Friday, April 25, 2008

Ethics in PR

I’ve been enjoying my time as a panelist on Inside PR and lending some commentary on social media and PR in general. The last few shows dealt a bit with the issue of PR and ethics. I can’t remember the genesis of the dialogue but it had something to do with tobacco companies receiving qualified PR representation. That discussion generated some very interesting call-in responses from Joe Thornley and Shel Holtz. I’m not sure where we netted out (there is no right or wrong on the show), but I made the comment that ethics and ethical behaviour is very much predicated on one’s personal beliefs and value system. While PR professionals have a “code of ethics” most adhere to, the question of ethics and ethical standards also pertain to the kinds of clients and mandates a firm represents. After all, aren’t we judged by the company we keep?

I know first-hand that running a PR firm is a huge responsibility and I need to set the example by the clients we take on and represent. I am ultimately responsible and accountable for every brand we represent in the public domain and what we say about them. I believe a company’s ethics starts at the top and filters through the whole organization. We also, as a collective team, must embrace and fully support our clients’ actions, products and services, while at the same time serve as their public conscience. We need to be their brand ambassadors 24/7. That’s the kind of unwavering commitment to PR and to our clients that we need to demonstrate each and every day. Because if you don’t believe in your clients’ brand or products, you cannot serve them well, or at all.

There isn’t one client on our roster that I am not proud of. I have no issue representing a bottled water company, a cola company, a video game company, an alcohol or automobile company. It’s only been on a few rare occasions where we declined to pitch business because there was a perceived ethical issue in what the company produced or stood for. These decisions are not easy to make and are not based on some textbook guidelines. In fact, so much of our personal beliefs and core values come into play whenever we deal with a client. If you feel that representing a hunting association is just ethically wrong, you have every right not to compromise your own beliefs and not to represent that client.

At the end of the day, your ethics can never be waived, compromised or challenged. You live your life by your own personal code of what is right or wrong. While fitting that into a workplace can sometimes be challenging, you have to be true to yourself at all times and be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience.

I know I do, each and every night.


Joseph Thornley said...

Great post on an important topic. If PR pros want to enhance the reputation of our profession, they will come right our in front of their decisions as you have an be prepared to argue the merits of their judgments.

I may not agree with you on all the decisions you take, but I definitely respect the integrity you show in being upfront and prepared to explain why you made them.

Platitudes about every client deserving PR representation just don't cut it. And I know you'd never hide behind something like that.

Good for you Julie.

Rayanne said...

Well said, Julie. Ethics are tricky because everyone has their own set. I agree that as long as you're living up to your own standard, you should be happy with your work and yourself.

What happens, though, when someone with a different view calls you out on something? What's ethical to you might not be ethical to the next guy. I guess learning to live with how your actions are seen by others is something else you have to be comfortable with.

I think Joe's comment illustrates this nicely. Pride and confidence in your own stance deserves respect.

Julie Rusciolelli said...

HI Joe and Rayanne, thanks for your comments. Yeah, ethics can get a little rough under the collar if you can't defend your actions. And Joe you are bang on, not every client deserves PR representation .. I have a laundry list of companies I wouldn't touch for ethical and business reasons.

Anonymous said...

I can relate to what you are saying in your post Julie, however, from a business standpoint I think that determining which clients one will or will not accept based on ethical grounds can be a bit tricky.

For instance, if I personally am against abortion, I guess it is my right not to represent a company that facilitates the activity. But when does this kind of choice become discrimination? And can we ever be perceived as limiting the public’s right to choose, by refusing some groups representation over others?

In addition, I am not very familiar with the agency environment, but are most agencies okay with junior consultants refusing to work on some accounts because of their personal beliefs? And if not, can't that be seen as imposing one's ethical beliefs on another individual?

Rick said...

Julie, very well put.
Ethics are very personal. In terms of products and services, my ethics are broad. For example, I have no issue with tobacco companies selling cigarettes, but I have ethical issues with certain representations of what their products are about.
I would never position a product in a way that is outside of my personal code of ethics.

In terms of descrimination, as Rhonda brought up, I think it's in the best interests of the (potential) client and agency if they are in line with one another. In other words, there's nothing to gain in the client/agency relationship by claiming descrimination.

This goes for junior consultants selling their time and work to employers too. I think we should have the ability to voice our concerns, but if it's a recurring problem, it's a sign that we need to find a new job that's a better fit!

Julie Rusciolelli said...

Good discussion everyone. Here's my non-textbook read on the whole issue of client representation. If you have any doubt or ill-feelings about representing a client, then you've answered your own questions on ethics. Never look at a dollar sign when accepting a client contract. You must love the brand, the product or service. You must. I hate to sound like I work in "Wonderland", but that's what it takes to be great at your job. You can be objective, but you have to love the clients you represent, if those clients don't mesh with your values, .. then, you have an ethics issue. My gut, is my best barometer on this issue.