Advocacy Ethics

The Lure of the ‘Big Name Client’

The past few months have witnessed increased media interest in the motivations of public relations professionals when it comes to accepting consulting opportunities with governments whose actions are, at best, questionable.

The focus has been primarily aimed at the former Libyan government’s ham-handed efforts to spruce up its image while it was under the control of deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

This first came to my attention after The Boston Globe revealed in March that Cambridge, Mass.-based consulting firm Monitor Group had previously provided the Libyan government “consulting services” designed to present a more “humane” side of the dictatorship — at fees ranging in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While principals of the firm claimed innocence, sadly the appearance of questionable motivation — reinforced by exorbitant consulting fees — smudged the firm’s previously shiny reputation.

Subsequent articles in PRWeek UK, The New York Post, Holmes Report and The Hill have drawn even more attention to the Gadhafi regime’s attempts to secure public relations counsel.

The Libyan government, acting through an intermediary, solicited bids from several large public relations firms, both in the U.S. and abroad. Among the services sought were “image management, public affairs and comprehensive media outreach,” according to the Holmes Report.

Further mainstream media reports have highlighted the increased interest among foreign dictators at using public relations firms to spread their own brand of questionable messaging. In August, reporter Justin Elliott highlighted the willingness of those whose business it is to provide advice and counsel to accept less than upstanding clients who are able to pay substantial fees for these services.

Two aspects of this ongoing tragicomedy worry me.

First is the media’s obvious fascination with the situation and their implied suggestions that a public relations firm might be tempted to take on a particular client.

Underlying the insinuated “they [PR firms] will do anything for the money” when it comes to client representation is the parallel implication of “oh, well, that’s PR for you … business as usual.”

Second, one has to wonder whether an otherwise well-meaning PR consultancy will yield to the lure of the “big name client” and corresponding “big billings.”

Also in August, the comic strip “Dilbert” reinforced this concern with the character Dogbert of “Dogbert Public Relations,” whose job, according to the “pointy-haired boss,” is to “Persuade the media to write negative stories about our competitor.”

In justifying his own (probably exorbitant) fees, Dogbert blithely says, “They’re [the competitor] paying a public relations firm a fortune to steer the media toward defaming your company.”

Public relations places an emphasis on counseling reputable organizations and individuals in developing and maintaining beneficial relationships with concerned stakeholders. Justifying unethical actions by saying “if I don’t do it, someone else will” does not change the situation.

PRSA’s Code of Ethics delineates what comprises ethical public relations and could be condensed to a single statement: “Do the right thing.”

Aiding dictatorial governments in burnishing their public image while their citizens continue to be denied the freedoms of any democratic society is not the right thing, and most assuredly is not the hallmark of ethical public relations or business practice.

About the author

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA

Kirk Hazlett, APR, Fellow PRSA, is Associate Professor of Communication (Undergraduate) at Curry College in Milton, MA. Prior to his move into academia, Kirk practiced nonprofit and government public relations and marketing for more than 35 years in the US as well as Asia. Accredited by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), Kirk was inducted into PRSA’s prestigious College of Fellows in 2009 and is one of just two actively-teaching college professors in Massachusetts to have earned this distinction. You can read more of Kirk’s musings at his blog “A Professor’s Thought” and follow him on Twitter @KirkHazlett.


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