By Danielle Chase*
As part of the NYU Public Relations curriculum we are required to take a course titled “Ethics and Law of Public Communications.” Required reading for this course includes the book Toxic Sludge is Good for You by John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton.
With a strong inclination for social justice, I became engrossed in this book and its discussion on the ethical qualms of public relations practitioners. The more I read, the more disconcerted I became. It seemed that every chapter had the regular mention of Burson-Marsteller, the agency where I am completing my LAGRANT Fellowship tenure.
As part of the fellowship I have the opportunity to meet once a week with Mr. Harold Burson, founder of B-M. This week was our first sit down meeting. I knew I didn’t want the topic of controversial clients to be the content of our first chat, but after about an hour of friendly discourse I mentioned the book to him. I asked him what his guiding forces were on ethics. I believe his answer was important enough to share.
Mr. Burson gave me about a half a dozen criteria that must be aligned in order for him take on or retain a client. Most of these were related to the economics and logistics of agency-client relationships, i.e. negotiating a fair rate, being respectful to his staff, whether or not their requests were reasonable, and if he was certain that he wouldn’t lose any clients by taking on this newcomer. But the most interesting criterion he mentioned I believe was the most important takeaway of that conversation: Mr. Burson said he would refuse a client if more than half of his staff refused to work for them.
Above all, I think this rule of thumb should be standard throughout our burgeoning careers as public relations practitioners. The subject of ethics is not a science. Working for one client may be completely at odds with my moral imperative, while my colleague might kill for the chance to be on that same team. In agencies as big as B-M, it would be impossible to make choices on who we represent based on the values of a few selected individuals. For that reason, Mr. Burson is right to use “majority vote” as a criterion for whom he chooses to represent.
Then I asked Mr. Burson if that had ever happened. Had he ever had to turn down a client because more than 50 percent of his staff wouldn’t take them on? He said he never did.
At first I thought he never had to refuse a client because his staff would be too nervous to actually protest. But I realized very shortly that it had nothing to do with a culture of fear, and everything to do with how well the B-M staff is prepared to handle ethical quandaries.
When I was bought on at B-M I had to participate in ethics training, anti-bribery training, and anti-corruption training. I had to sign a Code of Conduct statement, pledging to never commit to any illegal or immoral activity. I had to read and acknowledge understanding of our Right to Speak statement, which offers confidential reporting to encourage employees to speak up if they ever felt they witnessed or were forced to participate in less than ethical behavior.
After all of this incredible focus on deterring less than scrupulous activity, I couldn’t simply believe, as the authors John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton might conclude, that B-M was a place with no moral imperative. In these past two weeks alone I have been told many times that if I ever feel uncomfortable working for a client that I can simply refuse the project. At first I thought this would be ridiculous; as a pseudo-intern (secretly hoping for a job offer), what would I look like turning down a project? But the more I learn here at B-M, the more I realize I will never have the need to protest an “unethical” client. I might find myself working on crisis communications during an oil spill, or issues management for a nuclear power plant, or research and development for a food corporation that is being protested against. With each of these tasks my job is not to protect a client who has done wrong, or “spin” a story to best reflect their interests, but to guide that organization to do what is best.
What is best is always what is in the public interest (yes—regardless of your client’s bottom line). This is why for year’s public relations was defined as the medium which helps an organization and its publics “mutually adapt” to one another. This is why Arthur Page tells us that “every business exists by public consent.”
As public relations practitioners it is our job to “reconcile client goals with the public interest.” By definition then, we must work in accordance with our true north. We must do work that we believe most accurately reflects what is best for the greatest number of people. If we fail to act ethically, not only are we endangering the reputations of our client and our agency, but we are doing our society a great disservice as well.
*Danielle is the first recipient of the Harold Burson Fellowship program through The LAGRANT Foundation.
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