Managing Conflicts in a ‘Cancel-Culture’ Environment

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Each September, PRSA celebrates Ethics Month, featuring programs presented by the PRSA Board of Ethics and Professional Standards (BEPS). This year’s theme is “Doing the Right Thing.” Please join the discussion via #PRSAChat and #EthicsMonth, and follow along with our ethics-related blog posts, webinars and Twitter Chats throughout the month.

The 6th Amendment of the Constitution specifies the right to legal representation and, in medicine, the Hippocratic Oath is still a sacred tenet. But public relations doesn’t have such a provision, which means that practitioners must decide whether or not to help a particular organization build, grow and protect its reputation.

Back in the day, that decision seemed pretty simple for an agency — usually determined by having a truthful client and assuring them that you weren’t working for a direct competitor offering the same product or service. That was really it: You took on the client, did the work according to the PRSA Code of Ethics and all was good.

It isn’t so straightforward these days.

With today’s CEO activism, there’s a chance that a vocal executive’s views may run counter to employees, agency staff or other clients. Competitor lines are blurred — with many engaged in frenemy-like “co-opetition.” The “cancel culture” has also become part of our vernacular — with people more apt to boycott than listen, give the benefit of the doubt or allow for atonement.

More complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We’ve just passed the one-year anniversary of the Business Roundtable’s landmark commitment to move from shareholder primacy to consideration for multiple stakeholders. But those with experience know that it’s difficult to balance the needs of investors, employees, customers and communities without compromise — something that seems in short supply in today’s outrage-first environment.

Unless you’re a small agency with few clients, these conflicts are inevitable. Clients and staff will have different points of view on a range of issues — climate change, business taxation, labor policy, food and nutrition guidelines to name a few. There aren’t any easy answers, but some methods for managing those challenges include:

  • Scenario planning. Conduct a thorough “what if” exercise for controversies and determine how you’ll mitigate them.
  • Update your conflict policy. Dust it off and make sure it fits today’s environment. And if you don’t have one, then write one.
  • Consider a Strategy Review Council. Establish a team of senior leaders with different perspectives and review any work that may carry controversy. The side benefit is that you’ll probably produce better results for the client.
  • Let values guide you. If your decisions don’t align with company values, then you’re probably on shaky ground.
  • Allow people to opt out. The best agencies won’t force staff to do work that they don’t believe in. It won’t be very good work, and you’ll likely lose the employee. However, don’t be afraid to engage in dialog first to make it a learning opportunity that brings forth the complexities of our business.
  • Make the hard decision. In the past, you may have been able to please everyone. While that’s ideal, you may have to determine which people you’re going to disappoint and be OK with the consequence.

The world isn’t getting any less complex, and those growing agencies will inherently run into conflicts different from those in the past. Having policies in place, educating staff and living by your values will help you manage through.

Matt Kucharski, APR, is president of Padilla, where he helps clients across a wide range of industries build, grow and protect their brands and reputations.

Illustration credit: tartila

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Matt Kucharski, APR

1 Comment

  • Dear Matt: thank you for the article and the “ideas” about getting ahead of any controversies before they happen. Much appreciated.

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