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Guest Post: Drawing the Line On Which Clients A PR Firm Works With

Anti-government protesters in Yemen. Photo: AP

The uprisings taking place across North Africa and the Middle East have revealed relationships between PR firms and some of the repressive governments in the region. In one case, a PR firm decided to give Tunisia the boot, severing ties with the country’s leadership because “the facts on the ground” didn’t jibe with the image they were trying to portray. We’ve touched on this issue here as well.

In today’s guest post, PRSA chair and CEO Rosanna Fiske discusses whether PR firms should take a pass on working questionable clients. Are there some clients that PR agencies must reject? Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts.

Why ‘Do the Right Thing’ May Be Wrong for Business by Rosanna Fiske, chair and CEO of PRSA

As much of the world has been riveted by the uprisings in the Middle East, a vast rallying cry has risen up: “Do the right thing.”

Declarative statements such as this are bandied about daily by politicians, civic leaders, CEOs and community activists — all who use the cliché instead of their own words to say what they mean. These messages offer a proposition of what leaders and pundits believe is right for their people or those they influence.

At best, this sentiment oversimplifies a complex situation; at worst, it could alienate the panoply of cultures that live, work and have survived in a region for hundreds or thousands of years. Business leaders face an analogous dilemma. “Doing the right thing” for one company is rarely what is best for others, even in the same industry.

It’s a noble attitude, but is it the best advice, particularly for business? Not if one considers that every single culture has its own distinct concept of what is “right.” It also mollifies the concerns of some, while failing to take into account what is appropriate for each specific culture, not just ours.

Words, and their implicit and explicit meanings across various cultures, have an impact on how those wishing to influence others are perceived.

These questions have caused many within public relations to pause and consider the role we play as the figurative “conscience” for the businesses we represent and counsel. Also of concern is that some PR firms and consultancies may welcome working with what most democratic societies consider the lowest of the low.

We saw the latter with Boston-based Monitor Group’s effort to revamp Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s dubious reputation.

All of which begs the question: Are there simply some clients PR should never represent? Or, does an autocrat deserve the right for his voice to be heard and considered?

Alastair Campbell would argue the latter. In a proactively titled op-ed he penned last weekend for The Financial Times, the former director of communications for British Prime Minister Tony Blair summarized that so long as PR keeps its core values of building trust between organizations and their audiences, it shouldn’t shy away from representing those whom society has cast aside as repugnant.

More perspective from Campbell:

If all that PR companies do is advise undemocratic countries on how to stay undemocratic, it is right to look down on their work. If, on the other hand, the advice leads countries to move down the road to freer societies, we should not rush to judgment on [PR’s] role and reputation.

Well said, but there are a few more complexities in play. PRSA Board Member Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, summed it up well when he wrote in a recent letter to the editor of The Boston Globe that “public relations places an emphasis on counseling reputable organizations and individuals in developing and maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders.”

Unfortunately, in recent cases, the key component implying two-way communication of “maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders” is often of little concern to dictators and tyrants. That puts public relations professionals who work with them in a tight bind.

While one can make a case that everyone has the right to argue their viewpoint, as Alastair Campbell argues, public relations should stand for something greater. We must ensure our work has a higher ethical component to it that keeps the public’s best interests in mind.

And that brings us back to the old, clichéd business adage: “Do the right thing.” So, where do we draw the line? Or do we even attempt to make a distinction in “doing the right thing” for the public, the business, the tyrant or the observers? The comments are yours.

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