Maybe public relations agencies aren’t all prostitutes. It’s an understandable image, fostered by such terms as “shill,” “flack,” and “spin doctor.” After all, we’re paid to promote our clients’ agendas, even (or sometimes, especially) if they happen to be unpopular. Like defense lawyers who take on clients guilty of horrible crimes, PR professionals always have an obligation to put their clients’ best foot forward. It’s probably not a stretch to say that PR people rank only slightly above lawyers and insurance salesmen and just below great white sharks in the eyes of the public.
So I was encouraged to read that 10 of the top PR firms worldwide have said they will no longer represent “climate deniers,” those organizations and companies that fail to acknowledge man’s impact on the environment, or that seek to block emission-reducing regulations. Come again? Agencies that became rich publicizing all manner of human endeavor from the westward expansion of the U.S. through McDonald’s latest menu offering, and deflecting, obfuscating or mitigating blame for every environmental crisis from Three Mile Island to the Exxon Valdez, from the Union Carbide disaster in Bhopal to the BP oil spill, have drawn a line in the sand? Say it ain’t so! Yet Burson Marsteller, Ogilvy, Weber Shandwick.
Edelman and others have suddenly determined there’s a class of client they won’t take on. Like the fictional Don Draper’s blasphemous letter in the New York Times stating Sterling Cooper Advertising was closed to tobacco, they’ve proclaimed that they’re no longer going to negotiate a fee for advancing human suffering, or more precisely, the suffering of our planet. As the article in the Guardian notes, PR people are increasingly close to the C-suite and the powerful people in both industry and government, and consequently wield great power themselves in influencing policy and ultimately public opinion and behavior. It is what we do. So “turning on the hand that feeds us” and taking a stand against organizations that most people believe are at best misguided and at worst criminal – and, horrors, sacrificing fees while doing so – is significant. To continue the legal analogy, it would be like the top defense lawyers in the country banding together and saying they’d no longer represent accused murderers or child molesters whom they believe are guilty. O.J. Simpson would be left floundering.
The Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics says much about being honest, fair and faithful to clients, but nothing about whom we should or shouldn’t represent. The closest it comes to that is when it states we must “serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates” for clients. I have no doubt agencies working for climate deniers are responsibly advocating for their clients’ agendas, and maybe even being truthful. No seasoned PR pro is going to knowingly spout falsehoods, especially when we live in the age of the instant fact-check. But whether or not their advocacy serves the public interest is, of course, debatable. It’s worth noting that at least 15 other large agencies did not respond to the Guardian’s question on this issue, or said they would, in fact, continue representing clients who seek to foul the environment or who disavow man-made climate change.
A few said they consider every client on a case-by-case basis. Smaller agencies might not have the luxury of turning away business simply because the client’s business model or policies have negative implications for the environment. But this is a bold step in the right direction, and just might help PR professionals leapfrog over great white sharks in the public opinion rankings.
Gary Frisch is founder and president of Swordfish Communications, a full-service public relations agency in Laurel Springs, N.J. Visit Swordfish online at www.swordfishcomm.com.