Is what we do and how we do it more ethically relevant than who we do it for? Of course it is. But is this enough for us to argue in favour of just about any cause? Yes? No?

Here is an interesting debate which both Strumpette and Jack O’Dwyer have kicked off: it is ethical for a public relations professional to represent a seemingly unethical client?
The pro’s and cons (which are dutifully well expressed in the Strumpette piece) are as old as our profession. Please consider them all, particularly (in the context of the concept of communicating for, with and in diversity that I have tried to argue in more than one occasion) the one which says that each of us has its own personal ethics to abide to before even confronting oneself with professional and organizational ethics. Let me know your thoughts. I am beginning to have second ones but not really sure….

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4 Replies to “Is what we do and how we do it more ethically relevant than who we do it for? Of course it is. But is this enough for us to argue in favour of just about any cause? Yes? No?

  1. Unfortunately (for me) I realize now that I picked a bad example to open up a discussion on the ‘what-you-do-and-how-you-do-it is much more ethically relevant than who-you-do-it-for’.
    Both Strumpette and Jack O’Dwyer (one commonality…) showed much surprise at my remarks. It is clear that ‘teen porn’ strikes a nerve here and there.
    No issue was raised when a number of PR firms all around the world gratefully accepted assignments from the US and other governments to advocate on behalf of the slaughter in Irak (yes! I see those eyebrows raising…) and we could continue for a mile in exploring the dark side of the who-one-works-for argument.
    Once again, this is a personal ethics issue.
    For one, I am in favour of the regulation (and against the prohibition) of soft and hard drugs by governments so I am more than willing to take on as assignment for the antiprohibitionist cause. Most others would not agree. This has nothing to do with our profession.
    What does have to do with our profession is the how and the what we do on behalf of that cause we have decided to work for.
    And this is where the argument gets stuck, because we do violate professional ethics every time we act without having checked and are reasonably confident that actions we undertake have undesired consequences on the public interest.
    And this happens regardless of who one is working for and is one huge reason why our professional reputation is where it is.
    The Dilbert series, evoked by Markus, is only one vivid example… and if you want to see them all visit

  2. I jhave spent a lot of time working with lawyers. They come in various flavors, some of whom are happy to take anyone’s money, some who believe strongly everyone deserves a good defence, some who will only work on what they take to be the side of the angels.

    PR people are, to some extent, similar.

    Two differences. In much of the legal world — for sure in Canada, probably in many other countries — lawyers are sort of like self-employed, just hanging their hat inside some firm with a fancy name. I ran into an old colleague the other day, back in Toronto and talking to several law firms. The deal is he pays them rent for his office and support services, and goes and gets his own clients with the strength and reputration of the firm standing behind him. And he can draw upon the other lawyers — many with the same arrangements — when he needs assistance.

    But PR firms are different. Most are owned by one or two people, and the staff do what they are told, or can quit. The big ones, with rare exception, are ownwd by holding companies and required to send vast amounts of money to people in suits, far away. It makes it hard for them to turn down much business.

    When I was with Burson Marsteller, then the world’s biggest PR company, our office, and in turn, our country, had decided we were not working for tobacco companies. I have no idea if this was a headquarters decision; but it was a rule all of us on the management committee in Toronto were happy with.

    And in our Monday morning meetings, when talk came to new business development, we usually talked about whether or not we were interested in working for any particular prospect.

    I know that we had some clients where we were on the “bad” side of public opinion, but, son of a gun, we actually thought our clients had a good story to tell.

    One consideration in client selection I did not see in the link to the Girls Gone Wild story — what do your other clients think about you working for questionable organizations?

    Does Ajax Widgets want news releases going to the New York Times with the same agency name on them as the releases from GWG?

    I still wouldn’t touch a tobacco company — although none have saked me — but I’d think about lots of othr businesses.

    That said, why would any PR agency have anything to do with the Republican Party in the USA? How many IOraqui children neeed to be fried by US weapons before a PR agency says, “no thanks, your money is no good.”

    Or beer companies — dead children in car wrecks.

    Or the American BAr Association — it actually granted a license to Anna Nicole’s boyfriend-lawyer-supposed kid’s father?

    I used to run Jamaican toruism PR in Canada. Young woemn used to go to Jamaica to inhale pharamceutically-related vegetble matter, and experience the black experience. I never thought it was my job to tell them not to vist, although from time to time it was my job to help extricate them from the hoosegow.

    And it’s Speedweeks in Daytona – talk about shirt lifting while surrounded by American flags. And the International Association of Busienss Communicators is going to meet in New Orleans. What’s that city famous for, other than terrible weather and crime?


  3. I think that many people (professionals or supposed-to-be-pros) may believe in the so called “money principle”. Ancient Romans used to say “pecunia non olet” (=the money does not stink) as to say that once you got payed, everything goes fine.

    I am not sure I could do that even with my short experience in the field. But this is my opinion and this is just a comment.

    I do believe that everyone in this world has his or her own believes, thoughts and ethics, and it depends on the education, culture, religion and so on. So diversity could make the difference, in my opinion, but that is not enough!

    It is true that this issue is as old as the profession exists and I do not think a way to solve the problem will not be found. I think it is a mankind issue and it depends on common sense.

    Talking about profession, personally I do not think I would be able to work for a firm I do not think it behaves ethically. In that case my personal ethics would probably tell me to quit that firm. But never say never, for it is possibile that many things may occur unwantedly.

    Neither the society nor the professional community could decide if this attitude is right or not, in my opinion, because it really depends on one man’s belief of what is ethical or not.

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