By Steve Howell
The godfather of my profession, Harold Burson, believes PR is as much about behaviour as it is communication.
But in a recent interview for PR Week the 93-year-old American lamented the fact that there had been a drift away from the behaviour side of the equation in modern PR.
He said the industry had suffered a loss of moral purpose, and this had turned PR into a dirty word.
With this in mind when interviewing people for jobs at Freshwater in London last week, I asked all of them if there were any projects on which they would refuse to work for ethical reasons.
This was not, I made clear, a question that had a right answer. Rather, I was interested to know if it was something they had considered and to see how they would approach the subject.
As you might imagine, the responses were varied. Some indicated lines they would not cross, others mentioned principles – such as honesty – that they felt were important.
One candidate argued that PR professionals are in much the same position as lawyers in their duty to provide any client with the best possible defence.
The point was well made, but I am not personally convinced the same premise applies. In the case of lawyers, the context is everyone’s right to a fair trial and the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
And, even then, some lawyers are selective about who they will represent - our own client, Thompsons Solicitors, chooses not to work for insurance companies and acts only for the injured or mistreated.
It’s certainly not an easy question. Businesses are not political parties. Communication consultancy, especially across the many channels now available, requires the creativity that comes from diverse perspectives.
And tolerance is in itself important: I am mindful of how my father’s closest friend was driven from his job as Cincinnati’s chief planner in the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s.
But Burson has a point. He believes the PR industry’s reputation problem started in the days of Richard Nixon, the discredited US president who tried to spin his way out of trouble until he was finally exposed and impeached.
These days, in advising clients facing media or public criticism, most PR practitioners insist on knowing the facts.
It would be both wrong and pointless to perpetuate a lie. If there is some truth in the criticism, we do often recommend operational - behavioural - measures to tackle the problem.
PR has its roots in the promotion of corporate America. But the profession has come a long way, despite the concerns flagged by Burson.
Charities, public bodies and trade unions all attach high importance to effective communication. In the private sector, PR professionals often do good work in shaping ‘corporate social responsibility’ policies.
It is relatively easy to discuss the ethics of this in terms of general human values, such as equality, fairness or privacy.
But it’s the application of such principles that can be controversial. Take the case of Scarlett Johansson, who stood down as an Oxfam ambassador after criticism of her association with SodaStream.
The issue was SodaStream’s operations in the West Bank, which has been illegally occupied by Israel since 1967.
A spokesperson for Johansson said she was against a boycott of ‘Israel’ but Oxfam was quick to point out that the West Bank is not in Israel at all.
The damage to Johansson’s reputation internationally is hard to measure. She had worked with Oxfam since 2005, presumably for the best of reasons, but any credit she earned for that may have been cancelled out by the SodaStream affair.
There is a danger of being overly worthy and self-righteous in these matters. But you have to have some kind of compass.
Freshwater often declines work where we have a conflict of interest. Recently, when an opportunity came up about which I had ethical concerns, the issue was easier to settle because we had a client who we knew would share these concerns.
I was probably being unfair last week in asking a question I could not answer with certainty myself. It is a difficult subject, but what I do know is our profession needs to take the question of ethics seriously.