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Have the acceptable standards of who you should work for in PR changed?

Over a year ago now we talked through some of PR’s ethical dilemmas on the PRmoment podcast with Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy. If you haven't listened to it yet - you should, it’s consistently one of our most popular editions.

But the last year, and indeed the last six weeks, have seen seismic changes in business, governments and society. These changes have brought a new range of ethical decisions for PR firms and PR employees in deciding who they want to work for.

And who better to chat about these themes than Mary Beth West, co-chair of the PRCA Ethics Council.

Ben Smith: In the years before the war in Ukraine and 6 weeks since it started, we've seen a number of New York and London based law firms continue to work for Russian oligarchs, do you believe public relations firms have an ethics problem in comparison?

Mary Beth West: There’s a distinction between legal and PR: “clients of necessity” inherent to courts of law, versus “clients of choice” in courts of public opinion.

From my vantage point in the U.S., in PR, we choose our clients every bit as much as they may choose us. Most law firms do as well, although legal representation at least in the U.S. can be court-appointed or mandated as well – with legal representation seen as a constitutional right fundamental to the delivery of the judicial due process.

But in PR, no government mandate is twisting our arms to advocate, defend and promote a compromised client in the court of public opinion (unless, of course, you have the misfortune of living and operating under a totalitarian thumb).

Consequently, when we in PR choose to work for a client, their crimes/misbehaviours (real or perceived) can attach themselves more easily to us than their law firm, in my view. As such, we in PR must exercise our best judgment in who precisely we’re working for and why – and we have to be ready to defend those choices when the chips fall where they may.

BS: During Covid, many public relations firms had a pretty good couple of years, revenue-wise.

A good proportion of this revenue was fuelled by a rush for corporate PR, as companies understood the need for greater reputation management during difficult times. Do you worry that this rush for corporate PR involved sometimes unethical work?

MBW: I’ve seen no data to indicate an uptick in unethical corporate PR practices tied to upticks in recent PR revenues.

However, I’ve seen abundant data of corporate decisions since COVID to relax standards of ethical compliance and downplay “speak-up” internal cultures.

Among the data:

The Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) in Washington, D.C., has conducted a longitudinal survey for many years – the Global Business Ethics Survey (GBES). After the onset of the pandemic, the GBES study found that “globally, 29% of employees reported pressure (to compromise standards) in 2020, an increase from 20% in 2019.”

In the U.S. alone, employees experienced twice as much pressure in 2020 to compromise standards as what they experienced in 2017. The study also found that retaliation rates have “skyrocketed,” and that “in the U.S. and globally, the most common types of observed misconduct included favouritism, management lying to employees, and conflicts of interest.”

These data points clearly indicate that there have been pandemic-related pressures and more lax standards, opening windows of opportunity to those who would engage in misconduct across disciplines.

These practices may indeed spur operational, financial and ethical crises, which will bring about their own reckonings for years to come.

Consequently, the PR industry needs to be there for the hand-off to help right the course for organizations that cut corners these recent years on compliance.

I anticipate a wave of demand for crisis PR in the future – but with this universal footnote: corrupt management behaviours requiring corrupt, so-called “PR” messaging to obfuscate and deflect only generates more corruption. We in PR shouldn’t be in that business.

So to all the PR firms and consultants out there: Be careful who you work for … and why.

BS: Do you look at the growth in corporate PR revenues of some PR firms and wonder if that's the type of work you'd be willing to do?

MBW: We are all in the business of helping clients craft credible messages that advocate for their brands, their views and their competitiveness in the marketplace.

While I sometimes question the wisdom of PR firms representing certain clients that I personally might find problematic, I have enough respect for colleagues at other firms to respect their judgments of client choice. I’m no stranger to speaking out publicly sometimes on those matters – but with the full expectation that I may receive push-back on my views as well.

BS: Ethics in PR is a spectrum, isn't it? Ethics is rarely black and white - it's many different shades and it can be very personal to people's situations and beliefs. Do you agree with that?

MBW: I’m often amused by folks who oversimplify the notion of ethics as “Just do the right thing.”

More and more these days, my reaction is: “Right” in relation to WHO? Or WHAT?

In matters of market competition, for example, different stakeholders can have vastly different priorities – and with each of those competing priorities holding ethical legitimacy and validity. Ethical conflict most often arises on matters of power and perceived misuse of power for self-gain at the direct expense of those with less power.

So I tend to think of ethics as less of a spectrum… and more as a weighted balance. If it is we who hold the power, then if we want to earn and maintain the respect and trust of others, we must manage our power accordingly – via not only our communications but also our actions remaining true to that commitment.

Disclosure and transparency go a long way, in that regard.

Interestingly, leaders who embrace that mantra tend to gain more power, often voluntarily conveyed to them from the less-powerful by way of vested trust. And that’s about as ethical as it gets.

BS: Have you ever lied to a journalist about an exclusive? Or exaggerated your client credentials for a piece of new business?

MBW: No, and no.

BS: Where do you draw your ethical line?

MBW: I don’t expect anyone to be perfect, as I certainly am nothing of the sort, myself.

The ethical line for me is where it’s clear that an individual or entity is seeking to insult my intelligence – or that of others – so that they can profit, benefit, or maintain their own comfortable-yet-highly-compromised status-quo. I dislike being on the receiving end of such treatment, and likewise, I don’t work with clients who make clear that such practice is their modus operandi… or that it would be their expectation of me, in working on their behalf.

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