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How do you spot a toxic client?

This is a question that I have pondered over for more than 25 years as both a media professional and a lawyer. Inevitably as a PR professional you will be asked to act for companies and individuals who suffer public criticism, some of which may be justified. None of us should accept at face value allegations emanating from the media – especially the press. Nor can we expect our clients to conduct themselves entirely without fault. But are there occasions when an instruction from a client who is willing and able to hire us should be declined?

Recent examples
A number of recent events have prompted me to try to answer the question in an article. These include two principled resignations in the US over the disgraceful refusal by President Trump to accept defeat; one by a government official tasked with investigating obviously bogus claims of electoral fraud, and one by a lawyer who could not bring himself to represent Trump in the slew of lawsuits which are being launched to enable him to cling on to power like a third world despot. I applaud them both.

There have been other recent prompts to me to tackle this difficult question. One was a LinkedIn piece from a major PR company celebrating work that it had done for a large Bank, to which I commented that I had been acting for over three years for some of the numerous victims of fraud committed by that bank against SMEs. I explained that from doing that work I knew the utter devastation that this crime had inflicted not only on those whose SMEs were destroyed, but on their families too. I have received letters from the magic circle firm that represented the bank which I could not in good conscience have written – including a threat to sue me for libel as I spoke out publicly about the plight of my clients and the appalling way in which the bank was still treating them. My reply was along the lines of “go on punk, make my day”.

Two reasons for saying no
There seem to me to be two bases on which an instruction should not be accepted from a willing and solvent client, which bases are not mutually exclusive. One is that there are good commercial reasons to decline the instruction; i.e., it will inflict reputation damage on the reputation professional/entity by association with the prospective client which outweighs the financial benefit of acting for that client. The other is that acting for this client and/or on this issue is incompatible with the ethics/beliefs of the individual and/or company.

Bell Pottinger
The most spectacular example of a PR business crashed by poor judgement in its choice of clients is Bell Pottinger which in 2016 signed up a client that buried it in disgrace. It worked for the Gupta brothers who built a multibillion-dollar corporate empire in South Africa and earned fantastic sums leveraging their friendship with President Zuma. By bullying officials and bending regulations to their will, they secured contracts in fields as varied as armaments, mining and railways and offered ministerial jobs to politicians of their choosing.

My old firm Schillings was recently in the news for the wrong reasons because of its attempts to stifle the media’s outing of the notorious Wirecard fraud; not its only reputational faux pas. Its primary rivals, Carter Ruck, probably has more reputation skeletons to its name. For example, it was reported as aiding 'scammers' Tullett Brown enabling it to continue trading for three years whilst netting £3.2 million from investors. Whilst acting for Sky for whom I was legalling out a major documentary about the vile cult of Scientology, I received a hatful of letters from Carter Ruck threatening a variety of legal claims the content of which appeared to have been cut and pasted from its client’s mendacious propaganda. Some may therefore conclude that instructing these firms itself carries an unwanted reputational stigma.

It is all about personal standards
It is very hard to formulate a hard and fast rule where an ethical decision is called for. One of the reasons I have never sought work from Fleet Street is that my long years of combat with it have taught me that its legal representatives are frequently expected to act in a way which in good conscience I could not.

In the end it comes down to whether we have any personal standards by which we wish to live; and if so whether they are sufficiently important to us for us to make some sacrifice in order to adhere to them. As a devout Christian, if I consider that to act for this client is likely facilitate or cover up wrongdoing, then – as I have in the past – I will decline an instruction; which is the best that I can do to answer my own question.

Written by Jonathan Coad, Coad Law

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