PR for dictators: Where should we draw the line?2012-06-20
Back in 2009, when reporting on financial services company AIG’s image woes, MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow observed that AIG had retained PR agency Burson Marstellar to help with its problems. She then ran down a list of other unsavory organizations that had sought help from Burson, then concluded, “When Evil needs public relations, Evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial.”
There’s a reason Burson gets these calls. Burson has a robust, well-recognized crisis practice. In the early 90’s, I worked with Al Tortorella, now with the crisis management practice at OgilvyPR Worldwide, to develop a crisis plan. I had heard Tortorella referred to as the crisis doctor. Organizations didn’t seek his counsel or the efforts of a crisis practice because everybody thought well of them. Organizations experiencing crises need help telling their stories when things are at their worst; crisis experts know how to provide that kind of assistance.
Few would argue that organizations in crisis are not entitled to PR counsel, and it is not unethical of PR agencies to provide that counsel, given that their counsel is consistent with the profession’s codes of ethics. No lies. No spin. The best PR is honest, accurate and authentic.
One of PR’s great challenges, though, is knowing which clients in crisis to take on and which to reject. There are agencies that won’t work with tobacco companies regardless of whether they’re experiencing a crisis; for these agencies, helping sell cigarettes is beyond the pale, even if they are legal products.
There are agencies that specialize in handling the vilest of clients, as reported on last Friday’s “On the Media” broadcast from NPR. OTM co-host Bob Garfield pointed to a recent New York Times article that called out Western PR firms for taking on Syria’s Assad family, pitching stories on First Lady Asma al-Assad—an attractive fashion plate—and earning soft coverage in publications from Vogue to The Huffington Post.
Garfield interviewed Harper’s Contributing Editor Ken Silverstein, author of a 2007 article investigating two agencies that took on brutal dictators as clients. Silverstein went undercover, posing as a representative of Turkmenistan seeking agency assistance. A few choice excerpts from the interview (the full transcript is here:
- Not only did they not turn me down, they were falling all over themselves to win the contract. And, in fact, because it was such a horrible dictatorship, they were saying that they’d have to charge me more.
- Cassidy & Associates, one of the lobbying firms I approached, which wanted to charge me 5 million dollars over three years, they actually said to me, you know, we’d actually have to charge you more if something bad happened…You know, if Human Rights Watch comes out with a negative report or, you know, and again, it was unstated but it was clearly implied that, you know, if unarmed protestors were shot down or something, they might have to jack up their prices. So they love these clients. The dirtier, the better. It’s much more lucrative.
- APCO specifically said they would write and place op-eds in American newspapers. And what they do is, is that a staffer at APCO would write it. Then they’d go out and recruit an academic or somebody at a think tank to put their name on it. And then they would go place it in an American newspaper, so it would look like some independent, thinking human being, as opposed to a paid flack for a dictatorship. And they said that that would be very simple.
- When you’re dealing about a thuggish regime like Syria, which is currently employing brutal violence against demonstrators, that is just not going to fly. They really can’t achieve a lot in a terrible situation. And they don’t like to acknowledge that because that would mean they wouldn’t get their big fat checks.
I was appalled as I listened to the OTM report, even though I’m well aware that put billable hours ahead of ethical behavior. Public relations is not a regulated industry and there are no laws or regulations that would preclude such work. But when word gets out—as it inevitably does in today’s hyper-transparent world—the actions of outlier agencies wind up influencing public perception of the entire profession.
For the vast majority of practitioners and agencies that know where the line is and won’t cross it, there’s not much to be done beyond continuing to produce high-quality, ethical work. The biggest challenge is knowing where that line is. AIG was entitled to representation, as was BP and other organizations that made mistakes and behaved badly. PR agencies know how to help them engage with aggrieved publics and start them on the road to repaired relationships.
But helping Syria’s dictator look better as his military slaughters citizens at his command?
Perhaps it’s time for agencies—or professional associations like PRSA and IABC—to define the line. Under what circumstances is it inappropriate to take on a client, even if your efforts on their behalf will be truthful and ethical? (Putting an academic’s by-line on a staffer-penned op-ed, by the way, doesn’t qualify.) What criteria should agencies use to decide that their moral character should override the possible revenues of a desperate despot?
If these were defined, at least the rest of the industry could objectively point to those guidelines to distinguish and distance themselves from the outliers whose leaders somehow sleep well at night while providing comfort and aid to oppressors and mass murderers.
What do you think? Should the communications profession be more forthright in defining what kinds of engagements are unacceptable on ethical grounds?