What kind of clients make the ethics cut for PR firms?

There is an unprecedented and high level of scrutiny around how organisations and governments behave today, even more so after the pandemic. Therefore, do the messengers of their brand- in many cases the PR firms-have to be like Caesar's wife and completely above reproach?

Last week, Concept PR found itself in the midst of a heated debate on Twitter because of a press release sent out on behalf of UP Government that states that the Hathras victim was not raped as per the "Forensic investigation, Preliminary Medical and Post-mortem report".

The Twitter debate spilled over as a national news story in publications such as 'Scroll' , 'The Quint' and 'Free Press Journal.'

PR WhatsApp groups also debated the issue strongly. PRmoment India spoke to a range of PR professionals to get their views on how to define ethics when it comes to taking on clients.

PRmoment also reached out to Concept PR director and CEO, Ashish Jalan regarding the development and he declined to comment.

Picking or avoiding clients from sectors 

Kunal Kishore Sinha, co-founder, Value 360 Communications, said, "As an agency I do not avoid any industry sector as every sector contributes something to society. But I would not pick up a client that would conflict with basic humanity. I won't judge as one doesn't know the compulsion especially post COVID. But personally I would not pick up such work. That’s my view."

Bashing a PR firm that is helping the UP Police in the middle of a crisis is like attacking a lawyer defending a client in court.

Harjiv Singh, founder and CEO, Gutenberg says, "We would not work with clients that expect us to do anything illegal. But it's important to understand right and wrong from the lens of justice. The law says one is innocent until proven guilty. But in highly emotional crisis situations the court of public opinion decides that someone is guilty until proven innocent. In public relations we engage in the court of public opinion and everyone has a right to express their view in a democratic country whether we may personally like their view or not."

Singh adds, "The UP Police is the law enforcement arm of the government in UP. The UP police has as much a right to defend themselves in the court of public opinion as any institution facing a crisis. Bashing a PR firm that is helping the UP Police in the middle of a crisis is like attacking a lawyer defending a client in court. If the PR firm did something illegal then yes they should absolutely be held accountable. As long as the agency is helping their client without doing anything illegal then its their job to help their client communicate their story effectively."

When to say 'No' to a client?

Tarunjeet Rattan, managing partner, Nucleus PR says, "I would and have walked away from clients who are trying to cheat, are not true to the service/product they offer, disrespect team members and... treat PR like a courier service, and are rude towards women in their team and/or mine."

 Sinha agrees pointing out that as PR professionals you have to understand, "How every mandate will impact your own mandate.  We will be crucified together with the clients. If you are known by the company you keep, your own reputation will be seen by the company you represent. People feel very strongly about that."

Raghavendra Rao, partner and CEO, Bernay IMC says, "Anything illegal or against the law would not be my choice of client. Recently I received an enquiry from an dating app.  When I examined the business and I also went through his website I found that they were promoting togetherness and family concept. Post that I took the discussion forward."

Misbah Quadri, senior image manager, Perfect Relations says she would not like to work with, "A brand which treats its PR agency as a mere ‘executioner’. PR agencies are meant to play an advisory role, paving a roadmap for the brand’s media strategy. However, some brands tend to treat PR agencies as puppets that are meant to simply execute orders dished out by the communications team which I think is unfair. I have had the fortune of servicing clients that have worked in tandem with my team and I in order to strategise on major campaigns, even accepting my refusal to convert every product announcement into a monotonous press release."

Drawing the line between ethics and business

It's a challenging task to apply a centralised set of ethics, though certain values are clear cut.

Rattan says, "I refuse to indulge in practices that outright lie about a product or service that the client offers and create personal and company reputations that don't stand for who they are. As a PR professional, it is my job to call them out."

Rattan says adherence to ethics stems from the leadership team, "There are others too who offer platitudes and don't really want to change. These are the ones where I have to take a call and decide to either let go of them or compromise on my ethics. I always rule for the former rather than the latter."

Quadri adds, "Sensitive situations demand sensitive handling. It is imperative for PR agencies to not treat every situation as an ‘opportunity’ – be it Sushant Singh Rajput’s demise, the recent UP incident or any unfortunate instance….even if it may come at the cost of losing your client. Someone’s tragedy is not the time to project your sincerity towards your client work!"

Bashing the messenger

Kunal Sinha also says that everyone has the right to earn and it's not right to crucify the messenger.

Rattan agrees adding that, "Bashing of any kind is unpleasant. I did see the posts and discussions and subsequent badgering on social media platforms for the agency in question. It is their business and we are no one to sit in judgment of it. However, when snapshots of the mails sent to journalists were put up, it did make me wonder about the emotional quotient that could have been used to handle such a sensitive subject more succinctly and with more tact. The subject they were handling was already tough and riddled with high emotions and when the approach is impersonal and mass-y, it leaves a bad taste. The approach could certainly have been better and more personal."

Can such incidents be avoided with the help of trade associations?

Sinha says, "There is a need for industry associations to deliberate on issues like these. Not since Niira Radia has a PR firm been in the public eye like this. Professionally, picking a mandate can be right. Morally, this was not the right issue to pick up as India has been fighting so hard against caste and gender violence."