seen advocating a strong viewpoint in public and taking all of the lumps that come with doing so, once journalists covering the issue are aware that you’ve had a hand in shaping that message, even if limited to a “behind the scenes” role, I cannot see how you can be effective after jumping to the other side. Maybe you can explain that you’ve had an epiphanic conversion. But even if they buy that, they’ll always wonder when you might feel compelled to flip again. That doesn’t strike me as the best way to serve your clients or your reputation.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Ken. I admire your work and must say — you strike me as a true believer of the best kind. Best regards, Jim

  • I strongly believe that this is an important topic for PR practitioners to flesh out among themselves. As I’ve worked with PR professionals who have firms in the area surrounding the university I attend, I’ve already seen just in a few months that decisions surrounding this topic need to be backed by experience. Personality differences also play a role in the decision to go against what is ethical to keep a client or remain true to oneself.

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  • Amerante

    I have thought about this issue and where I stand, as a soon to be graduate going into the field of PR, and there are times where I am very on the fence. I agree that a PR is in someways like an attorney and you work for your clients, and for their best interests. But at the same time I have confidence in myself that I will uphold strong ethics and work to the best of my ability for the client while still doing the right thing.

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