Anyone following the public debate on ethics in public relations could be led to conclude that the ethical issues in public relations mostly involve insidious organizations having public relations firm lie for them. The day-to-day ethical transgressions are, however, of a different nature.
In 2017, news came as a bombshell that Bell Pottinger had been running a “dirty campaign” in South Africa that was meant to stir racial tensions for one of its clients. The aim of the campaign was to portray the Gupta family as victims of a conspiracy involving “white monopoly capital” and thereby deflect accusations and evidence of their client’s involvement in corruption. The PR company never recovered from the fall-out of this scandal on top of others that occurred in the past and ended up filing for bankruptcy in the same year. What Bell Pottinger had done was morally abhorrent. This was unethical PR, unquestionably.
The Bell Pottinger case and many other highly mediatized ethical transgressions are understandably always cause of widespread indignation, but they are not representative of the ethical transgressions that are most prevalent in communications consultancy.
It is luckily very rare that companies ask public relations consultants to deceive their stakeholders. I have worked in communications consultancy for more than thirteen years now, helping clients resolve reputational issues mostly in the Brussels market, and the instances where there was an ask that crossed the line (where I would have to partake in false statements, astroturfing, etc.) can be counted on one hand (and to be clear, those requests were always denied.)
No use for “bad” companies
Time for a sidebar remark. Some PR practitioners will go as far as saying that consultants should not only refuse certain work, but also certain clients. I do not share their view for both practical and principled reasons. In which instances would you consider a company to be a “bad company?” What constitutes wrongdoings? And what do you do if the wrongdoings happened in one division of a company but not another? So, at the end of the day, are Caterpillar, Wells Fargo, Boeing and Johnson & Johnson “bad companies” that no consultant should ever – when does “ever” expire? – serve, whatever their ask?
Next to practical issues that come with the concept of the “bad company”, I believe that the role of a corporate communications consultant is pretty similar to the one of a lawyer: anyone is worthy of a defense, be it in the court of law or in the court of public opinion. So I am willing to defend a liar, but I will not lie for a liar. End of the sidebar.
So if unethical requests from clients, let alone clients being intrinsically “bad”, are not what makes for the most prevalent ethical issues in communications consultancy today, then what does? The answer lies in the client – consultant relationship. It is the manner in which consultants treat their clients that causes most transgressions.
These ethical issues often remain under the radar. Clients don’t pick up on them. Or they do, but accept them as simply a part of “what consultants do.” The consultants who commit the transgressions are actually at times themselves not fully aware of what they are doing wrong. Junior consultants are taught by senior consultants that this is what pays the bills. It has become normal, and nobody asks too many questions.
Ethical lapses in how consultants treat their clients
In the following, I list four of the most common ethical lapses in the client-consultant relationship.
“We have what you need!”
Is it not remarkable that when a consultant happens to be an expert in certain domains they will tell any prospect or client that they need help in those areas above anything else, maybe even exclusively? “Don’t be a fool thinking of direct mail,” the digital marketing specialist says. “Those cold calls are utter madness,” the inbound marketer adds. In lieu of assuming a fiduciary responsibility towards the client and advising on what he or she needs most, consultants try to sell clients on buying the color of paint they happen to have in stock. Or if they have more than one color to offer, they will recommend the one that yields the highest margins.
“I know somebody who can help!”
You might hear from your consultant that what you need is not completely covered by what they have to offer… but that they know of another resource who can help. Thank God for consultants who are not self-interested! But not so fast. That third party that suddenly enters the limelight might provide excellent services, but could just as well be proposed to you for no other reason than there being a commercial agreement in place where the consultant who refers the client receives a finder’s fee (typically 10 to 15 percent) on the work that was sent through.
There is, to be clear, nothing wrong with such finder’s fees – the cost of acquisition is very high in consultancy, so anyone (me included) is happy to pay reasonable finder’s fees for referrals. Ethical issues do arise however when a consultant does not disclose the commercial relationship with his or her partner and does not allow the client to freely choose another party to do that work.
“We will get you those results!”
Promises are cheap and that is a good thing because a lot of promises are made during sales conversations. Prospects dream of coverage in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Fortune Magazine and other tier 1 outlets. Can you blame them?
Consultants will push back if expectations are exaggerated, or… they won’t. “It will be difficult, but we will be creative and work hard to maximize our chances of succeeding” the consultant will say, who walks a tightrope between not saying in explicit terms (let alone in writing) that certain results are within reach and keeping the dream alive enough to get a sign-off on the assignment.
If the dreamt of results do not materialize at the end of the day, as they will often not, the careful hedge that was used at intake (“we did say it was going to be difficult”) is used as a defense. By then, the client has paid three months worth of retainer fees and the consultant is ready to replace him by another soon to be disappointed client.
“Look at what we will do for you!”
Deception does not only happen at the “output” side (results delivered), but also when talking “input” (work delivered). At times, consultants will propose an impressive list of services that will never actually be delivered because the client will never be able to provide the input needed for the consultant to get to work.
Consultants will for example include in their retainer package the copywriting and distribution of up to two press releases per month. That sounds promising, except that it is not really a relevant offer when you are serving a mid-market company that has news for a release perhaps every quarter, but surely not six times a quarter.
The client is made to believe in this instance that they will get value for money, and once the dust has settled and the client realizes that that part of the contract was all smoke and mirrors, several months worth of retainer has already been paid.
The majority of moral transgressions in the communications consultancy sector really do not involve unethical practices in dealings with stakeholders on behalf of “bad” companies. The wrongdoings happen mostly in the consultant-client relationship.
Moral transgressions happen regularly, though I do not mean to say that the majority of consultants are guilty of them. However, anyone entering a sales conversation with a communications consultant would do well to be cautious and challenge what they hear.
Did you enjoy this piece on ethics in public relations?
You might also like my interview with Ron Culp where he talks about the need for PR professionals to be more business savvy.