PR Ethics: Is There a Right to PR?

Does every organization deserve PR? My answer: No, but

This has been debated in the public relations industry for many years. Some feel that just as everyone has a right to legal counsel, organizations have a right to PR counsel (even the governments of countries such as Iran and Qaddafi-ledLibya). Others disagree on the grounds that it’s morally wrong to provide bad guys like Qaddafi with the tools of persuasion we can offer. I don’t believe everyone has a right to PR. But the line between those who don’t deserve PR for ethical reasons and those who do isn’t always a clear one.

I just read an article published by the conservative American think tank, The Heritage Foundation, chastising the U.S. State Department for conducting an information campaign aimed at American students.  When it comes to doing PR for the U.S., the State Department by law is only allowed to target people outside the U.S., and communications aimed at U.S. citizens is forbidden. The Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 actually prohibits this for convoluted and complex reasons that are now being questioned in Congress.

I find it ironic that an important branch of our own government is denied the right to public relations outreach to U.S.citizens when foreign countries have that right. Among those exercising that right (by hiring U.S. lobbyists and/or public relations professionals) are Afghanistan, Iran, Russia (with no fewer than eight lobbying and PR organizations on its payroll, including Ketchum) and China (which has 11 on its payroll, including DDB Worldwide Communications Group, and Brown, Lloyd James, the PR company that once represented Libya).

Just after 9/11, the World Economic Forum (WEF) decided to move its annual meeting usually held in Davos to New York, to support the city. I was working at Publicis at that time and the company, which represents WEF, had the monumental task of moving a meeting with thousands of participants with a just a couple of month’s notice.  Publicis in New York was asked to help. My group was given responsibility for handling public relations for a delegation to the conference from the Council for Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry.  Because Osama bin Ladin and all but one of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, sentiment here was extremely hostile towards the country and its people, and the Council’s goal was to improve American attitudes towards the Saudi Arabian business community.  My team was charged with setting up interviews for members of the delegation with national business media and leaders of the business community, and arranging speaking engagements.

Since it wasn’t fair to blame the acts of Al Qaida on the entire Saudi business community, I felt the Council had a right to be heard in the U.S.  I put aside my own feelings about 9/11, and about Saudi statements on Israel and Jews over many years, and worked with the Council.

I’ve represented several other clients over the years that were considered morally repugnant by most people.

One was a company on the verge of bankruptcy due to extreme wrong-doing by several senior executives. People were dying because these executives had approved the sale of a product they knew to be harmful. We took on this client because the thousands of employees at the company who had nothing to do with the incident were in danger not only of losing their jobs but also of not finding new ones because of their association with the company. In addition, we realized that if the company went bankrupt, it wouldn’t be able to pay court-ordered damages to victims. Our work wasn’t intended to whitewash the executives’ crimes, it was geared towards the economic survival of the company so it could meet its obligations.

I would never force an employee to work with a client if it violated her personal values. We each have to follow our own moral compass.

Occasionally I hear about PR firms taking on assignments to “rebrand” terrorist or totalitarian countries, including organizations that are known to engage in mass murder or torture. I would never work with clients of that kind. I won’t be put in a position where my skills are being used to exonerate wrong-doing. Those who accept such assignments find ways to rationalize their decisions, but I couldn’t.

Lucy Siegel

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