In a recent editorial, the New York Times harshly scolds Philip Morris for its communication initiative to convince youngsters not to start smoking. Here (nyt editorial) is the article, a required and recommended reading for all public relators…..…before I proceed, I must immediately declare my bias..
From 1976 to 1996, for twenty years, I was public relations consultant also to Philip Morris in Italy and, unlike Edward Bernays (si parva licet…), I have not in these last ten years changed my mind over the fact that the activities I undertook on behalf of that Company where ethically or even morally unfounded.
At the same time, contrary to my illustrious colleague, I would also have a very good reason to be angry with that company as, in the year 2000 (i.e. three years after I had resigned only because I was fed up…after twenty years!) without even alerting me, in a succesfull effort to substantially reduce the size of an astronomical fine it received from the US Courts, my ex client decided to make publicly available on the Internet all the confidential documents (700 hundred of them!) I had sent to my client about our public affairs activities in my country!
However, besides being angry with myself for not having had the will to sue Philip Morris for blatantly violating twenty years of signed and reciprocal confidentiality agreements (I would be very wealthy today, as my lawyers suggested at the time I found out…), I have no hard feelings against this company because I have learned, for the good and for the bad, more from PM than any other client, and I have done (almost) nothing that I wouldn’t do again in the same conditions.
Having said this, I am very confident that PM is and has been very much aware that its so-claimed socially responsible communication activities are, in the best of cases, innocuos and, in the most probable of cases, counterproductive.
There is a 1989 memorandum I sent PM Europe headquarters in which I rationalised that most of the social antismoking campaigns undertaken by Ministries of Health were counterproductive, as well as the health warning on cigarette packs which were then being pushed by the EU and are now common practice.
Basically, the argument is that communication attempting to modify individual behaviours is effective only if the content is familiar and the source is credible. The latter condition is where social communication usually falls on its ass.