Ethics and PR: When your client’s values are not your own

By July 2, 2010Uncategorized

The question of ethics and PR was raised on Twitter, in response to this article about Alex Bogusky leaving the advertising business. My friend John asked:


It is a tough call. It almost always means walking away from money. Sometimes it means quitting or being fired from a job.

Unfortunately, when you work in public relations, these issues do arise; it comes with the territory, particularly if you are in the business of reputation management and practice crisis communication and issues management, as we do at my employer, Standing Partnership. However, there is a difference between representing the client with a bad reputation, rising to the challenge of ferreting out and sharing the stories of the good they do or how, when things go horribly awry, what they’re doing to make it right.

I have faced the mismatched values situation more than once. I have left jobs (not immediately, but can point to events that occurred that marked the day I started to look for a new job). I have also recommended clients be fired or made the decision to let a client go based on a lack of values alignment. These issues can present themselves in a variety of ways.

  • Lack of openness. I worked with a client once that would NOT own up to activities we knew were happening. There were lies of omission and then, when directly questioned, flat out lies. That was a situation where I had to recommend that we fire the client and the firm agreed (and were glad we did once certain facts came to light).
  • Lack of financial respect. This is one ethical area that people don’t always discuss but I have a real issue with clients who don’t respect us or our work enough to pay on time. Chronic delayed payers disrespect our team by making it difficult for us to manage our finances. Also, on the corporate side, I was the contact for a number of vendors who weren’t getting paid on time, or at all. It was not just awkward, it was awful, and led to my lack of respect for the way the business was being run.
  • Breaking the law. In the early days of e-mail marketing, blasting an e-mail list with content was pretty commonplace. When the CAN-SPAM act was passed, marketers were very careful about opt-in regulations. Unfortunately, I had a boss who just didn’t respect that law and when I objected to blasting a borrowed list, was told to “just do it.” It took awhile to find something new, but I started looking right away.
  • Family comes first. I wrote about a situation I had that caused me for a few moments to skew my own value system, racing to work when I should have been caring for a sick child. When it was evident that my company’s values when it came to my role as a parent were out of whack, I knew it was time to move on to another work environment. (P.S. I was interviewed by Parents magazine on this topic for an article that will appear in the September issue.)
  • Moral, religious or personal objection. Sometimes, what a client does to earn revenue just rubs you the wrong way. Sometimes it’s against your personal moral code or (rarely, I suspect) your religion. I’m lucky that I work for a firm where if we have a client I’d rather not represent (I’m not a huge gambling fan, so it’s possible if we had casino work that I would opt out, for example) then that is A-OK with the firm. In fact, they’d rather have the client’s team be comprised of members who can really get behind what it is they’re selling. This may not be true at every firm; and if most of the firm’s work becomes work you object to, it’s time to move on.

Have your ethics and values been called into action on the job? How have you handled it?