September 24, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

Does the “right to counsel” extend to PR counsel?

Does the “right to counsel” extend to PR counsel?

I love to read Consumerist–in addition to having interesting content, I also think that many of the commenters make good and interesting points. And, many of them are quite entertaining to boot.
I also prefer to buy organic milk, even though it costs more, because I have an issue with RBGH. Please don’t bother to inundate me with studies stating that there is no difference, quite honestly I don’t care. If I want to buy milk that came from cows who weren’t injected with RBGH, that should be my choice. And in order to make that choice, it needs to be on the milk carton, and Monsanto [wants to stop that](http://consumerist.com/363935/monsanto-is-trying-to-ban-hormone-labeling-at-the-state-level) (or at least make it really difficult), probably because they sell RBGH to dairy farmers. Monsanto is lobbying at the state level to prohibit dairies from labeling their milk “hormone-free,” and I read the comments to the post with interest.
The following response to the piece by commenter ‘bobblack555′ made me stop and think about the role of a PR firm when working with an unpopular issue or client:
>I know a lot of the people involved in both sides of this battle.
> Nancy O’Conner was my old boss at the Merc and is dead on with her statement about the consumer having a right to know.
> I also happen to know the account execs involved at Osborn and Barr, the P.R. firm involved with Monsanto and the grass roots campaign and can tell you that more than likely, the reason that the grass roots campaign’s work is “pro bono” through the agency is merely to skirt legal issues (conflict of interest, etc.)
> I’m disappointed that my friends at Osborn and Barr would intentionally try to block a consumers’ right to know what’s in their food, just because a client paid them to.
So the question raised is this, is there anything wrong with the PR firm representing Monsanto on this issue? Monsanto has a right to make their case, and in doing so, hire a PR firm to help them tell it, even if their position seems contrary to the rights of consumers, don’t they?
While I ascribe a certain amount of this notion that PR firms should simply turn away any company that has an ethical challenge or issue that many would find distasteful (sour milk?) to the heady idealism of the blogosphere, I’ve heard it for years across several industries. When I worked as a lobbyist, the question was: why would anyone lobby for the insurance industry, or the pharmaceutical industry, and so on. Lawyers get similar questions: why would you want to defend someone who seems to be in the wrong, or guilty, or accused of using lead paint on children’s toys, etc.
While I am unwilling to go so far as to compare someone hiring a lobbyist to the rights of the accused to be provided counsel, isn’t this a similar situation? Just because a position held by a company is unpopular (or completely wrong-headed in my opinion in the Monsanto case) does it really stand to reason that they should be turned down by PR firms when they want to tell their story? Of course they shouldn’t.
PR firms are in a quandary when it comes to cases like this, however, because so much of what they do is to promote or protect a company’s reputation. I don’t know if the PR firm in this situation ever suggested to Monsanto that perhaps lobbying to keep consumers in the dark might not be a good thing, but it doesn’t really matter. The firm took the job, and will work to assist Monsanto in getting its message across.
Is there then a cost to the firm’s reputation?

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About The Author

Jennifer Zingsheim Phillips is the founder of 4L Strategies, and has worked in communications and public affairs for just over 20 years. Her background includes work in politics, government, lobbying, public affairs PR work, content creation, and digital and social communications and media analysis.

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2 Comments

  1. wsledzik@kent.edu'
    Bill Sledzik

    Jen,
    There’s a difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion — if you’ll forgive that PR cliche. You’re entitled, under the law, to your day in a court of law. PR has no such imperative — nor should it.
    As the owner of a small PR firm for a good many years, I passed up clients whose ethical value systems didn’t match my own. Had I taken the business, I couldn’t have brought any passion to the table, and that’s a disservice to all involved. I honestly don’t know how lawyers defend the guilty or the unethical, but our system assures representation for all, and everyone accepts it.
    “Whom to represent” is a sizable category in discussion of PR ethics, and one I spent time on in my classroom — where I now toil. The key, for me at least, is that a client must respect its place in society and community as much as it does its own bottom line — or they can hire someone else. PR has an obligation to play corporate conscience. Last I checked, no one else was doing that job very well.
    Funny that you mention Monsanto. My first PR job was with a firm that worked for Monsanto — fighting a phosphate detergent ban if memory serves. No one in the firm who opposed Monsanto’s position was expected to work on the campaign, and one AE did refuse. But I often wondered what that refusal did for her professional growth.

  2. jzingsheim@customscoop.com'
    Jen Zingsheim

    Bill, thanks for dropping by–I read Tough Sledding and love your insight and perspective. I agree that there’s a difference, which is why I was careful to say that I wasn’t equating the two. And, I also believe that agencies should have a good sense of what they will–and won’t–take on. The firm I was with was very choosy, and rightly so in my opinion. They understand that their reputation is paramount. But I also think that not every issue is as black and white as they seem to the average bystander, and that there is a role for PR counsel in those situations to help a company convey its message. Sometimes when it’s a lighting rod firm–like Monsanto–the fact that they might have a story to tell gets lost.
    Again, thanks for the comment! I’m glad there are teachers like you out there.

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