It's very hard to conjure up a sentence containing the words “ethical” and “public relations” without inviting ridicule and invective. In the popular imagination the whole point of public relations is to flex the truth, to manipulate and obfuscate the facts of things in the self-serving interests of a client. In the war between Hack and Flack, most often it's journalists who come off as the protectors of truth's virtue, and PR pros as grubby low-lifes. They make Oscar-winning movies about investigative journalists; I can't think of a single movie that has a flack as its hero.
This all came to mind when I read that Cambridge-based consulting firm Monitor Group had taken on Moammhar Khadafy and Libya as a client, their brief being to somehow rehabilitate the dictator's image and “generate positive news coverage of the country.” Yuck. Then today Kirk Hazlett, writing on behalf of the Public Relations Society of America in the letters page of the Boston Globe, felt inclined to point out that (a) Monitor Group is most definitely not a public relations agency, and (b) organizations like the PRSA have a code of ethics designed to deal with just these sort of nasty situations. Needless to say, Hazlett's letter was greeted with the ridicule and invective mentioned above.
So, what's the truth here? Are PR firms – and their employees – a bunch of unscrupulous peddlers of lies, damn lies and even more damn lies? Are they turning a blind eye to obvious evil in exchange for a retainer contract plus expenses? Do they meddle in political affairs and do business with dictators?
Lets first agree that if your client is Rwanda, Uganda, Kazakhstan or Sri Lanka, you're doing business with folks that have reputation issues that go well beyond your usual brand management challenges. These countries, and others like them, engage in torture, corruption and murder of their own citizens on a grand and well-documented scale. And they've all had representation by PR firms, including major names like Hill & Knowlton. Edelman represented Yugoslavia in the 1970s, and even today the Brit PR agency Bell Pottinger is representing Bahrain. Rehabilitating third-world despots is a thriving business.
So, whatever the PRSA may say, plenty of PR firms do deals with devils. But is this sufficient to damn a whole industry?
Of course not. The other side of the flack coin is that many agencies do wonderful work for organizations that are fighting the most to make changes in these dictatorships. Amnesty International, UNICEF, Oxfam and others have all relied on agency support.
The problem, I suspect, is in the toothless declarations made by organizations like the PRSA about “codes of ethics.” We should ask ourselves what consequences arise if these ethical codes are violated, and to what extent the PRSA and others police agencies to ensure compliance. It's interesting to note that whenever a TV shows attracts the ire of public watchdogs, as MTV's Skins has recently done, advertisers vote by removing their financial support. I don't see many clients of PR agencies taking a similar view, and this too should be questioned.